We hiked, backpacked, and climbed mountains with a wide variety of trekking poles so that we could confidently help you find the perfect pole for your activities. After researching 60 models, we purchased the 13 top contenders to test out in the field. Next came grueling side-by-side comparisons. From the dry deserts of Joshua Tree, to local forest trails, to the summit of Mt. Whitney, we examined each aspect of these poles to determine which contenders genuinely have what it takes for your next adventure. While once thought of as a luxury in the outdoor world, trekking poles are now commonplace. Whether you're looking into new poles for casual walks in the park or grueling thru-hikes, we're here to help you find exactly what you need.
The Best Trekking Poles for Hiking and Backpacking
This spring, we updated our review to bring you the latest and greatest in the trekking pole world. The Black Diamond Alpine Carbon Cork remains our Editors' Choice award winner, while we've included two new Best Buys, the Montem Ultra Strong, retailing for an impressive $50, and the Black Diamond Distance Z for $100. We've also included a price comparison chart below, which highlights all of the models in our fleet and shows you the best bang for your buck.
Best Overall Model
Black Diamond Alpine Carbon Cork
The Alpine Carbon Cork takes our Editors' Choice yet again, and with good reason. The Alpine Carbon Cork poles have been tested extensively over the years, and each year they just keep getting better. One of our gear testers has had his set for the past seven years, and even after repeated abuse, they continue to perform fantastically.
They are relatively light and compact, but most notably they are durable, comfortable and versatile. From miles and miles on thru-hikes to high alpine climbing objectives, these award-winning poles continue to perform.
Read review: Black Diamond Alpine Carbon Cork
Best Bang for the Buck
Montem Ultra Strong
The Montem Ultra Strong stood out as a low-price option that didn't sacrifice functionality. These poles won't give you any of the high-end features, but they satisfy in just about every category. Plus, at only $50, you can take some weight off your joints without having to spend your whole paycheck.
If you're looking to try out your first pair of trekking poles, or want an inexpensive pair for occasional or casual use, consider purchasing these. The only better deal is to make your own from old ski poles (more details below).
Read review: Montem Ultra Strong
Best Value In A Lightweight Pole
Black Diamond Distance Z
The Black Diamond Distance Z offers a high quality, lightweight and compact pole at a very reasonable price. If you're willing to spend an extra $70 for the top-of-the-line lightweight pole, you might want to check out the Distance Carbon Z. If saving cash matters more, then look no further.
These poles weigh a mere 12 ounces while only pricing in at $100. They fold down small enough to put in your pack easily, plus the updated 2018 locking mechanism is great in cold weather. If you're okay with a non-adjustable model, then these are an excellent option for an affordable, lightweight pole.
Read review: Black Diamond Distance Z
Most Comfortable Option
Leki Corklite DSS Antishock
The Leki Corklite DSS Antishock pole takes home a Top Pick, as it's the most comfortable model in our fleet. Although it's not the lightest or most compact, the luxurious feel of this pole is worth a couple of extra grams.
They come with anti-shock technology which eases the strain on the body. While we haven't had great success with anti-shock tech in the past, this pole is the luxury liner of the lineup this year. Leki's incredible cork handles are included.
Read review: Leki Corklite DSS Antishock
Best Lightweight Pole
Black Diamond Distance Carbon Z
The Black Diamond Distance Carbon Z is the lightest pole we tested. Carbon fiber shaft material, foam grips, and stripped down features shave every last ounce. Often, lighter poles may feel cheap or flimsy, which wasn't the case for the Carbon Z. Although we wouldn't suggest using it for heavy duty trekking and backpacking, the Carbon Z is relatively versatile and excels in lightweight backpacking, hiking and trail running.
To cut weight, the Carbon Z isn't adjustable and instead comes in four sizes, which could potentially cause an issue for those in between sizes. For the 2018 model, BD improved the locking mechanism on this pole and strengthened the joints. We welcome this change — other than price, durability is one of the few downsides to most carbon poles.
