Recently on walkabout in the southern highlands of Scotland, I idly pondered how many nights I have spent under the Mountain Laurel Designs Trailstar.
I am not affiliated with Mountain Laurel Designs and am rarely given gear to test or review. I don’t feel that comfortable doing equipment reviews because by the time I feel qualified to comment, things have often moved on. It also seems unfair for me to cast judgement unless I have tested the product to within an inch of its life… and I’m not a professional backpacker. Nevertheless, as I get more experience, I am realising that the very best equipment does not go away – there are products that hang on beyond a season or two, that stand the test of time. I think and hope that this shelter may be in that category. This isn’t a technical review, there are more technical links at the bottom of this post for reference. This is a review of the Trailstar in practice.
I purchased the Trailstar just over a year ago and so far been lucky enough to spend 82 nights in total under it. It has been a constant companion for myself and my co-walkers on a circuit of UK’s Lake District (Cumbria), a few long weekend trips in the north of England and Scotland, and for 60 almost consecutive nights across the Haute Route Pyrenees – which as the name suggests is a high level route across the precipitous waistline between France and Spain. I am maybe not quite a full time hobo but I still feel fairly qualified to review this shelter on the basis of use and abuse in a huge variety of conditions.
So, what were the conditions? Well, pretty much everything, save blizzards or camping on a glacier. This has been pitched everywhere and anywhere between 0-11,000ft, in sun, storm force winds, torrential rain, lightning storms, hail, heavy frost, snow and ice. I have pitched over old fire circles, boulders, bushes, animal dung and groundwater. The Trailstar got me through it all, mostly without even flinching.
Its strength is in its aerodynamic design. The low profile of the Trailstar means it actively repels high mountain winds. Let me stress just how good this is with a side by side comparison, and a couple of examples.
July 2011: The night before we descended to a mountain ski resort, Cauterets for a welcome resupply after 11 days on the trail, we spent a final night high in a glacial bowl. A friend had accompanied me for this stage with a 5 season, 2 skin fully geodesic tent made by a VERY prominent alpine tent manufacturer. I shalt say which one. As the storm began in earnest, his shelter blew away whilst the Trailstar remained glued to the ground. We caught his shelter in time, thankfully, and re pitched it using several hundred weight of loose rock. The summer storms in the Pyrenees are fairly renown but even so the summer of 2011 was a fairly mixed season. In serious weather I chose once or twice to pitch 5 sides to the ground, eliminating the doorway, and crawling under to gain access. This was one of those occasions. With this pitch, the Trailstar felt virtually unassailable even in threatening conditions like those described here.
Another example: the day after attempting (and failing due to more bad weather) the highest peak in the Pyrenees, Aneto, my girlfriend and I pitched at one of the lakes below the Mulleres pass. At dusk the wind direction changed and overnight became very intense. It became possibly the fiercest storm of the entire trip. The Trailstar is made from silnylon which is very flexible material, but also expands when wet. I needed to go out and tighten up the ties several times during the night. At one point gusts were so strong, and the silnylon loose enough, that the pole was blown clean out of the centre of the shelter (we were pitched in the regular way, with a doorway, this time). This may sound a little alarming, but all that happened was that the material collapsed on our heads, remaining fixed to the ground by the pegs. We simply propped up the sagging material, reinstated the pole and retightened the seam ties.
So, maybe you are thinking, that sounds horrible! I don’t want to fiddle around like that. How is all this a good advert for the shelter? Well, in the conditions described above, many other shelters would have been completely destroyed, including those many times heavier and more expensive. At the camp under the Mulleres Pass, nothing ripped or snapped as it almost certainly would have in a tent. The poles did not splinter and rip the fabric, or alternately the same poles did not tease and pull at pressurise points at peg level until they came loose allowing the fabric to blow away, any of which would have left us shelterless. The shelter just fell down. With the pegs still in the ground, re-pitching was simple. The Trailstar embodies simplicity in its construction, and that too is its strength. No zips to catch, no poles to fracture, no clasps to tear at mesh which isn’t there. There are 5 equal sized triangles of fabric, and not much more. Nothing to break and not much to rip.
