Mountain Laurel Designs TrailStar Shelter Review

Simplicity and strength in an all-season shelter.

Overall Rating: PENDING

This product is currently undergoing thorough field testing and performance evaluation. A rating will be assigned upon completion of this testing, and after a fair assessment of its performance under a variety of field conditions.

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by Ryan Jordan |

Part 1: Preview

The 17-ounce (482-g) Mountain Laurel Designs TrailStar claims to be the “first shaped tarp with five low-angle sides and no doors that combines the performance of a traditional pyramid shelter with the open and multi-function pitching of a tarp” (manufacturer website on December 20, 2011).

The primary purpose of this review is to push the TrailStar to its performance limits and find out under what scenarios this and other manufacturer claims start to break down.

My first experience with the TrailStar came in the midst of the coldest weather Montana has seen thus far this winter season - a few days where mountain lows dipped below 0F (-18C) and nightly snowfall ranged from a few inches to more than six inches (~5 cm to 15 cm) per night.

I first camped with the TrailStar during this spell on Big Creek in the Gallatin National Forest, west of Emigrant, Montana, where temperatures were low (-1F to +1F / -18C to -17C overnight lows), snowfall was minor (less than 6.0 in / 15 cm per night of low-density snow), and wind was nonexistent.

Summary of Initial Perceptions

Pitching

A lot has been said about the TrailStar’s finicky pitching requirements. When you increase the number of panels of a shelter, two things happen. First, the number of pitching options decreases. Second, tolerance for the geometry of the pitch (stake locations and pole heights) decreases. The TrailStar is no different, but with five symmetrical panels and two (and in some cases, only one) straight pole requirement, it doesn’t require an advanced degree in engineering to pitch it.

That said, when it’s 0F/-18C outside, dark, and there is a bunch of snow atop rock-hard frozen ground (these were the conditions when I pitched the TrailStar for the very first time), trying to figure all this out isn’t exactly trivial. After about 20 minutes of playing with it, I was able to achieve a pitch that offered drum-tight panels, plenty of headroom, steep sidewalls for good snow shedding, and an aesthetically beautiful-looking shelter. This is less a testament of my uncanny ability (sic) to figure things out and more a testament of the manufacturer’s ability to create a shelter that is intuitively easy “enough” to use - assuming you have plenty of experience pitching tarps and pyramids tightly.

Although I haven’t validated it yet, I suspect somebody with less experience pitching tarps might repeat my virgin TrailStar pitching experience, but with no shortage of frustration.

Pitching the TrailStar with an open door (see photo) is significantly less trivial than pitching a four-sided pyramid, which requires only that you insert four stakes into the corners to make a square and prop a pole up in the middle. It turns out that when you add one additional side, you exponentially increase geometric failure potential and thus, effort. Pitching now becomes an iterative, rather than a serial exercise of “pitching with slack,” “inserting the pole,” “resetting the stakes,” “adjusting the pole,” “fine-tuning the stake locations,” etc. During the summer, when temperatures are warm and the ground is soft, it’s no big deal. During the winter, this process is not insignificant.

Mountain Laurel Designs TrailStar Shelter Review - 1
My camp on Big Creek. The TrailStar, with a little bit of effort, can be pitched as an aesthetically beautiful shelter with tight panels for good wind and snow shedding. The yellow silnylon version provides warm light on dreary days. It’s also available in a more stealthy gray silnylon and, for lighter weight, less durability, and more debt, Cuben Fiber.

Snow-Loading

I have not explored the snow-loading limits of the TrailStar at time of writing.

My first experience brought no more than six inches (15 cm) of low-density snow on any given night, and for the most part, it easily slid off the shelter’s slick silnylon walls (I suspect that a Cuben Fiber version would fare much worse, as snow seems to stick more to Cuben Fiber).

As with any poorly structured winter shelter (and the TrailStar certainly qualifies as such, with large fabric panels and minimal pole-structure), heavy snow-loading demands attentiveness to the accumulation of snow during the storm, and requires the usual routine of reaching out of your sleeping bag periodically and banging the snow off the sidewalls of the shelter. The result is that lots of snow accumulates at the bottom of the walls, pushing the walls inward and thus reducing the interior space and, sometimes, the shelter’s ability to resist condensation.