Read review:Black Diamond Distance Carbon Z
Most Comfortable Folding Pole
Leki Micro Vario Ti COR-TEC
It's no wonder that another of Leki's poles took a Top Pick this year in our lineup, as the German company specializes in making fantastic trekking and ski poles. The Leki Micro Vario Ti Cor-Tec takes our most comfortable folding pole award this year.
Leki took its incredible cork handle technology and put it into a break-apart style pole that while isn't anything special in its weight, packs a punch in the packability and comfort scores. At OutdoorGearLab we agreed that it was on par with our most comfortable pole: the Corklite DSS anti-shock but was more packable and slightly lighter, allowing it to fill a nice hole in our top pick lineup.
Read review:Leki Micro Vario Ti Cor-Tec
Analysis and Test Results
You'll see them used by day hikers, backpackers, thru-hikers, mountaineers and even trail runners. Why? According to this study, trekking poles reduce muscle damage, help prevent injury and just make hiking feel easier. They also may reduce stress on your knees, tackle steep hills, and stretch your mileage with a heavy pack. The poles we tested span a range of prices and sport a variety of features from "anti-shock" technology to "tentpole" style folding mechanisms. To test these features and rank each pole based on its performance, we took 13 different sets of poles out into the field. These tests took place on local trails up to 10 miles, approaches to backcountry climbs, and mountaineering adventures. For side-by-side comparisons, we took multiple poles out on single days to test the differences between each.
We evaluated the poles on the following metrics: comfort, locking, and adjustability, weight, packed size, durability, and versatility. To test the poles for specific uses, we went out with light day packs and loaded up our bigger packs with backpacking and climbing gear to determine which pole would be ideal for heavier or lighter loads. 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 across all sorts of terrain. We believe that our extensive testing will help you determine which pole is best for your needs and we've included additional information on tips for purchasing a set, which you'll find in our Buying Advice Guide.
After we tested each pole, we rated them on a scale from 1-10 (1 being the bottom of the barrel, 5 being average, and 10 representing the absolute best) and then looked at the combined metrics to determine which pole was better suited for a particular task. Below you'll find the results of our tests and a breakdown of each metric.
Check out the Price vs. Performance Chart above to compare the value of each pole. We graphed our rating against the price of every pair to help you find exactly what you're looking for. You'll see our favorite model, the Black Diamond Alpine Carbon Cork, on the top left. Our Best Buy award goes to the Montem Ultra Strong, which you can see had the lowest price of any pair of poles.
Trekking poles are designed to help you while out on the trail. From stream crossings to steep descents, you can use them to balance and reduce strain on your body. One of the biggest factors we look for in a pole is comfort. If they aren't comfortable, they won't do you much good on the trail. To rank each pole by comfort, we examined the handle materials, ergonomics, shaft materials and straps. Although all of these metrics are relative to the user, materials like cork handles are more comfortable than rubber or foam as they'll contour to your hand over time.
Without a doubt, the Leki Corklite DSS Anti-Shock from Leki was our most comfortable poles, which is why it won our Top Pick and received the highest score in the comfort metric. Although "anti-shock" technologies are up for debate as to whether they're useful, this contender, complete with anti-shock, was the highest scoring in the fleet. Our Editors' Choice winner, the Black Diamond Alpine Carbon Cork, was not quite as comfortable as the Corklite DSS Antishock, but is also a high contender for the comfort rating, thanks to its cork handles and carbon fiber construction. One of the reasons Leki models scored so well in our comfort metric is due to the excellent handle design, which features an ergonomic grip that rivals Black Diamond's design.
Leki's Micro Vario Ti Cor-Tec also scored high in our comfort metric, earning a 7 out of 10, thanks to its well-designed handles, which can also be found on the Leki Corklite DSS Antishock. Unfortunately, the Micro Vario contender was not as comfortable to hike with (as the Corklite DSS), which we attribute to it lacking an anti-shock system. In fact, we found that poles constructed with carbon fiber had less trail shock, as carbon fiber has some vibration dampening properties. The Alpine Carbon Cork, which features carbon fiber construction, earned a 9 out of 10, offering a high level of comfort that is on par with the Leki Micro Vario Ti COR-TEC.Ergonomics
Ergonomics refer to the shape of the trekking pole handle and the shaft design, which are arguably the most important factors in determining how comfortable a pole is. If a pole is uncomfortable to handle and use, then it won't do you much good on the trail. We've found that handle and shaft material can make a big difference in a pole's comfort, but the overall design still reigns over the comfort category. Different people desire different shapes and designs, but overall we found that all of Leki's poles that we tested were supreme in the comfort category (After all, they've been constructing trekking and ski poles since 1948). Of the three Leki poles that we tested, the Corklite DSS Antishock and the Micro Vario Ti were by far the most comfortable. The Alpine Carbon Cork and the Alpine FLZ from Black Diamond both came in a close second — thanks to their cork handles that molded to our hands over time.
