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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Randy Martin
(randalmartin) - F

Locale: Colorado
Re: Re: Re: TrailStar review on 01/26/2012 09:17:00 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."

Right, but you need a Poncho for hiking in the Rain.

Joseph R
(Dianoda) - MLife

Locale: Chicago, IL
Re: Re: Re: Re: TrailStar review on 01/26/2012 12:02:32 MST Print View

I agree, the weight would be additive. If I was considering the TS for a trip, it would probably be because conditions dictate it or are unknown, and there'd also be a good chance that for the same reasons I'd consider swapping the poncho tarp out for weightier rain gear (eVent shell/pants) as well.

My experiences with the golite poncho tarp tell me that it's a lot more fun if I don't need to use it as a poncho - my forearms/hands and lower legs eventually get wet, then cold, while the rest of me just tends to steam up. In like conditions, eVent keeps me dryer, better regulated, more mobile (poncho tarps can be a little cumbersome), and much more comfortable. But it also adds an extra 16oz in my pack compared to the poncho tarp, and the TS would be another 17oz, and I'd probably still bring the bivy for bug protection/wet ground.

The thing is, at this point I just don't care that much about lugging an extra 2 pounds plus odd ounce in my pack as long as I can still get out on the trail. Heck, by doing just that I lost 15-20 pounds in the past year. So while expending the effort to optimize base weight was certainly worth it - the benefits of going from a base weight of 24+ pounds to 15 to 10 were not unnoticed - shrinking my own waistline has been the biggest (and most rewarding) difference maker when it comes to packing light.

Edited by Dianoda on 01/26/2012 14:35:16 MST.

James Moughan
(jamougha)
Re: Re: TrailStar review on 01/26/2012 16:25:14 MST Print View

If you're using a poncho then I assume there's not much wind where you hike. In that case I doubt the Trailstar will be the most logical choice for a solo shelter.

Edited by jamougha on 01/26/2012 16:32:39 MST.

Jim Colten
(jcolten) - M

Locale: MN
Re: trailstar review: in the porkies on 01/26/2012 19:44:42 MST Print View

Thanks for the reply Travis.

Looking like they are actually getting some snow in the porkies now

So I might be using deadmen instead of stakes. But not for a trailstar ... do not own one (yet, anyway:-)

Mike M
(mtwarden) - MLife

Locale: Montana
footprint on 01/27/2012 08:00:26 MST Print View

the Trailstar looks like it has a pretty large footprint, I know when I went w/ a Duomid over a tent that it did limit where I could pitch my shelter (vs a tent), the Trailstar looks like this would be even more so

the Duomid w/ it's steeper sides should shed snow better, guessing it (DM) wouldn't fair as well in high wind though

if you need the room, the TS looks like a very viable option :)

Diplomatic Mike
(MikefaeDundee)

Locale: Under a bush in Scotland
Re Footprint on 01/27/2012 09:21:13 MST Print View

It depends on the terrain you hike in. The footprint is irrelevant to me, as there aren't many trees here. You can simply pitch over rocks, heather clumps, grassy tussocks, etc. As long as there is a space to lie down in.

Eugene Smith
(Eugeneius) - MLife

Locale: Nuevo Mexico
"Mountain Laurel Designs TrailStar Shelter Review" on 01/27/2012 09:38:54 MST Print View

I've had no trouble pitching the Trailstar in awkwardly tight areas, it just requires a little creativity staking out the lines. If you can find a place to lie down, you can pretty much pitch the Trailstar, with the exception of an exposed ledge of course.

David Olsen
(oware)

Locale: Steptoe Butte
Re: Re Footprint on 01/27/2012 11:55:20 MST Print View

The beauty of floorless shelters. Stake 'em out over the obstacles. Snuggle up to that
little huckleberry bush.

Mike M
(mtwarden) - MLife

Locale: Montana
huckleberries on 01/27/2012 12:38:51 MST Print View

now that would make for a nice addition to a shelter! :)

Dan Durston
(dandydan) - M

Locale: Cascadia
huckleberries on 01/27/2012 17:01:14 MST Print View

...especially when a grizzly wanders in for his share of the berries

Mike M
(mtwarden) - MLife

Locale: Montana
Re: huckleberries on 01/27/2012 18:08:29 MST Print View

^ well maybe not such a nice addition :)

Clayton Mauritzen
(GlacierRambler) - F

Locale: NW Montana
Re: Re: huckleberries on 01/27/2012 21:32:19 MST Print View

Just eat all the berries before the griz gets there. You can always take it off your consumables. That, and there's nothing like fresh huckleberries on the trail.