With overnight snows of six inches (15 cm) or so, the amount of snow that managed to accumulate at the bottom of the TrailStar’s walls was significant. However, with me as the only occupant, it was not such a big deal. And, with temperatures so cold, condensation wasn’t a problem either - it just froze to the interior of the tarp and fell down as pretty little ice crystals when the wind blew - hardly an inconvenience in the grand scope of winter camping.

Usability

I really liked the interior space inside the TrailStar, and I’d find it to be entirely suitable for my dog, or my son (probably not both) - in the summer. In the winter, however, given that the sidewalls will be compressed inward in storms due to snow accumulation around the shelter’s perimeter, and the fact that I have more gear to sort, organize, and spread out, I’d want to share this shelter only with an exceptional friend in a situation where we’re serious about saving every ounce in our pack weights.

The ability to pitch the shelter with one panel propped up in a triangle by using a short pole (thus creating a door), while still being able to pitch a symmetrical-to-the-ground shelter (with only one center pole) with full-perimeter wind protection, is nothing short of brilliant. I prefer the door option, obviously, for ease of exit/entry and better views, but I love knowing that a full-perimeter option exists when conditions (mosquitoes, wind) deteriorate from bad to worse. I don’t get this flexibility with any sort of tarp, and to accomplish this with a pyramid requires that you leave its zippered door partially open, significantly reducing the amount of floor area that remains sheltered from precipitation.

First Impressions

I find the TrailStar to fill an important gap for lightweight backpackers. Its 17-ounce (482-g) weight precludes its use as a solo shelter for hikers that spend more time on virtual hikes than real walks in bad weather, but, I suspect, offers a weather-resistance-to-weight ratio that may best a pyramid tarp and easily clobbers any cottage-made solo tent on the market - nearly all of which fail miserably in high winds, interior space, and under substantial snow loads.

What’s Next?

This will be a rolling review, and I’ll add more content (at this URL) as it becomes available. The test methodology for the TrailStar will be based primarily upon reviewing the manufacturer claims (posted at the manufacturer’s website as of December 20, 2011) as follows:

  1. “...that combine the performance of a traditional pyramid shelter with the open and multi-function pitching of a tarp.” We’re not sure what the manufacturer means by "performance of a pyramid shelter," so we’ll primarily consider a conventional expectation of pyramid performance in inclement conditions: wind, rain, and snow. Granted, the manufacturer claims that the “roof angle is moderate...for light snow loads,” so we’ll explore what that might mean in real world use.
  2. “BOMBER ALPINE WIND PROTECTION.” You can bet we’ll assess this. Your idea of bomber and my idea of bomber may be different, but we’ll see what the TrailStar can do when it’s pitched at a high alpine pass in a storm, at least.
  3. “... tarp pitching ease and multiple [pitch] options.”

Disclosure: The manufacturer provided this product to the author and/or Backpacking Light at no charge, and it is owned by the author/BPL. The author/Backpacking Light has no obligation to the manufacturer to review this product under the terms of this agreement.


Citation

"Mountain Laurel Designs TrailStar Shelter Review," by Ryan Jordan. BackpackingLight.com (ISSN 1537-0364).
http://backpackinglight.com/cgi-bin/backpackinglight/mld_trailstar_review.html, 2012-01-24 00:10:00-07.

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Forum Index » Editor's Roundtable » Mountain Laurel Designs TrailStar Shelter Review


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Addie Bedford
(addiebedford) - MLife

Locale: Montana
Mountain Laurel Designs TrailStar Shelter Review on 01/24/2012 13:09:46 MST Print View

Companion forum thread to:

Mountain Laurel Designs TrailStar Shelter Review

eric chan
(bearbreeder) - F - M
hmmmm on 01/24/2012 13:22:15 MST Print View

Its 17-ounce (482-g) weight precludes its use as a solo shelter for hikers that spend more time on virtual hikes than real walks in bad weather

......


It’s also available in a more stealthy gray silnylon and, for lighter weight, less durability, and more debt, Cuben Fiber.


i predict 20+ pages of thread drift over these statements ...

that being said i like the new more rough n tumble reviews better ... its like consumer reports ... im paying BPL to tell me what doesnt work ... because the various fan(bois) on the forums will tell me how great it is anyways, so that part is covered

Edited by bearbreeder on 01/24/2012 13:24:04 MST.

