Amid the vast landscape of camping gear, the materials that form our trusty tents often remain overlooked. However, those very materials play a vital role in shaping our outdoor experiences, ensuring that shelter remains steadfast and reliable. Central to a tent’s durability and structure are its poles, the skeletal system that dictates its strength, flexibility, and weight.
Two of the most common materials for tent poles are aluminum and fiberglass, each boasting a unique set of characteristics that cater to different camping scenarios. But when pitted against each other – aluminum versus fiberglass – which truly reigns supreme in the world of tent poles?
We’ll break down the features of aluminum vs fiberglass tent poles, as well as the pros and cons, so you can pick the right one for you and your situation. But first, let’s talk about what tent poles are, as well as the details of fiberglass and aluminum are so we can better understand the features of each.
What are Tent Poles?
Tent poles are the structural components used to support and give shape to a tent. They are essential for maintaining the tent’s stability, ensuring it stands upright, and creating the desired internal space. Tent poles can be made from various materials, with the most common being aluminum, fiberglass, and occasionally carbon fiber.
These poles can either be rigid or flexible and are often segmented, connecting via elastic cords to allow for easy assembly and compact storage. The design and arrangement of tent poles vary depending on the tent’s style, whether it’s a dome, tunnel, or any other configuration. When setting up a tent, these poles are threaded through fabric sleeves or clipped to the tent body, lifting and shaping the fabric into its intended structure.
What Are Tent Poles Made Of?
Tent poles are primarily made from two materials: aluminum and fiberglass, each offering its own set of advantages.
Aluminum poles are favored for their lightweight properties combined with strength and durability. They are less prone to breaking compared to fiberglass and can often be bent back into shape if they do get slightly deformed. Most high-quality or expedition tents tend to use aluminum poles due to their longevity and resilience against challenging weather conditions.
Fiberglass poles, on the other hand, are more commonly found in budget or family tents. While they tend to be heavier than aluminum, they are also more affordable. One of the downsides of fiberglass is its brittleness; it can splinter or shatter when subjected to high stress, especially in cold conditions.
Some high-end tents might also employ carbon fiber poles. These are extremely lightweight and strong but come with a higher price tag. They are typically reserved for specialty tents where minimizing weight is a top priority, such as in ultralight backpacking tents.
What is Aluminum?
Aluminum is a type of metal that’s lightweight and bends rather than shattering, making it easier to repair. Because of its weight, aluminum is ideal for lightweight tents used for backpacking. Due to its strength and durability, it’s also more ideal for quality tents that are built to last for many seasons while withstanding adverse weather. A lot of aluminum poles are made from 7000 series aluminum, which is a blend of aluminum, magnesium, silicon, and other trace elements. This series has the highest strength of any other aluminum alloy (1000-9000 series) and has high corrosion resistance, making it ideal for tent poles.
What is Fiberglass?
Fiberglass, also known as glass-reinforced plastic (GRP), is a non-metallic material that’s made from thin glass strands held in a resin. Because it’s not metal, it’s non-conductive, and is also flexible yet strong. It’s generally cheaper and lightweight as well. It has widespread use in many different industries and is found in small to medium sized tents and as accessory poles in larger tents (such as a ceiling pole or a brow pole over the entrance).
Aluminum vs Fiberglass Tent Poles
Let’s break down the different specifications of tent poles and compare them between aluminum and fiberglass poles. We’ll look at weight, price, strength & durability, corrosion, and flexibility.
The weight of a tent pole is only an important factor if you plan on carrying your tent long distances, such as backpacking and mountaineering. If you traditionally go car camping, then there won’t be enough difference in the weight for it to matter for you. That being said, you may still opt for a more expensive, lightweight pole if you want the added strength and durability that comes with it.
Aluminum poles are going to be much lighter than fiberglass, which is why you’re likely to see them in backpacking tents, especially ultralight and lightweight tents. Some of the more expensive backpacking tents will use DAC aluminum, which is even lighter and durable, but more on that below.
Verdict: aluminum poles are lighter, especially if they are DAC.
Because fiberglass tent poles are made of synthetic materials like glass and resin, the materials are much more affordable, making these poles cheaper to make. With cost in mind, fiberglass poles are more common in summer car camping tents that focus on affordability. Fiberglass poles are especially popular in brands like Coleman and Kelty, who cater to a market that desires lower price points.