While aluminum poles are usually cheaper, they also tend to be more durable than their carbon fiber counterparts. Which choice you prefer may depend on what you intend to use the pole for. If you're not concerned with a few extra ounces, then aluminum poles might be the route to go. Their durability also makes them a good choice for long-distance trips where you need a pole that can take some abuse. Aluminum can be bent and still be usable or bent back into shape, versus a carbon fiber pole that will just snap under too much weight.Carbon Fiber
Advancements in carbon fiber technology have allowed pole manufacturers the ability to construct strong and light poles that are comparable to aluminum. However, we would still consider aluminum to be a beefier and stronger material. Carbon Fiber can also help with shock absorption, and thus increased comfort levels while on the trail. If you are hiking mostly on the trail or worried about weight, carbon fiber poles may be the choice for you. Although poles like the Alpine Carbon Cork can handle plenty of abuse, it is important to use just a bit more caution with them.Handle Material
Cork is the ideal material for comfort, as it is smooth, durable and will mold to your hand over time. Cork typically doesn't chafe and lasts for years. We would consider cork handles to be the most luxurious of trekking pole handles.
Rubber is probably the most common and run-of-the-mill trekking pole handle material. It is relatively inexpensive and is great for cold weather sports like mountaineering and skiing. This is because it insulates better than cork or foam. However, rubber typically isn't as comfortable as cork or foam in hot weather. Our testers found that rubber handles got more slippery from sweat or moisture than their cork or foam counterparts. Rubber is also a material that could cause chafing on your hands.
Foam is the lightest of the three handle materials that we tested. It was featured on our lightest models, like the Distance Carbon Z and Distance Z. Foam handles also wick moisture better than either rubber or cork. They tend to be used as a cheaper alternative to cork. Our best buy, the Montem Ultra Strong featured foam handles, helping it achieve a price tag of only $50. Our primary concern with foam is durability, as it tends to get beat up more than other materials. Especially if you have your poles strapped to the outside of your pack, rocks can easily damage foam handles; so be careful!
The Black Diamond and Leki poles had the best quality of design and materials for handles. The Black Diamond Distance Carbon Z, which featured a foam grip with ribbing on it, was one of the more comfortable foam grips that we tested. While the Black Diamond poles fared better in most metrics, the Alpine Carbon Cork and Leki poles were also exceptionally comfortable, thanks to their well-designed handles.
Locking and Adjustability
Just like the poles themselves, each one comes with a different locking system for adjustability of the pole. All of the poles that we reviewed this year had some shape or form of the lever lock system.
Although each brand has its proprietary take on the lever locking system, the system is simple to use: just unlock the lever, extend the pole to the desired length, and then lock the lever down. Depending on the diameter of the pole and where you use it, for the duration of the shaft, sometimes you need to tighten down the lever mechanism. This can be done with a screwdriver to provide a secure lock, which we found was the case on the Black Diamond (FlickLock) and REI poles.
Leki has created an ingenious design (SpeedLock) with a small dial that can be adjusted while on trail to avoid the use of tools. The Foxelli, Hiker Hunger, and Montem poles all feature a design similar to the Leki poles, with a small dial and locking lever, but we found that they didn't stay as secure as the Leki design. This was partially because of the weaker materials, and also because when unlatched, the screw could loosen. Over time, these brands' mechanisms needed to be tightened more than the Leki Poles.