Tor Magnus Castberg
(logrus)

Locale: Norway
Re: Mountain Laurel Designs TrailStar Shelter Review on 01/24/2012 13:42:29 MST Print View

"Its 17-ounce (482-g) weight precludes its use as a solo shelter for hikers that spend more time on virtual hikes than real walks in bad weather"

I'm not sure I understand what's meant by this, could you be a bit more explicit?

Other than that I'm not really sure it told me anything that wasn't obvious. It's a bit short for a review isn't it?

Edited by logrus on 01/24/2012 13:44:26 MST.

Bobby Pack
(Piddler) - MLife

Locale: West Virginia
Nice Pic on 01/24/2012 13:50:06 MST Print View

Love the photo, makes me want to be there.

Thom Darrah
(thomdarrah) - MLife

Locale: Southern Oregon
Mountain Laurel Designs TrailStar Shelter Review on 01/24/2012 14:05:19 MST Print View

"Its 17-ounce (482-g) weight precludes its use as a solo shelter for hikers..."

The 10.5 oz cuben Trailstar weight would not preclude it from being considered as a solo shelter for hikers, IMO.

"It’s also available in...for lighter weight, less durability, and more debt, Cuben Fiber."

I disagree with this statement regarding the cuben version being less durable. IMO the .74 cuben Trailstar is a shelter design that is extremely well suited for the use of this material.

Chaff: The "rolling reviews", I think, are meant to work similar to the gear reviews offered by the www.backpackgeartest.org site. Backpack Gear Test reviews provide an Initial Report, a Field Report and a Long Term Report. For me it remains to be seen how effective BPL is in implementing the new "rolling" review method.

Edited by thomdarrah on 01/24/2012 15:11:53 MST.

David Chenault
(DaveC) - BPL Staff - F

Locale: Crown of the Continent
re: trailstar review on 01/24/2012 14:06:06 MST Print View

My ~2 years of owning a Trailstar largely agrees with the article.

The pitch can be manipulated (higher, narrower door) to shed snow well, but especially under heavy snow the interior room can be pretty drastically reduced. IMO the snow shedding ability is more than adequate for a 3 season plus shelter.

I would say the claim of "bomber wind protection" is justified, with the caveat that your anchors better be really good. Mine withstood a night of constant gusts to 60 mph+ once I had all ten anchors very solid. Getting them that good required a lot of digging and several instance when the failure of one anchor almost instantly precipitated the spectacular failure of all the rest and a dive for the shelter itself. It would have been pretty hard to get any shelter solid under comparable conditions.

What ultimately prompted me to sell it was the setup issue. Lots of folks disagree with me, but I much prefer the simpler pitching of a rectangular or square 'mid.

The union of aesthetics and function is a major point in the TSs favor. I'm hard pressed to think of a shelter which exceeds it.

Gabe Joyes
(gabe_joyes) - F

Locale: Lander, WY
interpretation on 01/24/2012 14:07:09 MST Print View

"Its 17-ounce (482-g) weight precludes its use as a solo shelter for hikers that spend more time on virtual hikes than real walks in bad weather"

I'm not sure I understand what's meant by this, could you be a bit more explicit?

---------------------

I read that statement like this: The Trailstars 17-ounce weight prevents some people from using it as a solo shelter because they think it looks too heavy on their spread sheet when they are planning their hike. For someone who hikes often and doesn't obsess over a targeted base weight and actually spends time in some seriously crappy weather, you are thrilled to be carrying a 17-ounce shelter that keeps you comfortable, dry, and prevents you from getting blasted by frigid wind.

If I misinterpreted that Ryan please correct me.

Casey Bowden
(clbowden) - MLife

Locale: Berkeley Hills
Re: Mountain Laurel Designs TrailStar Shelter Review on 01/24/2012 15:07:31 MST Print View

BPL Staff,

Will an update to a "rolling" review article count as a new weekly article?

(EDITED BY STAFF: "No.")

Edited by ryan on 01/25/2012 06:49:43 MST.

David Olsen
(oware)

Locale: Steptoe Butte
consumer reports on 01/24/2012 15:32:15 MST Print View

"its like consumer reports ... im paying BPL to tell me what doesnt work ... because the various fan(bois) on the forums will tell me how great it is anyways, so that part is covered"

Consumer Reports buys the products they test.

