The Best Tent Stakes? Depends on the Terrain.

The purpose of a tent stake is to hold securely, no matter what the terrain. A good stake will be lightweight, strong, durable, and easily penetrate the ground. As a bonus, a good stake is also comfortable to drive with your hand when the ground isn't too hard. And when the ground is too hard, the stake should be tough enough to drive using a rock as a hammer. Here are the pros and cons of the most common options:

Basic Aluminum Stake
The classic pointy stake design. A uniform-diameter aluminum rod bent at the head to form a hook, often with a sharpened point at the other end. The type of stake that comes with many tents. I have lots in my collection.
Pros: Inexpensive (~$1 to $1.50 per stake, less in packages of multiple stakes); lightweight (less than half an ounce per stake); curved head and point make it easy to drive by hand or by rock.
Cons: Not super-tough, bends under abuse (pro: you can usually bend it back into shape); holds poorly in loose terrain like sand and snow; relatively heavy compared to other stakes.
Needle Stakes
Sharp, very pointy lightweight aluminum stakes like the MSR Ground Hog Stake (right). Stake shaft often composed of multiple "fins" for additional grip.
Pros: Best stake for piercing very hard ground; strong and flex-resistant; very secure once in place; will hold in hard-packed snow. 
Cons: Expensive ($2 to $3 per stake); painful to drive by hand; poor attachment design for loops and guylines.

Ultralight Stakes
Titanium stakes that trim weight down to fractions of an ounce, such as those produced by Vargo Outdoors. Thinner, much lighter versions of hook, needle, and other stake designs.
Pros:  Ultralight (as little as 0.2 ounce per stake); ultra-small for packing.
Cons: Expensive ($3 to $5 per stake); hook designs less secure in loose terrain; more susceptible to rock-hammer damage.

Snow Stakes 
Extremely helpful for camping in snow. Aluminum stake with curved, parabolic design. Designed to hold in a wide range of snow conditions. Holes in the shaft help it freeze in place. Extremely secure once frozen in position.
Pros: Only stake design that works well in snow; multiple stakes stack neatly together for packing; easy to drive by hand.
Cons: Only really useful in snow; bulky; heavy (an ounce apiece); expensive ($2 to $5 per stake); poor attachment design for loops and guylines.

Giant Plastic Stake
Big, yellow utility stakes for frontcountry uses: car camping, sun shelters, etc.
Pros: Inexpensive ($0.50 to $1), easy to drive by hand or hammer
Cons: Very bulky, poor hook design.

Learn more about tents, shelters, and accessories in these recent posts:
Ultralight Tents Weighing 2 - 3 Pounds (2010)
Ultralight Floorless and Single-Wall Tents Under Two Pounds (2010)
Ultralight Tarps (2010)
Bivy Sacks (2010)
Floorless Pyramid Tents (2009)
Tent Tips: Guylines (2009)

Equipped” is an AMC Outdoors blog, written by Matt Heid.