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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Brendan Swihart
(brendans) - MLife

Locale: Fruita CO
More good times in the Trailstar.... on 01/24/2012 19:56:09 MST Print View

Cascade Pass, Uncompahgre Wilderness, Sept 2011 watching and waiting out a crazy beautiful fast-moving storm on our anniversary...ts

Great shelter. My biggest complaint is the large footprint makes finding a suitable site a little tricky at times, but worth it if you're expecting some weather.

Luke Schmidt
(Cameron) - MLife

Locale: The WOODS
Cuban vs. Sil on 01/24/2012 19:58:18 MST Print View

I can't wait till that article comes out. One of my favorite parts about BPL are the technical articles.

Bobby Pack
(Piddler) - MLife

Locale: West Virginia
Re: Re: TrailStar Niche on 01/24/2012 20:03:48 MST Print View

"cuben, since not breathable would have more condesation"

I don't have any scientific data but It's been my experience that cuben has less condensation issues than silnylon.

Travis Leanna
(T.L.) - MLife

Locale: Wisconsin
Jerry... on 01/24/2012 21:30:09 MST Print View

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

I had this happen in GNP. In the picture below, you can see our Trailstar in the far shadow, just below the snow patch. The storm ripped through Boulder Pass that night, creating a rockslide. We could hear boulders rolling down into the grass next to us (we were on a designated tent site).

The Trailstar was set in an open pitch, where one corner was elevated by a trekking pole. In the middle of the night when the storm hit, I had to get out and drop that corner. I re-staked that corner which gave me a flap of fabric from which I created a small door with the mid-panel tie out. It took only a minute. Basically, you just keep shifting the door as you re-stake. However, with the small door, it would take an awful lot of wind to cause an issue, so re-staking isn't a common thing.

ruyo



Trailstar in the Porcupine Mountains this winter. With robust stakes, you can pound into frozen ground. It's not easy, but not any harder than the rock-hard tent sites we pitched on in GNP.
asdfad

Steven Paris
(saparisor) - M

Locale: Pacific Northwest
Mountain Laurel Designs TrailStar Shelter Review on 01/24/2012 21:52:55 MST Print View

The TrailStar does have a large footprint but you can pitch any of the individual five points higher or lower than the others, like in a dense forest where having a to-the-ground low pitch is probably less necessary.

Here's a pitch in a Mt. Rainier campsite, pitched over a small log "table," and guyed out to a standing tree and a log:

Trailstar in Rainier

Diplomatic Mike
(MikefaeDundee)

Locale: Under a bush in Scotland
Cuben storm-worthiness on 01/24/2012 23:37:18 MST Print View

I hope you're wrong about the durability and storm-worthiness of cuben, Ryan. My needs are for storm-worthiness over weight saving, and after exchanging a couple of emails with Ron, i went for the cuben version. As for durability, only time will tell.

Re-reading Ryans comments to David about poor workmanship on cuben shelters. As this is a Trailstar review, i can only assume his comments are aimed at the cuben Trailstar? If so, he should come out and say that. If not, why even mention it?

Edited by MikefaeDundee on 01/25/2012 00:06:29 MST.

joe newton
(holdfast)

Locale: Bergen, Norway
@ Luke on 01/25/2012 00:20:06 MST Print View

"Any way to add a bug net to this?"

Yes. Oookworks in the UK manufactures a Trailstar nest:

http://oookworks.com/OookStar.html

Michael Martin
(MikeMartin) - BPL Staff - MLife

Locale: North Idaho
Re: Mountain Laurel Designs TrailStar Shelter Review on 01/25/2012 00:48:01 MST Print View

Ryan,

How would you rate the TrailStar against MLD's "Mids"? My Solomid is my favorite "go to" shelter for most conditions -- it was even one of my 2011 Staff Picks.