In less arduous conditions, but when the wind has changed position as it often does after dusk in a cirque, it is simple to loosen a couple of seam ties, alter the position of the door pole and move the door downwind. This takes perhaps a minute or two at most. The door angle can also be changed to allow a mere slip of an entrance, or more of a triangle for easier access, depending on conditions. It’s also extremely well sewn by Ron Bell and his team, and I have not experienced any stressing of seams or loose threads at all. I have seam sealed it once, and only recently had to add a little more, just a dab or two, to the apex on the outside. That’s it. Almost zero maintenance.
This kind of absolute reliability matters to me more than all the bells and whistles on more complicated products. When backpacking I value simplicity more than perhaps any other single factor. This is especially important on extended trips where the long term endurance of our gear has to match the long term endurance of you and I, the hiker. Given that our bodies are supremely well designed for the pleasures and pressures of the trail, that’s a tall order.
Strength is also about flexibility. The Trailstar can be pitched in a number of ways, as you can clearly see from one of the reference links below. In above treeline conditions in the UK, most of us use a standard pitch of varying heights dependent on the wind, between 3-4 ft high. That’s because our hills may be small, but our weather is tall! Under tree cover I have pitched in a much more tarp like configuration, with the sides high off the ground and no centre pole, the shelter hanging from a tree branch above. This is luxurious but rarely possible in the UK hills. In the Pyrenees in good weather I often pitched ‘seam to door’, which is popular with European backpackers with a little more tree cover. I did this when the shelter contained 1 or 2 travelling companions, and this method also allows more room, better views and access in and out of the shelter. Stability is surprisingly good in this configuration, there is a tradeoff but its not as big as I imagined.
The Trailstar sleeps one as a palace, two very comfortably, and even 3 if you are tolerant of each other. For 10 days in the Pyrenees myself and 2 others used it together. This allows me to take along hiking companions who don’t have to carry or worry about buying a tent, and can enjoy themselves and find their feet a little more in the outdoors. I love that the Trailstar enables me to share my passion for backpacking with my friends and significant other, in fact its become a real home from home, and people who have travelled with me and slept under it still speak of it with genuine affection. Some users have criticised the size of footprint, but for myself I have found this is only very rarely an issue. Most often, especially when travelling alone, its possible to pitch with obstructions inside the shelter if necessary. The lack of floor helps here. In addition the spacious interior means I can move my sleeping position around inside the shelter to avoid water ingress at the door (rare) or to better accommodate the slope of the pitch, meaning a better night’s sleep. Occasionally one needs to pitch with the shelter fabric touching rock – I usually protect it from abrasion with a little moss pulled up and placed between the rock and shelter fabric, or a suitably placed wet sock – most backpackers have one of those lying around at the end of the day, I think!
Around 20 ozs when fully seam sealed, which for such a highly weather resistant shelter is exceptional. Some feel uncomfortable with using a bivi bag, or want better bug protection than a headnet or bivi can offer in the summer months. There are an increasing number of options here. In the UK many backpackers are using a small company called Oookworks. Sean makes very high quality inner ‘nests’ for GoLite and MLD shelters. He has just built me a prototype 2up inner for the TS, so my girlfriend and I can be more comfortable in Scottish summertime despite biting insects. It weighs 26 oz. which is more than the shelter itself, but we specified a very heavyweight floor for use in boggy or rocky conditions. Using lighter materials which Sean can supply he estimates this will drop to around 18 oz. Here’s an image from Sean, hot off the press:
When I look at the design of the Trailstar, I can see that it mirrors the environment I usually walk and camp in almost perfectly – peak to peak. The aesthetics of the thing don’t hurt – I go to sleep in the outdoors in something that looks like it fell out of George Lucus’ sketch book – but it’s function that dictates form here. The strength of this shelter is through design – there is nothing superfluous. No more and no less makes it rock solid in high mountain winds above the treeline, and where conditions are really extreme, it has not failed fatally on me yet. In areas of heavy snowfall, or where space is severely restricted (say, a woodland or forest campsite), a higher more pyramidal design would be a better fit, of course. But for where I walk, there can be only one. The MLD Trailstar is a perfect fit for my outdoor life, and the finest port in a storm that I know of, for the weight and for anything less than 5 season use. A finely tuned balance of strength, simplicity, weight and flexibility. It is all I need unless I go winter mountaineering.
Dave Lintern works for conservation organisation the John Muir Trust and writes and photographs for the outdoors blog www.selfpowered.net
Disclosure: David Lintern owns this product and purchased it using his own funds.