Sunday, 22 March 2009

The tent

I put up my North Face Westwind tent in our garden on Friday, airing it out ready for the season. I've had the tent for nearly ten years now, so this annual ceremony has become ritualised. With the coming of spring, out comes the tent.

The Westwind is a two-man expedition tent, and is therefore correspondingly heavy for backpacking use. Despite this, it is my automatic choice for any walk that is going to last longer than two or three days.

There is a trend in long-distance walking for what is called 'ultralight', where people camp with as little equipment as possible; the idea being that it is best to reduce the weight that you have to carry.

I take a slightly different view. Yes, the Westwind is heavy, but it is also fairly large internally, and that matters. I have got a small one-man tent that is about half the weight - my Jack Wolfskin Gossamer. This is a good tent, but gets annoying after a couple of nights out. The main problem is that I am over six feet tall, and I cannot get dressed or undressed within it. Instead, I have to unzip the thing and sit half-in, half out. This is far from ideal in stormy weather. Additionally, the inner of the Gossamer is entirely mesh, which allows the wind to sweep under the flysheet and right through the tent. I can stand it for a couple of nights in a row in summer, but any more than that and I start to feel overly constricted.

The Westwind is very different. After a couple of nights it starts to feel like a home; as it is a two-man tent there is stacks of room inside for me, and I can also have all my kit inside with me if needs be - rucksack, cooking equipment, even my boots. There is also a large (if awkwardly shaped) porch. I can stretch myself out, sit up without scraping my head on the fabric, even do warm-up exercises, all without going outside.

I bought the tent in 1999 ready to do the Pennine Way, and first used it in May of that year when I walked from Matlock to Castleton along the Limetone Way. Since then I must have spent well over a hundred nights under it, and it is still nearly as good as new. About eight years ago I spilt some coffee in it one cold morning, and this has led to a little mould around the seals, but nothing that is too bad or will cause it to leak.

It is a very good, sturdy tent - it has been used at base camp on Everest, and when I first bought it I found instructions on how to erect it on the NASA website - they use the thing on expeditions in Antarctica. Some may say that this is overkill for walking in Britain, but I say exactly the opposite - it is ideal. I have carried it for literally thousands of miles, and have never once had to use the guy ropes, even in the stormiest weather. It may be blowing a gale outside, but I am warm and snug once I am safely ensconced inside.

On wild campsites I am surprised how much larger it appears than the small, lightweight tents such as the Hilleberg Atko or Terra Nova Laser. On large, commercial campsites, I am surprised by how tiny it appears against the massive tents that car-campers use.

There are some problems. On windless summer there can be rather a large condensation build-up on parts of the tent inner, and even leaving a generous amount of the zip open to the outside air does not cure this. As mentioned earlier, it is also fairly heavy for a backpacking tent (although I am happy with that). Another factor is the bright yellow colour - it makes stealthy wild camping much harder as it sticks out like a sore thumb. Additionally, on a sunny summer's morning the interior lights up in a hazy yellow glow, although as I am a morning person this really does not bother me too much.

We spent Friday night in the tent. ┼×encan had never spent the night in a tent before, and as she feels the cold much more than me, we piled in with our sleeping bags, duvets and lots of pillows. She used my lovely North Face Blue Kazoo bag, and I used my old but still very usable Ajungilak bag. It was a cold night, but we were plenty warm enough in the bags and under a duvet. Unfortunately the condensation problem was the worst I have ever seen it - actual droplets of water formed on the inner. This was probably due to having the tent firmly zipped up with two people being inside. It was also a very cold night outside, and there was absolutely no wind.

The Westwind has lasted me ten years, and I have little doubt that it will still be going strong after another ten. I adore the thing.

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