Best Trekking Poles of 2020
Best Overall Trekking Pole for Men
Leki Micro Vario Carbon
The Leki Micro Vario Carbon are top performers in a very crowded field. The grip is extremely comfortable and the pole packs small, locks securely, and even has some length adjustability. It is made of carbon, which helps absorb shock, but the pole is also remarkably strong and durable. From day hikes on the local trails to long treks high in technical mountain ranges, this pole can handle it.
Besides the high price tag, the only other downside is that these poles are slightly heavier than other options 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 fantastic.
Read review: Leki Micro Vario Carbon
Best Overall Trekking Pole for Women
Leki Women's Micro Vario Carbon
The women's Leki Micro Vario Carbon is the most comfortable pole for women we've found. They feature awesome grips, excellent locking mechanisms, and they are fairly lightweight to boot. 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.
Be fair-warned, these poles are costly and may be 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 alpine climbing approaches.
Read review: Leki Women's Micro Vario Carbon
Outstanding Value in a Lightweight Pole
Black Diamond Distance Z
The Black Diamond Distance Z provides a simple, lightweight, and high-performance pole at a price much lower than it's carbon fiber counterparts. This pole features the exact same design as the Distance Carbon Z, and the aluminum shaft construction adds only two ounces per pair compared to the carbon version. It retains the same compact size and minimal, yet comfortable, grip design. We love both versions of this pole, and since the aluminum-shafted Distance Z costs so much less than the carbon version, it is a great option for those seeking lightweight performance at a reasonable price.
These poles don't offer any adjustability, so you'll need to be mindful when selecting your size. Other grips on the market are way more comfortable, and we certainly wouldn't recommend the thin wrist straps found on the Distance Z for hikers and trekkers carrying heavy packs. But for the average day hike, mountain run, or casual backpacking trip, these poles are just fine and very affordable.
Read review: Black Diamond Distance Z
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 just 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 user 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 Lightweight Women's Specific Pole
Black Diamond Distance FLZ - Women's
While not the lightest women's specific poles in our review, the Black Diamond Distance FLZ do strike an ideal balance between weight-savings and durability. This makes them a great value for a lightweight pair of trekking poles. They pack down incredibly small, weigh barely enough to notice, and they even adjust and break down easily. There's little wonder why these trekking poles became a go-to favorite for our reviewers for everything from day hikes and mountain climbing to backpacking and approaching alpine rock climbs.
The only real downside to these poles is that, compared to those with foam grips, they offer slightly less comfort. That said, they are still an incredibly comfortable pole with an excellent swing-weight. They are also somewhat expensive, however for great features, a light weight, and unbeatable packability, these poles are a great value for the price.
Read review: Black Diamond Distance FLZ - Women's
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, so be sure to size it correctly before purchasing. 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. These are the poles we found ourselves reaching for most days.
Read review: Black Diamond Distance Carbon Z
Why You Should Trust Us
Our test team is comprised of thru-hikers, mountain runners, alpine climbers, and expedition trekkers. We put the trekking poles in this review through the wringer, getting them in the hands of both elite athletes and new hikers alike, and collecting feedback from trails all over the country.
For 2020, our test team was led by mountain guide, climber, hiker, and skier Jeff Dobronyi and avid alpine climber, hiker, and backpacker Mary Witlacil. Jeff guides climbers, trekkers, and backcountry skiers all over the world, from his home range, the Tetons, to the Wind River Range, Colorado's Front Range, Washington's Cascades, and beyond. He has also guided four expeditions on Denali. In the Rocky Mountains, where approaches and hikes are marked by thousands of vertical feet of ascending and descending over rocky terrain, trekking poles are a must. Jeff goes through multiple pairs a year and seems to have poles in his hands every day, whether he's out for an alpine climb, an overnight hike, or a training run.
Mary has logged thousands of miles carrying heavy loads all over the Rocky Mountains, the Eastern Sierra Nevadas, and the deserts of Utah, Arizona, and California. From multi-day expeditions in the Andes, the Wind Rivers, the Rocky Mountains, and the Sierras to humping heavy loads of climbing gear into the backcountry, this gal is a regular pack-mule. While alpine climbing is her first love, Mary logs tons of miles with trekking poles while day-hiking, peak-bagging, backpacking, and romping around in the backcountry. For this round of testing, she spent the majority of her time testing poles in the sandy red rock deserts of the Colorado Plateau in Utah, alpine climbing day-trips and mountain climbing in Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado, and hiking climbing gear deep into the backcountry for multi-day trips in the Eastern Sierra Nevadas in California.
To test the poles in our review, we spent several months shouldering heavy loads all over the mountains and deserts 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 we could. 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 our poles extensively in order to amass all the information you need to ensure you get the ideal pair for your next adventure.
Related: How We Tested Trekking Poles
Analysis and Test Results
The poles in our review span a relatively wide range of prices, designs, and intended uses. We took them into the field, using them on backpacking missions, heavy-duty treks, day hikes, and overnight trips 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 feel confident 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. Read on to learn the results of our tests and a breakdown of each metric.
