The Best Trekking Pole Review For Hiking and Backpacking

In just over the last decade, trekking poles have gone from a seldom seen item to near mandatory. The majority of everyone from day hikers to seasoned mountaineers now use them. There are many advantages to using trekking poles, the main reasons being that they offer better balance during more challenging and rugged backcountry travel and reduce stress on your body during both the descent as well as the ascent.

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Review by: Ian Nicholson ⋅ Review Editor, OutdoorGearLab July 7, 2014

Top Ranked Trekking Poles Displaying 1 - 5 of 15 << Previous | View All | Next >>
Our Ranking #3 #4 #7 #6 #9
Product Name
Black Diamond Ultra Distance
Black Diamond Ultra Distance
Read the Review
Video video review
Leki Micro Stick
Leki Micro Stick
Read the Review
Black Diamond Distance FL
Black Diamond Distance FL
Read the Review
Raidlight Foldable Trail Poles
Raidlight Foldable Trail Poles
Read the Review
Komperdell C3 Carbon Compact
Komperdell C3 Carbon Compact
Read the Review
Editors' Awards  Top Pick Award         
Street Price Varies $112 - $160
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$160Varies $118 - $140
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100% recommend it (5/5)
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Pros Incredible weight-to-solidity ratio. Ergonomic strap, and for sure the best fold system that we tested. Overall durability is only slightly less than the Micro Stick, at nearly half the weight.The most durable pole tested. Ergonomic grip, easily adjustable. Very efficient strap. Changeable baskets.Collapsable, super light.Light, the lightest. Four-section fold makes for very low-volume storage. These poles are the smallest and shortest available when folded.Lightest telescoping poles in our review, Excellent price for a carbon fiber trekking pole.
Cons Only one possible basket configuration (small). For heavy handed or clumsy hikers, carbon is more likely to break than aluminum if accidentally kicked or fallen on.Heaviest of the compact poles we tested and with the highest folded volume. Tips have been known to break or fall off.No snow baskets availible, basic handles.You need to take special care not to break them. Not cheap. Grips aren’t the most comfortable. They do not come with any baskets.Grip is pretty basic, the locking mechanism for the adjustment isn't as good as other models we tested, baskets are a little funky
Best Uses Climbing, backpacking, hiking, BASE jumping.Backpacking, trekking, hiking.Climbing, backpacking, hiking.Climbing, backpacking, hiking, BASE jumping.Trekking, Climbing, Mountaineering, Backpacking, Day hiking
Date Reviewed Apr 03, 2012Mar 30, 2012Apr 30, 2011Apr 09, 2012Jul 07, 2014
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Product Specs Black Diamond Ultra Distance Leki Micro Stick Black Diamond Distance FL Raidlight Foldable Trail Poles Komperdell C3 Carbon Compact
Weight (Pair) 10 oz (110cm) 17. 5 oz 13 oz (110cm) 6.3 oz 13 oz
Min Length 39cm, 15.5 in 39cm, 15.5 in 37cm, 14.5 in 30cm, 12 in 54cm, 21.5 in
Max Length Optional Optional 125cm, 49 in 120cm, 47 in
Shaft Material Carbon Aluminum Aluminum Aluminum Carbon
Pole Design Tent Pole Tent Pole Tent Pole Tent Pole Telescoping
Grip Material Foam Foam Foam Foam Foam
Price $160 $160 $100 $160 $140
Locking Mechanism Pin pop Speedlock FlickLock Powerlock
Shock absorbing? No No No No No

OutdoorGearLab Editors' Hands-on Review


  • Review Photos
  • Editors' Choice Winners
  • All Reviewed Products

Editors’ Choice:
The Black Diamond Alpine Carbon Cork is our favorite adjustable trekking pole because it's the most versatile, light, durable, collapses very small and has great cork handles and an awesome locking mechanism. It's a pole that can do anything.

If you don't care about adjustability, the Black Diamond Ultra Distance is our favorite pole for light to medium duty use. It’s much lighter than the other top scoring poles and folds down to nothing. While it isn't quite as versatile as many of the traditional telescoping poles, it is great for most backpackers and trekkers and is a stellar option for climbers.

