Saturday, March 20, 2010

Mountain Laurel Designs on the TRST

For the Tahoe Rim Ski Tour I will be relying on 3 of Ron Bells hand made designs. Ron Bell runs a company out of Virginia aptly named Mountain Laurel Designs. I have been using MLD products since my first speed record attempt in 2007 on the Arizona Trail. I have never looked back to the shoddy workmanship of other ultra light pack manufacturers. To many folks ultralight is synonymous with non-durable. MLD stands this notion on end.

Ron Bell at MLD Headquarters Roanoke, Virginia
I will be using a pack, bivy and shelter all made by Ron Bell. I couldn’t manage in a winter environment without them. The pack has to be large enough in volume to handle winter loads and be reliable. Bivy must be light and breathable and be roomy enough for bigger volume winter sleeping bags. The shelter should be a pyramid so it sheds wind from all angles and simplifies set up. The walls of the shelter need to be steep enough to shed snow and strong enough to handle snow loading. I have found all of these requirements met in the MLD Ark Pack, MLD Superlight Bivy and MLD Duomid.


The MLD Ark pack is new for me this year. I basically needed to up the volume of the packs I use in the summer to support the bulkier loads I need to transport in winter. Winter clothing and sleeping systems are bulkier by design as you need more loft to keep warm in the cold. The Ark swallows winter gear loads without any hassle and then some. I especially like the fact that it comes with a padded hip belt. The winter loads being heavier it is nice to have a padded hip belt that helps distribute some of the load on the hips more comfortably. The shoulder straps are just slightly wider than on my Prophet or ZIP and this is good as well for the heavier loads. There have been some recent design tweaks to the MLD packs that are welcome additions. The side pockets now have a cordlock on them so that the volume of the pocket can be adjusted. This is true for the big rear pocket. This allows more versatility as to what size bottle can be crammed into there or the ease of sliding my snowclaw (shovel blade) in and out without damaging stitching in the pack. The one feature I would stress doing without in the winter is hydration ports. These allow snow into the inner pack in winter, so I would prefer to go without and be more secure keeping the contents of my pack dry. There are a number of lash points on the pack so one can really customize it for their needs. The craftsmanship in this pack is unparalleled in the ultra light pack world. You will not find better stitching, fabric, trims (cord locks, buckles) or design anywhere, period! I have seen all the offerings out there over the last 8 years of long distance hiking. I have even tried some of MLD’s competitors in the past to poor results. A pack for the long distance hiker or skier must be solid and reliable. All MLD packs fits this bill and Ron Bell knows his products inside out and can make appropriate suggestions based on intended use. He can even do custom work if necessary for a additional fee. A quick glance at the MLD website reveals tons of custom options which is a result of Ron’s open minded approach to feedback from the ultra light community. Ron stands behind his warranty and has always been available to do repairs. His repairs come back to the customer in a timely fashion and usually result in strengthening the problem area. These repairs never look shoddy or rushed. So feel comfortable knowing that all MLD products are backed by a solid warranty. I don’t believe most folks will need to take MLD up on their warranty though as I haven’t had any failures that weren’t a result of misuse. MLD is all hand made in the USA so the quality goes up much the same as Western Mountaineering sleeping bags.

MLD Superlight Bivy

The MLD Superlight Bivy is killer. I practically lived in this on the PCT last summer. It kept me safe from biting insects. I have now used this bivy for 3 seasons winter and summer. No signs of wear and tear. Obviously MLD makes much lighter bivys, but I like the ruggedness of the silnylon bottom. I also like that it has a full side zip. I am 6 ft 2 inches tall and need the extra zip so I can exit and enter the bivy easily. Traditional bivys are nice and light, but I have to take extreme care getting in and out not to damage the zipper. Not a issue with the long side zip of the Superlight Bivy. It also comes equipped with a small rectangle of bug mesh over the face area. Obviously this bag isn’t 100% waterproof as it has a zipper that isn’t waterproof and the seams aren’t taped. This is ok as I use it both in winter to keep spindrift off and in summer to keep rain splash off when used in conjunction with my poncho tarp. I seam sealed the bivy anyway for a little extra protection. The top fabric is DWR 90 which is silky smooth and breathable. I have found the DWR90 to be waterproof and highly breathable. I have actually slept a down bag part way dry in the summer in this bivy. It also has a little hooptie on either side of the zipper near where your face would be so that you may tie the hood up off of you or the torso to help it breath better. The hoods on every MLD bivy I have used are huge which is killer for storing gear and items one wants to keep dry. It also helps me keep centered on my pillow at night. I have slept thru some pretty killer storms in the Carson Range in this bivy and even found the bug mesh to keep spindrift from falling in on my face all night. I purchased a MLD Superlight Bivy for my partners’ birthday a few years back and she has quickly become more comfortable with cowboy camping. I feel the bivy really opens up more options for camping. I have even slept out several mild nights in the winter in just the bivy. Couldn’t imagine being out in the winter without this bivy to keep my bag dry and me happy. It adds about 5-10 degrees to the warmth rating of your bag as a result.

