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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Mike M
(mtwarden) - MLife

Locale: Montana
Re: good first tarp? on 02/05/2012 08:39:01 MST Print View

I don't see why not if it's of suitable size for you; it's a little trickier than some tarps to pitch, but nothing that a little practice in the backyard wouldn't fix (that goes for any tarp btw)

Steven Paris
(saparisor) - M

Locale: Pacific Northwest
Trailstar as first tarp on 02/05/2012 09:32:13 MST Print View

@Ronda:

The TS would be a great first tarp. Take a look at Eugene's set-up video (someone mentioned it above and linked on MLD's site too) to see how easy it can be to pitch. Obviously, where you pitch it can change how fast it takes to set-up.

http://desertpaincave.blogspot.com/

You CAN go with lighter tarps but often at the expense of cost (to get a lighter material for the same coverage, currently cuben) or room (smaller tarps will weigh less), which are factors that an experienced tarp user or true SUL hiker will consider.

The TS will give you great coverage for 1 or 2 people -- and you can always move to a small and lighter 1-person tarp once you've played around with the TS.

wander lust
(sol)
learning curve on 02/13/2012 22:36:14 MST Print View

The Trailstar is a good shelter.
Sometimes I love it, sometimes I don't.

It takes some practise to get the setup right, so definintely learn it before you use it the first time.

the footprint is huge and can be annoying sometimes. but it can be setup almost everywhere and it is just a matter of practising anyway.

emergency camp
emergency camp right on the trail, btw little bushes or twigs hold better than most stakes would do.

the guy outs should be long (mld recommends 60cm, I would rather go for 80cm or more), so that one is able to pitch it in awkward location and tie rocks to them...


terra rosa gear from Sydney made me a custom innernet for my trailstar, which worked out pretty good, it was a prototype, so it needs a few small tweeks. but it can even be used with a low pitch (90 cm)innernet

I might go back to using a bivy though, easier and faster to use for me.

Condensation is still an issue with this shelter, but you can dry it really fast and shake it off too.

I would really like to see how the cuben version does, cuben does not gain as much weight as silnylon in humid conditions and also has less built up condensation.

I couldn't test my trailstar in really windy conditions.
But I had it in some nasty humid weather instead; where any shelter becomes a cold sauna. No wind, camped on wet grass and massive dew everywhere. Well, it was near a rainforest. :)

Bottom line: get good stakes and use rocks or the vegetation if needed, learn to pitch it, condensation can always occur but is managable, enjoy the views


Heck, even the local cows like it.

cows

Edited by sol on 02/13/2012 22:41:02 MST.

Randy Martin
(randalmartin) - F

Locale: Colorado
Trailstar Price Increase to $185 on 02/20/2012 15:46:02 MST Print View

Looks like the Trailstar is now $185, up from $170.

Stuart .
(lotuseater) - M

Locale: 40°N,-105°W (Near enough)
Any ETA for an update to this review? on 04/10/2012 11:29:33 MDT Print View

It's been two and a half months since the first impressions were posted, and we were told:

"This will be a rolling review, and I’ll add more content (at this URL) as it becomes available."

In the comments on the day it was published, Ryan said:

"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."

Can any of the BPL staff tell the subscribers when we might see said future installments? I for one am eager to read the updates.

Stephen M
(stephenm) - MLife

Locale: The Great Lakes Bay Region
Re: Any ETA for an update to this review? on 04/10/2012 12:33:17 MDT Print View

Maybe there was no wind :-)

Mary D
(hikinggranny) - MLife

Locale: Gateway to Columbia River Gorge
It takes time to produce a review! on 04/10/2012 12:45:50 MDT Print View

2-3 months for further testing, maybe more
1-2 months to write up the article
2-3 months or more for editing, review, publication scheduling

July?

Stuart .
(lotuseater) - M

Locale: 40°N,-105°W (Near enough)
ETA on 04/10/2012 13:32:52 MDT Print View

Cheeky, Stephen :-) For months this winter there was nothing but wind in the Rockies.

Mary, those timeframes make sense for traditional publishing (especially writing/editing/scheduling). Maybe the internet gives us unrealistic expectations in this instant gratification era. Either way, it would help for subscribers to know whether the rolling reviews are likely to be quarterly, semi-annual, annual, or 'as new information comes available'. Any staffers care to comment?

Stephen M
(stephenm) - MLife

Locale: The Great Lakes Bay Region
Re: ETA on 04/10/2012 13:55:35 MDT Print View

Sure I am a cheeky Paddy :-)

Andrew F
(andrew.f) - F - M

Locale: San Francisco Bay Area
Re: Rolling reviews on 04/10/2012 14:04:58 MDT Print View

Call me cynical, but my initial impression when hearing that BPL was doing rolling reviews was that it was a convenient excuse to lower the quality of the published articles. Now reviews which are not conceptualized or finished can be published anyway, and there is little motivation to finish the review to make it more comprehensive afterwards. I expect that many of the rolling reviews will stay pending for much longer than it would have taken to write a complete review; I hope I am proven wrong.

