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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Ryan Jordan
(ryan) - BPL Staff - MLife

Locale: Greater Yellowstone
load stress in guylines on 01/25/2012 14:46:42 MST Print View

Jason - I posted a sample graph of the type of data we are getting from load cells in another thread:

Tension Forces in a Guyline Measured Using an Inline Load Cell (Graph)

It's cool stuff for us nerds. We'll see if it reveals anything practical.

Edited by ryan on 01/25/2012 14:47:43 MST.

Steven McAllister
(brooklynkayak) - MLife

Locale: Atlantic North East
9" Nails on 01/25/2012 14:49:24 MST Print View

@Jason,

How do you get 9" Nails to go on your hikes?
That concept seems pretty unreliable knowing about the drug and alcohol issue bands are known for:-)

Ryan Jordan
(ryan) - BPL Staff - MLife

Locale: Greater Yellowstone
Nail stakes on 01/25/2012 14:52:57 MST Print View

Nice long nails are my preferred stakes as well. They're heavy though.

Does anyone make an 8+ inch long, 0.25" dia.+ Ti nail?

Dan Durston
(dandydan)

Locale: Cascadia
Nails on 01/25/2012 15:20:55 MST Print View

I'm sure Lawson would.

Thom Darrah
(thomdarrah) - MLife

Locale: Southern Oregon
Mountain Laurel Designs TrailStar Shelter Review on 01/25/2012 15:35:12 MST Print View

From the MLD Facebook site;
"We added a little more info on the TrailStar product page yesterday to help anyone trying to decide between the SilNylon and Cuben versions."

Here is the link to the MLD sites Trailstar page;
http://www.mountainlaureldesigns.com/shop/product_info.php?cPath=21&products_id=102

Scroll down to "Cuben Fiber Vs Pro Silnylon TrailStar". Very descriptive and interesting to read.

*The MLD Trailstar page also includes a link to Eugenes video on pitching the Trailstar. I've enjoyed watching this multiple times.

Edited by thomdarrah on 01/25/2012 15:37:34 MST.

Randy Martin
(randalmartin) - F

Locale: Colorado
Re: Mountain Laurel Designs TrailStar Shelter Review on 01/25/2012 16:20:05 MST Print View

Thanks for that link Thom. I just read over that. Summarizes it nicely, that is it's pretty much Cost vs Weight which largely what most Cuben vs SilNylon choices are about. If saving 6.5 ounces is worth $165 (the difference in price) then it sounds like the Cuben would be for you.

Stephan Doyle
(StephanCal)
Re: Nail stakes on 01/25/2012 17:04:22 MST Print View

Ryan,

Here's a 9" long CF nail from Ruta Locura (formerly Titanium Goat). Not sure about the diameter… http://www.rutalocura.com/Tent_Stakes.html

James Moughan
(jamougha)
trailstar pitching & stakes on 01/25/2012 17:48:07 MST Print View

I didn't find the Trailstar hard to pitch; I followed Stever Horner's pitching guide (http://www.stevenhorner.com/?p=1051) and got a taught pitch easily on the the first attempt. If the ground isn't level then it can be harder to get a good pitch with it right to the ground.

In ~60mph winds I've had success with aluminium Y stakes that appear identical to the MSR Groundhogs. The real issue I had was with the centre pole driving into the ground. Flipping the pole over and using a rubber ferrule to protect the Trailstar should fix that.

Travis Leanna
(T.L.) - MLife

Locale: Wisconsin
Re: trailstar pitching & stakes on 01/25/2012 17:54:58 MST Print View

>The real issue I had was with the centre pole driving into the ground. Flipping the pole over and using a rubber ferrule to protect the Trailstar should fix that.

As long as your pole is long enough and adjustable, let it sink into the ground and just lengthen it. Or you could find a flat rock or piece of wood to put underneath.

Jim Colten
(jcolten) - M

Locale: MN
trailstar review: in the porkies on 01/25/2012 18:10:22 MST Print View

Travis,

regarding that photo in the porkies ... how deep was the frost and what did you use to pound the stakes?

(heading to porkies in 5 weeks ... appears there's now enough snow for snowshoes!)

Travis Leanna
(T.L.) - MLife

Locale: Wisconsin
Re: trailstar review: in the porkies on 01/25/2012 18:21:37 MST Print View

Jim,
I'm pretty sure the frost was at least as deep as I could pound my stakes. However, in that particular campsite I was under pine trees, so the ground was much softer there. I think I hit a fluffy patch of frozen duff because I was able to push one stake in by hand. The other stakes were just pounded in with a rock. They go in relatively easy provided you don't hit a root or rock. By morning the aluminum will freeze into the ground, so I just lightly tapped the stake *further into* the ground to break that ice bond. I've broken stakes in the winter by hitting them at a sharp angle.

