MLD Trailstar Review

in Outdoors

I have owned a Mountain Laurel Designs Trailstar for 6 months and its been used on every multi-day trip in that time, around 30 nights. Its been pitched in a variety of locations including mountains, lake sides and municipal camp sites in a range of weather conditions. I feel I can give an informed review of the shelter.

Click to jump to June 2012 Update

The purchase of the Trailstar marked the start of my journey into true lightweight backpacking. My initial scepticism upon seeing Phil Turner pitching his in -7 C on a camp site in January, quickly changed as did my whole approach. The decision to buy was sealed while reading Colin Ibbotsons excellent review, which is also where I found the lengths to cut the guy lines.

After placing the order nearly 8 weeks passed without any word, this was the length stated on the MLD website. I emailed Ron and quickly received a reply to say it had been dispatched a couple of days earlier. The following day I received a letter demanding £42.19 for VAT and clearance fee, this is the lottery of buying from the USA.

My first pitch was in the dark in the Peak District, luckily I had seen how Phil Turner had pitched his on a previous trip. It's incredibly easy and quick, see my Trailstar Pitching Instructions.

The Trailstars second trip was to Finland, where it was pitched at the side of a lake next to a DuoMid in a stong breeze. It was interesting to watch the DuoMid swaying, while the Trailstar didn't budge.

My Third trip was to be the ultimate test, the TGO Challenge. A crossing of Scotland from the West coast to the East coast, this consisted of 9 nights under the Trailstar in weather ranging from sun, heavy rain, strong wind and hail. To say the Trailstar coped would be an understatement, it made Aktos and Laser Competitions look like tissue paper flapping in the wind. The Trailstar stood there and never moved, zero flapping. I can't begin to explain how satisfying it is to watch opinions change, as several people on the challenge came to investigate the strange shelter before them. Bombproof is certainly the correct description.

I've heard the DuoMid described as a palace for one, the Trailstar must be a cathedral then. Photos don't give a true idea of just how much room there is inside. For one person its almost comically large, with 2 there is loads of spare room for gear and a dog (not that I have one). If camping with others its a great place to congregate and talk the night away, before you kick them out to their own shelters. Personally I've only had up to 4 people inside, there is still plenty of room for others to sit in.

One thing that makes it different from many shelters is the openess. There are several ways to pitch, but I stick with one as can be seen in the photos. I like to have an opening at the front, which adds to the feeling of so much space. Many shelters make you feel like you are in a coffin and offer no portal to the world outside. Sleeping in a Trailstar allows you to lay in your sleeping bag/quilt and watch as the world changes before your eyes. You can get a similar feeling with a tarp, but it doesn't offer quite so much protection (in my opinion).

There aren't a lot of features with the Trailsar, its a lightweight shelter thats made up of 5 equal sized panels forming a pentagon. Halfway down each panel there is a a gear loop, which can be used to make an indoor washing line and the perfect place to hang my Kuksa.

The guy lines are attached at the end of each of the 5 seams, these are the main tie out points, with a further 5 halfway along the bottom of each panel which gives even greater stability in wind.

The Trailstar is pitched with 1 walking pole in the centre, the height can be changed depending on the wind. The website states 44" or 34" in strong winds for the pole height. I use Pacer Poles and set them to 47" (45" when point in ground up to basket). I then use the second pole to make the door, the pole is set to 44" (42" when point in ground up to basket). The design of a Pacer pole makes this the perfect height to wrap the guy around between the handle on the top and the lower foam handle, which stops the guy slipping down the pole.

I have rarely lowered the pole anywhere near the stated 34", even in some quite strong winds and I have been confident the shelter was going nowhere. Just make sure you pitch the fabric taught. If you feel you need to lower the height, it can all be done from inside the shelter, including tightening the guys.

The worst part I found with the Trailstar was having to do the seam sealing myself. This is the same for most lightweight shelters and tarps though. In Colins review/guide he recommended watering down the included sealant with white spirit, I didn't have any and decided not to bother. I am not the neatest person and to be honest my seam sealing looks a mess but I've never had any leaks, a perfectionist would be horrified.

On to weight, this is surely the main reason someone would be looking at a Trailstar. MLD quote 15oz (425g), mine in the stuff sack, seam sealed and with guys is 19.4 oz (551g). The stakes which I bought from MLD are 5oz (143g) in my Akto peg bag. The small bag that came with the stakes was cut too short to be able seal the top without losing them. Remember you also need to bring walking poles, which I carry anyway.

The only real negative I've had, is due to the mighty Scottish midge in the summer. The open design I pitch means no protection from the beast. I just used a cheap head net and had no probems. You could use a bug bivy or something similar but the cost is prohibitive for me. I would normally try to pitch higher or somewhere with a breeze. Alternatively pitch all sides to the ground.

A bombproof shelter the size of a cathedral for under 700g, which provides views of your surroundings while keeping you protected from the elements. The only real negative in the UK environment with the open design is the lack of midge protection or any option to buy an inner. The cost is unbelievably cheap when compared to alternatives. I love this shelter.

See this post for my Trailstar Pitching Guide.

Update June 2012
I have now owned and used the Trailstar for 2.5 years, I have no idea how many nights I've spent under it, but it must be around triple figures now. I still love the shelter and my only two cons against it, the lack of an inner option is solved thanks to Oookworks who now offer a variety of custom inners, including a soon to be released 2 person inner. That's Con 1 solved. The other it's large pitch area, I haven't really had any issue with. I just pitch it over rough ground and make sure the half I sleep in is relatively flat.

I've had 2 issues, the first was the stitching at the secondary tie out points (the middle of each side). One of these which I had used for the door several times had pulled the stitching. I seam sealed this stitching which may not look elegant but it has not become any worse. I also try to keep the door whenever possible to the side with the MLD logo, which acts like a reinforcement and makes it easy to identify when pitching.

The second issue has only started happening recently in very heavy rain. A drip sometimes develops which runs down the gear hang loop in the centre of the roof. Re-applying some sealant should solve this too.

Conclusion after 2.5 years
The Trailstar still perfectly fits my needs and after countless nights out the only problems that have arisen can be fixed with some seam sealant. The availability of inners and even a privacy door just adds to the Trailstars appeal. The fact that on the 2012 TGO Challenge they are becoming as common as an Akto highlights just how suitable they are for UK conditions, a bit different to the strange looks I received on the 2010 Challenge.

Further Reading
Colin Ibbotson (Tramplite) Review
Martin Ryes Review
David Linterns review on Section Hiker
Joerys Pitching Options
Chris Townsends - Trailstar Wars
Chris Townsends - Cuben Fibre Trailstar
Oookworks inners & privacy screen
Tony Hobbs YouTube videos