The Best Trekking Poles of 2020
Best Overall Trekking Pole for Men
Leki Micro Vario Carbon
The Leki Micro Vario Carbon is our Editors' Choice for trekking poles, from a very crowded field. The grip is the most comfortable we have ever used and the pole packs small, locks securely, and even has some length adjustability. From day hikes on the local trails to long treks in the Himalaya, this pole can do it all with style.
Besides the high price tag, the only other downside is these poles are slightly heavier weight than the lightest on the market. Elite mountain runners and alpine climbers should look elsewhere to shave grams off their kit. But for the majority of users, this pole is perfect.
Read review: Leki Micro Vario Carbon
Best Overall Trekking Pole for Women
Leki Women's Micro Vario Carbon
The Leki Women's Micro Vario Carbon is the most comfortable trekking pole for women we've found. They feature awesome grips, excellent locking mechanisms, and are fairly lightweight. On top of that, they are ultra-packable, collapsing down to only 15.5 inches long, which is among the smallest in our review. Additionally, both the wrist straps and foam grips are some of the most comfortable straps to use barehanded. These poles are a clear choice for our coveted Editors' Choice Award.
Be fair-warned, these poles are costly and too heavy for gram-counting lightweight enthusiasts. That said, they are appropriate for nearly every use in the backcountry, from short day hikes to longer treks to climbing approaches.
Read review: Leki Women's Micro Vario Carbon
Best Bang for the Buck
Cascade Mountain Tech Carbon Fiber Quick Lock
The Cascade Mountain Tech Carbon Fiber Quick Lock delivers features usually available only in much more expensive options. These carbon poles weigh only 16 ounces, providing a very pleasant swing-weight. The cork grips extend low enough to comfortably choke up on the shaft when climbing steep hills. And, if you do decide to adjust these poles on the fly, the quick-lock adjustment levers have a thumbscrew that allows you to adjust the lever without tools. These features and a plethora of included basket and tip options make the Cascade Mountain poles versatile for a variety of activities.
The locking mechanisms aren't the best, and there are a few online reviews that hint at durability concerns. These poles also don't pack down very small. Still, we can't believe the value. If you've wanted to try trekking poles but hesitated because of their hefty price tag, here's a set of lightweight carbon poles at a price that's hard to turn down.
Read review: Cascade Mountain Tech Carbon Fiber Quick Lock
Best Value in a Lightweight Pole
Black Diamond Distance Z
The Black Diamond Distance Z offers a high-quality, lightweight, compact design at a very reasonable price. If you're willing to spend more for the top-of-the-line lightweight pole, you might want to check out a carbon fiber option, but if saving cash matters more, then look no further. These poles weigh a mere 12 ounces, they fold down small enough to easily put in your pack, and the locking mechanism works flawlessly in cold weather.
These poles don't offer any adjustability, so you'll need to be mindful when selecting your size. They also have just so-so grip comfort. However, if you're okay with a non-adjustable model with no-frills comfort, then these are an excellent option for an affordable, lightweight pole.
Read review: Black Diamond Distance Z
Best Lightweight Pole
Black Diamond Distance Carbon Z
The Black Diamond Distance Carbon Z is the lightest pole that we tested. This model shaves every last ounce, owing to the carbon fiber shaft, foam grips, and stripped-down features. Often, lighter poles may feel cheap or flimsy, but that's not the case here. Although we wouldn't suggest using these poles for heavy-duty trekking and backpacking, the Carbon Z is relatively versatile and excels at lightweight backpacking, hiking, trail running, and approaching technical climbs.
To cut weight, the Carbon Z isn't adjustable. Instead, it comes in four different lengths, which could be an issue for those in-between sizes. Furthermore, the grips aren't the most comfortable, but they're not bad either. For weight-shaving enthusiasts, the sacrifices in comfort and adjustability won't be a big deal.
Read review: Black Diamond Distance Carbon Z
Best Lightweight Women's Specific Pole
REI Co-op Flash Carbon - Women's
Weighing in at only 13.2 ounces for the pair, the REI Co-op Flash Carbon Women's is the lightest women's specific model in our review. The grips are made from a lightweight and breathable foam, and the pole straps are easy to adjust, even when wearing thick gloves. The three telescoping pieces are easily adjustable using Powerlock 3.0 levers. The poles collapse to 23", which is quite compact for telescoping poles.