Ryan Jordan
(ryan) - BPL Staff - MLife

Locale: Greater Yellowstone
TrailStar Niche on 01/24/2012 17:39:02 MST Print View

I've learned a lot since the field testing that went into this initial review, and have now had the shelter in heavy snows and high winds.

This is a bad weather shelter. And a good one. More on that in future installments of the review.

At 17 oz, that's what you are paying for - weather protection gained by the use of a more robust and stretchy (highly tensionable) fabric.

The Cuben Version will not have the same benefits. Its benefit will be weight savings. The Silnylon version will be your version for seriously inclement conditions.

Now, about the 17 oz weight.

When I initially talked to some ULers about this, they balked at the weight, and why any "solo" hiker would bring that much weight for ... a tarp without a door even. So, there's some education that might need to be communicated about the TrailStar, because if you compare it in a spec table to other shelters, it's not going to stand out.

Last weekend, in the Bridger Mountains, with fire to radiate heat into a big entrance. This pitch used a high door off one of the five "corners", the rest pitched square, like a 'mid. Center pole 46 inches, vestibule pole 51 inches. Tail into the wind. Gusts to 45 mph, piece of cake - deflection, of course, but no flapping. Can you imagine what the 5-corners-to-the-ground pitch at a 36 inch peak is going to resist?

Trail Star

Edited by ryan on 01/24/2012 17:44:05 MST.

jerry adams
(retiredjerry) - MLife

Locale: Oregon and Washington
Re: TrailStar Niche on 01/24/2012 17:47:04 MST Print View

What happens if a heavy wind blows into the open side?

You try to pitch it so the open side faces away from the wind, but sometimes the win d direction switches

Ryan Jordan
(ryan) - BPL Staff - MLife

Locale: Greater Yellowstone
Re: Re: TrailStar Niche on 01/24/2012 17:50:44 MST Print View

As long as the bottom edges are sealed (piled with snow), it bellows through the bottom of the shelter and doesn't affect it too much.

I had the wind change direction on me, and this is what it did.

My motivation for the big open front was for the fire, headroom, and views. The winds came at night. I wasn't expecting them, and had I known they were coming, would have pitched it much lower. I got lots of spindrift inside as a result, but I had a bivy sack, so wasn't real concerned about it.

Martin Rye
(rye1966) - F

Locale: UK
"Mountain Laurel Designs TrailStar Shelter Review" on 01/24/2012 17:59:58 MST Print View

It resists a lot. I have had it out in some very bad weather. Over 60 mph more than once. Last time a group of us camped. UK location.

One Stephenson's 2C with rear guylines, one 2R, Scarp 1 and my Trailstar. Come morning the 2R had a broken pole the 2C had been shaken about all night but held. Scarp had (with crossover poles) done well but porch was flapping lose from a stake pulling lose. Trailstar had not budged. Had it out in a lot of storms and bad weather. At 90cm its simply the best shelter I have ever used.

Used it on the 2011 TGO Challenge which was a very bad weather year and it was faultless. Others who used Trailstars on the event state the same. In the UK it is the must have shelter as for the weight there is nothing that has the space and ability to handle bad weather like it.Dales 1Dales 2

Edited by rye1966 on 01/24/2012 18:00:38 MST.

Martin Rye
(rye1966) - F

Locale: UK
Re: "Mountain Laurel Designs TrailStar Shelter Review" on 01/24/2012 18:01:40 MST Print View

Dales 3

Luke Schmidt
(Cameron) - MLife

Locale: The WOODS
Bad Weather on 01/24/2012 19:12:31 MST Print View

"Its 17-ounce (482-g) weight precludes its use as a solo shelter for hikers that spend more time on virtual hikes than real walks in bad weather"

I like my tiny little tarp but if I'm expecting prolonged rain I like something with a bit more space. Camping in damp wet weather has enough challenges without getting claustrophobic under a small tarp.

Ryan Jordan
(ryan) - BPL Staff - MLife

Locale: Greater Yellowstone
small tarps and bad weather on 01/24/2012 19:14:28 MST Print View

Luke, I'm with you, but I didn't use to be.

I used to think it was pretty awesome tearing through a storm under a poncho, or a small tarp. I still do so occasionally, but it's definitely not my first choice anymore.

