The Trouble with Trailstars…(or a brief history of my tents)

Two or three years ago, I saw that several people seemed to be acquiring these funny pentagonal tarps, and always wanting to keep my finger on the pulse, had a look at the Mountain Laurel Designs website myself to see what all the fuss was about.  At the time, I was just moving up from a budget starter backpacking tent (a T2 Ultralight Pro from Decathlon), hadn’t even had my first wild camp, and my requirements were firmly for a tent, with proper doors and everything.

Tonight's accommodation
Quechua T2 Ultralight Pro

The Trailstar looked awesome and having no inner, was very light, but it simply wasn’t what I was ready for. However, even then I recognised the potential for me to evolve to the point where this might be the sort of thing I’d want to use. But first I needed to actually have a wild camp. So I stuck this on my Amazon wishlist in a dark corner reserved for interesting items of kit that I might want to come back to in the future. The fact that I’d probably need to go through the rigmarole of importing one, would turn what was a reasonably priced shelter into a major purchase. It wasn’t a barrier in itself (I’d done just the same to get my Scarp), but it was enough to stop me rushing out to import a shelter I wasn’t sure I was ready for.

In the meantime, I got myself a Scarp and didn’t look back. It met my requirements perfectly. There was just one thing – I kept seeing pictures on blogs of Trailstars pitched in stunning locations, and noted in particular how much space everyone had inside.

A brand new Scarp 1 pitched for the first time in the garden
A brand new Scarp 1 pitched for the first time in the garden

Now having this sitting on my wishlist for so long may in hindsight have been a bad idea. It’s been sat there niggling away, and every time I went to look at my wishlist there it was. Almost unconsciously, I began keeping an eye on eBay, the various outdoor fora and social media in case one came up.

I was able to resist the temptation for a couple of years, but this year something broke my resolve – I started having much more varied camps: I finally used the Gram Counter Gear Litehouse Solo I’d had a couple of years and never pitched in anger. It was great, even though I could see bits of outside through the mesh. Actually, I loved this tent and really wish I’d kept it now 😦

Gram Counter Gear Litehouse Solo
Gram Counter Gear Litehouse Solo

And working away in Edinburgh for a total of about 3 months over the last year sent me round the bend – so much so that on one trip I packed a hooped bivvy bag I’d also had sitting around for a couple of years. I duly sneaked out of the hotel one night and camped on Arthur’s Seat. My colleagues thought I was insane. I found this really quite claustrophobic, but I’d proved to myself I could camp a bit closer to nature.

Rab Ridge Raider bivvy
Rab Ridge Raider bivvy

In the meantime, I’d also picked up a bargain from GoOutdoors – a HiGear Soloista – it only cost me £20. As heavy as my Scarp but for the money a fabulous little shelter. Not much bigger than the bivvy really, and now being kept for stealth lowland camps.

HiGear Soloista
HiGear Soloista

The net effect of all of this was that I got more comfortable with the idea of being in a shelter that was closer to the outside than I’d previously dared do. Suddenly sleeping under a tarp with no door wasn’t such a big deal.

I finally cracked in August, and when a Twitter mate decided to offload his full Trailstar rig, I picked up the shelter itself and the cuben door he had. But I had to wait for the schools to go back and to get my annual SWCP trip out of the way, before I was to get a chance to try it out in anything more challenging than the garden.

First pitch of the Trailstar in the garden
First pitch of the Trailstar in the garden

And so, I took the Trailstar out on my late September trip. As luck would have it, although I could have picked up an inner nest at the same time as the Trailstar, for some reason I chose not to, but I then found a new unused one on the walkers forum. I picked this up on the first day of my recent Lakes trip.

On that trip, I slept 5 nights in a row under the Trailstar: two nights using a bivvy bag (one wild and one at a campsite), and three nights in the inner nest (two wild and one at a campsite). I much preferred sleeping in the inner, reinforcing the feeling that I’m a tent man at heart.

First night in the Trailstar
First night in the Trailstar

My confidence in the whole setup was shaken a bit because of some damage sustained early on in the trip – a small tear in the fabric, but actually it held up fine.

Although, I was quite happy with being able to have a view from bed, what was starting to get to me by the end of the trip was the lack of door and the restricted headroom – I never quite got around to using the cuben door (curtain is probably a better word for it). My stuff felt incredibly vulnerable leaving it on the two campsites we pitched at while we went to the pub. And getting in or out of the shelter seemed to involve brushing against the flysheet and transferring moisture from it to me.

A camp in upper Eskdale
A camp in upper Eskdale

These niggles started to grate, and to undermine the advantages of the shelter itself – for me these are the low weight (which I really noticed compared with my Scarp) and the amount of floor space in the shelter. I’ve got to the point where the desire for a bit more headroom and a proper door are telling me that the Trailstar isn’t the shelter for me, but I don’t want to give up the space or the flexibility the shelter provides.  I’m also trying to tell myself that the fact it just looks so damn sexy pitched in a mountain environment isn’t enough of a reason to keep it. But deep down, I know that this shelter’s not for me.

So, just like many others (I always seem to be a step behind when it comes to shelters) I’ve started looking at mids as the probable solution to the problem. Mids offer decent headroom and, depending on model, a decent amount of floor space. They also, crucially, have a design which allows them to shed wind well – I wouldn’t go for a shelter that didn’t. The fact that a number of Trailstar users have recently got them, and in some cases ditched the Trailstar in favour of a mid, speaks volumes.