The one downside to very lightweight poles is they tend to be less durable. The top of the foam grips on the Flash Carbon lack structural support and may break if too much pressure is applied. Additionally, the grips lack a lower extension that many hikers like to use when choking up on steep climbs. The grips and straps are overall not as comfortable as other options. Still, if weight is your primary concern, reach for this pole.
Read review: REI Co-op Flash Carbon Women's
Why You Should Trust Us
Our test team is comprised of through-hikers and expedition trekkers from around the world. This most recent iteration was led by mountain guide, climber, hiker, and skier Jeff Dobronyi and avid alpine climber, hiker, and backpacker Mary Witlacil. Jeff guides climbers in Wyoming's rugged Teton and Wind River Ranges, where approaches are marked by thousands of vertical feet of hiking and descending. He also guides mountaineering and climbing on the high peaks of Colorado, Washington's remote Cascades, and the glacial wilderness of the Alaska Range. He has guided four expeditions on Denali and uses poles almost every day of the year. From training runs in the mountains to carrying heavy loads to Advanced Base Camp, Jeff knows what a good trekking pole looks like, and has given advice to countless hikers, climbers, runners, and trekkers. Mary has logged thousands of miles carrying heavy loads all over the Rocky Mountains and the deserts of Utah, Arizona, and California. From multi-day expeditions in the Andes, the Wind Rivers, and the Rocky Mountains to humping heavy loads of climbing gear into the backcountry, this gal is a regular pack-mule.
To test the trekking poles in our review, we spent several months carrying heavy loads all over the mountains and desert in Colorado, California, Wyoming, and Utah. We pounded out hundreds of miles to put these poles to the test, all the while keeping meticulous notes to bring you the most thorough review possible. We paid extra attention to how comfortable these poles were day-in-day-out, and whether they withstood the abuse of our rigorous testing. We used and abused our poles to ensure you get the ideal pair for your next adventure!
Related: How We Tested Trekking Poles
Analysis and Test Results
In the past, trekking poles were used exclusively by thru-hikers with heavy backpacks and travelers hiking rough trails to the edges of the earth. Now, you'll see most hikers carrying them, even on the shortest hikes and on town trails during lunch breaks. Why this sudden explosion?
Studies have shown that trekking poles reduce muscle fatigue and injury. Those who use poles know that they shift some of the load borne by the lower extremities to the upper body; thus reducing stress on the knees. Moreover, poles lend stability in rough terrain and even prevent mishaps by catching slips and trips before they become falls. They can propel fast hikers and runners up steep grades by allowing the shoulder, chest, and arm muscles to contribute to the effort.
The poles in our review span a relatively wide range of prices, designs, and intended uses. We took the 10 best poles into the field, using them on ultralight backpacking missions, heavy-duty treks, and light day hikes all over the country and the world. We also used them to approach alpine climbing objectives and to support us on off-trail journeys. For side-by-side comparisons, we took multiple poles out at a time to assess the differences between each on the same terrain.
We weighed and measured each set of poles to compare them to their advertised weights and sizes. We jammed them into packs, strapped them to the outside of our bags, and carried them in hand across all sorts of demanding terrain. We know that our extensive testing will help you select the pole that best satisfies your needs.
After we completed our field tests, we rated each pole on a scale from 1-10 (1 being the bottom of the barrel, 5 being average, and 10 representing the absolute best) in comfort, weight, locking and adjustability, packed size, durability, and versatility. We then looked at the combined metrics to determine which pole was better suited for a particular task. Keep in mind that these poles are the best in their class to begin with, so even the poorly rated poles are quite good. Below you'll find the results of our tests and a breakdown of each metric.
Related: Buying Advice for Trekking Poles
We compare our ratings to the price of each pair to help provide a good choice for any budget. Our Best Buy award goes to the Cascade Mountain Carbon Fiber Quick Lock, which is the least expensive pair in our test. It scores at the bottom of the pack but, again, we only test the best products on the market. The best value in a lightweight option is the Black Diamond Distance Z. Our highest-rated pole, the Leki Micro Vario Carbon, is also the most expensive in the review, showing that, in general, you get what you pay for.
