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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Mountain Laurel Designs TrailStar Shelter Review
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Travis Leanna
(T.L.) - MLife

Locale: Wisconsin
Re: 100th TStar Review Post on 01/31/2012 10:53:38 MST Print View

Nicholas,
Nice photos. How's that BearPaw inner working for you? How's the space inside?

Nico .
(NickB) - MLife

Locale: Los Padres National Forest
@ Travis on 01/31/2012 11:09:53 MST Print View

I've only used the Bearpaw innernet on a couple of trips. So far it seems to work out fine if a little bit of a hassle to set up.

There's plenty of space for two adults and their gear, in fact we fit our 100 lb lab in there with us with enough room for everyone.

The set-up of the innert net is a little fiddly. Maybe I haven't mastered the most efficient method yet, but what I do is stake out four of the corners of the TS, then run the pole that will be the center pole of the TS through the inner net and place it in its position under the shelter. Then center the net tent door where I want it, get the five corners of the TS where I want them and then attach the corners of the inner net to the lines coming off the TS.

The net seems to work best with a higher pitch in order to get all the slack out of the walls and maximize usable interior space. I haven't experimented too much with alternative TS pitches while using the net tent... more to come this spring, I'm sure.

Travis Leanna
(T.L.) - MLife

Locale: Wisconsin
Re: @ Travis on 01/31/2012 11:16:09 MST Print View

Thanks Nicholas. I've experimented with two-person bug net options as well, and yes, it can be fiddly. Just the nature of the beast, I guess.

Kyle Meyer
(kylemeyer)

Locale: Portland, OR
Re: @ Travis on 01/31/2012 11:19:34 MST Print View

I set it up the same way—

1. Plan to pitch it high.
2. Stake out Trailstar.
3. Insert inner with pole threaded through.
4. Spread out the inner so the corners are somewhat close to the corners of the shelter.
5. Connect guy lines to existing stakes on the back and sides
6. Stake out two front points separately

I've noticed I need to stake out the two door point separately for a truly taut pitch, but it works really well once it's set up! Plenty of livable space.

Eugene Smith
(Eugeneius) - MLife

Locale: Nuevo Mexico
"Mountain Laurel Designs TrailStar Shelter Review" on 01/31/2012 12:49:20 MST Print View

Bump for photos:

marty

SNOW

DUDES

JOEL

Pitched high for 3 late summer, giving my son room to wiggle around under a quilt.

ozarks

Trailstar on the Ozark Highland Trail.

Andrew F
(andrew.f) - F - M

Locale: San Francisco Bay Area
Door height on 01/31/2012 13:03:56 MST Print View

Do you guys find that it's easy to get in/out of the Trailstar? Pitched low, it looks like you might almost have to crawl in/out of the shelter. Even when it's pitched high, the door looks pretty low to the ground.

Chris Morgan
(ChrisMorgan) - F

Locale: Southern Oregon
Re: Re: "Mountain Laurel Designs TrailStar Shelter Review" on 01/31/2012 13:04:58 MST Print View

"Left to right, MLD Cricket, Trailstar, and Supermid. Overnight, winds picked up on the ridge line gusting to roughly 30 miles per hour. The Trailstar definitely handled it best despite a pretty crappy pitch and none of the midpanel guy out points used."

If I recall correctly, it was the Trailstar owner that got up in the middle of the night to re-stake and shovel. ;)

To the Cricket question—pitched properly and with the proper stakes, this could be a legit light snow shelter. I was using tubular stakes and groundhogs, so I didn't get the taughtness I wanted, for fear of flying nighttime stakes. I also ended up accidentally pitching into the wind, which didn't help matters. With some snow stakes and a low pitch, it isn't a bad option. The downside, of course, is less space than a full trailstar, which would be especially nice for wintertime when you want more space, but the little porch does help.

Edited by ChrisMorgan on 01/31/2012 13:07:59 MST.

Kyle Meyer
(kylemeyer)

Locale: Portland, OR
Re: Re: Re: "Mountain Laurel Designs TrailStar Shelter Review" on 01/31/2012 13:08:32 MST Print View

No restaking, just sealing a draft that was blowing snow in!

Travis Leanna
(T.L.) - MLife

Locale: Wisconsin
Re: Re: Re: Re: "Mountain Laurel Designs TrailStar Shelter Review" on 01/31/2012 13:15:45 MST Print View

Kyle- What kind of snow anchors to you use with your TS?


Eugene- Nice photos. It really is an elegant shelter, isn't it?

Kyle Meyer
(kylemeyer)

Locale: Portland, OR
@Travis on 01/31/2012 13:25:33 MST Print View

Since we have snow called "cascade concrete" around here, I use typical snow stakes like the MSR Blizzards. The Supermid was held in place by snow anchors like these though, and they seemed really nice to use.

Travis Leanna
(T.L.) - MLife

Locale: Wisconsin
Re: @Travis on 01/31/2012 13:41:04 MST Print View

Heh, yeah, I actually have both of those. I did some tests last weekend using both types on the same shelter in some powder. After work-hardening them into the snow and letting them set up over night, the Blizzards were much harder to remove than the REI ones. However, when initially setting them in the snow, the REI anchors held better.