The Leki Corklite and the Black Diamond Ergo Trail Cork both have some of our favorite all around handles and are easily the most durable and versatile poles in our review, but neither of them pack down as small as most models nor are they as lightweight.

Best Buy:
The Black Diamond Trail Back is the best value. It scored very high in our tests and is almost half the cost of the few poles that scored higher.

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Dan Whitmore getting a feel for his Black Diamond Trail trekking Poles and the glacier fed waters of the North Fork Bridge Creek with Mt. Goode and Storm King looming above, North Cascades National Park, WA.
Credit: Ian Nicholson
Selecting the Right Product
What is the best trekking pole for hiking and backpacking? We took fifteen of the best poles and tested them head-to-head to find out. We took these poles walking up big approaches in the Cascades on both dirt trails and snow. We also tested them on shorter hikes with both heavy and lighter loads while day hiking. We evaluated them by the following criteria: the comfort of the grip and strap, packability and compactness, ease of use, durability, weight, and overall versatility.

If you are like a lot of people new to trekking poles, you may be wondering "Why do I even need trekking poles for hiking?" If that is the case, please check out our article: 10 Reasons For Trekking Poles.

For tips on how to choose the pole that is right for your specific activity, as well as the basics surrounding poles, please see our Trekking Pole Buying Advice.

There are hundreds of trekking poles on the market today. After extensive research, we narrowed the field down to fifteen of the best. The following explains what what we found.

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Trekking poles provide balance, timing and support especially on rougher terrain. Here Rebecca Schroeder crosses the frigid Early Winters Creek below the Wine Spires near Washington pass, North Cascades WA.
Credit: Ian Nicholson
Criteria for Evaluation
Pole adjustment mechanism & Ease of use
After extensive testing of all the different types and designs of locking and pole adjustment mechanisms, we found liked the lever style "locking" mechanisms a lot better than most of the twist lock style mechanisms because they were more durable and easier to use. Unlike just three years ago, when there was a small minority of pole manufacturers using lever lock style poles, now a majority of manufacturers use them, including most of the pole manufacturers in this review. Is there still an advantage to twist lock style poles? The answer is yes; twist lock style mechanisms are lighter, tend to need less adjusting over time and are less bulky. These were all small differences, but the much greater advantage of the lever style mechanisms ease-of-use and durability was enough for all of our testers to favor them.
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Showing the locking mechanism on several models of trekking poles. As a whole we like the external lever lock style mechanisms far better than the internal twist lock mechanisms because we thought they were easier to use and more durable.
Credit: Ian Nicholson
Of all the lever style locking poles, we thought the Black Diamond Poles with their FlickLock closure were the easiest to use and the most durable, though just barely. We no longer think that Black Diamond is the runaway winner like we did just three years ago. Now the newer Leki poles with their SpeedLock closure system are nearly as good, or as good a system as the Black Diamond. We did like both the FlickLock and the SpeedLock a little more than the Komperdell PowerLock, which was just a little harder to use and a little less burly. As we said earier, we liked all of these systems better than the internal twist locks, but like the leaver lock systems, twist locks are not all created equal and by far our favorite twist lock mechanism was the one Leki used on the Carbonlite poles.

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Comparing the three external lever lock style locking mechanisms. From left to right the Komperdell PowerLock, Black Diamond FlickLock and the Leki SpeedLock style locking mechanisms.
Credit: Ian Nicholson