Trekking poles transfer some of our body weight into our arms and off of our legs. After hours or days of heavy use, our hands and wrists take a beating from supporting the additional weight. To combat this fatigue, poles incorporate comfortable grip and strap materials, as well as ergonomically shaped handles. In our experience, grip shape, or how well the handle is contoured to a real hand, makes the most difference in comfort. Other features that increase comfort are an extended grip for choking down on the pole in steep terrain, a non-abrasive and thick wrist strap, and carbon fiber shafts that absorb shock when the pole hits the ground.
We loved the feel of the grips on the Micro Vario models. They use foam, which is slightly less comfortable than cork for grip construction, but all of their poles feature excellent contouring that fits most hand shapes. Their silky straps are pleasant to use and don't cause chafing or pressure points. We also like the cork handles of the Black Diamond Alpine Carbon Cork and Alpine FLZ.
Something else to keep in mind is that, in general, carbon fiber poles absorb more shock from the ground than aluminum poles, but to reap the benefits of carbon, the shafts need to be constructed with a thicker carbon weave. This thickness naturally increases weight. The Alpine Carbon Cork and Micro Vario Carbon both have the best shock-absorbing performance.
As mountain running and ultra-light backpacking become more popular, weight is an increasingly important component of a trekking pole. Most of the time, lighter poles are less durable. But if you're only using them during runs, day hikes, and short overnight trips, durability isn't a major concern, and a lighter pole is noticeably more pleasant to use than a heavier one.
The Distance Carbon Z is the lightest pole in our lineup at 10 ounces. This comes at the price of adjustability, though — their length can't be changed. However, they come in four sizes, so if you pick the right size, the lack of adjustability won't be an issue. The REI Flash Carbon is the lightest women's specific pole, at 13.2 ounces, but the lightweight and fixed-length Black Diamond poles also come in short sizes. At 12 ounces, the aluminum BD Distance Z is only slightly heavier than the lightest carbon option, but costs half as much, earning our Best Buy Award for lightweight poles.
Locking and Adjustability
This metric scores how well a pole is able to extend to various lengths, lock down and prevent slipping, and how easy it is to adjust the wrist strap. Some poles have very secure and easy locking and adjustment mechanisms, while others have flimsy and inconvenient features.
Most poles feature a telescoping design where different sections of pole shafts fit inside each other and extend to the desired length. A small lever lock fastener clamps the outer shaft material down tight over the inner shaft, producing enough friction to prevent movement. We are big fans of the metal lever locks on the Alpine Carbon Cork, finding them to be the best locks in our review. We also like the in-field tightness adjustability of both the men's and women's Micro Vario Carbon.
On the other hand, folding poles offer much less adjustability and feature a completely different locking mechanism. Each pole section fits together with the next, and an internal pull cord tightens the links together. When pulled tight enough, the cord engages a spring-loaded locking mechanism that prevents the cord from releasing slack. This design is similar to collapsible tent poles. This style of pole can fold down to a smaller packed size than telescoping models. Poles like the Distance Z save weight by avoiding any adjustment mechanisms, but they are not ideal if you are between sizes or want to lend your poles to a friend. If you want a very packable pole that you can also use at different lengths, try a pole like the Black Diamon Alpine FLZ , Micro Vario Carbon, or Black Diamond Distance Carbon FLZ which feature a single lever lock in addition to the Z-style design. This allows some length adjustment to be made once the pole is unfolded.
If you plan on using trekking poles for backpacking trips where you'll have them in your hands the whole time, then the packed size might not matter. On the other hand, if you'll be using your poles to approach alpine climbs, or you'll encounter technical terrain where your poles will end up on your backpack, then packed size is a big deal. Additionally, if you'll be traveling on planes, then more packable poles are much easier to fit inside your luggage.
The most packable poles on the market today are those featuring a foldable design, also known as Z-style poles. In the past few years, these poles have exploded onto the market, and with good reason. This design packs down to almost half the length of standard telescoping poles. Black Diamond revolutionized and popularized the Z-pole, and now just a few years later, many brands have their version of the design. The Leki Micro Vario Carbon packs down to 15.5 inches (both the men's and women's), and depending on the size you choose, the Distance Z, Distance Carbon Z, and Distance Carbon FLZ all pack down to as low as 13 inches. The Alpine FLZ packs down to 14 inches, just an inch longer. These are the models we'd recommend if you require your poles to fold up and disappear onto the side of a pack, which is needed on many technical climbs, mountaineering objectives, or routes with some scrambling.