Doug I.
(idester) - MLife

Locale: MidAtlantic
Re: Re: trailstar review: in the porkies on 01/25/2012 18:25:30 MST Print View

"By morning the aluminum will freeze into the ground, so I just lightly tapped the stake *further into* the ground to break that ice bond."

Funny how the stuff that makes the most sense often eludes us. Thanks Travis, I never thought of that! Brilliant in its simplicity and common sense!

Travis Leanna
(T.L.) - MLife

Locale: Wisconsin
Re: Re: Re: trailstar review: in the porkies on 01/25/2012 18:32:05 MST Print View

Thanks Doug. However, I must credit Roger C for that. I extruded that little gem out of one of his posts a few years back.

I was actually surprised how relatively easy it is to pound a (very strong) stake into frozen ground, and how easy it is to get it out again!

And apparently, ice does not bond to titanium that well, so extraction is even easier.

Edited by T.L. on 01/25/2012 18:33:38 MST.

victor marshall
(victor@vrmarshall) - F
Foolproof sequences for pitching the Trailstar on 01/25/2012 19:29:19 MST Print View

Love our TrailStar, but I still don't have a foolproof sequence for placing the stakes to pitch it right the first time (a)with a door mid-panel, or (b) with a high beak. I iterate & iterate, but it's never quite taut. I've looked at all the web instructions, so maybe Ryan can solve this math problem

Having a third pole makes for panorama views when wind is not an issue, or when the wind is steady from one direction.

Can't beat this tent - it makes looking at rain fun.

Sam Haraldson
(sharalds) - MLife

Locale: Gallatin Range
Mountain Laurel Designs TrailStar Shelter Review on 01/25/2012 21:03:07 MST Print View

I've been spending too much time in cushy igloos and snow caves this winter to care much about stakes and wind. Methinks it's time to go on a fast 'n light trip with tarp and bivy again so I can join in this conversation. That 17 oz comment at the end of the article has had me giggling all through the four pages of commentary, Ryan.

Joseph R
(Dianoda) - MLife

Locale: Chicago, IL
TrailStar review on 01/25/2012 22:19:45 MST Print View

I've really enjoyed the commentary section to this review - much value added by both members and BPL staff.

And what an intriguing shelter the TS is - a very appealing combination of weather protection and versatility for the weight. After spending most of my outings last season alternating between a Golite Poncho Tarp + TiGoat bivy and a Big Agnes Fly Creek UL2, this just looks really, really nice.

Jason Elsworth
(jephoto) - M

Locale: New Zealand
Mountain Laurel Designs TrailStar Shelter Review on 01/26/2012 01:29:20 MST Print View

Ryan - thanks for the link. Results should be very interesting. Would also be interesting to know what sort of stress is being put on our little trekking poles in some of these shelters. The pole in my Duomid was flexing alarmingly in a strong wind. The idea of being in a shelter when a CF pole snaps is rather alarming:).

Roger Caffin
(rcaffin) - BPL Staff - MLife

Locale: Wollemi & Kosciusko NPs, Europe
Re: Re: Re: Re: trailstar review: in the porkies on 01/26/2012 01:32:07 MST Print View

> ice does not bond to titanium that well, so extraction is even easier.
That's been my experience anyhow. I thump with just the heel of my jogger normally.

Cheers

Randy Martin
(randalmartin) - F

Locale: Colorado
Re: TrailStar review on 01/26/2012 08:56:22 MST Print View

For those that have the TS or are considering it, if you have a Poncho/Bivy setup presumably you would keep that even with a TS?

1] Poncho for Rain Gear (3 season) (GoLite Poncho 7 oz)
2] Bivy for bug protection (Katabatic Bristlecone 7 oz)

If that is the case then the TS weight is fully additive and the primary attraction of the TS to me is having a shelter where waiting out a storm doesn't mean retreating to a small poncho tarp where you really can't move around.

Edited by randalmartin on 01/26/2012 08:57:08 MST.

Travis Leanna
(T.L.) - MLife

Locale: Wisconsin
Re: Re: TrailStar review on 01/26/2012 08:59:24 MST Print View

Randy, you don't really need any other protection under a Trailstar, except for bugs if its the season for them. It is large enough for two people to move around and still be plenty protected from rain.