Choosing the right trekking pole

Where should I start? I have procrastinated over writing this blog for a long time. I have visited reputable hiking stores, watched countless demonstrations, and tried the latest offerings, but my confusion never eases. One has great grips, one the latest locking mechanism, one the best collapsibility and another the lowest weight. None have everything I want. Is it even possible to find the perfect trekking pole or will it forever remain an elusive goal?

In this blog post, I try to answer this question. My recommendations today may well become ancient history tomorrow. I cannot believe that choosing two little sticks to keep you upright on various terrain could prove such a hard task. Technological advances in construction materials and better locking mechanisms and collapsibility methods have led to an absolute glut of suitable offerings.

It’s like buying a car. Having the latest must-have gizmos is so tempting. If you want luxury and performance, by all means, go for the top-of-the-line offerings. If you just want a pair that will do the job at an economical price, there are plenty of solid performers out there.

Kitting yourself out for a trekking adventure is not cheap and you may wish to concentrate your dollars on the Big Three—Tent, Backpack, and your Sleeping System. That said, I find trekking poles indispensable. They have saved my butt and dignity on many an occasion, walking on remote wilderness trails. I suggest you include them as part of your ‘Big Four’ must-have gear items.

Trekking poles help with snowy, muddy, and uneven terrain, and river crossings, by allowing you to test conditions first before venturing further into unchartered waters. They give your walking action rhythm, and they aid with balance, particularly if you are carrying a heavy pack load. And they do a fine job of distributing your body and pack weight from your knees to your arms–a bonus for senior hikers or those with shonky knees.

With any gear choice, my recommendation is to do your research first, then try to filter the choices based on features you want most in your perfect trekking poles.

I highly recommend Outdoor Gear Lab, who promote themselves as the world’s most in-depth and scientific reviews of gear. They exhaustively test a range of gear and do great Best of and Most Popular Reports on a large range of outdoor gear products. Read their Best Trekking Poles of 2020 article or future years when you investigate your trekking pole choice. Clever Hiker website is also an informative source of information. Here is their latest report on trekking poles. As is Greenbelly, a company producing ultralight products for thru hikers. Check out their blog titled 11 best ultralight trekking poles for more excellent insights. And I am indebted to the creators of the FitforTrips blog which I have quoted extensively throughout this story.

I think a decision tree might be a nice unbiased way to weed out the facts, free of emotion that can offer you a balanced way to calculate the risk and rewards of your ultimate trekking pole decision. I am still working on it, but here are the criteria I look for in a trekking pole that may help you narrow your choice. For this article, assume we are referring to a pair of poles.

You can definitely walk with one pole, if you prefer, but they bundle most trekking poles as a pair. There is nothing wrong with one hiking pole or staff, but two will give you better symmetrical support. It’s a matter of personal choice and preference. Many suppliers sell single poles for use singularly or to replace a damaged pole. Look out for the word ‘single’ in the description and the cheaper price is usually a sign that you are only purchasing one pole.

Purpose

Why do you want trekking poles? What will be their main purpose?

  1. Casual day walking
  2. Multi-day trekking
  3. Part of your Tent Pole Assembly for ultralight long-distance thru hiking

If the answer is 1. go for the best value-for-money pair you can find.

If the answer is 2. they need to be durable and reliable.

If the answer is 3. they must be ultralight and adjustable and hopefully durable and reliable too.

Weight

They typically make trekking poles of carbon fibre or aluminium.

As PureHiker.com explains, they make carbon fibre poles from a matrix of fibres set in resin. The quality varies depending on the manufacturer. A good pair of carbon fibre trekking poles can be extraordinarily strong for forces aligned with the lay of the fibres (top to bottom). But they may not be as strong for forces across the fibres (side to side). The poles can break if abrasion cut the fibres or if the resin becomes fatigued through regular heavy flexing.

They make aluminium poles with aircraft-grade 7075-T6 aluminium or 7075 aluminium, which is extremely resilient under stress, but carbon fibre is the lighter of the two materials. Thru hikers will put their money towards carbon fibre poles to shed as much weight as they can and hope they get a pole similar in strength to their sturdier aluminium cousin.

