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Top picks: Stakes & guylines for backpacking tents, tarps & hammocks


This is a multi-post series on backpacking shelter systems. Start with the Introduction or skip to:


I will finish this series on backpacking shelter systems with a discussion of stakes and guylines, which have a critical role but which are normally treated as an afterthought. To maximize the usability and performance of your tent, tarp, or hammock, give them some attention.


Left to right: a titanium skewer stake, two aluminum V-shaped stakes, a Y-shaped stake, and a Bic pen for scale

Left to right: a titanium skewer stake, two aluminum V-shaped stakes, a Y-shaped stake, and a Bic pen for scale

Stakes

If stakes are included with the purchase of a shelter, they normally are about 7 inches long, made of aluminum, and have a V- or Y-shape. Examples:

(Kelty’s J-stakes are named after Jake Lah, founder of DAC, the largest manufacturer of tent poles in the world, and do not refer to the stake’s shape.)

Either of these styles is acceptable, and I wouldn’t recommend anything different. That said, I generally prefer the Y-stakes, which have:

  • More surface area, and thus more holding power;
  • Direction-neutral orientation; and,
  • A deeper notch for cord.

I have bent and broken a few Y-stakes, always at the neck. But it’s very rare, and I’m extremely hard on tent pegs.

V-stakes are lighter (0.4 oz versus 0.5 oz, per stake) and I have never broken one. But they have less surface area, and I can imagine a guyline slipping off one if the “V” is pointed away from the shelter (though I haven’t had or seen this happen).

If you are willing to spend a few more dollars, you can spring for titanium V-stakes. They also weigh 0.4 oz, but they have more surface area and a deeper notch than the J-stakes.

Pull loops

Short loops of cord often come attached to Y- and V-stakes. I always cut them off.

With these pull loops, it is easier to remove the stake from the ground. However, the loops tangle with my guylines and can block the notch that keeps the guyline in place.

To remove stakes from the ground without pull loops, wrap the head with some slack cord, then pull. Easy.

Skewer stakes

To save weight, you may consider swapping Y- and V-shaped stakes for titanium skewer stakes. If your shelter requires 6 or 8 stakes, this represents a 1.5- or 2-oz weight-savings. But skewer stakes:

  • Bend easily;
  • Spin in the ground, potentially releasing your guyline; and
  • Have little surface area, and thus holding power.

I think skewers are okay for non-critical tie-outs. For example, if the sides of your freestanding tent must be staked out for proper ventilation, you could bring skewer stakes for this purpose.

But for critical tension lines, such as the corners and ridgelines of a non-freestanding tent or tarp, they’d be stupid light. They may work under ideal conditions (e.g. firm but not rocky ground, and calm weather) but they will fail when tested.


Bottom to top: 1.5-mm sheated Dyneema, 2-mm reflective nylon, 3-mm nylon, and a Bic pen for scale

Bottom to top: 1.5-mm sheated Dyneema, 2-mm reflective nylon, 3-mm nylon, and a Bic pen for scale

Guylines

There is a basic tradeoff with guylines: weight versus user-friendliness.

Strength is not a concern. The lightest cord I see being used, which is 1.25 mm in diameter and which has a pure Dyneema core, has a breaking strength of over 200 pounds. I struggle to imagine forces approaching such loads on a 3-season backpacking trip (or most winter trips).

Unfortunately, knots are difficult to tie (or untie) with such small cord. A polyester sheath dramatically improves user-friendliness, but I would still not use it when teaching knot-tying clinic.

I have used and would recommend three different types of guylines:

  • Kelty Triptease (1.5-mm), which is ultralight, ultra strong, and reflective;
  • MLD LiteLine (1.5-mm), which is similar to Triptease but bright orange; and
  • PMI Utility Cord (3mm), which is a budget-friendly option that I put on my demo shelters.

My guyline & tensioning system

Once you select your stakes and guylines, you should learn to use them. Watch and read about my system.)

What stakes and guylines do you use? What’s your feedback on them?


Disclosure. This website is supported mostly through affiliate marketing, whereby for referral traffic I receive a small commission from select vendors, at no cost to the reader. This post contains affiliate links. Thanks for your support.

22 Responses to Top picks: Stakes & guylines for backpacking tents, tarps & hammocks

  1. Aubrey November 26, 2016 at 10:33 am #

    For guylines, I have had good results with Lawson Equipment Reflective Glowire Cord in the “2mm” diameter. It is large enough to work in the LineLoc 3 guyline tensioners provided on my Tarptent and MLD shelters. I prefer the feel and knotting ability of the jacket to that of the Kelty Triptease.