Trevor Wilson
(trevor83) - MLife

Locale: Swiss Alps / Southern Appalachians
Re: Re: @Travis on 01/31/2012 13:49:25 MST Print View

@Nicholas, thanks for sharing your photos and experience. Is there room in the Bearpaw inner for two adults (i.e. with a 2 person quilt) to sleep next to each other without one being completely up against the side? In order to do this would you have to angle to center pole away to one side?

Kyle Meyer
(kylemeyer)

Locale: Portland, OR
Re: Re: Re: @Travis on 01/31/2012 13:51:24 MST Print View

Bear Paw's Pentanet won't pitch properly at all with the pole askew. You could ask to have the hole in the floor moved, but I can only imagine that would make the shelter exponentially harder to pitch correctly. The wife and I sleep with a pole between us : [

Jeremy Gustafson
(gustafsj) - MLife

Locale: Minneapolis
Re: Re: 100th TStar Review Post on 01/31/2012 13:59:21 MST Print View

How well would it work to use an inverted 'V' to open up the floor for the inner? I suppose you would have to have a second pair of poles or pole jacks to make it work... I'm just not sure how that would affect the tensions of each of the panels.

Eugene Smith
(Eugeneius) - MLife

Locale: Nuevo Mexico
TS entrance on 01/31/2012 14:22:41 MST Print View

@ Andrew,

The entrance to the Trailstar is not unusually low when pitched in storm mode (down to the ground), comparable toto tarps I have had in the past (MLD Grace duo, Oware Cat2). I'm 6' and a little crawl or squat is all that is necessary. Interior height isn't what you find on the Duomid or other mids of that style, but it isn't crammed- easy to sit up inside. For fair weather you can pitch the front pole high and enter with ease. There isn't one way to pitch this thing, so making a higher entrance is up to you and the conditions.

Nico .
(NickB) - MLife

Locale: Los Padres National Forest
@ Trevor on 01/31/2012 14:49:40 MST Print View

I don't know if using an off-centered pole would work when pitching the TS with the inner net. You would, at a minimum, need to have some kind of cap or piece of wood or something to rest the tip of the pole on so as to not puncture your floor. There may be problems with the geometry too and get getting a taut pitch to the trailstar and/or inner net... could be worth exploring though...

Other solutions would be to hang the trailstar from an overhead branch by the exterior loop on the peak. The inner net could then be hung from the loop on the interior of the TS peak. That would eliminate poles entirely from the shelter interior and would likely provide enough room for 3.

Or, if you have a 2nd set of poles (or pole jacks) handy, you could probably set up an inverted V pole arrangement to support the trailstar and again hang the net tent from the interior loop at the peak of the trailstar. This would again leave all of the interior space inside of the net tent pole-free. I don't have a second set of poles (or any pole jacks) so I've never tried this arrangement (one of us hikes with poles, the other gets to be dog handler).

Maybe this weekend I can try the off-set center pole just to see if it's even possible.

Here's the inner net sans trailstar; there's any number of ways to arrange the pads, I just threw them in there to show what could fit:

Trevor Wilson
(trevor83) - MLife

Locale: Swiss Alps / Southern Appalachians
Re: @ Trevor on 02/01/2012 10:55:08 MST Print View

Thanks, Kyle and Nicholas, for your responses! It seems like an inverted V with two trekking poles could work in theory. I guess as Jeremy pointed out the key question would be if having the poles configured like that would affect the panel tension and strength of the shelter overall, one of its key benefits.

Thanks for the picture of the net tent too! That really helps to see what is possible in there.

Ceph Lotus
(Cephalotus) - MLife

Locale: California
Bearpaw Innernet for Trailstar on 02/01/2012 11:33:09 MST Print View

Bearpaw has two 2-person innernets that will work with the Trailstar:

PentaNet 2

PyraNet 2

There are tradeoffs between the two, so you'll have to determine what is more important for you.

The PentaNet 2 is larger, and weighs more, but provides more netting protection, and the rooms it takes up means smaller vestibules. The PyraNet 2 is smaller, but can still accomodate two people. The PyraNet 2 can also be twirled around the center pole, so you determine where you want the doors to be relative to the tent opening, and being smaller will allow more room for your vestibule space. The PyraNet 2 can also better accomodate the lower pitch configurations of the Trailstar than the PentaNet 2. So, the PyraNet 2 is more versatile than the PentaNet 2, in exchange for netting space.

Also, with either innernet, you have the choice of what material to use (silnylon, cuben), the thickness of the No-See-um material, the height of the sidings, and the number of doors and where to put them on the innernet. And you can also request custom modifications. John Stultz, the owner of Bearpaw, has been very helpful with me on the numerous questions I asked him about his innernets.

Edited by Cephalotus on 02/01/2012 11:54:09 MST.

Jason Elsworth
(jephoto) - M

Locale: New Zealand
Tstar photos and video on 02/02/2012 17:40:46 MST Print View

A few more Trailstar photos and a link to a video of the cuben version http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7vmneOE4j2s. Still waiting on mine :(.

Nelson Lakes National Park, South Island New Zealand

Nelson Lakes National Park, South Island New Zealand

Nelson Lakes National Park, South Island New Zealand.

Edited by jephoto on 02/02/2012 17:46:21 MST.

Ronda Nelson
(pinoakrd)
good first tarp? on 02/04/2012 23:06:10 MST Print View

I am new to backpacking and currently use a TarpTent Rainbow, but have been interested in just using a tarp. Would this be a good way to start? The comments are all so favorable.

Thanks,