A tradeoff is buying a composite carbon/aluminium hiking pole which shaves weight where it can and gives you strength where you need it. Carbon fibre poles will break if they become stressed. There is no second chance, unlike aluminium, which bends and may be still useable until a replacement pole section or new pole arrives.

One pole hiking while awaiting replacement section

I broke one of my favourite Gossamer Gear Carbon LT5 ultralight trekking poles (278g (9.6oz) a pair) on two separate occasions, once fording a stream when I leaned on it too heavily and the other time when I tripped and landed my whole-body weight on it. S N A P! No second chance. I resorted to one pole, as you do, but I missed the rhythm and symmetrical balance of walking with two poles. If I had aluminium poles, I might have stumbled on with two poles, one worse for wear, but still functioning. I am forever grateful to my hiking partner for lending me one of her hiking poles for my tent assembly, which required two trekking poles. It becomes difficult to assemble my tent when I break one of my poles, and I cannot find a suitably sized straight branch to suffice.

In summary, the more lightweight you go, the more expensive and less durable your trekking poles may become. If shaving off every gram of weight is your most important consideration, invest in a pair of carbon fibre poles. If you are on a budget, aluminium poles are still a fantastic, extremely reliable choice but they may vibrate more, be less comfortable and heavier overall.

Durability

The lighter or cheaper the pole, the less durable. As described above, stressed carbon fibre trekking poles usually sheer off completely at the point of impact. Lightweight does not always equate to best, and while cheap may be indicative of poor quality, it may also be a bargain. It pays to keep an eye open for great value deals. Internet suppliers such as wildearth.com.au, snowys.com.au, cotswoldoutdoor, blackdiamondequipment, and specialist outdoor providers such as anaconda stores, Paddy Pallin, TrekandTravel, and Kathmandu, can offer exceptional deals, particularly over Easter, November’s Black Friday, and other seasonal periods.

Comfort

You are primarily holding a stick, one in each hand, for balance, right? Yes, this observation is correct. Finding any old stick in the woods that is straight, easy to hold and cuttable to size with a quick foot stomp at a desired break point has suddenly become very passé. Once you commit to trekking poles, you will have many more features to consider. This can include:

  • Comfortable handles
  • Wrist Straps
  • Shock absorbers

Let us look at these features individually.

Handles/Grips

If you are intending to do multi-day or long-distance hikes, you do not want your hands to fatigue. This could happen if the grips are uncomfortable to hold. You could develop muscle cramps in the palms of your hand, or blisters may form where your hand grips the handle, possibly too tightly.

They make most trekking poles from the following materials:

  • Cork

Hikers prefer cork grips because they are amazingly comfortable, mold to your hand, are impermeable to water, work well in extreme weather and are remarkably durable over time, chipping and wearing away only after considerable wear.

Black Diamond Alpine Carbon Cork
  • EVA Foam (Ethylene-vinyl acetate)

EVA Foam is lightweight and comfortable, but it can absorb moisture when you sweat or if it rains, which may promote rubbing and chafing. Just remember premium poles use premium foam.

Look like cork but these are cork-coloured EVA foam
  • Rubber

Rubber is cheap and perfect for cold weather as it can insulate and warm hands. In hot weather, this material may increase rubbing and chafing, leading to blisters and hotspots. Stiffer rubber does not absorb moisture or oil from your hands nearly as well and can become slippery. Note, softer rubber, with silicone added, can grip well in many conditions and is popular for glove wearing winter activities.

And then you have further embellishments.

  • Ribbed Grip

Ribbed grips in any of the materials listed above lessen vibration in your hands, which may reduce fatigue.

  • Molded Grip

Courtesy of FitforTrips Blog, “Some grips will have an index finger bump as an aid for holding the pole. A few grips are molded with ‘knuckles’ between the intended finger placement; however, if your hands do not fit the molded grip, you are out of luck!” Unless a women’s specific model with traditionally smaller grips solves the problem and you can put up with pink trim. Many poles also have a small ledge molded into the bottom of the grip to help keep your hand in place.

