Thursday, 7 February 2013

MLD Cricket Review

If there has been one most requested kit review from me then it has to be the Mountain Laurel Designs Cricket. There appears to be a lack of reviews for this shelter for some reason and I wasn't prepared to rush out my review on a piece of kit that hadn't been thoroughly tested. That wasn't because of lack of use. I originally used the Cricket back in 2011 for my Colorado Trail thru-hike, but I chose not to review it then because the weather had always been reasonably good. I think you can't comment on a shelters performance properly until it has survived at least one serious storm... Fortunately, I had a number of storms on my recent Tasmania trip, so finally here it is.

The MLD Cricket was originally called the Solo Trailstar. This wasn't the best name for it as, visually at least, it has much more in common with the DuoMid or SoloMid. The height isn't really variable as in a Trailstar, nor does it have its wind shedding capability from all sides, the door can’t be moved without re-pitching should the wind change direction and it doesn't  have the cavernous internal space which allows you to sleep in any direction. What it does bring from the Trailstar is its simplicity, both in design and pitching, and that adjustable height entrance. Also, when pitched properly, a lot of the Trailstar’s exceptional storm-proofing is here, and all in a smaller and lighter package. Ron soon renamed it from Solo Trailstar to Cricket, though I have no idea why! 

I have both the Silnylon and Cuben versions and while they are identical the two materials behave differently making them very different shelters. This review is for the Silnylon Cricket because I much prefer it in this material and it is the shelter that I've used most. I shall also comment on Cuben throughout the review though.

The MLD Cricket is a 4 sided shaped tarp consisting of 2 gently sloping end panels, a steeply sloping rear panel and a raised, shaped, front entrance that forms a sheltered porch area. It looks very much like a SoloMid with a Trailstar front-end bolted on. 2 guy-line attachment points are fitted, 1 in the middle of the rear panel and the other to the front porch, or entrance. Like the Trailstar it is a very simple shelter and has no zips, velcro or delicate buckles. The only plastic parts are the adjustable line-locs fitted on each pegging point and various mitten hooks for directly attaching an inner. These can also be used for lifting the head of a bivi from your face. There is also a loop on the top of the peak, which I assume is for doing away with a centre pole and directly hanging from a tree, but I've never used it. In my book the Cricket’s simplicity is a good thing and keeping everything simple is the best way to produce a reliable and light shelter. It comes supplied in a generously sized stuff sack (Silnylon, even for the Cuben version) with a tube of silicone sealant for the seams (not needed with Cuben) and plenty of high quality line-loc compatible cord. Quality of both my samples was excellent and after over 100 nights use across Colorado and Tasmania nothing has come loose and there is no sign of any wear with the Silnylon Cricket. Finished weight in Silnylon, seam sealed and with guys fitted, is 364g in the stuff sack. Cuben comes in at a lighter 235g. Cost is $165 in Silnylon and $310 in Cuben.

The Cricket is also available with a dedicated inner but you need to look under tents to find that.  The dedicated inner version is $295 in Silnylon and up to $500 in Cuben depending on if you choose a Cuben base for the inner. I have the inner with Cuben base and it adds only 210g which is very light. You can use the solo inner from a DuoMid or SoloMid with the Cricket but the dedicated version has an additional windproof panel at the front which provides more weather protection and offers some extra privacy. I have used both and much prefer the dedicated inner. 

Although the supplied storage sack is quite large I find the Silnylon Cricket to be significantly easier and quicker to pack than Cuben. The stiffness of the Cuben fabric is a disadvantage here and I find its better to fold or roll the Cuben shelter into its storage sack and this takes much longer than simply stuffing. Might not sound like a deal breaker but I found it annoying when done day after day. I also worry about damage to the fabric from repeated folding but to be fair so far that has not been an issue.

The Cricket is a remarkably easy shelter to pitch and needs only 6 pegs. I recommend the thick blue Easton Nano pegs with this shelter (60g). First the 2 rear corners are pegged out and tensioned and then the 2 front corners are loosely pegged, either in-line with the rear corners if you want a high door (above) or extended past the rear corners should you want the door low (below). This only works with the Silnylon Cricket, Cuben has no fabric stretch and that limits pitching options to a high door only, any attempt to get that door low will result in lots of loose flapping fabric in the entrance area and that flapping fabric WILL drive you insane in a storm. This limits the Cuben Cricket to fair weather use below tree-line for me. 

Both shelters however will pitch drum tight which is a sign of a good design that has been well built. No poles are supplied and most people will use their hiking poles with 1 inserted under the peak to support the main shelter and the second pole supporting the entrance at whatever height you choose. With the lowest front entrance possible with the Silnylon version a second pole is not actually needed (above). To finish the pitch the front corners are pegged permanently and tensioned and front and rear guys tensioned. I run the rear mid panel pegging point to the same peg as the rear guy-line which saves a peg and reduces stress on that point. 

