Sunday, April 10, 2011

First impressions: MLD Trailstar

It's mostly been gear talk on the blog lately, but spring has finally arrived here in Oslo so I'll soon be spending lots of time outdoors and writing trip reports!. It's such a high to see everything come alive again after a long, dark and cold winter. You can tell I just love subarctic winters right?.

This time I want to talk about a shelter I bought this winter, the Trailstar from the cottage gear manufacturer Mountain Laurel Designs (MLD for short). I have yet to try it in anger, so these will just be my first impressions. MLD categorizes it as a "hybrid tarp shelter", something in between a tarp and tent. Personally I view it as an advanced tarp, a pretty unique one at that.

What makes it unique in my eyes is the simplicity of the design and the amount of sheltered space it provides to 1-2 hikers, not to mention what everyone raves about: it's ability to shed wind.

The Trailstar is basically five identical panels of silnylon, sown together to form a star shape. It's held up by a hiking pole in the center (reinforced with dyneema to cope with the stresses) and a total of ten tieout points (5 is typically needed for a standard pitch). A second hiking pole is often used to raise one of the sides to make entry and exit easier like in the picture above. There's also a loop at the top of the shelter so that you may hang it from an overhead branch and create a large sheltered space where people can hang out. That's what I'll try to do at some point anyway :). Inside there are 5 small loops that can be used for various purposes, for instance to hang a bivy net hood, a tent light etc.

Not much more to say about it really. There are no zippers, vents, buttons, mesh or anything like that. Very little can go wrong with it. I like that.

I got mine in yellow, but you can also get in grey and olive brown, and with an optional stake set. The weight of mine is 542 grams including the stuff sack. It will be slightly heavier after it's been seam sealed. The price was 155 dollars when I bought it. Now its gone up to 169 dollars. Still a very nice price for such a versatile shelter. Oh, I almost forgot to mention that you get some very solid guyline/cord with it, the strongest looking I've seen to date.

Pitching the thing
The Trailstar can pitched in many configurations and at different heights. A low pitch of for instance 100 cm (39 inches) with pegs in all tieout points looks very bomber and should be able to survive the harshest of winds. Here's mine in that configuration with my Talon 22 daypack in front of it as a size reference:

Such a low pitch will of course decrease the usable living space by a lot, but it makes quite a difference in stability I would believe. MLD talks about a tight ground pitch being 36 inches, so you can go even lower if the conditions get really bad. A higher pitch at 47 inches (120cm), or maybe 44 inches, is what I hope to use the most as it makes the living space very roomy indeed for a single hiker.

Everyone talks about this being a very simple shelter to pitch. With practice I believe it will be, but I didn't think it was all that easy when I made my first attempts. I read Steven Horner's instructions and aimed for a high pitch. It was not sure how loosely I should lay it out on the ground and at what length I should adjust the guylines as a starting point. Pegging all 5 points also made it a squeeze to get under to set up the pole. Now I only peg 4 to begin with. I guess all this will become second nature after a while and that a pitch can be made in 1.5 minutes like MLD states, or maybe a bit more to make it drum tight.

I'm really looking forward to trying the Trailstar out this season!. I have a good feeling about about this particular piece of kit.

More about the Trailstar:

Steven Horner's review
Colin Ibbotson's review (PDF)

Pitching instructions
Steven Horner's instructions
Bus stop shelter pitch by Blogger Zed

Videos (all too few to be found):


  1. Although I'm not really into tarps (too many mosquitos here in Finland during the summer!) this one really looks nice and versatile. Looking forward to hearing whether you find it easier to pitch by the end of the summer - even though the pitch looks good in these pictures as well.

  2. Thanks for sharing impressions. Excellent photos whick makes it easier to imagine how a MLD looks in the reality. If I'm not wrong, you also own a TT Moment, right? How would you use MLD Trailstar and TT Moment in the future? Can both shelters be used in Scandinavian mountains?

  3. Maria: I will try to post a review at the end of the summer :)

    Jonas: In summer I think both the Moment and the Trailstar would do fine in the mountains, but they're both drafty compared to for instance a double wall tent like my Akto or Nallo. If the forecast was bad I would probably pick my Akto if I was hiking on my own. My UL friends would probably go with a tarp in those conditions, but I would choose the Akto for the abiblity to get completely out of the weather and into a dry, sheltered cocoon :). There is also something to be said about erring on the side of caution when up in the mountains. It can be pretty wild conditions up there at times. That relates to food, extra clothing etc. too. UL people often tend to go with the bare minimum to save weight, but that can backfire quite quickly.

  4. Nice in Yellow. For me the wind shedding ability is everything with it. Its superb at resisting the wind. Look at the steep angle of the Duomid on its long side which catches the wind vs the wind shedding angles a Trailstar can achieve and you can see why it's so good in the wind. 3mm cord is another good point with it. Strong and it allows you to tighten it right down to resist strong winds. Having been out in very bad weather in mine I know it can cope with the worst weather I would ant to be out in. Its light and space to weight ratio is massive. Top kit and enjoy using it.

  5. Thanks for the great pictures. I can't believe how many different ways to pitch it. My Golite Shangri La1 does well, but isn't as versatile and in variable winds it can be a problem. I'll be waiting for your review after breaking it in.

  6. Thomas: I understand. I agree completely your point of view. It'll be interesting to read your review after you've tried it out in most conditions.

  7. Martin: yes, I read your blog post about experiencing some really bad weather in the hills. Must be reassuring to know that it will handle that.

    Jake: I have never had the chance to see one of the Shangri-la shelters in person. Hope to do so soon - they look interesting.

  8. This'll be interesting to follow. To me the Trailstar looks a very nice and roomy tarp for the forest in the fall, when all the mosquitoes are gone. With a bug tent inside the weight goes up a bit and then there are lighter alternatives.

  9. I have been pleased with the few times I have used mine so far (here in New Zealand). The low pitch should be very good in the wind (my two nights so far have been still), but it does reduce the interior space quite a bit.

    I also have a Duomid, but the Trailstar will be my shelter of choice above the bushline as I don't like the Duomid in high winds. I also find the Tstar much easier to pitch than the Duomid, which was a bit tricky to get perfect.

  10. Jorgen: i agree; there are lighter alternatives to be found if a bug tent needs to be added, but I think I will be content with my full net hood bivy or a minimalist bug bivy

    Jephoto: I still want to test the Duomid out some day :). Must be comfortable with all that headroom

  11. Thomas: The Duomid's headroom is a real strength, but as is so often the case with these things it is also a potential weakness i.e. in high winds. I think mids are fantastic for up to moderate winds, but if the wind really gets up there is no potential for a low storm pitch. Having said this since I started using UL shelters I seem to have been blessed with windless nights on all my trips..

    I do though live in one of the world's windiest cities so can easily conduct shelter tests just a few minutes walk from my house. I haven't tested the Tstar yet, but when I tested the Duomid the centre pole flexed alarmingly. When I have some time I will take the Tstar up behind my house and give it a good testing.

  12. I thought this was an extremely well written and comprehensive first impression!
    I like my Trailstar but am not as won over as Martin is. Your analysis of using double walled tents in harsher conditions correlates well with my view; that feeling of being cocooned is lost in winter, but for other times of the year it is a great shelter. I also think Jorgen has a point about an inner, too in the bug season. I would rather have an inner and the space to use it rather than a bivy or head net, but then there are weight penalties to contend with.

  13. Jason: let me know how your high winds test of the trail star goes. I'm taking mine out for a spin tomorrow, my first overnighter this spring. Just seam sealef it today - i hope it's ready tomorrow

    Helen: thanks for the praise; that means a lot coming from you