MLD Duomid
I had been drooling over the MLD Duomid since Ron released it. The past few winters I have used our MLD Supahfly for winter travel, but it is spinnaker cloth and I had worried about snow loading. MLD doesn’t make these anymore and it is such a hit with my partner and I for summer camping I didn’t want to damage it in winter. I slept thru some rough winter storms and was amazed that it held up to the abuse. The MLD Duomid is silnylon which is much more durable than spinnaker. I was amazed that the Supahfly comes in at 13 oz for 2-person shelter and the Duomid comes in at 17 oz for a two-person shelter. Realistically I can sleep two in the Duomid in winter, but I find that it is perfectly suited for one person to comfortably camp in winter. I like a little more room in winter so I find the dimensions of the Duomid to be perfect. The walls are steeper than the Supahfly so it sheds snow and wind better. It is also taller so with a little excavation with the snowclaw I can stand up in it. Sure makes setting up camp easier and packing the pack when breaking down camp nice too. The vent in the peak is huge and can be velcroed shut in extreme conditions. This helps with condensation from breathing and cooking inside. There is also a hooptie hanging inside the Duomid peak where a lantern could be safely hung. I look forward to trying this out some time too. It might be a way for me to coax Shelly along in the winter if we can get some added warmth inside the Duomid from it. I would appreciate your insight on tiny lanterns that work with gas cartridges and the amount of warmth you feel they may add to a shelter in winter. The front doors are huge with a long waterproof front zipper that has a storm flap over it. I have found upon my first couple uses that I can just tie a tie down off the front door that pulls the door outward. With my trench dug as a entry way I can just duck under the door to go in and out without having to unzip the door. The inside of the tarp has several hang loops from both the peak and sides. This works great for tying up drying lines or lanterns.

Line Loc
The outside of the tarp has several perimeter tie downs with line locs. Line locs are killer for use with deadman anchors. One can tension the line locs after the deadman anchors are buried in snow. This saves time and makes set up a cinch. There are also four guyline tie outs on the four walls of the tarp. For additional headspace and support for snowloading. Big hooptie on the top for doing my line over a branch method of setup. No poles needed thus increasing the interior space of the tarp. The tarp Ron sent me is bright yellow, which is perfect for winter travel. Highly visible in case the conditions are bad and you wander away from the tarp for some errand. Also the yellow seams cheerier in the low light of the winter sun. Lets more light in. This will be a big factor psychologically when out on extended trips like the TRST.

MLD Mini Biner
A word on anchors. I purchased some titanium V stakes from Ron a few years back. They are perfect for deadman anchors in the snow and are light. Lately I have been getting tired of cold fingers tying and untying knots on the deadman anchors. I recently realized that I could use a MLD Mini Biner to clip to a hooptie that I have pre tied into the guylines on the tarp. Put that hooptie through the titanium V stake, which comes with pre drilled holes in it and clip a mini biner to the hooptie. The mini biner keeps the hooptie put on the titanium V stake. No knots and no cold fingers! Set up is a cinch and take down too.

Again huge thanks to Ron Bell at MLD for making such bomber gear. Also for dispelling the myth that ultra light means non-durable. I almost forgot, make sure and get your order in early. Most of the bigger items like shelters and packs take 6-8 weeks to ship. Remember this is all hand made here in the USA, not on a assembly line in China. So get your order in early. This time frame can get longer during peak season like in the spring before all the thru hikers start their trips. I always want a chance to get out and practice using my new equipment before starting a long trip. So get your order in 3-4 months before your start date.


  1. I use tiny Uco candle latern when running the Karrimor International Mountain Marathon.

    The warmth is significant, and it very much helps with condensation issues.

  2. I would have never considered that the Candle Lantern helped with condensation. Thanks for the tip Susanne!