Either shelter should take no more than 2 mins for a perfect pitch. Getting into, and out, of a Silnylon Cricket can be a little difficult when pitched entrance low but it offers so much more weather protection that it’s worth the hassle. Even if the wind blows directly towards the front I've never felt any rain make it as far as the inner. I guess it could if it was strong enough but in normal conditions a changing wind will not be an issue. There is no such entry problem with the Cuben Cricket as it can only have a high entrance, but a change in wind direction is much more of a problem here. Also with a low door that second pole can be used to double-up the main centre pole for more extreme weather or, even better, you can arrange them in a 'V' configuration. This really makes a noticeable difference when it's blowing hard (below).

MLD recommend a pole height of around 125cm but I use my BD Ultra Distance poles which are 130cm and consider them to be a bit short. They work fine but I can't offset the centre pole quite as much as I would be able to with a slightly longer pole and this takes up a bit of the useable internal space. A longer pole would also work better in the ‘V” configuration. I would say 135cm would be ideal. I wouldn't want to use a pole shorter than 130cm with the Cricket. 

Living space is very good for such a small shelter but the center pole does intrude somewhat, a slightly longer pole could be offset more but with my 130cm poles I have to curl around it a bit (above). Hooks are provided for using bivi’s and permanently attaching an inner. I've used Cricket’s with bivi bags, bug sheltersas well as the official and solo inners. The bug shelter is designed for a conventional tarp and doesn't work very well because of the sloping end panels of the Cricket. It's just not shaped right and the mesh will lay on your face no matter what you do. Can’t blame MLD for this as it was never designed for this shelter but some of you might want to use it. A standard hooded bivi works just fine though. The solo and dedicated inners are quite small and I find the walls to be a bit “saggy” when fitted. I’ve tightened them up by attaching some shock cord a little lower down around the mesh. I don’t like only having the door on 1 side of the inner and find it irritating having to shuffle to the other side just to cook something. On the cooking side porch space is excellent with either a high or low pitch and you can easily cook safely under here. Just watch for a buildup of fumes with no high vent. I never leave the inner attached and prefer to pack them individually but the option is there should you want.

The Cricket provides very good 3 season protection from the elements but needs to be pitched properly to excel. Wind and rain are easily repelled and the overhang of the front entrance is more than enough to cope with some change in wind direction. Even when blowing towards the shelter, if the front is low enough, I’ve not had rain reach the inner. If it was strong enough to blow rain as far as the inner then you will really need to re-pitch anyway. To get best performance in really windy weather then pitch side into wind. Make full use of the narrow gently sloping sides of the shelter. The rear is much steeper and will catch the wind much more. Using a ‘V’ pole pitch is also recommended, as is the lowest door possible. When pitched like this the mid rear panel will have a gap of up to 15cm from the ground which is why I consider this a 3 season shelter - it’s drafty! I own both the Trailstar and DuoMid shelters and find a properly pitched Cricket performs a little better than a Duo but not as good as a Trailstar in a strong wind. The comparison with the Duo is when pitched side into wind, with wind from any other direction then the Duo fights back and wins. This is exceptional performance from such a small and light shelter and I'm happy to use my Cricket in almost all conditions, which the exception of winter and extremely windy weather.


MLD continue to produced shelters of outstanding design and quality at a keen price, that’s why I choose them for my travels. And to be clear, I choose and pay full price for all my equipment. I own many shelters but only 2 I regularly use, these are the Trailstar and now my new favorite shelter, the Cricket. The Cricket is my choice for the best all-round shaped tarp available today. For thru-hiking it's ideal and is the shelter I see myself using for most of my major hikes. Ultimately, it’s not as stormproof as a Trailstar but it offers all the protection you will need in all but the most fowl of conditions. Space is ample but not so big that finding somewhere to pitch can be a problem, as can happen with a Trailstar. Compared to its nearest competitor in the MLD range, a SoloMid (which I don’t own), all the items that can fail are removed - zip, door buckle, velcro. As someone who needs reliable kit that lasts this is a good thing. Weight and packed size are also very good for what you are getting. Choosing between Cuben and Silnylon is easy. If you need a low door - and anywhere above tree-line you probably will, then pick Silnylon. Lighter Cuben with its high door only pitch is fine below tree-line. 

A shelter has to be good to knock the Trailstar off the top of my list and the Cricket is that good. Buy it and I doubt you will be disappointed. Just remember this is a tarp and not a tent, if you want the cocooned tent experience than a Cricket, or Trailstar, is not for you. For the rest, buy with confidence.