Aluminum is a natural material that requires extraction and processing, which means it costs more to make. Tents with aluminum poles will generally be more expensive, not just because of the poles, but because the tent will generally have higher quality materials in the fabrics as well. This could skew the cost difference between tents that feature aluminum vs fiberglass poles – it may seem like aluminum poles make a big price difference when it’s really a combination of factors.
Verdict: fiberglass tent poles are cheaper but at the cost of sacrificing other desirable traits.
Strength & Durability
Tent poles are essential in protecting you from the elements and make up the entirety of the tent’s structure. While the average camper will avoid venturing out during adverse conditions, sometimes you can’t pick and choose the dates when you go camping. This could leave you and your tent exposed to strong winds, heavy rains, and generally sucky weather. You want tent poles that will be able to withstand wind and rain, regardless of your intentions about avoiding them.
Aluminum tent poles are going to be significantly stronger than fiberglass poles, making them the more ideal option for most campers. These poles will hold up against bending and stress caused by wind, providing better support overall. Another pro of aluminum poles is that they will bend instead of breaking. Even if the conditions do become more than the poles can handle, they won’t necessarily break and can be temporarily fixed by bending them back into a more suitable shape.
Fiberglass poles are not particularly strong, especially compared to aluminum. While they perform well in regular camping conditions, they will be less suitable for wind and rain. When fiberglass poles are put under stress (especially during colder weather), they are more likely to break, and a broken fiberglass pole is no fun. It will produce splinters that are sharp and painful, so make sure you handle a broken fiberglass tent pole with care. You may be able to temporarily fix it, but it will need replacing as soon as possible.
Verdict: Aluminum poles offer way more strength and durability.
While some people say that aluminum poles are more prone to corrosion, this is generally false. Aluminum tent poles are usually made of 6000-7000 series aluminum, which has a high corrosion resistance. Yes, metal is susceptible to corrosion, but generally your aluminum poles will still last longer than other parts of your tent anyway (e.g., the tent floor or the mesh getting holes).
You can lower the chances of corrosion by making sure your tent poles are completely dry before storing them, and maybe even wiping them down if they’ve been exposed to salty or humid conditions.
Verdict: neither fiberglass or aluminum are particularly susceptible to corrosion. Generally, other parts of the tent (like the floor) will fail before it becomes an issue.
Both aluminum poles and fiberglass poles are generally flexible and are meant to work with your tent to bend into the right shape. They will both flex with light wind. However, aluminum tent poles will bend instead of breaking, unlike fiberglass poles that will just splinter into two pieces.
Verdict: both aluminum and fiberglass are meant to flex with your tent’s shape, but under stress aluminum will bend and flex instead of breaking, whereas fiberglass will splinter into two pieces.
DAC poles are produced by Dongah Aluminum Corporation (DAC) from Korea, and their Featherlite™ pole was first created in 1997. Before DAC Featherlite™ came out, it was thought to be impossible to reduce the weight of a tent pole while maintaining its strength and flexibility. Now they are considered to be stronger and lighter while cutting weight by about 15%.
They also now have Pressfit™ Technology (which helped make heavier duty joints) and combined that with Featherlite to create Featherlite NSL™, which is one of their most successful innovations. It makes a thin walled aluminum tubing (so it’s lightweight) yet strong tent pole that’s used in high quality camping tents.
DAC aluminum is also more expensive, so it’s best use is for high quality camping tents that need the extra strength and durability with trade offs for a higher price tag.
Conclusion – Which is better?
For most situation, aluminum poles are going to be preferred over fiberglass. They offer more strength and durability, and are usually worth the slightly higher cost. Aluminum tent poles are especially preferred if you are a backpacker where weight is a concern.
On the other hand, if affordability is a bigger concern to you, then fiberglass poles may be preferred. The tents with fiberglass tent poles will be a better price, making them ideal for beginners and budget conscious campers who want something that will get the job done.