  • Contoured Grip

These days, premium hiking poles have an ergonomically angled grip. Lower priced poles typically have a straight grip. The angle allows your wrist to rest at a more natural angle when the poles are pushing behind you on the ground. The Black Diamond Trail Ergo Aluminium trekking pole, for example, features a cork handle with fantastic ergonomics and a 15-degree corrective angle for what Black Diamond calls optimal grip position. Most Outdoor Gear Lab testers loved this contoured grip, but other users felt the grip was larger in diameter than similarly tested poles. Just when you thought you might give this pole a go, yet another consideration enters the mix. You can mitigate the need for a contoured grip with good trekking pole technique.

Black Diamond Trail Ergo Aluminium Poles

I cannot emphasise enough the need to try a stack of poles out before you find the ones you love. The improved offerings continue unabated, fast rendering my review more obsolete with each passing day.

  • Rounded Top

Leki has rounded the tops of their Micro Vario Carbon trekking pole handles. This makes them comfortable to push on, with or without straps, mostly when descending. This design feature allows you to switch up hand positions while hiking and possibly reduce hand muscle fatigue.  

Leki Micro Vario Carbon Pole with rounded top
Just posing but this is how you would grip the rounded top
  • Extended Grip

Again courtesy of FitforTrips Blog, “this grip refers to the covered section beneath the hand grip for grabbing the lower part of the pole (choking down) in steep-sided traverses where the pole on the uphill side needs to be shorter than the pole on the downhill side. As mountain trails often have switchbacks, a lower grip lends itself to quickly changing direction versus stopping to adjust pole length.” You can find this handy feature on the premium Leki Micro Vario Carbon trekking poles. But you can easily add grip extensions to any hiking pole using a grip tape.

Each grip material and molding has their advantages and disadvantages. I recommend you try trekking poles in a reputable hiking store first to find out which brand’s ergonomic design suits you best. And always ask yourself if this preferred pair will suit your planned hiking needs? Then, if better pricing deals are available online buy your poles there or pay extra and support your local outfitter whose invaluable advice has assisted you make your eventual choice.

Wrist Straps

These are the straps attached to the back of the grips that loop around your wrist to help you avoid dropping or losing your precious trekking poles. They might not be overly technical, but the wrist straps on your hiking poles offer important benefits when you are on the trails.

With credit to the Mountain Designs website, here are the major benefits:

  • Weight Distribution

Foremost, wrist straps help to distribute the force of the ground impact across your hands, wrists, and arms in combination, instead of the force being absorbed straight into your hands. This will be less energy-sapping and easier for your grip over the course of a long trek

  • Attachment Points

Wrist straps are handy should your grip come loose. If you slip or fall and let go of your hiking pole, it will stay attached to you, preventing unfortunate loss as it slides down a steep hillside. Or you could fall on it, as I have done twice, and break the pole. There are pros and cons to every feature. But I recommend you use them.

Using straps to keep poles attached to me while doing other things

Some hiking poles come with wrist straps labelled ‘left’ and ‘right’. Make sure you are using the correctly assigned hiking pole for proper alignment and comfort.

Always feed your hand up through the wrist strap from underneath until the strap sits over your wrist. It will position your hand higher than the top of the handle. Moving your hand in a downward motion, make a fist to grip the handle. The front part of the wrist strap should sit comfortably in the palm of your hand. There will be a small amount of tension in the wrist strap. If not enough, or if too much, adjust them. Most poles have adjustable wrist straps for achieving optimal comfort.

They usually make wrist straps of durable nylon. Many poles feature padded straps for comfort, but the padding adds weight. Outdoor Gear Lab’s recent review of the Leki Micro Vario Carbon trekking poles gives you a good idea of current trends. ‘The straps are made of thin material, which initially gave us pause, but the fabric is very soft and supple, almost silky. Other poles feature padded straps for comfort, which add weight, but we think that the thin, light straps of the Micro Vario Carbon are plenty comfortable.’

Silky feel thin wrist straps on Leki Micro Vario Poles

Shock Absorbers

I have read extensively about shock absorbers. Experts say carbon poles cause vibration. Others say aluminium poles cause vibration. I do not know who to believe. Shock absorbers aim to reduce vibration. For older hikers, this anti-shock functionality can make descents from mountain paths or rock fields more manageable. One hiker review online wrote, “They don’t make me feel like my kneecaps are going to explode.” So they may be a godsend for senior hikers with knee and ankle issues.

