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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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Eugene Smith
(Eugeneius) - MLife

Locale: Nuevo Mexico
Re: Any updates on 08/26/2012 16:49:06 MDT Print View

Michael,

Search online and you will unearth an extensive collection of reviews on the Trailstar from active and knowledgeable users. The Trailstar was a late bloomer, many adopters picked it up within the last two years coming off the praise of vocal outdoor bloggers expounding its capabilities as a lightweight shelter (I did!), yet it has been around for several years now and paid its dues. What exactly are you looking to gain from Ryan's "johnny come lately" perspective on the Trailstar?

I think there is more than enough quality beta out there on this shelter for anyone to make an informed decision as to whether or not it would be an asset in their outdoor quiver.

Dave U
(FamilyGuy) - F

Locale: Rockies
Re: Mountain Laurel Designs TrailStar Shelter Review on 08/26/2012 17:05:59 MDT Print View

I liked mine and used in a lot a couple of years ago (I was an early adopter). However, I had difficulty finding spots for it below treeline and a Mid proved better for my needs.

Ken Thompson
(kthompson) - MLife

Locale: Behind the Redwood Curtain
Re: Mountain Laurel Designs TrailStar Shelter Review on 08/26/2012 17:09:53 MDT Print View

A mid is best all rounder for most it seems. I've seen a couple of TrailStars and they do take up some serious real estate.

Doug I.
(idester) - MLife

Locale: MidAtlantic
Re: Re: Any updates on 08/26/2012 17:16:21 MDT Print View

"I think there is more than enough quality beta out there on this shelter for anyone to make an informed decision as to whether or not it would be an asset in their outdoor quiver."

http://www.christownsendoutdoors.com/2012/03/trailstar-wars.html

http://www.summitandvalley.com/2011/07/is-trailstar-best-lightweight-shelter.html

http://sectionhiker.com/mountain-laurel-designs-trailstar-long-term-review-by-dave-lintern/

http://www.stevenhorner.com/?p=1003

http://goinglighter.blogspot.com/2011/04/first-impressions-mld-trailstar.html

jerry adams
(retiredjerry) - MLife

Locale: Oregon and Washington
Re: Re: Mountain Laurel Designs TrailStar Shelter Review on 08/26/2012 17:30:08 MDT Print View

It seems like a mid and a trailstar have about the same footprint.

Mid - 8 or 9 or 10 feet square

Trailstar - 7 feet on a side - it depends how you pitch it

I just don't like the open side - I'de rather have it extend to close to the ground and have a zipper - but that takes away some of the simplicity

Jason Elsworth
(jephoto) - M

Locale: New Zealand
Mountain Laurel Designs TrailStar Shelter Review on 08/26/2012 18:04:52 MDT Print View

Forgot to add that Chris Townsend gave the Tstar a rave review in the latest TGO magazine. Also gave the Duomid a good review. I started with the Duomid, but figured for the same weight I could get much better high wind performance. Also with a std mid if it is raining, even in calm conditions, it seems to me that you need to close the door.

Dave U
(FamilyGuy) - F

Locale: Rockies
Re: Re: Re: Mountain Laurel Designs TrailStar Shelter Review on 08/27/2012 11:26:47 MDT Print View

Jerry, specs aside, the TS takes up a lot mor real estate than the DuoMid. One easily fits on tent platforms, the other doesn't.

Experience trumps all.

Steven McAllister
(brooklynkayak) - MLife

Locale: Atlantic North East
Space on 08/27/2012 11:39:27 MDT Print View

I've never done it, but I'd assume there are a few pitch options for the TS, like the narrow 4 sided pitch that someone posted on here somewhere.

Gary Dunckel
(Zia-Grill-Guy) - MLife

Locale: Boulder
Any updates on 08/27/2012 11:42:42 MDT Print View

Idester, you are now going head-to-head with "Link" O'leary. Watch out, she could rip you to shreds...

Doug I.
(idester) - MLife

Locale: MidAtlantic
Re: Any updates on 08/27/2012 14:50:38 MDT Print View

"Watch out, she could rip you to shreds..."

And as we learned from another thread, she's got a mean side. I take back all my links! I'm sorry Anna! I didn't mean it!