Most telescoping poles only pack down to about 24 inches, which makes them much harder to fit inside a backpack during a technical climb or scramble. With recent developments in the durability of lightweight folding poles, we recommend a pole with a Z-style design for technical missions, or for users who want the option to store their poles on the outside or inside of a backpack. If you want the strength and durability of a three-section telescoping pole, the REI Flash Carbon packs the smallest.
Miles into the backcountry, with rough terrain between you and the trailhead, you don't want a broken trekking pole. Furthermore, if your shelter system uses trekking poles as tent poles, as many modern lightweight backpacking tents do, then a broken pole might be a life-threatening issue. Carbon fiber can break when bent or smacked against rocks but are very strong when loaded properly, along the axis of the pole (from the top down). Aluminum poles will bend when loaded heavily, even along the main axis of the pole, but aluminum will bend much more than carbon before snapping. Chipped carbon is more prone to snapping, even when loaded along the major axis. For this metric, we also consider the durability of the lever locks or other locking mechanisms. We are bummed that a couple poles in our review use flimsy, thin plastic levers to provide the critical locking function.
We are most impressed by the durability of the Alpine Carbon Cork. This pole has thick carbon shafts that don't bend at all when weighted and are thick enough to absorb chips without compromising the pole's integrity. They also feature burly metal lever locks that inspire confidence and perform well.
We also like the bomber construction of the Leki Makalu Lite Cor-Tec, which, along with the Alpine Carbon Cork, would be our top choice for heavy-duty trekking in remote locations or while carrying a heavy pack. We were also impressed by the durability of the Distance Carbon Z, despite its ultralight design. It is made from strong aluminum and doesn't have many parts that can break. The Micro Vario Carbon is another great option with its thick carbon shaft.
All of the poles in our review are relatively durable. In order to make distinctions between products, we often investigate the small details that might make a difference. In our test, we weren't able to make a pole fail catastrophically during normal use. The heaviest users in remote destinations want to make sure they get the most versatile pole. All other users will be satisfied by the durability of any pole in our review.
Some products in our review are purpose-built for specific activities, while others may be used for most or all backcountry activities. Some poles include various tips and baskets to adapt to different trail or off-trail conditions. Most users don't need a pole that will perform on technical alpine climbing approaches or on long treks through developing nations. That said, some poles in our review can do it all with ease.
For instance, the Leki Micro Vario Carbon is versatile enough to be used in any instance you might need a pole, from day hiking and long backpacking trips to technical climbs and backcountry ski tours. Most folding poles are weaker than their telescoping counterparts, and thus can't be recommended for rugged terrain while carrying a heavy backpack, but the Micro Vario somehow does it all. The Alpine FLZ is another highly versatile pole, only losing points for its heavier weight that makes it less useful on alpine climbs.
The lightweight poles in our review are great for mountain running, ultralight backpacking, technical climbing, day hikes, and on-trail backpacking with heavier packs. The only activities we wouldn't use them for are international trekking and off-trail travel with heavy loads. They also can be used with snow baskets for glacier travel and high alpine traverses in the early summer.
Other poles come with a ton of baskets and tip attachments that help them perform across the board. For example, the Best Buy Cascade Mountain Carbon Fiber Quick Lock comes with two different pole baskets and three different tips for a variety of snow, dirt, and rock surfaces. We especially like the inclusion of non-marking rubber tips that can be attached to the Cascade Mountain, Distance Z, Distance Carbon Z, Distance Carbon FLZ, and Alpine FLZ poles. If you spend time hiking on soft rock like the beautiful red sandstone of the American Southwest, we recommend rubber tips because they won't scratch and permanently alter the appearance of the rock.
How to Fix a Broken Pole
Trekking poles can break, and when they do, you might be miles or days away from the nearest gear shop. Here's a technique for fixing your broken trekking poles using only tent stakes and tape.
There are so many trekking poles on the market that it can be daunting to find the perfect pair. The good news is that for most day hikers, any trekking pole will get the job done. If you need poles for a more specialized use, you'll have to do a little more research, which is where our individual gear reviews come in. We hope that our in-depth reviews will help you to find the best pole to suit your needs. We'll see you on the trails!
— Jeff Dobronyi & Mary Witlacil