User Review: Wenzel StarLite
Design: A-frame summer shelter
Ease of Setup: Easy set up! Rigs perfectly.
Weight: WIth my alterations, it weighs just at 3 lbs.
Price Paid: $9.99
Although I own several shelters (Noall Serenity, Sierra Designs Lightning, Walrus Trekker Tarp, Black Diamond Megamid, Golite Cave, Bibler Pinon) I am always looking for another tent! I’ve been aware of the Wenzel StarLite for awhile and wanted to see just how much I could improve it to increase its performance.
I read the review by Ductmonkey and think that he sadly desired the protection and comfort of a free-standing, 35 sq. ft., double-wall, $240 tent and was shocked and disappointed to find that a 25 sq. ft. single-wall, coated, non-freestanding, summer tube tent did not fit the bill. However, he was comparing the characteristics of apples and oranges – a recipe for certain disappointment.
If you've backpacked as long as I have, you'll know that the StarLite actually compares quite favorably with many of the backpacking shelters of 30 years ago. In fact, the Wenzel StarLite is an inexpensive copy of the beautifully made Trailwise "Wind River" tent (aka "Trailwise Ultimate Tube Tent") made in the '70s. I had one of those once and am still of the opinion that Trailwise gear was the best backpacking equipment ever made.
Back in the day, Backpacker magazine gave the Wind River a score of 4 stars out of 5, even when being compared to double-wall A-frame tents! – and it was essentially the same as the StarLite. In fact, the Star Lite goes the Trailwise one better by using a front A-frame rather than an ”I” pole, which bisected the front door. It is also made of non-stretch polyester rather than the saggy nylon of the Trailwise.
Yes, the Trailwise was better made (as a comparison, the Trailwise Wind River cost $59.50 in 1978 dollars and did not come with stakes or guylines), but the StarLite is a far better shelter than its price would indicate. It's made of high quality fabric, features decent stitching and is of generally good design. The low retail price is primarily due to the fact that it comes with cheap steel stakes, fiberglass poles, junk nylon cord and cheap guyline tighteners. These accessories are easy and cheap to replace.
There is no doubt that “as is”, the StarLite would be an inadequate tent but would be a very good “tube tent” – right out of the box (and a tube tent is really what the StarLite should be compared to). After all, a tube tent has NO frame, has NO way to be guyed out, has NO screening and is NO larger than the Star Lite. A tube tent is made of non-breathable plastic and offers NO more ventilation than the Star Lite. In those respects, the StarLite beats a tube tent hands down.
As far as internal volume goes – while the A-frame shape is the strongest and lightest of all tent designs, it scores low in usable volume. In addition, the rapidly tapering floor and roof means that the StarLite should not be considered a roomy tent but rather, a cozy little shelter to throw in a daypack for an unexpected night out – the way that a tube tent is used! Had Ductmonkey understood the inherent design characteristics of A-frames, or of the StarLite design in particular, these issues would have come as no surprise.
As for my experiment to see if the StarLite could be improved, I first ditched the junk fiberglass poles and had "Tent Pole Technologies" make a set of bronze anodized Easton 7075 aluminum poles for it. I added two guylines placed in a "V" rather than the single line bisecting the front door. I did the same at the back "I" pole. This means that two stakes are used front and rear, and the tent is more firmly rigged.
I also added four Sierra Designs "Grip Clips", two to a side panel, to create additional pullouts in case of high wind. Each set of grip clips have a long loop of nylon cord attached to them, with a single cord that is used as the guyline. That way, only one stake per side is used to tension both grip clips.
I noted that Ductmonkey complained about his stakes bending. The reality is that most tents come with junk stakes that must be replaced. I chucked the thin steel stakes and replaced them with MSR Needle Stakes. I also increased the number of stakes from 8 to 12. Then, I replaced the nylon cord with Kelty "Triptease" guyline and good aluminum guyline tensioners.
Of course I seam-sealed all of the tent's seams with McNett Seam Grip inside and out. That is the only way to be sure that a single-wall shelter won’t leak through the stitching. While the fabric appears to be of high quality, I thought that the urethane coatings were thin. To ensure that the tent’s water resistance was as good as possible, I sprayed the canopy and floor with three applications of Tectron Wet Guard with enough time to fully dry between coats.
A good DWR coating will force rain to bead up and roll off rather than soak into the fabric – adding a tremendous boost to a tent's water resistance. On an A-frame tent such as the StarLite, which has a steep pitch, a DWR coating alone would probably work to prevent rain from misting or leaking through the canopy. When I pitch the StarLite, I always place a 3-mil plastic ground cloth under the thin nylon floor and a 2-mil cloth inside the tent. I’ve been rained on several times – in driving downpours – and have never gotten wet through the canopy or floor.
Now, I bought the StarLite for only $9.99 NIB at a hardware store, so I could afford to experiment. I spent about $20 on aluminum poles, $20 on fancy aircraft aluminum stakes, $12 on Seam Grip and $7 on Tectron. I already had the guyline, tighteners and Grip Clips. That means I have $68.99 in it. For that price, it’s a bargain. If however, you think it will equal the protection and comfort of a $240 backpacking tent – you are mistaken.
The upgrade of accessories made the StarLite significantly lighter and stronger. I've used it on several overnights and it has proven to be quite stormproof and condensation has not yet been a significant problem. I’ve always sited it with the end vent to the wind and have only used it in the early fall through early summer.
I think my experiment proved that if you take the time to learn about the inherent strengths and weakness of the various tent designs, and know how to properly stormproof a tent, you can transform inexpensive models like the StarLite into serious, usable equipment.
Of course, the StarLite, being nothing more than a fancy tube tent, offers a good deal less protection than a true tent but more (against insects) than the typical tarp or tube shelter. Whether that makes it "worth it" is up to you.