On paper, it looks like the TrailStar offers more space for the weight, and possibly greater storm resistance at the expense of pitching ease and zippered convenience. But, this is just speculation on my part. I have no experience with the TS.

Aaron Croft
(aaronufl) - M

Locale: Alaska
Oh Boy on 01/25/2012 01:06:20 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 have the feeling that quite a few people are going to be pooping their pampers over these statements. Fun times.

I've been using a silnylon duomid for the past 6 months and have to say I love the simplicity of the setup. However, I've been tempted to pick up a trailstar for the summer months as it looks like a really versatile and fun shelter to have around.

Edited by aaronufl on 01/25/2012 01:07:54 MST.

Ceph Lotus
(Cephalotus) - MLife

Locale: California
Netting options for Trailstar on 01/25/2012 01:14:01 MST Print View

I have the Trailstar and love it - a roomy tarp for one person. I haven't used it in storm weather conditions. On the netting options, I had started another thread about that.

Netting options for Trailstar

Jason Elsworth
(jephoto) - M

Locale: New Zealand
Mountain Laurel Designs TrailStar Shelter Review on 01/25/2012 01:51:50 MST Print View

I should soon have two Trailstars. One in each fabric. I have spent about ten nights under my silnylon one and have been very pleased so far. I have, however, not encountered any strong winds yet, but it is only a matter of time.

I have been thinking lots about bug options this week and still can't decide. I am tempted by a Pyranet 1 and have also been looking at the oookstar. I think that for now I will just stick with my bivy and headnet and see how it goes. I am also going to modify my MLD supelight bivy so that it has a larger mesh window. So far I have been lucky with sandflies, but have a trip coming up where they could be bad. If the bivy doesn't work out then I will look at inner options.

I like the simplicity of a bivy, but a bug net with extended sides would give a nice deep bathtub floor (one day I am going to need one) and some draft protection and may mean I don't need ever need to use a bivy. But I do feel I would be bit more cut off from my environment in this set up.

Edited by jephoto on 01/25/2012 01:53:08 MST.

Ryan Jordan
(ryan) - BPL Staff - MLife

Locale: Greater Yellowstone
Trailstar Cuben vs. Sil on 01/25/2012 06:24:28 MST Print View

@Mike: I hope the Cuben Trailstar is manufactured properly. Then, we can receive the weight saving benefits of Cuben while still having some good storm resistance. I haven't seen the Cuben TS yet, but I've seen other Cuben shelters made by MLD. They do them very well. It should be a very strong shelter, if fabric panels can stay tight in pitch.

You wrote: "Re-reading Ryans comments to David about poor workmanship on cuben shelters. As this is a Trailstar review, i can only assume his comments are aimed at the cuben Trailstar? If so, he should come out and say that. If not, why even mention it?"

Don't assume that. I haven't yet seen the Cuben TS. I'll mention brands and models specifically when we review them. I've already posted a photo of problematic Cuben workmanship here on the forums, and will be happy to keep you informed - in proper context. Why mention it? Because it's the #1 problem with Cuben shelters currently available.

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

Shop wisely when buying Cuben. There are different variants, different construction techniques, and different types of additional costs required (fabrics, increased labor). It's a lot of money to spend if it's not going to meet the expectations that you've set by using silnylon.

Regarding the Cuben TS, we'll see what "less durability" really means over time, but there is no question that extra TLC and manufacturing attention is required when using any Cuben that is 0.7 osy or less in a tarp - it's easy to puncture, seams wear out under load stress, and lack of stretch in the pitch means you have to pitch it right if you're going to get a howler, or you won't distribute stresses optimally. If Cuben is done right - you can achieve a wonderfully strong shelter. I have high hopes for the Cuben TS. If Cuben is not done right (e.g., bad seams) then you've just spent a whole load of money on something that can't take advantage of the fabric's inherent strength.

Edited by ryan on 01/25/2012 06:41:21 MST.

