Wednesday, 25 September 2013

The Trailstar has landed

My Trailstar tarp arrived just over a week ago, and had its inaugural pitching this morning. It requires a bit of work to get it ready for use. The parcel contained the tarp itself in a yellow stuffsac, a bag of stakes and pegs (five of each, which I'd added to my order as they're not included when you order the Trailstar), a tube of Silnet seam sealer (included), and a very long length of yellow cord for the pegging points (also included). There are no instructions provided. This is about as far removed as you can get from buying a pop-up tent from Decathlon: the customer is assumed to have some practical nous and not to need their hand held. Once you apply the seam sealer, the tarp is non-returnable, so taking care and having a reasonable idea of what you're doing at this stage is particularly important.

This is a tarp designed to withstand stormy weather, and the stakes provided are therefore very substantial. The pegs are also bigger than I expected, much bigger than the needle-thin 1g titanium pegs for my Terra Nova Laser Photon 1 tent.

Stake and peg set for the Trailstar (loo roll tube added for scale)
The tarp itself is essentially a large pentagon-shaped sheet of silnylon, or rather five triangular sheets of silnylon stitched together. The five main seams run from the centre out to each of the corners where the main pegging points are: these are where the stakes are used. Halfway along each edge of the tarp, between the main pegging points, is an extra pegging point which can be used with the smaller pegs for additional stability, although in settled conditions you could get away with just using the stakes.

The workmanship is excellent and I couldn't find any flaws in the stitching or the fabric.

The first task in preparing the Trailstar for use was to cut, prepare and attach ten lengths of cord for the pegging points. I cut a 240cm length for the door and 60cm lengths for the rest of the pegging points. The cut ends of the cord fray very easily so it's important they're sealed - I did this by melting them carefully with a cigarette lighter. However it's best to thread them through the linelocs first before doing this - there's not much room to get the cord through here, and a melted lumpy end of cord may not go through.

Next I threaded the lengths of cord through the linelocs at each pegging point. For the door you need to select one of the secondary pegging points, i.e. one halfway along the edge of a panel rather than at the end of one of the seams, and attach the long length of cord here. The picture below shows a lineloc with the cord threaded through:

 I made the loop for the peg at the end of the cord that is threaded through the lineloc nearest the tarp fabric. At the other end I tied a simple knot to prevent it being pulled out altogether. The lineloc is ingenious and simple. In the position above (flat) it cinches down on the cord, keeping it immobile. It won't move out of that position when it's under real tension when the Trailstar is pitched. To adjust the cord you pull the lineloc up to a near-90 degree angle, then the cord can move freely through it.

Next up was seam sealing, the task I was dreading the most. The best, and certainly most efficient, way to do this is to pitch the Trailstar, seal all the seams in one go, and leave it standing to dry for several hours. For me this wasn't an option. I'm an urban flat dweller with no access to any green space suitable for leaving a tent pitched all day. There is the local park but I certainly wouldn't leave it there unattended, and didn't fancy spending hours standing guard next to it, fending off funny looks, smart-arse comments and annoying questions. We also have access to some communal gardens but didn't want to rub the landlord or neighbours up the wrong way.

Therefore it had to be done indoors, and over several evenings I sealed a seam at a time and left it to dry overnight. The key thing was to make the seam as taut as possible before applying the seam sealer, mimicking the amount of tension if the tarp was pitched. The picture below shows how I did this:

Preparing a seam for sealing
The Silnet seam sealer is horrible viscous stuff that starts going gummy almost as soon as it's out of the tube, so you have to work very quickly. I applied it neat as advised on the Mountain Laurel Designs website rather than mixed with a thinner as many bloggers advise: I decided just to keep it simple and avoid any catastrophes. Starting from the top of each seam (at the centre of the tarp) I worked small beads of seam sealer into the stitching with my index finger, working on a few inches at a time. I probably used too much of the stuff as I made too big a hole in the tube, making it harder to control the flow. However, whilst not the neatest job in the world, the end result looks comprehensive. Next time we get a wet weekend I'll pitch the Trailstar outside for an hour and check for any leaks.

So finally today I was able to get the thing outdoors and have a rough-and-ready go at pitching it. This proved to be very easy and quick, even for a first attempt. It took two or three minutes, with a few extra minutes for adjustments and faffing around. I'll need more practice to get it perfect, and try out some different pitching styles. Here I think it's pitched quite high. Getting the door panel taut enough is tricky - perhaps the trekking pole outside the tarp entrance should have been a bit higher (it was set a few cm shorter than the one inside).

Bags of room inside, as expected:


Overall I'm really happy with it so far and think I'm going to get on well with it. My goal is to perfect the pitching, and by the time I embark on my walk to be an expert at pitching it in a variety of ways.

Useful Trailstar resources

I came across a number of reviews and other things on the internet whilst researching the Trailstar. The most useful and comprehensive review I could find is by Colin Ibbotson, and I'll be going back to this next time I practice pitching the Trailstar when I have more time:

Colin Ibbotson and Chris Townsend go on a walk to pitch and compare three different Mountain Laurel Designs shelters, including the silnylon and cuben fibre versions of the Trailstar. The cuben fibre version is lighter than the silnylon, but how does it compare in other respects?

This video by Tony Hobbs about pitching the Trailstar is also well worth watching:

Also for inspiration I like to look at this post from time to time. The author David Lintern walked the entire Haute Route Pyrenees from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean, mostly wild camping with a Trailstar. There are some interesting pitching styles featured here, including using one of the main pegging points at the end of a seam as the door, creating a huge and open entrance.

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