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.
There are now many other good reviews of the MLD Trailstar including ones by Colin Ibbotson (pdf) and Martin Rye. In addition, chack out these pitching guides from Steve Horner and Joery.
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.
Nice review of a well designed shelter.
no problem and thanks!
Just the eighteen nights for me, so I have yet to learn to love the Trailstar. You are right about pitching with obstacles under the fabric. As long as there is a space to sleep, you are fine. Also, the silnylon Trailstar pitches taut with one peg more than a foot above the others. There is no denying though that it’s a big unit, and tough with it.
It is big but that works if you have ‘guests’. Hope you learn to love it in time
I have similar warm and fuzzy feelings about my trailstar. It seems to thrive above tree line!
Agreed! I think it laps up stuff that would send most regular backpacking tents quivering into a corner.
How does the Trailstar wind resistance compare to a cuben fiber Duomid?
I have not used a duomid in cuben fiber so am afraid I can’t comment. Phil Turner or Colin Ibbotson may have some more info on comparisons?
I’ve only used my Trailstar a handful of times at this point, and I definitely do enjoy the spaciousness and security of the shelter. I’ve been looking for a few bits of information: 1) best practices on seam sealing (water down the sealant or not? Seam seal on the outside seams, inside, or both?); 2) what length of guylines (and on which panels) should one use for the most pitching options (I did all short lengths, and then one long length on a corner seam); 3) any recommendations on suitably strong, adjustable length trekking poles? I have fixed 115cm fixed length, which limits my pitching options.
I’d direct you to the Colin Ibbotson PDF at the foot of this page for the detail on guylines. Seam seaming I DID water down and find it penetrates the seams better. I sealed the outside only. Poles – until recently I used Mountain King Carbon ‘expedition’ poles which are adjustable. Some folk seem to be wary about using carbon poles under stress like this but I had no issues. I have recently moved to aluminium pacer poles which also work well for the TS.
Thanks for the feedback David!
I’ve used mine few times, though never on as rough as case as describe above. I love the space and the ease of set up. It never fails to amaze people who lug along regular tents (how do you stay dry in that? or You’re set up already!!). It has stood up to southern thunderstorms which is not that easy.
I haven’t figured out how to efficiently set up the 5 corner staked out pitch – I think it takes a lower tent pole than I usually use.
That said it is easier to set up than a regular tarp, and definitely drier in blustery weather.
the 5 corner pitch is more tricky to achieve tension, and in my experience you are right – it tends to need a shallower angle on the sides (that generally means a lower centre pole, unless you are pitching in a hollow)
The Trailstar just came out in cuben fiber; I’m wondering how this version will hold up in high winds.
For US residents, the Bearpaw Tents “Pentanet” is a 2-person inner net for the Trailstar. It comes in a cuben version too. I didn’t try to add up the cost of the two together!
This might be worth your time – an AB comparison of the two units.
I am not convinced that a cuben version would suit me. Silnylon is flexible stuff and that is useful in the TS in anything less than an ideal pitch.
I looked at the Pentanet setup, and had an email conversation with Bearpaw Wilderness Designs. I had questions about the adjustability of height with their inner and also on the height of the bathtub floor, so decided to work with Sean on his version. I have slept in it over the weekend and it works great!
Spent my first night under my Trailstar this weekend. And was quite pleased with it, I’ll be working on getting the pitch just right over time. That means more trips to perfect it! :)
What serendipitous timing. I just returned from an overnight in Alaska’s Chugach Mountains, and learned that wind can be a very, very difficult thing to deal with in the backcountry. I brought my Tarptent Scarp 2 (which I love), but foolishly did not anticipate that I would be making camp in a windy pass, and therefore I left the support poles at home. I pulled into camp very late and found a picturesque spot above some thawing alpine lakes about a quarter-way up the pass in a soft tundra depression. I began pitching the Scarp, but soon realized that the wind was too strong. A gust of wind bent the single pole in the middle almost immediately as I pegged down the opposing two corners. Then the stakes themselves were ripped out of the ground. I tried to move further down the pass to use the shelter of some boulders, but to no avail. It soon became clear that I would be sleeping without a shelter. Definitely user error. I am a novice backpacker, and this was a very important lesson learned. I’m very glad it didn’t rain.
So, I’m in the market for a tarp/bivy sleep system, as this seems to be the most idiot/wind-proof option.