Ken Thompson
(kthompson) - MLife

Locale: Behind the Redwood Curtain
Rolling reviews on 04/10/2012 16:10:48 MDT Print View

+1 with Andrew.

Chris W
(simplespirit) - MLife

Locale: WNC
Re: Rolling reviews on 04/10/2012 17:21:22 MDT Print View

It comes down to two options:

A) Evaluate a product for 6+ months, and then publish a complete review with long-term(ish) data. The problem is the product is likely no longer relevant (winter bag reviews published in the middle of summer, etc.) or may even no longer be available at the time of publishing.

B) Publish an initial review followed up later with long-term data. The initial thoughts are published while the product is relevant and the product can still be evaluated over a longer term for durability, etc. This is how it's done on at least one other review site exclusively.

Do you prefer reading about something irrelevant or unavailable? Or reading an initial review and having to wait on durability testing?

Ken Thompson
(kthompson) - MLife

Locale: Behind the Redwood Curtain
Re: Rolling reviews on 04/10/2012 17:57:32 MDT Print View

How about publishing an editorial schedule like you guys use to? So we can know when to expect something instead of everything here getting sucked into an editorial black hole.

Chris W
(simplespirit) - MLife

Locale: WNC
Re: Rolling reviews on 04/10/2012 18:01:46 MDT Print View

I've honestly never seen an editorial schedule published, but then I've only been around for 5 or so years. I'll bring it up regardless.

Ken Thompson
(kthompson) - MLife

Locale: Behind the Redwood Curtain
Re: Rolling reviews on 04/10/2012 19:09:58 MDT Print View

Last on the thread drift. How abut just a line at the end of part one stating, Look for part 2 00/0000.

Stuart .
(lotuseater) - M

Locale: 40°N,-105°W (Near enough)
Rolling reviews on 04/10/2012 22:04:38 MDT Print View

Thanks for chiming in, Chris. I appreciate the feedback and your willingness to bring up the suggestions in your editorial meetings. It's the 'not knowing' that has folks wondering. Sorry to have caused the thread to drift. Let's get back to discussing the gear at hand... Even though I'd heard of the Trailstar before, it wasn't till this review that it grabbed my attention. I scoured the internet for more details, and finally completed my search for one this evening.

Michael Cheifetz
(mike_hefetz) - MLife

Locale: Israel
Any updates on 08/26/2012 14:18:07 MDT Print View

So july has passed and Aug soon to be done - should we expect an update on this?
Mike

Ken Thompson
(kthompson) - MLife

Locale: Behind the Redwood Curtain
Re: Any updates on 08/26/2012 14:24:42 MDT Print View

Nothing on the upcoming editorial calendar that Chris and everyone else can find here.

http://www.backpackinglight.com/cgi-bin/backpackinglight/editorial_calendar.html


"A) Evaluate a product for 6+ months, and then publish a complete review with long-term(ish) data. The problem is the product is likely no longer relevant (winter bag reviews published in the middle of summer, etc.) or may even no longer be available at the time of publishing."


I'll take option A.

Edited by kthompson on 08/26/2012 17:07:00 MDT.

Kyle Meyer
(kylemeyer) - M

Locale: Portland, OR
Re: Re: Any updates on 08/26/2012 16:27:22 MDT Print View

The Trailstar is one of the shining achievements of the cottage industry being a truly no-compromise, ultralight shelter. As such, it seems ludicrous that this shelter continues to go unreviewed.

I haven't re-upped my membership because, since it ended two months ago, there hasn't been a single article that adds value to my outdoor adventures. The windshirt SOTM is a good first step but it's like the Trailstar review—only the easy part is done. BPL should be congratulating the successes of the cottage industry with coverage when a sterling example of innovation like the Trailstar comes out. BPL should focus on products that will improve people's day to day backpacking experience, not delve into a five part treatise on water danger and filtration.

Finish rolling reviews, review more cottage gear, be more transparent, and you have a subscriber back.

Jason Elsworth
(jephoto) - M

Locale: New Zealand
Mountain Laurel Designs TrailStar Shelter Review on 08/26/2012 16:36:52 MDT Print View

In one of his newsletters Ryan mentions not being quite such a fan of the Tstar any more. Can't quite remember why now. I think he has gone back to std mids.

I think it is a great shelter for open terrain where high winds are a possibility. For below the bush line I am finding it to be a bit of an over kill for a solo shelter, so will looking for something lighter here. Probably a Hexamid or a Cricket. The large covered area of the Tstar is great though for managing gear in wet weather.