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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Diplomatic Mike
(MikefaeDundee)

Locale: Under a bush in Scotland
Stakes on 01/25/2012 10:51:29 MST Print View

I'll be using a MSR Blizzard at the corner pointing into the wind. It does double duty as my 'potty trowel. The other 4 corners will be the Easton 8/9" stakes. Ti Shepherds hooks for the mid guying points.

I should add that this is for snow free terrain.

Edited by MikefaeDundee on 01/25/2012 11:06:01 MST.

Thom Darrah
(thomdarrah) - MLife

Locale: Southern Oregon
Stakes for Trailstar on 01/25/2012 11:01:34 MST Print View

For three season use I've had good success with MSR Groundhog stakes with very few stake failures in exposed high wind conditions.

For winter conditions I use MSR Blizzard stakes. I also use my Lightning Ascent snowshoes dug in and used as a deadman.

Ryan Jordan
(ryan) - BPL Staff - MLife

Locale: Greater Yellowstone
Potty Trowel as a Tent Stake on 01/25/2012 11:07:52 MST Print View

Mike, so do you wait until the wind dies down before you p00p?

Diplomatic Mike
(MikefaeDundee)

Locale: Under a bush in Scotland
Potty trowel on 01/25/2012 11:12:23 MST Print View

I can usually 'hold out' till required, Ryan. :)

Steven McAllister
(brooklynkayak) - MLife

Locale: Atlantic North East
Storm Stakes on 01/25/2012 11:22:10 MST Print View

I don't own a Trailstar yet, but when I camp in strong winds in any of my shelters, I will use mostly found objects to supplement my stakes.

I don't trust most any stake alone unless the ground is very firm or I can wedge them into cracks in rocks or roots.

It is usually easy to find some heavy rocks around, but I did have to bury branches in loose sand in a few cases.

I never assume that my stakes will be required to provide 100%.

One of my hiking partners is Bryce, an active participant on BPL, and he never bothers to even bring any stakes. I know others that have the same policy as well.

I bring some small light stakes, just to help speed up setup.

Aaron Croft
(aaronufl) - M

Locale: Colorado
Silnylon vs cuben on 01/25/2012 11:24:30 MST Print View

@Ryan: If I buy a trailstar, it will be in silnylon. I still can't buy into paying twice the price for a fabric that I have to baby and worry about. I've been stoked with my silnylon duomid, so I see no reason to make the switch. That money could be better spent on getting out onto the trail. For me, anyways.

Edited by aaronufl on 01/25/2012 11:30:29 MST.

Eugene Smith
(Eugeneius) - MLife

Locale: Nuevo Mexico
trailstar stakes on 01/25/2012 11:31:31 MST Print View

We don't see the wild Chinook winds you do up there Ryan, but I have been pleased using MSR Groundhogs for the main guyouts and shepherds hook stakes for the midpanel guy points on my Trailstar.

Did any of you remove the stock Linelocs? What cord are you using? I have the stock line on mine but find that it gets difficult to manipulate in cold weather and rather stiff, moreso than lighter line I've used in past shelters.

Diplomatic Mike
(MikefaeDundee)

Locale: Under a bush in Scotland
Guyline on 01/25/2012 11:37:52 MST Print View

I use 2mm Dyneema with other MLD linelocs, even though i think they are meant for 3mm line? If the linelocs are the same on the Trailstar, i may do the same.
I usually have different colours on guylines on my shelters, so i can pick out the one i want easily in bad weather. The 'into the wind' guyline, and the 'door' guyline, will be different from the rest.

Not all 2mm Dyneema is equal. The stuff i use has a nice grippy sheath.

Edited by MikefaeDundee on 01/25/2012 11:40:37 MST.

Nico .
(NickB) - MLife

Locale: Los Padres National Forest
Another happy trailstar owner on 01/25/2012 11:43:55 MST Print View

Beautiful photos Ryan. The yellow sil really looks nice for photographic purposes. The clarity/sharpness of the images is impressive. I assume you shot these with the Sony camera you've been reviewing? Compelling evidence to reconsider my leanings towards the Pany G3...

Anyway, onto my TS comments...

I've had my TS for about a year now and I've been really pleased with it. I haven't pushed its limits in any spectacularly bad weather but it has held up through any rain, snow, hail, wind, etc. I've experienced with it so far with no problems or complaints. I don't need a shelter that can shed major snow... worst I stand to experience is maybe a 6" storm (which would be heavy by my area's standards), but wind/rain proof is important for winter/spring camping around here.

I think the biggest benefit in the shelter for me is its versatility. Since I recieved it, I've used it for all but a couple of trips. It's palatial as a solo shelter and has comfortably fit another adult plus a 100 lb dog on a few trips. I've used it pitched really high (w/ long guylines) as a shade structure for day hikes and lake-side lounging. I've used it pitched low for stormy/windy weather. I find even a "standard" pitch with the center pole set around 125 cm is pretty darn stormproof if there's not lots of wind. I've used it by itself and with a Bearpaw Pentanet 2 when I want a lot of bug-free enclosed space.

Yeah, it might be a little heavy as a solo shelter, but the versatility and simplicity is awesome. As I use it in more and more conditions, I'm getting more comforable with the idea of ditching my other shelters (2 down, 2 to go) and sticking with just the TS as my one shelter to cover all of my needs.

For stakes, I typically use MSR Groundhogs for the corners and Ti skewer stakes for the mid-point tie-outs. In really soft, loose ground (like beach sand), I've gone with a larger snow stake (like Mike it doubles as my poo trowel) for the corner pitched into the wind. There's been a few times where I've had to use the stakes as deadman anchors of sorts weighed down with rocks and that's worked fine too.