Personally, I hate them. I find the extra one or two inches of movement from these small spring mechanisms at the joint of the pole sections can make ascents more difficult with the springs absorbing my uphill push. They can squeak too, and we do not want that sound annoying our hiking experience. But if they get you out into the great outdoors, give them a go.

Collapsibility

Most shafts of trekking poles have two to three sections locked together by different mechanisms. The most common locking mechanisms used today, with credit to Greenbelly Co, for this terrific explanation are:

  • Twist Lock

A twist lock requires you to twist the individual pole sections in opposing directions until the sections lock. The twist lock is an internal fitting on a screw that expands when you twist adjacent pole sections in opposite directions. Friction locks the poles at the desired length. Though easy to use and cheap to manufacture, this locking mechanism can loosen over time and collapse when you least expect it. If you over-tighten the lock, then you risk not being able to loosen the poles, forcing you to hike with fully extended poles. You may be able to pull them apart and loosen the internal locking mechanism to fix the twisting slippage.

Twist Lock on Gossamer Gear LT5 poles

My favourite featherlight Gossamer Gear LT5 carbon trekking poles use this locking method. Recently, I have noticed issues with the twist locks spinning and not tightening properly. This may be operator error on my part from accidentally over-tightening them. The good thing is that Gossamer Gear offer replacement parts for each pole section at a fraction of the price for a full replacement pair.

Over-tightening may have occurred because of my arthritic hands using overzealous and jerky movement to complete the task. I still love these poles, but as the wear and tear on my joints continues with advancing age, I am seriously looking at the unfold and slide lock mechanism for ease of use.

  • Flip/Flick/Quick/Lever/Speed/Power, by any other name, is a Cam Lock

The cam lock comprises 3 parts—the lever, the collar, and the tension adjuster. When the lever is closed (folded in next to the pole) it compresses a cam that squeezes the two poles together, one pole inside the other. The resulting joint is stronger than either pole on its own.

Alpine Carbon Cork with Flick Lock locking mechanism

Cam locks are easy to use, hold without slipping, and last longer than the twist lock. An adjustment wheel on a threaded piece allows you to adjust the tension. Adjustments on the go are easy, even when wearing gloves. My only gripe, as a senior hiker, is that this excellent locking mechanism can still prove stiff, even after loosening, for people with osteoarthritis in their hands. I find the locks on the Black Diamond branded poles are stiffer than most models which use this same locking mechanism.

Short of using the heel of my hand or stepping on them, I find the clasp stiffness too great an impediment for me. Presently, I can handle the twist locks even though I may over-tighten them and not have the strength to loosen them. My recommendation for senior hikers with hand problems is the Unfold and Slide Lock mechanism.

  • Unfold and Slide Lock

An unfold-and-slide lock uses an internal cord to hold the sections of the trekking pole together and a push button lock to keep it secure. When you remove the pole from your pack and align the sections, you slide one part of the pole to put tension on the internal cable and lock the pieces into place (like tent poles). These are typically less flexible on length and potentially more fragile, but they do not collapse inside themselves unexpectedly.

Examples of poles using this locking mechanism are Leki Micro Vario Carbon, Black Diamond Distance Carbon-Z and Helinox Passport Tension Lock.

Leki Men’s Micro Vario with latest locking mechanism

Foldability/Stowability/Packability

The smaller they fold, the better they stow. Not necessarily. If you are a long-distance hiker, hopefully you will use your trekking poles and do not need to stow them, which will only add more weight to a heavy load. Your pack will be laden with supplies. If you choose to stow your trekking poles, they will have to go in an outside pocket.

You may have a stretchy deep exterior pocket, as seen on Zpack Arc Haul or Hyperlite Ultralight Dyneema® Composite Fabric backpacks, which can accommodate Z-style collapsible poles, such as the well-reviewed Leki Micro Vario Carbon trekking poles which collapse to an impressive 40cm (16in). If not, you will need to stow the poles in one or both sides of the drink bottle pockets. They usually have two side compression straps to secure your bottle, which can also secure your poles.