Related: Buying Advice for Trekking Poles
When testing gear, we do our best to compare products in an unbiased fashion before considering the price. We do this for two main reasons. First, each person reading our review has a different budget, and second, you can often find screaming deals on top-of-the-line products if you look around. Either way, price is obviously a very important factor in choosing what gear to buy, which is why we're always looking to spotlight products that leverage a good deal with stellar performance. Sometimes you get a better product when you spend top dollar, but in no way is that always the case.
Poles range dramatically in price, and luckily, there are some great options that don't break the bank. The Cascade Mountain Tech Carbon Fiber Quick Lock poles provide many of the features of more expensive options at a fraction of the price. They are made from carbon fiber, so they are incredibly lightweight, and they come equipped with trail and powder baskets. Another great value is the Black Diamond Trail Sport 3 which, while heavier than other poles in our review, offer excellent durability, versatility, and comfort for the price. While these poles may not be ideal for ultralight enthusiasts or alpine climbers, they feel surprisingly light in the hands and would be a great option for anyone looking to get a durable pair of poles for hiking, backpacking, trekking, or even some backcountry winter activities. Another pole with great value is the Black Diamond Distance Z, which weighs just a tad more than other modern, carbon fiber, folding poles, but is much more affordable.
Trekking poles transfer some of your body weight onto the arms and off the legs. After hours or days of heavy use, however, the hands and wrists take a beating from supporting this additional weight, compared to walking without poles. 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. Another major factor here is grip material. In general, cork handles are preferable, because they feel smooth on the skin and mold to the user's hand shape over time. 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 Leki Micro Vario models. They use foam, which we feel is slightly less comfortable than cork for grip construction, but all of their poles feature excellent contouring that fits a wide range of 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. The women's Distance FLZ poles feature moisture-wicking straps and vibration-dampening foam grips, which proved comfortable on long, arduous hikes.
In general, carbon fiber poles absorb the shock from the pole impacting the ground, while aluminum poles transfer this shock to the user's hands. But, to reap the benefits of carbon, the shafts need to be constructed with a thicker carbon weave. This additional material increases weight. The Alpine Carbon Cork and Micro Vario Carbon both had the best shock-absorbing performance in our testing, but are relatively heavy, despite their carbon constructions.
As mountain running and ultralight 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. If you need a pole to support heavy loads in remote areas, and one that absolutely must not break, then weight should be less important in your choice.
The Distance Carbon Z is the lightest pole in our lineup at 10.4 ounces. To achieve such a low weight, it has a streamlined foam grip, minimalist wrist strap, a tiny trail basket, and no length adjustability. The REI Flash Carbon is the lightest women's specific pole at 13.2 ounces, but the lightweight and fixed-length Black Diamond poles could also be ideal for women, as these come in short sizes as well. At 12 ounces, the aluminum Distance Z is only slightly heavier than the lightest carbon option, but costs much less.
Locking and Adjustability
All trekking poles break down to a small, relatively packable size and extend out back to a usable length. In general, poles with a large range of length adjustment and secure locking mechanisms score well in this metric. We also test how easily wrist straps can be adjusted, how well locking mechanisms prevent slippage, and how ergonomically these adjustment devices are designed.
Most poles feature a telescoping design where different sections of pole shafts fit inside each other and extend to the desired length. Some poles in our review extend to an incredible 55 inches in 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 style of pole can fold down to a smaller packed size than telescoping models, but generally don't allow for as much length adjustment.
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 Diamond Alpine FLZ , Black Diamond Distance FLZ, Micro Vario Carbon, or Black Diamond Distance Carbon FLZ which features 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 your poles for backpacking trips where you'll have them in your hands the whole time, then 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 you will need to stash your poles on/in 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 (both men's and women's) 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 for telescoping poles.
Trekking poles are worthless if they break, leading to less efficient travel. If you are carrying a heavy load, or are relying on your poles for balance during creek or river crossings or while traveling through rough terrain, a broken pole could be a serious safety concern as well. Furthermore, if your shelter system incorporates your poles into the design as many modern lightweight backpacking tents do, then a broken pole might be a life-threatening issue. After our extensive testing period, we have a good idea of which poles are the most trustworthy.
Carbon fiber poles 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. We were 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. The Trail Sport 3 poles also proved exceptionally durable, with their thick telescoping aluminum shafts, rubber grips, and burly lever-locks.
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. In addition, we were impressed by the durability of the Distance Z, despite its ultralight design. It is made from strong aluminum and doesn't have many parts that can break. The women's Distance FLZ poles proved incredibly durable for the same reasons, with strong aluminum shafts and burly adjustment mechanisms — we were surprised with how durable these poles proved to be. If you are looking for a durable carbon-fiber option, the Micro Vario Carbon (both men's and women's) are another great option owing to their thick carbon shafts.
Poles don't typically take that much of a beating, and 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. It is important to state that during our testing, we weren't able to make a single pole fail catastrophically from normal use. While heavy-duty trekkers venturing to remote destinations want to make sure they get the most durable 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 all of it 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 which 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. This includes the Carbon Z, Carbon FLZ, and Distance Z. 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. We especially like the inclusion of non-marking rubber tips that can be attached to the Distance Z, Distance FLZ, 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 we 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 and Mary Witlacil