Eugene Smith
(Eugeneius) - MLife

Locale: Nuevo Mexico
"Mountain Laurel Designs TrailStar Shelter Review" on 01/25/2012 12:37:20 MST Print View

Nicholas,

I made that leap last year in purging all tarps and using the Trailstar as my only shelter, it sure makes the decision making process leading up to any trip easy, grab and go. I'm going to hold out and see how this works. The TS will obviously not be the ideal shelter in all circumstances, nor the lightest option, but so far I've found it to be an exceptional solo+ shelter for 3 season NM use for all those reasons you mentioned Nicholas.

Jeremy Gustafson
(gustafsj) - MLife

Locale: Minneapolis
Beak for Trailstar? on 01/25/2012 13:23:36 MST Print View

Have any of you TS users considered using a removable beak on the shelter similar to the HMG Echo I. In fact looking at the dimensions, it looks like it would fit perfectly. It would probably be pretty finicky to get all the angles right, but might make it more snow worthy and would provide more coverage.

Martin Rye
(rye1966) - F

Locale: UK
Re: Beak for Trailstar? on 01/25/2012 13:33:40 MST Print View

You don't need more coverage. Sleep side ways to the door way back and keep the entrance low. No bad weather will get you back there. Thats the reason this shelter is so good. You want views from this shelter as you wake up.dawn

Randy Martin
(randalmartin) - F

Locale: Colorado
One shelter for all conditions on 01/25/2012 13:38:18 MST Print View

I switched last year to the GoLite Poncho Tarp. That was my first move into Tarp camping. I was generally pleased but had a chance to experience the scenario of hiking in the rain and then having to make camp in the rain. I survived but got a little wet while making camp and it made me think about a bigger tarp.

I really am seeing the TS as a do it all shelter for one person. I still might just take the poncho for those 1/2 night trips where weather is perfect, but in the high country of Colorado there are very few days in the summer where you can truly say there is no chance of storms. Unfortunately it means adding 17oz to my base weight because I would still take the poncho (7 oz) as my rain gear.

Decisions...

James Marco
(jamesdmarco) - MLife

Locale: Finger Lakes
Mountain Laurel Designs TrailStar Shelter Review on 01/25/2012 13:40:32 MST Print View

A really excelent review and follow up!

"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."

This is a great initial impression. I like my tarp. It weighs almost 17oz as is. So, I do not get worried about about shelter weights around a pound and is good for the wife and I. I worry more about food weight for a week or two.

Thanks, Ryan!

Jason Elsworth
(jephoto) - M

Locale: New Zealand
Mountain Laurel Designs TrailStar Shelter Review on 01/25/2012 13:47:12 MST Print View

I am using 9" nails for the mains points (one member of the band stands on each line) and 6.5" Ti stakes for the other points. So far this has been fine, but I have not had any mayor winds on trips. If I was expecting extreme conditions I would swap the Ti stakes out for Y stakes that came with my Golite SLa 6.

I think it is time for a testing session. Luckily I live in a very windy area (wellington NZ), so it should be easy. I tested the Duomid on a hill near my house and decided to switch to the Trialstar soon after. However, the nine inch nails did hold well.

I look forward to Ryan's UL shelters in the wind report. @Ryan - are those stresses measured or estimated?

Interesting link.

http://www.secretmountain.co.uk/out-and-about/pitching-an-mld-trailstar-in-extremely-windy-conditions/

Jason Elsworth
(jephoto) - M

Locale: New Zealand
Beak on 01/25/2012 13:55:03 MST Print View

I have a Zpacks cloud kilt, which when folded into a triangle fits the door space, with a low pitch, quite well. Haven't tried it in practice yet as I would need to make few mods to it, but I think it would work. I also use it as ground sheet for getting in an out of the Tstar.

As has already been said I am not sure it is really needed.

Ryan Jordan
(ryan) - BPL Staff - MLife

Locale: Greater Yellowstone
tension stresses on stakes on 01/25/2012 13:58:19 MST Print View

Those stresses are measured using load cells inline with the guy line.

Henk Smees
(theflyingdutchman) - MLife

Locale: Spanish Mountains
Wait until the wind dies down before.... on 01/25/2012 13:59:35 MST Print View

>Mike, so do you wait until the wind dies down before you p00p?<
@Ryan
Not necessary. I know we’re all different but, in my case, I do my business every morning as soon as I wake up (or at least within the first 5 or 10 minutes after getting up). Since I know I’ll be going, I use my heavy stake [MYOG – like a deadman anchor – double use as potty trowel] in the evening, before staking out my tarp, to dig a cathole. After digging, I use my trowel/stake at the rear corner of my tarp [GoLite Lair 1] that’s pointing into the wind. In the morning my intestines will -normally- urge me to do my duty first; when finished I’ll take the tarp down, retrieve my trowel/stake and fill up the cathole again. Simple as cake.
BTW, whilst my current tarp is a GoLite Lair 1, I hope this will soon be substituted by a MYOG Cuben CT3.5K.18 (own design).

Stephen M
(stephenm) - MLife

Locale: A very flat place (Grrrrrrrr)
MSR Blizzard Stakes on 01/25/2012 14:23:47 MST Print View

Ryan,

I was pitching a TT Scarp 1 in 60mph and the supplied Easton stakes would not hold, I had 2 Blizzard stakes (which i normamly use on the guys) and pegging these on the Windward corners kept it firm.

cheers,

Jason Elsworth
(jephoto) - M

Locale: New Zealand
Mountain Laurel Designs TrailStar Shelter Review on 01/25/2012 14:36:42 MST Print View

Those stresses are measured using load cells inline with the guy line.

That's what I love about BPL.