Weight
By far the lightest trekking poles in our review are the Raidlight Foldable Trail Pole at 6.3 ounces per pair. These poles have reached a near unseen level in weight for a collapsible trekking pole. While these four section poles are well made and stiffer than you might think, they aren't intended for heavier duty hikes, burly or extensive off-trail travel, or steeper, rocky treks. We do think the Black Diamond Ultra Distance still at a scant 10 ounces (for the 110 cm size) are tough enough for most backpackers, trekkers or climbers (except you can't put snow baskets on them) though they offer essentially nothing in the way of height adjustment and still aren't nearly as tough as more traditional telescoping poles (though we haven't broken ours yet and have used them a lot). Another note about the lack of adjustment on the Ultra Distance (available in 100, 110, 120 and 130cm sizes) is our OutdoorGearLab testers found after extensive use, that this wasn't as much of a big deal as long as you purchased the correct size to begin with, because for a majority of treks we found we rarely adjusted our poles. Another one of our favorite poles in this category were the Komperdell C3 Carbon Compact poles which at 13.5 ounces, are the lightest fully adjustable poles in our review and are a certainly a step up in durability from the Black Diamond Ultra Distance. We do feel that our OutdoorGearLab Editors' Choice award winner the Black Diamond Alpine Carbon Corks (16 ounces) and the Leki Carbonlite (15 ounces) are a little more durable, but both are heavier.
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The difference in weight between poles might not seem like a lot at first, even in our review the maximum difference is 16 ounces. But consider you are lifting your arm up thousands of times per day, potentially 10,000 or more times on a multi-day trip, these is where the weight savings and reduced fatigue can really add up, so don't just brush off the lighter poles because they are only 5-10 ounces lighter. Here Andy Dahlen, Ryan O'Connell and Ian Nicholson comparing poles while hiking into Boston Basin, with Forbidden Peak towering above.
Credit: Truc Allen
Among the aluminum telescoping poles the super price pointed REI Traverse Trekking poles tipped the scales the same as the Leki Micro Stick at 17.5 ounces and the REI Traverse Shocklight is only one ounce heavier, adds a shock absorbing mechanism and is only $10 more expensive. We did think that the Leki Corklite felt much lighter in our hands on long treks than its 19 ounces might have lead us to believe.

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Comparing the grips from several models and manufacturers of trekking poles. Below we talk about the advantages and disadvantages of different grip material materials and shapes.
Credit: Ian Nicholson
Comfort
The comfort of the pole comes from the grip, its ergonomics, and to a lesser extent it's straps. We weighted comfort higher than other categories such as packability because it was more apparent and mattered more to users and our testers. Obviously comfort is an important factor, and all our OutdoorGearLab testers could instantly feel a difference among all the poles we tested, but to what degree they could feel the difference varied from user to user. For folks who find themselves wearing gloves more of the time (for instance snowshoers and mountaineers), we found that it mattered less, but was still enough to make it one of our primary criteria for evaluation.

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Trekking into Aconcagua's Plaza De Mulas while working comparing and contrasting models side-by-side for this review.
Credit: Ian Nicholson
Ergonomics
The ergonomics, or shape of a trekking poles grip is probably the single most important factor concerning how "comfortable" a pole is. While material is important, it isn't as important as the actual ergonomics, design and shape. This is where there is more personal preference involved, similar to many other things regarding shape and comfort people have different opinions about as apposed to the much more black-and-white functionality of materials. So regrading the most "comfortable" shape of a pole, we pooled our friends and testing them as open-mindedly as we could. After years of testing, no matter which way we held our pole, the Leki Corklite was our favorite. It wasn't the runaway favorite, but a clear cut winner. We also really liked the Black Diamond Alpine Carbon Cork, the Black Diamond Trail Ergo Cork and the Leki Carbonlite, but our testers straight-up loved the Corklite.

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Comparing the some of our favorite trekking pole grips, from top to bottom Black Diamond Alpine Carbon Cork, Leki Corklite, Komperdell C3 Compact (awesome grip for its weight), Leki Quantum, and the Black Diamond
Credit: Ian Nicholson
Materials
Cork
Cork is typically the nicest material used among trekking poles. Cork (like your Birkenstocks) can shape to your hand with time and is smooth, durable and continues to wear well even after years of use and abuse. It absorbs very little water, doesn't take in much sweat from your hand and feels the best during warm to hot weather hiking.

Rubber
Rubber is slightly better than cork for cold weather or mountaineering use because it insulates slightly better and is around equal to cork for shock and vibration dampening. Most of our users didn't find it quite as comfortable during hotter hikes or after years of use when the rubber handle gets worn down and looses its shape some. While we tested, there were always more folks getting chafed hands with rubber grips compared to cork, and to what extent, varied wildly. Some users noted very little difference in rubbing between handle materials, while others would get the worst rub marks and blisters from rubber grips during warmer to hot hikes compared with cork or foam.