A couple of questions; first, in an alpine tundra environment, I find that I am not always able to get a solid hold with stakes. The ground is usually a layer of spongy tundra flora atop a thin layer of soil on top of glacial moraine, with very few large rocks around to bolster a good hold. As I understand, a taught pitch is essential to a successful night in a tarp. Is there any advice that you could give me for making sure that my stakes stay in the ground? I have only ever used the easton 8″ round aluminum stakes, and did not find much success.
Second, for this particular shelter, would a fixed length (130 cm) pole limit me to one pitch configuration?
Thanks for the great write-up!
Apologies, I had neglected to check in for a while.
Peg wise, for the type of terrain u are talking about I would suggest a combination of 2 types. https://www.cleats.co.uk/home/details.asp?id=8
I love these y pegs, have used for about 5 years and only 2 bends and 1 snap in that time – at least as strong, shorter, and I have found them to significantly outperform the eastons in A-B comparisons.
I also carry 6gm ti stakes – thin ones, something like this: https://www.backpackinglight.co.uk/product93.asp?PageID=106
These are good if you can’t get something heavier in the ground because of rock. On seams you should use the Y pegs or at least 2 of the ti stakes, in the ground in an X wing formation. It’s often a good Idea in thin soil to weigh down your pegs with rocks as well. lots of rocks!
Phil is definitely right – you need an adjustable pole to use a tarp like this to full effect. Don’t expect the TS to be stable at 130cm – try 90cm! the beauty is flexibility…
Site is equally as important. Sometimes its possible to move and find shelter, sometimes not. If you can and it works, do it. This stuff is much harder to quantify and tool up for – about experience and inevitably, getting it wrong once or twice and learning the hard way. We’ve all been there, I know I have! Good luck and have fun!!
Philip here..not sure David is still watching this thread.
If your 8″ easton stakes don’t stay put in the wind there’s not much you can do except find a different place to camp. Campsite selection is always the most important factor in getting a safe and decent nights sleep. I’m not sure I would conclude that a tarp/bivy is idiot-proof – they do take a higher level of skill and judgement to use than a tent. If you’re gung-ho on pitchin gin Alpine environment, you might take a look at some of the Hilleberg tents which are very strong for high wind conditions. Yes – using a single fixed length pole will effectively remove any benefit of having a tarp that can be pitched in different ways.
Try the MSR Blizzard snow stake. I wanted one to make a toilet trowel, as described at the Must Be This Way blog, which necessitated buying a pack of two. I added padding as a handle to the top of one and found that its lower section will still cut into the ground well enough to function as an emergency peg when the soil will not retain my 6g titanium pegs. One on the windward side should keep a Trailstar anchored in normal unpleasantness. You’d probably want the pair for Alaska or snow stakes for each seam somewhere completely lacking humus, such as much of Iceland.
This review pretty much cinched my decision to get a TS. So far, I’ve slept seven nights (I know, not near enough!) underneath it and have found it to be outstanding. The ease and flexibility of set up make this very, very conformable to a variety of uses. It’s not the smallest/lightest, but if you’re looking for something lighter than a tent, but with a significantly greater amount of protection than a traditional tarp, this might fit the bill. It certainly did for me. I can’t wait to set it up in some snow!
That’s great feedback Eric – I’m sure David will appreciate it.
You still piping?
Good to know Eric, thanks. I think u are right, it’s a sort of half way house, which makes it very weather proof. Glad u found the review useful
David, i had mine delivered just before xmas, and now that its all over and back to work, have started to sort guys and waiting for good weather to pitch and seal in garden. Between your review and Colin Ibbotson pdf, I have found everything information wise that I needed. Thanks Guys
I will keep saying this. I disagree with all the rave reviews. Despite the huge foot print size the TS is not good if you are tall. I am 6ft 3 inches and either have to wrap myself around the centre pole or I wake up with my feet poking out under the side or my head right up against the very wet condensation prone inner. Or usually all three.
Sounds like perhaps you should have bought the BigStar then? I don’t know. I’m only 5’9″ so I’ve never had any issues like you describe. Do you pitch the door from one of the corners or a center guyout? I feel like you have more space when you pitch the door from a corner–the shelter is effectively longer. Try experimenting with a higher center pole and/or longer guylines?
The beauty of the TrailStar is its simplicity, versatility, and multiple pitching options, in my opinion.
hi im looking to get a trail star or a big star , is the big star as good ? in windy conditions for uk use ? or would it be too flappy , i need one for 2 adults and my springer spaniel cheers Sean
I’m trying to find your write up for the 60 nights on the HRP w/ the trailstar.
I plant to thru hike the HRP next year in less than 30days and have nearly set my heart in the trailstar so you can imagine my eagerness to read your story! Is there one?
Thanks for all.