    With regard to stakes, I have the most confidence in the MSR Groundhogs. I’m curious to see if the Chinese lookalike stakes that you and Alan are recommending are indeed of sufficient metallurgy to be as durable as the MSRs, which obviously cost more.

    I’ve also used the Easton Nano stakes a bit. They are of course light, but I’m not convinced of their longer-term durability, as I’ve seen a couple that had their heads pulled off when used by Boy Scouts, which is the acid test. 🙂

    • Andrew Skurka November 26, 2016 at 2:07 pm #

      All the stakes are made by the same few factories in Asia. I don’t think there is anything proprietary about MSR stakes. The quality control may be better, but at one-third the price you’re still up if only half the 10-pack of no-name stakes are built to the same standards.

  2. jeff November 26, 2016 at 1:08 pm #

    i build a tarp shelter with a 10′ x 10′ 1.1 oz.silicone tarp with loops at all locations so it can be secured to the ground, trees, and has tie outs, and a reinforced center quad-loop where a hiking stick or oar is tied to create a higher roof.

    i bring 12 DAC aluminum alloy v-shaped tent stakes (usually use 8 unless high winds), they pound into everything the sierras offers (pulling out of tree roots can be a bummer) … they hold even in gnarly wind & rain i’d never try anything else.

    in snow, i tie my rope to the center of the stake (at the little curved notch) and use them like a deadman stake

    i install stakes to angle away from the shelter at the top, make a truckers knot and taught each and secure it at the notch in the stake, then run line through the hole on the top of the stakes to lock it in.

    i tie a 15-20′ line between two trees 5 feet off the ground and make an adirondack wind shed on flat ground (lol), i don’t tie the tarp to the guy line directly so it doesn’t stretch out, i run the center lines through loops on the tarp then use small ropes tied on each end and use prusik knots to create tension on the tarp.

    i use 1/8″ reflective poly cord, it doesn’t stretch as much as nylon or get as wet when it rains (sierra showers).

    love the reflective rope, helps from taking out your shelter or yourself tripping over a rope at night !

    i bring pre-cut/fused rope 1×100′ (emergency long line), 2×50′ (center lines), 4×25′ (four corners), 4×12′ (prusiks) … that’s 350′ of line, but i hate being miserable because i didn’t have enough line so i bring it all now !

    i cut those annoying rope loops off too 🙂

    also painted my stakes bright orange, makes seeing them easier when i lose them in the woods.

  3. Bill November 26, 2016 at 6:18 pm #

    I use 7″ aluminum gutter spikes @ 10 for $3.00. They bend, but not really easily. I often swage an aluminum collar about an inch below the head so that I don’t push them all the way in. I’ve got all of the types of stakes that you mention plus some Easton tubular aluminum stakes. The tubular stakes are big and lightweight, but I don’t have much experience with them. I can’t find any fault with your recommendations and, if I were in your part of the country, I would probably use harder, more expensive stakes more than I do.

    As far as tie out lines, I use mostly braided nylon or polyester cord. I also use Zing-It, but I prefer to use 3mm cord or accessory cord, because it’s easier for me to tie and untie. I’ve been using your McCarthy hitch method for the last couple of years and try to use slippery knots as much as possible. I usually braid a loop in one end of my tie outs so that I don’t have to tie them to my tent or tarp. That way, they are easier to move around when I want to change the pitch.

    • Andrew Skurka November 26, 2016 at 7:14 pm #

      Gutter spikes, nice. Will have to remember that one for when I assemble a budget kit.

  4. Christopher Heberly November 27, 2016 at 6:49 am #

    Hey Andrew, good article.
    I use the groundhogs myself (warbonnet superfly tarp for hammock)
    Just curious about your statement on pull loops. You said you cut them off, and then have to wrap shock cord to get them out of the ground? Why not leave the loops and attach your guy line to the loops? I’ve been in just about every weather condition and never had an issue doing that.

    • Andrew Skurka November 27, 2016 at 6:55 am #

      No extra cord is needed. Use the guylines on your shelter. Normally I loosen the knot some (a McCarthy or truckers hitch) and that gives me enough slack to wrap the stake head and pull without putting too much extra tension on the shelter.

      • Jimmy November 27, 2016 at 11:34 pm #

        With stakes that have the pull loop holes, I create an instant pull loop by threading the existing guyline through the hole and then holding both ends. I find that this works better than wrapping the stake head with existing cord (especially for some stake designs like the DAC aluminum “J-stakes”).