Foam
Foam is the lightest and most moistere wicking of the three most common grip materials, but is also by far the least durable. While it was great for desert hikes around the Grand Canyon, most of the foam grips we tested lost their shape the quickest and got nicked and dinged the most easily. A lot of folks will deal with this with their super light poles because the pole is likely to break before the grip wears out. Among the lighter weight foam gripped poles, the Leki Carbonlite was by far-and-away our favorite because it offered the best ergonomics and wore the best over time compared with the Komperdell C3 Carbon (which has a very large diameter grip) or the Black Diamond Distance and Ultra Distance poles which only offered narrow, but very basic shaped handles. The Carbonlite was also our favorite foam grip for "palmer" or cane style users.

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Trekking pole comparisons on Mt. Baker's Easton Glacier. For Mountaineering applications rubber or cork grips can be better than foam because of there insulative qualities and there moisture resistance characteristics.
Credit: Ian Nicholson
All the Leki poles had fantastic ergonomics and cork grips that only improved with time. The Black Diamond Alpine Carbon Cork nor the Trail Ergo Cork didn't feel quite as good at first, but broke in more than the Leki poles to make it just as comfortable. One last consideration is diameter. The Black Diamond Cork handled poles are certainly larger in diameter compared to either their foam grip poles (which also were the narrowest) or the Leki Corklite which featured the smallest diameter cork handle.

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Ryan O'Connell using his Black Diamond Ultra Distance Trekking poles while crossing Midas Creek with Ian Nicholson and Andy Dahlen.
Credit: Truc Allen
Grip Diameter
The diameter of a grips can vary a lot from model to model and manufacturer to manufacturer. If you have smaller or larger than average hand grip diameter this can possibly be the biggest contributing factor to a poles level of comfort than any of the other points mentioned above. If you have large or larger than average hands the grips on the Komperdell C3 Carbon and the Black Diamond Contour Elliptic Shock are certainly girthier than normal and awesome for big hands, but certainly not as good for smaller hands. Some of the smallest diameter grips are the Black Diamond Distance, Ultra Distance, and Trail Back along with the Leki Corklite and Carbonlite poles. For most people if you have to go with a grip that's a little too narrow, it's a lot better than a grip that's a little too big.

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Ryan O'Connell looking at the mega classic Snow Creek Wall testing what would become our OutdoorGearLab Top Pick award winner, the Black Diamond Ultra Distance trekking poles, for their superiority weight and packability. Alpine Lake Wilderness, WA.
Credit: Ian Nicholson
Palmers
The word "Palmers" refers to people who prefer to hold the top of the pole in the middle of their palm compared to the more common and traditional hand on the handle grip. The top of the grip, Like the rest of the handle are not created equal. For "Palmers" our top grip picks go to the Leki Carbonlite and the Leki Corklite, but we felt the Black Diamond Alpine Carbon Cork and the Black Diamond Trail Ergo Cork were also awesome choices. This is were some of the lightest poles faltered the most and didn't offer near as much surface area and thus were generally speaking far less comfortable for our hands while "palming".