The other common type of pole locking and adjustability seen is the Z-Style or collapsible style pole. This means that the whole pole splits into three sections, which can be folded, similar to a collapsing tent pole. This means that rather than collapsing, the pole can fold down to about a third of the full length. Any of the Black Diamond Z-Series, such as the Distance Z or Alpine FLZ, fall into this category, as do several of the Leki poles, such as the Micro Vario Carbon.
The main downside of z-style poles is that they tend to be less adjustable. 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 to a friend. If you want a very packable pole that you can also use at different lengths, try a pole like the Alpine FLZ , which features a single lever lock in addition to the z-style design. This allows adjustments to be made once the pole is unfolded.
In a world where thru-hiking and ultra-light backpacking are becoming more and more popular, weight is an ever increasing issue. Although most of the time decreasing weight decreases durability and versatility, if you're ultra-light backpacking on the trail, you probably don't need a super heavy-duty pole. The Distance Carbon Z is by-far the lightest pole in our lineup this year at 10 ounces. This comes at the price of adjustability (you can only buy them in one of four sizes), as they don't have have any lever locking system. The Co-op Flash Carbon (about 14 ounces) came in second here as one of the lighter full featured poles thanks to carbon fiber shaft material and foam handles. The Hiker Hunger and Foxelli are also quite light, although not as durable as other options.
Generally speaking, the carbon fiber poles were the lightest of our lineup, with the Corklite DSS being the lightest of the aluminum pole designs at 17.8 ounces. The Alpine Carbon Cork was the heaviest of the Carbon Fiber poles, weighing in at 17.8 ounces, the same as the Corklite DSS Antishock. The weight is due to its thicker carbon fiber wrap, making it more burly and durable, albeit a bit heavier.
If you're on a tight budget, or just love to save money, consider ski poles. You can usually find a pair for less than $5 at a thrift store. You can use as is or, as we prefer, remove bulky handles and add tennis grip tape. This removes the wrist straps which might be a deal breaker for some. However, we love the lighter package and the freedom to grip anywhere and adapt the "effective pole length" instantly to the terrain. The pair below started at 19 oz. for a pair. But, after removing the grips, they were only 13 oz. for the pair, making them only a few ounces heavier than our Top Pick for Ultralight, the Distance Carbon Z and 4 ounces lighter than the Editors' Choice, the Alpine Carbon Cork.
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 doing more backcountry snowboarding or other activities where you'll only use your poles on the approach, then this factor might be more important. For example, if you use trekking poles on a mountaineering trip, then once it's time to pull out the ice axe, packable poles are especially useful. Additionally, if you'll be traveling on planes, then more packable poles are much easier to fit inside your backpack or duffel bag. However, for the general user, this isn't as important, and we've made sure to weight this accordingly.
The most packable poles on the market today are the Z-style poles, often referred to as "tent-pole" style or "break-apart" poles. In the past few years, these poles have exploded onto the market, and with good reason. As you can see in the picture below, 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 Micro Vario Carbon packs down to the smallest of all of the poles in our lineup (at about 15 inches), with the Distance Carbon Z coming in close second (15.5 inches), and the Alpine FLZ in third (16 inches). Granted, these are only about a half inch apart, and the Distance Carbon Z is by far the lightest pole and thanks to its smaller diameter, actually takes up less space than the Micro Vario Carbon, despite being a half inch longer.
What we've noticed, is that the lighter a pole gets, it tends to sacrifice durability, adjustability, and versatility. Some z-style poles are not adjustable at all, while others are designed to be so lightweight, that we were concerned about the durability. If packability is still important to you, but not as much as robust and durable design, Black Diamond's Alpine Carbon Cork and Trail Backis the shortest of the collapsible pole design. That's only by a half inch or so compared to the rest of the competition, but it is worth mentioning if you're trying to plan your luggage down to the T.