There's something to be said about livable space, especially in inclement weather.

Kyle Meyer
(kylemeyer) - M

Locale: Portland, OR
Re: small tarps and bad weather on 01/24/2012 19:33:15 MST Print View



I'm enjoying the recent discussion of aesthetics Ryan.

Enjoyment of the wilderness is, at least in part, attributable to the beauty of the place, the stillness, the serenity. In my home, I fill the rooms with useful items; however, those items must also fill a secondary role as an extension of myself and my home. My couch is something I live with and I must be happy interacting with it on a daily basis. I have to like the way it feels and the way it looks and the way it resonates within the space it occupies.

I feel the same way about backpacking equipment. This is gear we expect to be useful; however, this gear must also fill a secondary role as an extension of myself and the wilderness in which I use it. My shelter is something I sleep under and I must be happy interacting with it on a daily basis. I have to like the way it functions and the way it makes me feel as it resonates within the space it occupies.

There's nothing that makes me cringe more than a campsite that looks like a garbage dump. I come to the wilderness for simplicity and beauty, and expect nothing less from the items I bring into it. I want to feel as at peace with the items in my backpack as the mountains stretched out in front of me.

The Trailstar is as useful as it is beautiful, and for that it deserves the highest of praise.

Edited by kylemeyer on 01/24/2012 19:37:27 MST.

Luke Schmidt
(Cameron) - MLife

Locale: The WOODS
Re small tarps and bad weather on 01/24/2012 19:36:00 MST Print View

Yeah I agree Ryan, I noticed two things when I went back to a bigger tarp.

1. I didn't have to position my tarp perfectly. With my small tarp I have to make sure I'm not sleeping on a tree root etc. With a bigger tarp I just pitch it and if I'm on a root I can roll over.

2. Livable space. I LOVE this in bad weather. Its great being able to take off your rain gear, take off wet clothes, or fix a meal witha bit of space. I like NOT having to lie on my stomach to do everything:)

I like the recent articles, keep um coming.

Edit - A bit more room also means less "fiddle factor." Sometimes I just don't want to worry about setting up a tricky litte tarp in bad weather. A few more ounces is the price I pay to not fuss with my shelter.

Any way to add a but net to this?

Edited by Cameron on 01/24/2012 19:39:01 MST.

david delabaere
(davidvcd) - M

Locale: Northern VA
Re: TrailStar Niche on 01/24/2012 19:44:40 MST Print View

In what way is the silnylon trailsater the "version for seriously inclement conditions" (for me, that would be strong wind, big thunderstom and heavy snow) compared to cuben ?

Aside from (according to what I've read):
-Snow sticks more to cuben
-cuben, since not breathable would have more condesation
-cuben, since it does not stretch you need to make it taut and pitch it right the first time around.


I believe that the trailstar will be my next tarp, the question is silnylon or spend more money for cuben.

Ryan Jordan
(ryan) - BPL Staff - MLife

Locale: Greater Yellowstone
TrailStar Cuben vs. Sil on 01/24/2012 19:54:47 MST Print View

David,

To make a quality shelter from Cuben: (a) you understand how it behaves on the bias so you can take advantage of what little stretch it does have, and you can take advantage of fiber orientation for maximum strength, and (b) your cutting and sewing are done with a high degree of precision - it's low stretch means that it's very unforgiving. "Some" (note: not all!!) cottage-made Cuben tarp and shelter panels don't distribute tension evenly in them because of small errors in designing with a load in mind, or cutting and/or sewing them.

Low stretch fabric panels also means that higher dynamic loads (force per unit time) may be imparted to stakes in response to high winds. I don't know what the extent of this is. It's one of the things we're studying currently with load cell measurements at stake-out points. We may find that the effects are there in theory, but they may not have practical significance. Who knows.

Then there's the issue of sewing guy line attachment points to Cuben...there are a lot of ways to do this wrong so it ends up being (inappropriately so) the weakest part of the shelter...more on this in an upcoming series called "Storm Resistance of Ultralight Shelters"...

Snow definitely sticks more to Cuben.

Breathability between Cuben and Sil is probably a meaningless comparison when it comes to tarps.

Edited by ryan on 01/24/2012 19:55:34 MST.