Ron Bell
(mountainlaureldesigns) - F - M

Locale: USA
MLD TrailStar Update on 11/14/2012 15:05:18 MST Print View

The MLD TrailStar has Won 1st Place : Camping Gear of the Year in the TGO Magazine The Great Outdoors Awards event today.

TGO is the leading outdoor magazine in the UK.

The judges of this category were only the editors at the magazine. -Other categories were by popular vote online so we feel extra happy about this one as extra special. http://www.tgomagazine.co.uk/awards/judges/

We can tell you that they get plenty of rough weather and high winds in the UK on the exposed walk areas in the north and that on the 2012 TGO Challenge hike across Scotland many dozens used the TrailStar.

Jason Elsworth
(jephoto) - M

Locale: New Zealand
Mountain Laurel Designs TrailStar Shelter Review on 11/14/2012 15:43:48 MST Print View

Congratulations Ron. The Trailstar is also great for the conditions we often face in New Zealand. You have bomber wind performance, plus plenty of space to get out of the rain and deal with soaking wet kit. So far mine seems to have come with fine weather attracting coating, but its only a matter of time:).

Nick Gatel
(ngatel) - MLife

Locale: Southern California
Re: Mountain Laurel Designs TrailStar Shelter Review on 01/02/2013 22:40:53 MST Print View

I wonder if the review is going to be updated, it is almost a year. Seems the rolling reviews must have rolled off a cliff.

Daniel Allen
(Dan_Quixote) - F

Locale: below the mountains (AK)
stupid question on 01/12/2013 05:30:23 MST Print View

I know I'm going to embarrass myself with this one, but I've been watching Bear Grylls on TV a touch lately and it got me thinking:

Could I use the TrailStar as a parachute, if I *really* needed a parachute in a pinch?

this assumes I'm caught on the top of a cliff somehow and the best decision is to get down ASAP by some means other than descending like a normal person or "aiming for the bushes."

John Donewar
(Newton) - MLife

Locale: Southeastern Louisiana
Re: stupid question on 01/12/2013 06:18:04 MST Print View

While trying to avoid the profanity filter I'll say this...

We have a saying here in SE LA. "When you're up to your _____ in alligators you're gonna run, walk, swim or fly."

My point being, when you are presented with a situation that demands you do whatever you can ASAP to avoid serious injury or worse a person will "try" to survive.

Parachutes have harnesses, multiple shroud lines and steering lines. At most your TrailStar has 10 attachment points for guy lines. All of these would be held in your hands as you attempted your "jump".

Use the proper tool for the job. I doubt that you really want to carry a chute on a hike but an alternative might be a suitable length of climbing rope and gloves to allow for a quick descent.

Party On,

Newton

Eugene Smith
(Eugeneius) - MLife

Locale: Nuevo Mexico
Re: Re: Mountain Laurel Designs TrailStar Shelter Review on 01/12/2013 09:20:17 MST Print View

"I wonder if the review is going to be updated, it is almost a year. Seems the rolling reviews must have rolled off a cliff."

Are you really waiting to hear what they have to say about the Trailstar, Nick?

No need to finish this, other than for formalities sake and honoring what was promised. ;-)

Anyways, this initial review was late to the "party" when it came out almost a year ago.

Ron Bell
(mountainlaureldesigns) - F - M

Locale: USA
Re: Re: Re: Mountain Laurel Designs TrailStar Shelter Review on 08/29/2013 09:53:32 MDT Print View

A smaller and larger version of the TrailStar is now available at mountainlaureldesigns.com

The LittleStar is about 15% smaller and the BigStar is about 30% larger than the standard TrailStarMLD LittleStar.


BigStarBigStar

Ken Thompson
(kthompson) - MLife

Locale: Behind the Redwood Curtain
Re: Big Star on 08/29/2013 18:09:13 MDT Print View

Wow.

Stephen Barber
(grampa) - MLife

Locale: SoCal
Big Star & grandkids on 08/29/2013 18:11:44 MDT Print View

This will be an excellent tarp when out with my grandkids! I can hardly wait!

alan york
(alanyork9) - MLife

Locale: PIEDMONT N.C.
Question for Ron: on 08/29/2013 18:46:23 MDT Print View

If you pitch the Big Star as a pyramid,with 4 corners to the ground(as pitched by one of your youtube reviewers,what size shelter will you have?