Keep in mind that cheaper tents that use fiberglass poles will also usually use lower quality fabrics, which bring down the price of the tent even more. The same goes for visa versa, where a tent with aluminum poles will have more focus on quality and will therefore have better fabrics. Basically, just because a tent is more expensive or less expensive doesn’t mean the poles are the only thing that accounts for the price difference.
Tent Pole Size Chart
In order to determine the size of your tent poles, there are a few things you can do. If these methods below don’t work, or if you want an alternative option, you can print a tent pole size chart (like this one from Quest Outfitters) to determine what size poles you have.
- Consult the specifications: If your tent is newer, the online listing should include information about this specification. If it’s not available online, try calling or emailing the manufacturer and asking.
- Calipers: calipers are a precise measuring tool that can easily gauge diameter. There are digital and manual calipers available.
- Tape Measure or Ruler: While not as precise as calipers, you can use a flexible measuring tape (or ruler for straight sections of the pole) to measure the circumference of the pole. Once you have the circumference, divide it by π (approximately 3.14159) to get the diameter.
- Tent Documentation: Often, the manual or user guide that came with your tent will have detailed specifications, which include the diameter and length of the tent poles.
- Tent Pole Repair Kits: Some tent pole repair kits come with multiple sizes of splints. By trying to fit the splints over your pole, you can gauge which one fits snugly, giving you an idea of the pole’s diameter.
- Ask the Camping Community: Online camping forums or local camping groups can be a resource. By sharing the tent model or a picture of the pole, fellow campers might be able to provide insights or share their own experiences.
How Do I Know What Tent Poles I Need?
Determining the right tent poles can be a crucial aspect of your camping experience, and it often depends on the context in which you’re asking the question.
Choosing Tent Poles for a New Tent: If you’re in the market for a new tent and grappling with the decision of what tent poles to go for, the insights from our comparison of aluminum versus fiberglass should come in handy. Here, you’ll weigh the durability, flexibility, weight, and other unique characteristics of both materials. Our personal recommendation leans towards fiberglass due to its affordability and suitability for various camping scenarios, but every camper’s needs are unique. It’s crucial to consider where and when you’ll be camping, and what you prioritize more: durability, weight, or cost.
Finding Replacement Poles: If it’s about replacing a broken or lost pole, the process becomes a bit more nuanced:
- Check Your Tent Manual: The manual or user guide that came with your tent usually provides specifications, including details about the tent poles. This could include the material, diameter, and length.
- Manufacturer’s Website: Most tent manufacturers will list spare parts, including replacement poles, on their websites. This ensures you get a perfect match.
- Measure the Old Pole: If you still have parts of the original pole, measure its length and diameter. This will help when searching for a replacement.
- Contact the Manufacturer: If in doubt, directly reaching out to the tent’s manufacturer can be your best bet. They can guide you to the exact pole model or suggest suitable alternatives.
- Consider a Tent Pole Repair Kit: If you’re dealing with a minor issue, such as a small bend or crack, a tent pole repair kit might be all you need. These kits often come with splints to temporarily fix poles until you can source a replacement.
Understanding your camping needs and being proactive in maintenance and awareness can go a long way in ensuring you have the right tent poles for a safe and comfortable outdoor experience.
Which type of tent poles are best?
Aluminum poles are generally better than fiberglass poles and will out perform fiberglass in pretty much all situations. The only exception would be cost – if you’re on a budget, it could be worth finding a tent that uses fiberglass poles to save money.
Are fiberglass poles good?
Fiberglass tent poles are best for people who want a budget friendly car camping tent that will only be used in ideal weather conditions. Otherwise, it could be worth upgrading to a tent that has aluminum poles, which are stronger and more durable.
Are aluminum tent poles good?
Aluminum tent poles are great options for supporting your tent’s structure. They’re strong, durable, corrosion resistant, and not overly expensive. They will out perform fiberglass in all categories besides price.
Are fiberglass tent poles flexible?
Fiberglass tent poles are flexible since they’re built to bend to the shape of your tent. They can withstand some lighter wind gusts but will splinter and break if they’re put under too much pressure.
Are DAC poles good?
Whenever you see tent poles made of DAC materials, you know that it’s a step above regular 7000-series aluminum. They’re lightweight and durable, but also more expensive. It’s a great option for serious campers, backpackers, and mountaineers who want added strength and stability in their equipment.