Flexible tent poles give structure to dome tents, tunnel tents and variations on these tent styles. To set up a tent, you bend flexible tent poles into an arc shape, generally making a full half-circle. These tent poles are made of a material that must be flexible, strong and lightweight. Aluminium alloys and fibreglass are the most common tent pole materials. Each of these materials offers different benefits.
Fibreglass tubes slip into larger diameter, external ferrules at the joints. Aluminium alloy pole tubes typically have an internal ferrule at one end that slips into the end of the next tube, making the pole exterior smooth and seamless.
Tent pole "tensile strength", or its ability to withstand stress without breaking, is measured in pounds per square inch (PSI). The material, tube diameter and tube wall thickness determine tent pole strength. While both fibreglass and aluminium alloys feature high tensile strength, aluminium alloys are stronger. Aluminium alloys can provide the same tensile strength as fibreglass, in a tube with a smaller diameter and thinner wall.
In cold weather, fiberglass poles become stiff and may shatter easily. They offer three-season use and are considered the most economical framework for holding a curve or arc. Commonly used in dome tents, fibreglass tent poles are strong, offering stability and easy assembly. Frequent use, however, can cause fibreglass poles to start fraying and splintering.
Aluminium poles retain their flexibility in cold temperatures. Aluminium corrodes, but aluminium tent poles typically have an anodized surface to protect from corrosion.
When fibreglass poles break, they shatter and are very hard to do an emergency repair on, but you may fix them temporarily with duc tape.
Aluminium poles tend to bend, rather than break. Some kinds of aluminium are stronger than others, and of course, larger diameter poles of any given material are stronger than smaller diameter poles (trading weight for strength).
When aluminium poles bend, you can often still use them, and with care, you can manage to somewhat straighten them.
For high wind conditions, aluminium is the material of choice.
Weight and Cost
Aluminium poles are lighter than comparable fibreglass poles. Fibreglass is a lighter material than aluminium, but fiberglass poles need to use larger-diameter tubes with thicker walls to achieve the same tensile strength as aluminium. Fibreglass is less expensive, making it the popular choice for family and camping tent poles.
The strength, durability, streamlined construction and lower weight of aluminium poles make them popular for backpacking tents, where consumers tend to prefer performance over financial saving.