Tent poles--aluminum or fiberglass or ?? And why?

11:00 a.m. on March 31, 2009 (EDT)
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Over the last decade or so, virtually all tents on the higher end of the price spectrum and the lower end of the weight spectrum have gone to the use of anodized aluminum poles. Fiberglass poles can stil be found on less expensive tents, which are generally heavier, as well.

Aluminum poles are (I think) significantly lighter than fiberglass poles, though I don't have on hand any real-world comparisons of numbers. As for strength, I'm not sure that either has a significant advantage. Repair is, I've been told, easier with aluminum poles, but I've not experienced a broken fiberglass pole.

What am I missing? Is this pretty much the full discussion? Are there other reasons to prefer one of these over the other? Or some other type of pole over both?

11:34 a.m. on March 31, 2009 (EDT)
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"Fiberglass Poles Most dome poles are made of fiberglass, which is very strong and quite flexible. The flexibility causes the poles to flex instead of break in harsh weather. Fiberglass poles are heavy, though. To provide the required strength, the walls of each pole section must be fairly thick. Sometimes, the poles may be more than half the total tent weight.

Aluminum Poles Aluminum is lightweight, strong, and flexible, but its flexibility isn’t as great as that of fiberglass. Under extreme stress, aluminum poles can bend out of shape. However, aluminum has a better strength to weight ratio. An aluminum pole section for a given tent with the same strength as a fiberglass section will weigh about 70% less than fiberglass."

11:57 a.m. on March 31, 2009 (EDT)
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The big advantages that aluminum poles have (at least the good quality alloys, like Easton uses) are strength, they tend to bend instead of breaking (meaning you can do some straightening, at least when you get home), and when they do break, it is easy to repair them in the field. The big disadvantage is that the top-quality alloys are expensive.

Fiberglass poles are cheap, so used on a large fraction of cheap tents and Big Boxstore tents (Trailspace used to get huge numbers of posts from people who had missing and broken poles and missing instructions from the Big Boxstore tents, most of which seem to be made by North Pole under a variety of names - the term "Big Boxstore" comes from a particular chain named "Big Box", but applies to chains of large conglomerates like Big 5, Sears, Target, WalMart, Sports Authority, etc.). Fiberglass poles tend to break more easily than aluminum, and when they do, they come apart as a bundle of loose fibers. They are difficult, if not impossible to repair in the field. They do not bend like aluminum does.

Carbon fiber poles are very strong, and very expensive. Like fiberglass, they do not bend, and when they break, tend to come apart in a bundle of floppy loose fibers. Like fiberglass, they are almost impossible to repair in the field (the loose fiber section often tends to propogate to a foot-long section that has all the rigidity of a handfull of thread). However, carbon fiber poles are strong enough that I have only rarely seen one break (either tent poles or ski poles - I have 2 pair of carbon fiber ski poles). Actually, I have never actually seen one break, though I have seen the aftermath of a couple of broken ski poles and one tent pole. But CF adds as much to the price of a tent as many whole tents with aluminum poles cost.

The pole repair kits include a short section of aluminum tubing to slip over the broken pole to cover break between the two pieces. This is usually just a few inches in length, since aluminum poles will break cleanly. Since fiberglass and carbon fiber break mostly (at least in my experience and observation) by the plasticizer encasing the fibers shattering, leaving the loose bundle of fibers over a 12-18 inch section, the little 4 or 5 inch aluminum "splint" doesn't cover the break and doesn't restore the rigidity needed. I have repaired fiberglass ski poles in the field with a couple pieces of aluminum angle about a foot long, held in place with a hose coupling (I carry such a repair kit on the snowshoe and XC ski tours I do for Sierra Club and Boy Scouts). But in each case, I folded the fibers to end up with a shorter pole. With the couple of tent poles, we ended up stringing one end of the tent to a tree, so effectively a "pole-less" end to the tent.

If you are careful and don't have a curious bear or moose stomping your tent, the cheaper price of fiberglass poles outweighs the risk of unrepairable breakage.

1:03 p.m. on March 31, 2009 (EDT)
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Fiberglass poles use a sleeve coupling which is a larger diameter than the pole. This (in combination with the weak shock cord commonly used) makes for a joyous experience when setting up and breaking down the tent. You will not find a 4 season tent with fiberglass poles; because as TravHale said "fiberglass poles...are quite flexible...and flex instead of break in harsh weather". Actually, fiberglass poles will tend to sag under a snow load right up to the point where they break. The elasticity of fiberglass is compromised by cold (below freezing) as well.

I would much rather sleep soundly in a tent that doesn't flex and heave with every wind gust.

2:37 p.m. on March 31, 2009 (EDT)
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I'd suspected that broken fiberglass poles suffered from the phenomenon Bill describes, but wasn't sure. I've not seen carbon fiber tent poles, but I can clearly imagine the cost increases associated with same.

Given the use of titanium in darn near everything else, why no Ti tent poles? Is it too bendy? I know it does flex quite a bit more with same strain than does Al (given same mass and diameter of tubing). It's also a lot more costly to work, I believe.

On a related note, I see that one can now get "green" tent poles from DAC--both literally and figuratively. (They claim the anodizing process they use leaves the factory with a lot less toxic mess to get rid of, and the resulting poles are, of course, green in color, so as not to miss out on a marketing gimmick.)

9:54 p.m. on April 1, 2009 (EDT)
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Not all DAC poles are green. I have a tent with gray DAC poles. My 2 person backpacking tent is a Eureka 2XT. I ordered aluminum poles from Eureka for it (the same ones that are used in the Pinacale Pass) and they saved nearly 12 ounces of weight in the tent. Well worth the $44 they cost. I have seen fiberglass poles break before, have yet to see aluminum break (although I know they can).

12:44 a.m. on April 2, 2009 (EDT)
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Only the new "environmentally green" poles by DAC are green; their older ones are the plain ol' gray, as you mention.

I have experienced broken aluminum poles--twice--and found that they actually can be fairly readily splinted with the little tube thingy. I also used some duct tape to make sure it stayed in place, and managed to get back to solid walls and concrete paths without too much difficulty.

1:55 p.m. on April 2, 2009 (EDT)
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You can look into bamboo poles from Nemo, they're about as green as they come and good looking too!

2:49 p.m. on April 2, 2009 (EDT)
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Bamboo poles! That's pretty cool. I noticed they say they fit two of their tents, but don't mention anything about lengths, etc. Don't have a need for another tent, so I guess I'll just have to pass--besides, $189 for just the poles is a pretty steep tab!

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