If you're miles into the backcountry, with rough terrain between you and the trailhead, you don't want a broken trekking pole. Durability is very important when looking for a pair of poles, especially if you know you're going to rely on them heavily. Over many years of being on the trail, we've seen more than our fair share of broken trekking poles. Although most newer models should last you some time, not all are created equal. One of the biggest differences that we look for is the shaft material. Carbon fiber technology has come a long way and is relatively strong, but aluminum is usually a stronger, though heavier, choice. Since poles are strongest when the weight is loaded vertically on the pole, breaks tend to happen when force is exerted horizontally. In this scenario, carbon fiber poles are more likely to snap, while aluminum tends to bend before it breaks. A bent pole can still be used in a pinch, and sometimes even repaired.
Heavier poles are generally stronger, like the BD Trail Back, which earned the top mark for durability. This was due to its sturdy aluminum construction and reliable locking mechanisms. On the other end of the weight spectrum, we were impressed by the durability of the Distance Carbon Z, despite its ultralight design.
With a great combination of weight and durability, the Alpine Carbon Cork and Corklite DSS Antishock were both impressively robust for a mid-weight pole. The Corklite DSS Antishock was of aluminum construction, which as we mentioned above, is less prone to snapping. While the Alpine Carbon Cork is made of carbon fiber, a weaker material, it has a much thicker carbon weave, making it one of the sturdiest carbon fiber poles we tested. The Hiker Hunger Carbon Fiber and Foxelli HOG1 ranked lowest for durability, due to their thin carbon fiber weave and plastic locking mechanisms. While we didn't experience any issues, we were a bit worried about durability for long-term use or cross-loaded weight.
We defined versatility as extra additions that the pole may have come with, and what the pole could be used for.
For instance, the Distance Carbon Z is a lightweight pole that excels in the ultralight or trail runner usage, and although could be used for other sports, it doesn't come with any other baskets, and wouldn't hold up as well to heavy duty usage as some of the more massive poles. On the opposite end, we have poles like the REI Co-op Passage that are heavy duty aluminum and built for robust usage for long trekking and off-trail travel. However, some of the heavyweight offerings such as the Black Diamond Trail Back were fantastic choices for multiple sports. Although they came with simple trail baskets, larger powder baskets could be attached, and their durable construction makes them an excellent choice for just about any application, although we think there are better options for ultra-light backpacking.
We found that poles in the mid-weight range were the most versatile and often came with snow baskets. Light enough to be used on most trails, but heavy duty enough to be used for off-trail travel. The Alpine Carbon Cork, our Editors' Choice, excelled at just this and is an exceptional choice for backpacking, backcountry skiing, or mountaineering. The Alpine FLZ from Black Diamond was also another great contender in our versatility metric, thanks to its cork handles, detachable powder baskets, and folding Z-style design.
Other Pole Considerations
Most poles have carbide or steel tips to provide traction over multiple types of terrain. Carbide is the most commonly used in higher end poles, although both steel and carbide are great choices for traction.
Some poles come with multiple end coverings, rubber ends for asphalt or tip covers for stowing in a pack.
Most poles also come with a spare set of broad "powder" baskets for snow use. Primarily, the large basket doesn't allow the pole to punch through the snow as easily. This is great for backcountry snow travel, either snowshoeing or backcountry skiing or snowboarding.
The trekking baskets that are found on most poles are much smaller and will help with mud and branches, but do not provide adequate float for snow usage.
Shock Absorbing Systems
Although there is some debate on whether shock absorbing systems work, we found that our most comfortable pole, the DSS anti-shock, featured Leki's anti-shock system.
It provided a bit more comfort while on the trail. Leki's system is unique in that it is located at the bottom of the pole next to the tip. When pressure is applied to the pole, the anti-shock depresses, as can be seen in the photos below.
With as many poles as there are out on the market today, it can be a bit challenging to find the perfect pair. Our testers have been testing poles for years to find their perfect fit. Generally speaking, mid-weight poles with robust locking systems tend to excel in performance and durability. The Alpine Carbon Cork is a great example of this, although it is a little pricey, and some hikers may find more value in something less expensive, like the Montem Ultra Strong or Black Diamond Trail Back. We hope that our in-depth reviews will help you to find the best pole to suit your needs.
How to Fix a Broken Pole
Carbon poles can be flimsy. We found this out the hard way in Patagonia. Since we were many days out, we used the fix below to bandage our pole using only tape and tent stakes.
— Graham Williams