    • Rob November 28, 2016 at 7:59 am #

      I leave the pull loops on. My old eyes need all the help they can get finding stakes sometimes!

      • Bill November 28, 2016 at 10:20 am #

        I’ve been known to put colored or reflective cord on for that same reason.

      • spelt November 29, 2016 at 7:15 am #

        I put a strip of neon nail polish around the tops of mine.

  5. spelt November 29, 2016 at 7:13 am #

    I’ve used gutter spikes, but I’d like them better if they were an inch longer. I’ve used Gary’s Stix, which have the double curved head and are longer than regular skewer stakes. And I’ve used 6 and 7″ DIY aluminum V stakes. Get a length of 1/2″ right angle aluminum from Lowes, cut to size, cut a point, file a notch. Dip the top in Plastidip (or use a finer file to smooth the notch edges). You can do a batch of six in about 40 minutes.

    For guyline I like Glowire. I put a smaller diameter Prussik on it and use it in place of linelocs.

  6. Tim December 4, 2016 at 3:45 pm #

    A couple of others have mentioned them, but I have used the Easton tubular aluminum stakes in a variety of ground conditions and had incredible success — not one broken stake even in rocky/rooty ground. I even like them better than the MSR Groundhog. The only downside is that the company went out of business, so eBay and Bearpaw are the only places I know of you can get them.

  7. Justin Boisvert December 12, 2016 at 8:44 pm #

    How do you feel about groundhog minis? Seems way better than skewers, but do you think the weight savings is worth the loss of surface area and length over a regular groundhog?

    • Andrew Skurka December 12, 2016 at 8:47 pm #

      Depends. If your shelter is free-standing, and stakes simply need to tension some guylines so that the vents work properly, then the Minis would be fine. They would also be fine if you regularly camp on relatively compacted dirt, such as what you find most of the time in the forested East.

  8. Jake Case December 26, 2016 at 9:51 am #

    For guylines I use Braided Mason’s Line from Home Depot. It’s lightweight, visible, and never had a breakage!

    • Carl January 11, 2017 at 12:19 pm #

      I have a bunch of braided mason’s line as well, but my experience with it was not as positive. It was not good (at all) at holding friction knots, hard to work with, tended to fray (fuzz out) esp. if used around the trunk of a tree for a tarp or the somewhat sharp edges of a Y-stake. On the plus side it came in day-glo colors, and it is inexpensive.

      I found a thinner paracord, 325 (rather than 550), to be a good substitute. Holds knots much better and is much easier to work with.

  9. Ryan May 9, 2017 at 8:16 am #

    What is your opinion of carbon fiber tubular stakes, such as those sold by zpacks (http://zpacks.com/accessories/stakes.shtml)?

    They have a similar cross-sectional area to Y or V stakes, but weigh only 0.22 oz each. I imagine they have much, much better holding power than titanium skewers at similar weight, perhaps even approaching, if not equaling, the holding power of Y/V stakes. The price is obviously a disadvantage.

    I like 1.25 mm Dyneema cord (with sheath of course) for guylines. I agree that I wouldn’t want to be tying/untying lots of knots with it, but for McCarthy/trucker’s hitches that are fully releasable I find that it works quite well.

    • Andrew Skurka May 9, 2017 at 4:51 pm #

      I have not used CF stakes enough to know how they perform relative to other stakes. It seems like an odd use of CF based on what I know of the material from bike frames and trekking poles (both vulnerable to impact, especially laterally) but maybe I’d be surprised.

  10. llewdis May 22, 2017 at 8:17 am #

    Slightly off topic, but I seem to recall a link being provided from this site to a discussion of the optimum tie-out length for each attachment point on a square tarp. Does anyone know of such an image? As I recall it had something like 4′ for each corner and 8′ for the ridgeline or mid edge lengths.

  11. Jeff July 19, 2017 at 10:19 pm #

    Question on the Kungix stakes you recommend. I use a double wall freestanding tent. The corners need to be staked out, but the loops on the corners are pretty thick. Can you use these stakes for that type of staking?

    • Andrew Skurka July 22, 2017 at 4:45 pm #

      There’s enough of a lip that the stakes should bite the loop sufficiently.

      That said, I would highly recommend adding at least 2 feet of line to each corner. What are you going to do if there is a rock exactly where you need to put one of your corner stakes? Some line will give you options.

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