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Tracey Bernstein packing his Black Diamond Trail Back poles after rappelling over Sharkfin Col into a large moat on the Boston Glacier. While the Trail Back poles are hardly the most compact pole, they do get plenty small enough to strap to the side of a backpack.
Credit: Ian Nicholson
Packablity
Our Packability comparison is mostly how compact a pole collapses to make it easier to carry on a backpack when not desired, stowed while climbing, or pack inside a duffel or suitcase for travel. For your average backpacker packability is a less important consideration than many of the above categories we compared poles in and we scored it in our comparisons appropriately. With that being said, for certain user groups like alpine rock climbers, B.A.S.E jumpers or simply folks who travel to do most of their hiking it can be a big consideration.
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"Tent pole" style trekking poles as seen above are much more compact and lighter weight than traditional telescoping trekking poles. In the photo above from left to right: Black Diamond Ultra Distance, Leki Microstick and Raidlight trekking poles when collapsed.
Credit: Matt Gerdes
Overall the most compact trekking poles on the market commonly are the folding "tent-pole" style collapsing poles and the more traditional telescoping style. The folding "tent-pole" style of pole is fairly new and only gained traction just over a couple years ago and was popularized with Black Diamond's Z-Pole line. Now just a few years later there are dozens of options from several manufacturers on the market. The top performer in our review for compactness and packability is the Raidlight Foldable Trail Poles, packing down to a ridiculously short 12" (30cm). While these poles are far from the most versatile they are the shortest of almost any functional pole we know of. The next most compact pole is one of our OutdoorGearLab Top Picks, the Black Diamond Ultra Distance, which still breaks down to less than half the length of other poles with a minimum size of 15.3" as well as the Leki Microstick (15.5"). Even the longest of all these folding, "tent-pole" style trekking poles is at least nine inches shorter than most of the telescoping poles in our review. The exception is the Komperdell C3 Carbon Compact, by far the shortest and lightest telescoping pole, packing down to 21.5 inches.
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Comparing the compacted lengths of the Komperdell C3 Carbon Powerlock Compact and the Black Diamond Distance FL. Despite the C3 Carbon being a telescoping design and the Distance being a folding tent pole design there is only 4" of difference between them for their minimum length.
Credit: Ian Nicholson
If packability is one of the most important features you’re looking for, then be sure to check out the poles mentioned above, but remember that most of these poles have at least some compromise in adjustability and/or durability, especially the Raidlight, being killer for less aggressive day hiking and backpacking, but certainly less durable and likely inappropriate for most heavy duty uses. The Ultra Distance has zero adjustability and the Komperdell C3 Carbon compact has a max length of 120cm. Among the more traditionally designed poles the Black Diamond Contour Elliptic Shock, Black Diamond Trail Back and Alpine Carbon Cork were next shortest at 24.5 and 25 inches, respectively.
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The Raidlight is the lightest and most compact trekking pole we tested. This makes it ideal for wing suit BASE jumping. The Raidlight while super light and okay for light-duty approaching and hiking, it's likely not durable enough for most people's everyday trekking and backpacking pole needs.
Credit: Matt Gerdes
Overall Durability
We have broken a lot of poles during our testing as well as through the 15 plus years we've been using poles. The most common times we have broken poles is when a pole punches through snow or into a hole in the rocks and we bend it (and or fall) and snap the lowest or second lowest section. While all trekking poles are far from being "break-proof" some are certainly more durable than others. The biggest contributing factor to durability, is shaft construction and material.
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Nick and Scott getting a feel for their Leki poles while testing their durability in the North Cascades long, steep and Rocky approach to Eldorado peak.
Credit: Ian Nicholson
Shaft Material
Aluminum
Aluminum trekking poles typically use higher 7075-T6 or 7075 grade aluminum. Aluminum poles tend to be a little more durable; being straight up beefier to begin with and aluminum can bend and still be functional where as carbon fiber has very little bend to give and will snap if pushed to far. Aluminum poles range from the lighter side being around 16 ounces per pair to around 22 ounces, at least for our review. One note of consideration is that not everyone needs a more durable pole. If you are primarily day hiking or backpacking on trails, you can get away with a pretty light pole compared to bush whacking with a heavy pack. We even use the Black Diamond Ultra Distance on lots of rocky, trail less terrain, we are just more careful, and aware that we are more likely to break it while doing so.

Carbon Fiber
Carbon fiber trekking poles are lighter than their aluminum counter parts, with the heavier carbon fiber trekking poles weighing around the same as the lightest aluminum versions. While we do think that as a whole aluminum poles are more durable, in the grey area of all poles around 16 ounces, we think that beefier carbon fiber poles like the Black Diamond Alpine Carbon Cork, or other heavier, sturdier carbon fiber poles are at least as durable as other super light weight aluminum poles that weight the same amount.
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An assortment of trekking poles help tester Ian Nicholson manage a 75lbs load carried into the French Valley while comparing poles for this review. Torres Del Paine, Patagonia, Chile.
Credit: Graham Zimmerman
We tested both the durability of the shafts and the locking mechanism. The toughest pole in our review was the Black Diamond Contour Elliptical Shock because of its large diameter tear drop shaped shaft and burly locking mechanisms. Until you get below 13-15 ounces there isn't a giant difference in durability. But once you start comparing poles below 13 or so ounces, the shaft durability becomes more suspect.
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Trekking pole comparisons with Cerro Cuerno looming above, Argentina.
Credit: Ian Nicholson