The aim here is to find something that allows me to extend the life of my Scarp – something I’d be happy using in all but the severest conditions, leaving the Scarp mainly for winter and tempests. I seem to be quite hard on my gear and the Scarp has already taken some wear and tear, so I want to prolong her life as long as I can.

And so I’ve just placed an order for a Luxe Hexpeak. It seems to be the one to get, and not just on price.  It feels like it will deliver everything I’m looking for. I’ve done it quickly before I get too used to the excessive space in the Trailstar.

This means of course, that just as soon as I can take some pics, there will be a Trailstar for sale, together with a virtually new Oookstar (which are currently like gold dust) and a cuben door. Of course if anyone is so keen to acquire any or all of these bits that they can’t wait for a picture to be taken (ie when it’s not pissing down with rain in the garden), then be my guest.

13 thoughts on “The Trouble with Trailstars…(or a brief history of my tents)

  1. It took me a few years to bite the bullet and buy a Trailstar (and a virtually brand new Oooknest, second-hand) and I’ll never look back. Best thing I’ve bought in years.

    I had just about the first Akto in England back in 1995 and had years & years of service from Agnes, then a Stephenson’s Warmlite 2C (Wanda – she was a wonderful shelter), and after borrowing Martin’s Solomid for a TGO Challenge I got my head around MLD kit, and the transition to a Trailstar was obvious. I just love my Trailstar and Trinnie came with me across Scotland this year on the TGOC and a couple of other hikes since.

    Masses of room, bombproof (when pitched with the right anchors for the conditions, of course) and with the nest there’s not a problem with it on campsites – your gear is stowed away within the Oooknest.

    I’m looking forward to taking Trinnie to the Pyrenees without Oook but with a trayed groundsheet.

    For me, it’s the perfect solution – a great winter tent with the Oooknest and a great summer Alpine tent without.

    Oh – okay – you do develop your own style of Trailstar Reverse Crawl – but hey – nothing’s perfect!


  2. I agree with you Matthew, much as I respect Alan’s views. I bought a TS two years ago sucked in by the hype. At that time there wasn’t a single bad word being said about TSs. Now there is more measured criticism. Yes lots of space, but poor headroom. And as for the condensation and subsequent soggy back….


    1. Oh yes, the condensation. At times it seemed there was as much moisture on the underside of the fly as on the outside. Which meant it was soon on me given all of the snaking about required to get in and out.


  3. I also have a shamefully long list of shelters in my collection, so many that some don’t even get a look in for several years. There’s never going to be one shelter that ticks all the boxes, so like David I’m aiming for two or three ( maybe four or five…or) that cover all the bases. Something for a single nights snatched stealth camp, an ultralight low level backpack, an extended trip in the mountains and something that will stand up to a tornado and some snow loading in the winter. I’m sure the Traistar will have a place in this, it just has such a good balance of weight, space and stability.


    1. I agree. There isn’t one shelter that really does it all. One for harsher conditions/winter, one main one for “normal” backpacking and one for lowland stealth is what I’m trying to get to.


  4. Trailstars low angle does mean its easy to brush the sides. Upside those angles shed the wind well. It’s a tarp and you’re either a tarp fan or you’re not. For me it had to go and I went with Mids and never looked back.


  5. I’m getting used to the Trailstar. Having a porch groundsheet makes a lot of difference. I also like my cuben Duomid, which has a lot more headroom. As yet there’s not a perfect shelter. The Hexpeak looks good, but I don’t like the inner. If they made a slightly larger one with a solid inner with a T zip door, I’d be much more interested. The Scarp is hard to beat as an all rounder.


  6. A good piece this and thanks for sharing. I too had a short-lived relationship with the TrailStar for the exact same reasons: it was the headroom that was the straw on the proverbial camels hump for me. So I’ve opted for the Tarptent Stratospire 1 which has bags of headroom. It may not be as wind/weather resistant as the TS but its been given favourable reviews by a number of users. Have yet to use it as its currently at a Parcelforce depot awaiting Customs Duty payment 😦
    I hope the Hexpeak serves you well.


  7. Thank you Hillplodder for sharing yourthoughts on the Trailstar – very much in agreement, especially at 183cm in height. If not having to crawl low in and out is a luxury, it’s a luxury I’ll keep. Do you know if Luxe Outdoor make anything like the Hexpeak for 2 people, that’s still a reasonable weight?


  8. You don’t have to get wet climbing in and out. My first pitch had me grovelling in the mud so I experimented. In the end I set both trekking poles at 120 cm. This gives me a higher, narrower door than I see in many Trailstar photos with no need for grovelling. It also leaves large gaps under the sides, even with the pegging points pinned right down to the ground, which means I only get condensation when dew forms.

    (Currently, my Trailstar has the huge, two-sides-up doorway as i last used it in August. You definitely don’t need to brush against condensation in that configuration.)

    For me, the large stitch holes were the major Trailstar problem. Rain came in until I sealed the seams. I’d never had to seal seams on anything before and ended up with a bit of a mess.

    Pitching high means your gear can be seen by anyone looking under the side and not just in through the door. On manicured campsites, which I like to use every now and again for getting clean, I will probably pitch low in future, although I am not really a pub person. Washing self and clothes usually takes up my evening.

    My Oooknest usually goes to the side rather than way back in the Trailstar. This gives a large rectangle of grass in front of the doorway – plenty of manoeuvring and cooking room. A high pitch means draughts under the sides, which is why I prefer the Oooknest to a bivvy bag in winter. A sub-zero breeze on your skin isn’t very enjoyable when you are supposed to be sheltered.

    I’m still a huge fan of the Golite Cave 1 tarp. Such a shame…


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