Heather Branch
(hpbranch2) - F
trailstar in warm, rainy weather and for one or two on 01/28/2012 20:02:41 MST Print View

I'm considering the trailstar with a bug tent, needing to be protected from rain but in conditions where being too warm is my usual problem [late June until early October in Ontario], not staying warm. I read about snow load and wonder if any of you have experience with it in warm weather? It seems it would lend itself well, with ventilation possible from all angles underneath each side, even with rain? Am I correct?

My other question is whether it allows a bug shelter for two underneath, so that both people can sit up and not be cramped? or is it better for solo?

any input would be appreciated.

todd harper
(funnymoney) - MLife

Locale: Sunshine State
Re: trailstar in warm, rainy weather and for one or two on 01/28/2012 20:35:30 MST Print View

Check out Bearpaw Wilderness Designs for a 2person bug shelter that was designed with the Trailstar in mind.

Kyle Meyer
(kylemeyer) - M

Locale: Portland, OR
Re: "Mountain Laurel Designs TrailStar Shelter Review" on 01/29/2012 02:07:01 MST Print View

Just wanted to bump the thread with a photo from Friday evening. Left to right, MLD Cricket, Trailstar, and Supermid. Overnight, winds picked up on the ridge line gusting to roughly 30 miles per hour. The Trailstar definitely handled it best despite a pretty crappy pitch and none of the midpanel guy out points used.



The best part? The open doorway provided a most excellent view in the morning.

Randy Martin
(randalmartin) - F

Locale: Colorado
Re: Re: "Mountain Laurel Designs TrailStar Shelter Review" on 01/29/2012 22:01:45 MST Print View

Cool pictures. Interesting to see the Cricket next to the Trailstar. For a solo shelter I have been evaluating both. Having room to move around during bad weather is a big deal to me and so have been leaning towards the Trailstar. After dealing with small tarps (Poncho Tarp) during bad weather I can fully appreciate the room that the Trailstar affords. Of course there is a weight penalty for that. Would really like to hear from Cricket (Solo Trailstar) owners to get their insights into the Cricket's performance during bad weather (rain/wind).

Jason Elsworth
(jephoto) - M

Locale: New Zealand
tstars on 01/29/2012 23:35:50 MST Print View

www.andyhowell.info/Colin-Ibbotson/index.html

colin has used both tstars you could drop him an email. personally I do not think the term solo tstar is really that reflective of what the cricket offers as a shelter.

Mike M
(mtwarden) - MLife

Locale: Montana
solo ts on 01/30/2012 07:33:24 MST Print View

I have a solo TS (now called the cricket tent) it's much more cozy than a poncho/tarp that I can tell you w/ certainty :) it's going to much less roomy than a Trail Star though (less roomy than a Duomid as well)

I used mine last year w/ a bivy, but after being in a couple of rain storms w/ it, I'm going to leave the bivy at home (unless the forecast is extra soggy); I will pack a polycro ground cloth though

I've had it in some windy conditions, but nothing extreme yet- I'm confident it will do pretty well in the wind (like the trail star you can pitch it pretty low and like the trailstar you want to go the door away from the windward side)

Photobucket

Photobucket

. .
(biointegra) - MLife

Locale: Puget Sound
Re: Mountain Laurel Designs TrailStar Shelter Review on 01/30/2012 11:05:06 MST Print View

@Ryan - thanks for the soulful review and especially following up with more active participation in the thread discussion following.

This thread has been as enjoyable as the review. What is more fun than testing shelters to their limits in high wind? :) Great photos everyone - it really adds to the review. In fact, this has turned out to be one of the best 'community' reviews that I have seen on this site. I do not have a Trailstar and thus cannot contribute technically or anecdotally with legitimacy, but it is a striking shelter in design. I hope to see more comments comparing/contrasting the Cuben and Sil-nylon version from those who have had the opportunity to use both. That topic, of course could and probably will end up with an article/thread of it's own, but this will be interesting nonetheless in the meantime. /props all around.

Nico .
(NickB) - MLife

Locale: Los Padres National Forest
100th TStar Review Post on 01/31/2012 10:47:29 MST Print View

Bump for photos