A tent’s fabric may keep you shielded from the elements, but it is the tent framework that keeps it standing firm, lest a heavy downpour or a strong wind collapse your durable polyester tent walls upon your reclining body. The sturdiness of a tent’s structure is dependent on the quality of its tent poles, which used to be painstakingly assembled to make the tent’s skeleton, making tent pitching a rather cumbersome exercise that was particularly difficult to do in adverse conditions. The tent poles of modern tent designs have eschewed this problem quite effectively, by being crafted as segments that interlock together easily, and come with pieces of elastic that are further reinforce the combined poles. They are also either color-coded or linked further with cords or chains to further simplify re-attachment. The tent poles are then attached to the tent itself via pole sleeves, to expedite setup, clipped to the tent for added strength, or through a combination of both.
The strongest of all tent pole materials, these are typically used for larger tent structures, as they are quite heavy, which makes them difficult to transport but invulnerable to all but the harshest weather conditions. Conventionally used in rigid pole tent designs for expedition use, these are rarely seen in casual camping tents. They are susceptible to rusting, however, making them hard to maintain.
Aluminum poles are perhaps the most common and popular of all tent pole materials, and are found most often in flexible tent designs, which form the vast majority of all but the most heavy-duty camping tents. Aluminum is excellent for being relatively lightweight but appreciably strong, and is also resistant to cold temperatures, retaining its flexibility even when it is freezing. If subjected to excessive pressure, they are more likely to bend than break, and when they do break, will snap cleanly in two, making them easier to repair eventually, though not as easy to patch up in an emergency. Their one downside is the fact that they corrode, like steel, so they are often anodized to resist corrosion.
A cheaper alternative to aluminum, fiberglass also does not corrode, and performs adequately under less taxing tent pitching conditions. When it breaks, it tends to shatter or splinter, which makes it useless to repair damaged fiberglass beams – you’re better off simply replacing broken fiberglass poles with new ones, which can be cut to accommodate your tent’s dimensions. Another weakness of fiberglass is its poor resistance to temperature extremes, as many a particularly hot or cold day has ruined a fiberglass tent. Lastly, since fiberglass needs to be thicker to match the sturdiness required of tent poles, it tends to be heavier than aluminum, and consequently, that much harder to transport.
Commonly used in the manufacture of fishing rods, carbon fiber is strong, lightweight and resistant to snapping, but it is also terrifically expensive, and is thus currently only found in more costly, sophisticated tents, such as those taken for long backpacking trips or expeditions. It is fast gaining popularity as a pole material of choice, though its steep price presently limits its viability for tents of lower quality.