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Credit: Max Neale
Other Pole Considerations
Tips
Most poles use carbide or occasionally steel tips to provide traction. Carbide seems to wear a little better but both provide near equal traction on dirt, ice or snow. Maybe poles come with rubber or plastic tip protectors that while they can be used to protect your tips, are most effective for protecting your gear from your poles during travel or storage. If you plan to use your poles on asphalt a fair amount, consider buying a pair of angled rubber walking tips (sold separately) to help prevent premature wear of your tips.
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Selecting the right basket for your trips is important. If you use big baskets on a trek through the woods, they will annoyingly get hung up all the time. If you use small baskets on snow, you are asking to break your poles.
Credit: Truc Allen
Baskets
Most of the trekking poles we tested featured removable baskets, with the exception of the Black Diamond Distance and Ultra Distance. Most manufacturers make two or three sizes of baskets, one trekking basket which is smaller, will help out with mud and won’t get hung up on branches and bushes. These trekking baskets are generally not suitable for snow and shouldn't be used in such conditions because you risk your pole sinking deep unexpectedly and subsequently bending or snapping it. Snow baskets obviously offer superior float in snow but tend to get hung up more often while trekking through the forest and are marginally heavier.
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Amos Galpin using poles on a typical Cascadian approach.
Credit: Ian Nicholson

Shock Absorbing Systems
While our testers at OutdoorGearLab didn't feel we needed them and felt there wasn't much if any reduced fatigue at the end of long days nor didn't like how they handled rough terrain where we were using our poles aggressively for balance. But with that said, there are some people who do really like them so we thought we'd report our findings here. Among the Shock absorbing poles we tested we liked the simple durable shock absorbing systems of the Black Diamond Trail Pro Shock the best. It wasn't a runaway winner, but we like the relatively light weight of the pole and it's bomber shock system. We do also really like the REI Traverse Shocklight ($90), what you get for the price is a pretty solid pole for $50 less than many of the other poles.

OutdoorGearLab Editors’ Choice
The Black Diamond Alpine Carbon Cork is the winner of our Editors Choice award because it is a fairly light, extremely durable, comfortable and versatile pole. While the Alpine Carbon Cork isn't as light or as compact as any of the folding "tent pole" style poles, it is more comfortable and far tougher than all of them. If you’re looking for a medium or light duty pole for mostly trail hiking and trekking, and want to save more weight take a look at our OutdoorGearLab Top Pick, the Black Diamond Ultra Distance.
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the Black Diamond Alpine Carbon Cork
Credit: Black Diamond

Top Pick: Best Lightweight Pole
The Black Diamond Ultra Distance was the obvious winner for the Best Lightweight Trekking Pole and gets one of our Top Pick awards. In terms of weight, it is noticeably lighter than the Leki Micro Stick, with very little compromise in toughness. Although it is bulkier and heavier than the Raidlight Foldable Trail Poles, its vastly superior overall durability more than made up for the four ounces of weight difference. Also, we found that the Ultra Distance had better rigidity and greater strength which was an asset on the trail and mostly outweighed the hassle of a slightly longer (thought still shorter than all other poles) folded length and bulkier handle when compared to the Raidlight.
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Black Diamond Ultra Distance Trekking Poles
Credit: Black Diamond

Top Pick: Aluminum all-around Pole
The Leki Corklite was our Top Pick for all around pole with heavier duty use in mind that will stand up to miles of cross country travel. The Corklite, despite winning our award for being one of the best tougher poles, is actually the lightest telescoping aluminum pole we tested and one of the lighter of such categories of poles out there. The other upside of the Corklite is that it has our overall favorite grip on the market.
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Leki Corklite
Credit: Leki

Best Buy Award
Our OutdoorGearLab Best Buy award goes to the Black Diamond Trail Back. Basically the Trail Back is a pretty Rad trekking pole for the price. While it isn't the lightest or the most compact, it is a durable, versatile pole that will meet most peoples needs and is by far our favorite pole in its price range.
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The Black Diamond Trail Back trekking pole.
Credit: Black Diamond

Tangential Notes:
Check out our Dream Backpacking Gear List to see OGL's "dream" backpacking gear items and also our Dream Hiking Gear List.

Ian Nicholson
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