Leki Women’s Micro Vario poles z-style collapse

My only issue with compact Z-style collapsible poles is that the upper side compression strap on your backpack sits above the height of the fully collapsed z-style poles which makes it difficult for you to fasten your collapsed pole to the outside of your pack. And the various joints can get snagged in mesh pockets. Telescopic poles, like my Gossamer Gear LT5 carbon trekking poles which contract to 60cm (23.5”), poke above this upper side compression strap, allowing for secure fastening to your pack. It is for this reason alone that I recommend telescopic over Z-style for long-distance hiking. Of course, if you intend to use them every day, then stowability will not be an issue.

REI Traverse Telescopic Poles collapsed

For day hiking, where space and carrying capacity are ample, the Z-style trekking poles will either disappear onto the side of any backpack or easily fit inside your pack without taking up much room. Use the manufacturer’s provided storage bag or secure collapsed Z-style poles with Velcro strapping for compact stowing. Z-style poles are excellent poles and amongst the lightest on the market.

Adjustability

If you use trekking poles for tent assembly, you will need to make them longer than your ideal walking position, so check your poles have enough range. You may compromise the strength of the pole if you use its upper limit for ideal tent pole use.

This is a good time to discuss how to correctly fit your pole for walking use. Hold your forearm out in front of you at 90 degrees to your body. Essentially, the top of the handle should be at waist/hip level and your elbow at 90 degrees. As a rough guide, if you are less than 5ft 1” your ideal pole length is 100cm (39”); from 5ft 1” to 5ft 7” 110cm (43”); 5ft 8” to 5ft 11” set at 120cm (47”) and over 6ft adjust to 130cms.

My Zpack Duplex Dyneema Fibre tent sets up with two trekking poles adjusted to around 122cm (48”). I am 5ft 4” (164cm) and I set my poles at 115cms for hiking. Zpack say taller or shorter fixed length poles will work, but if I cannot adjust my poles, the tent’s roof cavity will be lower to the ground. The tent will be less spacious if I use the 115cm position to erect my tent. I either put up with a pitch less than ideal if my poles cannot extend to 122cm or I buy poles with a better range. For women, this means buying the blue men’s poles. Apart from the colour differences, usually the poles’ extension range will decide whether women’s or men’s poles are better suited to your needs.  

Zpack Duplex Tent using Trekking Poles for assembly

Replaceable Components

Trekking pole diameters vary between manufacturers, so where possible go for a brand-specific replacement tip or grip for the best results. As trekking poles taper off towards the end, you may find a replacement part from another brand fits your pole reasonably well. The tip may sit differently to what the manufacturer originally intended, but it will probably do the job.

  • Metal or Tungsten-Carbide Tips

Did you know that it is technically incorrect to refer to carbide as just “carbide”? All carbides are a composite containing carbon and one other ingredient, usually a super hard metal like titanium, vanadium or tungsten. Quality trekking poles usually have a tungsten-carbide tip, a tough material that can hold up to pounding rocky trails for years to come. Avoid steel tips, found on cheaper poles, as they wear out too quickly.

The metal tip increases stability and traction by biting into dirt, rock, ice, and wet wood. The best poles attach the tip to the pole with a strong yet flexible material, making the pole more durable and specially designed to flex up to 30 degrees without bending the pole shaft. Manufacturers recommend you replace the tips every 2400km (1500 miles).

Any hiking poles worth buying will have replaceable tips. Tips wear out over time, especially if you hike on rock. Pole diameters vary between manufacturers so check if your desired pole uses brand-specific tips or can use common diameter-sized tips available from other manufacturers.

Most tips need a tool for replacement, so replacing the tip is something best performed at home. If going on extended trips into the outback, carry a spare tip and the tool. Make sure you change out your tips once they become worn. The longer you leave them, the more difficult they become to remove, and in cases of severe wear, you may risk damaging the pole itself.

  • Rubber Feet

Rubber tip covers (feet) come with most poles for traction and quietness on trails. The tips usually just slide over the metal tip and you can easily replace them. There are a variety of diameters available to suit varying sized pole tips.