B. F.
(thrush) - F
Impregnate cuben shelters on 01/25/2012 06:35:24 MST Print View

Nice review. I would like a short comparission with a rectangle tarp, advantages and disadvantages or the design.

One thought about the issue "Snow sticks more on cuben": Couldn't you just impregnate the shelter (e.g. with a spray)? The effect will last longer on a shelter than on clothings because of the reduced abrasion.

Edited by thrush on 01/25/2012 06:38:25 MST.

carlos fernandez rivas
(pitagorin) - MLife

Locale: Galicia -Spain
less articles on 01/25/2012 06:44:46 MST Print View

"""BPL Staff,

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


+1

Clint Wayman
(cwayman1) - M

Locale: East Tennessee, US
Good Review on 01/25/2012 07:11:32 MST Print View

Thanks for the great review, Ryan! For what you get, the TS also seems to be a fairly REASONABLY priced shelter-- a major selling point for a quality piece of gear.

Thom Darrah
(thomdarrah) - MLife

Locale: Southern Oregon
Mountain Laurel Designs TrailStar Shelter Review on 01/25/2012 07:17:44 MST Print View

"If Cuben is done right - you can achieve a wonderfully strong shelter."

MLD has been working with cuben longer then most in the UL cottage industry and if anyone can do cuben right it is Ron. I'm looking forward to getting my cuben Trailstar and have no doubt that it will be a wonderfully strong shelter.

Michael Cheifetz
(mike_hefetz) - MLife

Locale: Israel
how do you pitch it with all 5 corners to the ground?? on 01/25/2012 08:57:51 MST Print View

Ryan said "...while still being able to pitch a symmetrical-to-the-ground shelter (with only one center pole) with full-perimeter wind protection"

I ran out and tried it (not the first time) and it seems like its impossible to do!!! its like there is always slack btw at least two corners.
I bought a used one here (maybe 2008 model?) so maybe Ron changed it

Also all the sides are the same length exactly (unlike what someone here mentioned in a diff thread)

Can someone let me in on how to pitch it like that....please

Mike

Travis Leanna
(T.L.) - MLife

Locale: Wisconsin
Re: how do you pitch it with all 5 corners to the ground?? on 01/25/2012 09:23:40 MST Print View

Michael, how high is your center pole? That affects how a to-the-ground pitch works so make sure it's not too high.

When I'm adjusting my Trailstar, I try to find a balance between three corners before I drive the stake. Let me explain. Pretend you're working on setting the stake for corner Y. Corner X is to your left, and corner Z is to your right. If you take corner Y and "swing" it back and forth you can see the tension tighten and slacken along both adjacent edges to corners X and Z. Don't completely tighten one panel while letting the other slacken. Rather, find a balance between the two, even if neither edge is very tight. As you adjust other corners the same way, you should get a tight pitch.

Sheesh, I hope that made sense! :)

It's not as bad as it sounds.

Also make sure that your center pole is as vertical as possible. For some reason if mine is tilted my pitch isn't as good. I think this might have to do with the fact that it's a symmetrical shelter.

Michael Cheifetz
(mike_hefetz) - MLife

Locale: Israel
Awesome on 01/25/2012 10:33:56 MST Print View

oh - im glad i caught on to this.

working now...guess i need more training time

Ryan Jordan
(ryan) - BPL Staff - MLife

Locale: Greater Yellowstone
Stakes for Trailstar on 01/25/2012 10:47:17 MST Print View

I have my TS pitched today in a good old fashioned Montana winter wind storm. We had gusts this morning to 70mph, but at my location, the max gust was only about 55mph.

To deal with 50+ mph winds, I've found that shelter tension needs to be a minimum of 20-25 lbs at each stake. In very high winds, the forces that get transferred to the stakes are in excess of 40 lb, which is generally beyond the normal capacity of any 6 or 7 inch skewer, tube, or V-stake in all but frozen soils.

What are you all using for your "storm" stakes?