If you’re not thinking about your tent stakes on your next backpacking trip, it’s probably a good sign that you’ve chosen the right ones. If your stakes aren’t a good match for the ground and conditions at hand however, you could be in for a difficult shelter setup process and perhaps even for a long night. With a myriad of lightweight tent stakes on the market to choose from, there’s likely a specific tent stake for every condition you’ll encounter, as well as others that will perform well across a variety of conditions without specializing in any particular one. The best backpacking tent stake may not be the same for every trip, and is one that meets our own individual approach in regards to durability, ease of use, effectiveness, weight, and price.
From left to right: Sheperd's hook, MSR Carbon Core, MSR Groundhog, and 2 examples of aluminum tubular stakes.
Tent stakes can be made from a variety of materials from high grade aluminum like the popular MSR Groundhog stakes, to titanium, plastic, and carbon fiber…or a combination of these materials as you can find in the MSR Carbon Core offering. For backpacking purposes, tent stakes are a bit of a conundrum; they need to be both lightweight, and very strong. Heavier weight titanium and aluminum offerings will generally be the most durable and are the best choice if you’ll be setting up camp in heavily used compacted tent sites, where you might have to coax the stake into the ground by hammering them in.
On the flipside, you’ll need to handle ultralight tent stakes of the carbon fiber variety for instance, with a little more care. Most of us end up with something of a compromise between the two extremes, like the popular tubular aluminum design that has been found in the (now antiquated) Easton Nano and more currently in the aluminum MSR Core models. Stakes made of stiffer more brittle material can fail by breaking, sometimes in rather spectacular fashion by becoming a flying projectile along with a resounding ping sound, while other stakes will bend instead of, or prior to breaking.
Tent stake design varies widely, and the best tent stake will vary depending on the conditions at hand.
Other than specialized options like snow and sand stakes, design of the stake is mostly related to how well it will hold in the ground vs. ease of use. Popular varieties include the aforementioned MSR Groundhog Y-shaped stakes, needle style stakes, V-shaped stakes, and tubular stakes. Y stakes and V-stakes offer very good holding power and are usually quite strong, but with their sharp edges they can be difficult or painful to use on the hands. Additionally, while these are some of the strongest stakes out there, when they do fail, the failures I’ve observed have been breakages. This is offset a bit by the one piece design however – there’s nothing to come apart.
Tubular stakes like the Easton Nano that still remains heavily used have a two piece design, where the top is glued / epoxied onto the aluminum tube, and these stakes will bend in my experience, prior to breaking when too much force is used on hard ground. However, being a two piece design, they can also come apart (but at the right angle can still be used for the rest of a trip). Like many things, they will often fail in this manner right away or last quite a while, so it’s not a bad idea to test at home first. With all stakes, but with these two piece types of stakes especially, it pays to first move the stake side to side to loosen before removal from difficult ground.
Ultralight shepherd’s hook stakes don’t offer as much holding power as the varieties we’ve covered so far, and can spin in place if you’re unable to get them all the way in, but they are often quite sufficient and are my favorite stakes for frozen ground, where the thin, needle like profile allows for easy insertion and removal, and in frozen ground any stake you can get into the ground will hold very well. Nail stakes would be another option here, and can also be used to first create a pilot hole for a larger stake like an Easton or Groundhog. It’s a bit of a double edged sword in this regard: thin stakes can’t be hammered into harder ground without bending, but the thin profile may keep you from having to do so.
Ultralight titanium shepherd's hook stakes weigh in the ~.2 ounce range
No matter the design of the stake you choose to go with, longer stakes will always offer more holding ability while of course being a bit heavier. The standard stake length is usually around 6 inches, and generally this is a good choice and balance of weight to holding power for most situations. Going with a longer stake like the 9” MSR Core aluminum option for soft ground, or in areas of heavy forest duff in order to get into the better soil underneath can be helpful on some trips or for larger tents and shelters that place a lot of tension on the guylines.
One at times overlooked aspect of a tent stake is color. From experience, I can tell you that going with a neutral colored, earth-toned tent stake will quickly lead to you having to buy more tent stakes in short order. Bright colors are the way to go here, or if needed you can attach a loop of brightly colored, or even reflective cord to an existing stake. Additionally, a great trick for those grey titanium shepherd’s hook stakes is to mold a section of heat shrink tubing in the color of your choice to the hook of the stake, although many now come partially painted for visibility.
Weight wise, no matter the stake you decide to go with or whatever design you prefer, for backpacking use we still need to keep it light. In almost all circumstances we can find a lightweight tent stake that will meet our needs and still weigh under an ounce each, with many options being right around the half ounce mark…and some lower like the MSR Carbon Core stakes or many titanium shepherd’s hook stakes. Even on the heavier end of these weights, it’s possible to pick up a full set of decent stakes that will hold your tent down, without weighing you down on the trail.
Clockwise starting at 2 o'clock, a comparison of ultralight titanium shepherd's hook, Easton Nano, MSR Carbon Core, and MSR Groundhog stakes
Over the years, I’ve found that there is no one tent stake to rule them all. As such, over time I’ve accumulated a small collection of stakes, and will mix it up based on the type of trip, the type of shelter I’ll be using, and the weather. Frequently, I may even mix and match different stakes for a single trip as well. For 3-season backpacking use my go to tent stake has been the MSR Carbon Core for the past several years (find our full review here). Despite its two piece design (and price), this is a great option if you like the weight of ultralight titanium shepherd’s hook stakes, but would like a better hold in less than ideal ground conditions.
These ultralight stakes, at .2 ounces per stake, can weigh under 2 ounces for a set, and offer good holding power for most ground, sufficient durability with a little thought, and as a bonus the whole design and top is easy on the hands. Since these stakes are expensive however, I will often mix in some titanium shepherd’s hook stakes for a shelter that needs a lot of stakes or for those additional tie-outs, and during winter or cold conditions when I know frozen ground will be encountered, I will go a full set of shepherd’s hook stakes which are much easier to use in frozen ground with their thin profile.
If I know I’ll be encountering very soft ground, or if I’ll be using a shelter that puts a lot of tension on guylines like the Tarptent Hogback, I will then go with larger and heavier stakes I have on hand (something like the MSR Core) all around, or will use them on select guylines where the most tension will be seen, combined with lighter stakes in other areas. In conditions where you need it, a longer stake is the way to go. I do not use any snow stakes – in these situations I will use a freestanding tent, and when needed, use snow anchors made from snowshoes or trekking poles instead.
In the end, every tent stake has its own share of pros and cons, and so many different options exist precisely for this reason. In this regard – while I’m always trying to simplify and pare down my overall collection of gear to keep things simple and keep only what I really need, different tent stakes are one category where it’s always nice to have a variety of choices on hand, so that you’re able to mix and match for a customized best approach on different trips or even on the same backpacking trip when desired.