They can dislodge and wear through in rugged trail environments, but you can just as easily lose them on easy trails when they get caught in elevated mesh platform walkways or walking through sticky mud. Many hikers enjoy the quiet of the rubber tip covers. They have their place if you want a less noisy walk, a more precise grip, and are mindful of the impact on the environment that carbide tips may have when crossing rock faces and stone paths.  

  • Mud/River Crossing Baskets

Baskets are typically round or snowflake-shaped, tough, plastic pieces located just above the flexible tip joint. They prevent the poles from sinking into soft surfaces (mud and sand) or slipping into cracks between rocks or roots. For me, they would have been invaluable in preventing my pole from getting stuck between two rocks, while fording a river, and subsequently breaking one of them in two.

They weigh little, come in various sizes, are roughly 4cm in diameter, and are easy to install or remove without tools. They are brand specific, but while doing the Pacific Crest Trail, I had no trouble finding replacement baskets from any hiker box I passed. You can replace most baskets with a simple twisting motion with no tools.

  • Snow Baskets

Snow baskets are much larger, usually 10 cm in diameter. Another name is Powder baskets. You need them whenever you meet a few inches of snow. Sand hikers also use these baskets.

  • Grips

In most cases, you won’t need to replace your grips, except if they become damaged, or a marmot takes a liking to your sweaty salt on them. Gossamer Gear is one company that offers EVA Foam replaceable grips, which you can fit on other trekking poles. Replacing grips is not complex, but it is a time-consuming task to remove traces of the old grip and its adhesive. Personally, having viewed the lengthy YouTube videos on how to do it, I’d prefer to work longer hours to afford a full replacement set of poles.

  • Pole Sections

You may need to replace a severely damaged pole. Many manufacturers give you the choice to buy a single pole. Better still, if the pole is salvageable, you can often buy just the replacement section. Leki, Cascade Mountain Tech and Gossamer Gear are manufacturers who sell upper, middle, and lower sections separately together with many other accessories.

Service

As noted in the Replacement Components section, it pays to know what replacement parts are available for your desired trekking poles to keep them in prime condition and prolong their life.

When mishaps invariably occur, does your preferred manufacturer have a good warranty and returns policy? Helinox offers a five-year warranty. They will repair or replace, at their discretion, any manufacturing defect in their products for free. Leki offer a one-year warranty on Carbon Shaft Trekking poles and, in acknowledgement of aluminium’s better durability, a lifetime warranty on Aluminium Shaft Trekking poles.

Cottage industry suppliers, particularly those focusing on UltraLight (UL) equipment, may not have the same level of support commonly found amongst older, more established brands.

Look for suppliers who sell replacement sections to lessen the cost of repairs. Look for suppliers whose pole’s diameter conforms to universal sizing which gives you greater flexibility to replace trekking pole tips, rubber caps and snow/mud baskets.  

Or look for outfitters who go beyond the call of duty. When I broke my second carbon fibre trekking pole on the Pacific Crest Trail REI outfitters went to their storeroom and gave me a free pole of similar weight to my remaining pole. I am eternally grateful for their assistance and excellent customer service.

REI on my left and Gossamer Gear on my right hand

Summary

There are lots of decisions to make. Work out what you want to use your trekking poles for, the conditions you are likely to meet, and how often you will use them. Research the features you want and the ones you can live without. If you aim to do lots of hikes and your body is ageing, I’d invest in premium poles. There is a vast choice of offerings out there, and I am confident you will find the pair that is right for you and your budget.

I love this reviewer’s feedback on a particular brand of trekking pole. “My first pair are leaning against a tree somewhere in SE QLD rainforest. Using these poles does not improve one’s memory.” I totally disagree with this amusing remark. The range of models available and features within those models will have you exercising your brain for days on end.

Once your trekking poles arrive, I wish you every success putting them through their paces in the great outdoors and enjoy finding more innovative ways to use them. They are good for waving around your face to break spider webs when hiking early in the morning, warding off overgrown foliage and pesky wildlife, the perfect place to store duct tape around the shafts, a useful tripod for memorable selfie photos, and handy for pointing out significant milestones.

Notice the Duct tape beneath the handles
Now that’s a milestone worth pointing out

Let me know how you go. I’d love to hear what poles worked for you and why.

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