If 2020 is your year for finding the best trekking poles, we can help! Over the last 9 years, we've tested more than 50 pairs, and the top 13 are highlighted in our current review. After that, we dug into some rigorous side-by-side testing. Everywhere from mountain summits to pristine deserts to our favorite local forest trails, we hiked and trekked to determine which poles are the most adventure-worthy. Whether you're looking for something for casual walks through the park or grueling multi-week thru-hikes, our review can help you find the perfect companion.
The Best Trekking Poles of 2020
Best Overall Trekking Pole
Leki Women's Micro Vario Carbon
The Leki Micro Vario Carbon and the Women's Micro Vario Carbon are our choice for the most comfortable among the poles for men and women. They feature awesome grips, excellent locking mechanisms, and are fairly lightweight. They also collapse down to only 15.5 inches long, among the smallest in our review. Additionally, their skin wrist straps are among the most comfortable straps to use barehanded in this review.
They 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.Read review: Leki Women's Micro Vario Carbon
Read review: Leki Micro Vario Carbon
Best Bang for the Buck
Cascade Mountain Tech Carbon Fiber Quick Lock
The Cascade Mountain Tech 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 pole 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 when you're out on a hike without tools. These features and a plethora of included baskets 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. They 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 light-weight 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 the Distance Carbon Z. If saving cash matters more, then look no further. These poles weigh a mere 12 ounces. They fold down small enough to put in your pack easily, and the locking mechanism works flawlessly in cold weather.
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. Sporting a carbon fiber shaft, foam grips, and stripped down features, this model shaved every last ounce. Often, lighter poles may feel cheap or flimsy. That's not the case with the Carbon Z. Although we wouldn't suggest using it for heavy duty trekking and backpacking, the Carbon Z is relatively versatile and excels at lightweight backpacking, hiking and trail running.
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 aren't 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. These grips lack a lower extension that many hikers like to use when choking up on steep climbs. The three telescoping pieces are easily adjusted - even with gloves on - using the 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. Additionally, the top of the foam grips lack structural support and may break if too much pressure is applied. The grips and straps are also not as comfortable as options like the Leki Women's Micro Vario. Still, if weight is our primary concern, we reach for the Flash Carbon.
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. The test was led by mountain guide, climber, hiker, and skier Jeff Dobronyi. 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 to 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.
Related: How We Tested Trekking Poles
Analysis and Test Results
Trekking poles used to be used exclusively by through-hikers with heavy backpacks and travelers hiking rough trails to 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 have used 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 we tested span a relatively wide range of prices, designs, and intended uses. We took the 13 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 were 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 analyzed our ratings against the price of each pair to help provide a good choice for any budget. Our Best Buy award goes to the Cascade Mountain Tech Carbon Fiber Quick Lock, which had the lowest price of any pair of poles. However, it scored relatively low in the pack. The best value in a lightweight option is the Black Diamond Distance Z. Our highest-rated pole also the most expensive, showing that in general, you get what you pay for.
Trekking poles transfer some of our body weight onto our arms and off of our legs. They have to be comfortable, because after hours or days of heavy use, our hands and wrists will take a beating from supporting this weight. Grip shape and material make a huge difference in a pole's 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 Leki's grips. Their poles with foam grips scored highly in the comfort metric. All of their poles feature excellent contouring that fits most hand shapes. Their straps are also pleasant to use and don't cause chafing or pressure points. We also like the cork handles of Black Diamond's Alpine Carbon Cork and Alpine FLZ. On the other side of the spectrum, REI's handles disappointed us, and the bulky foam handle of the Komperdell Explorer Contour Powerlock Compact was too large for easy use. Among the women's poles, the Leki Women's Micro Vario Carbon and the Alpine Carbon Cork were the most comfortable.
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. Again, the BD Alpine Carbon Corks and Leki Micro Vario Carbons had 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 poles during runs, day hikes, and short overnight trips, durability isn't a major concern, and a lighter pole is nice.
The Distance Carbon Z is the lightest pole in our lineup this year at 10 ounces. This comes at the price of adjustability, because their length can't be changed and they come in only four sizes. The REI Flash Carbon Women's is the lightest womens' specific pole, at 13.2 ounces, but the lightweight and fixed-length BD poles also come in short sizes. At 12 ounces, the aluminum BD Distance Z is only slightly heavier than the lightest option, but costs half as much, earning our Best Buy award for lightweight poles.
Generally speaking, the carbon fiber poles were the lightest of our lineup, but the Leki Micro Vario Carbon Max was the heaviest pole in our review, at 21.1 ounces per pair. The weight is due to its thicker carbon fiber wrap, making it more durable and better at absorbing shock.
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 had very secure and easy locking and adjustment mechanisms, while others had 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 Black Diamond Alpine Carbon Cork, which were the best in our review. We also like the in-field tightness adjustability of the Leki Micro Vario Carbon. On the other hand, we did not like lever locks that tended to slip during use, or that are made of flimsy plastic.
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. These poles can fold down to a smaller packed size than any of the three-section telescoping poles in the review. 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 , or the Leki Women's Micro Vario, which feature a single lever lock in addition to the z-style design. This allows adjustments 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 backpack or duffel bag.
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. 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 and Women's Micro Vario Carbon pack down to 15.5 inches, and depending on the size you choose, the Black Diamond Distance Z, Distance Carbon Z, and Distance Carbon FLZ all pack down to as low as 13 inches.
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'd recommend a pole with a z-style design for technical mission. If you want the strength and durability of a three-section telescoping pole, the REI Flash Carbon Women's and Komperdell Explorer Compact pack the smallest.
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. Carbon fiber can break when bent or smacked against rocks, but aluminum poles are not necessarily stronger. We were bummed that a few of the aluminum models featured flimsy and thin plastic lever locks that can break over time or during heavy-duty use.
We were most impressed by the durability of the BD Alpine Carbon Cork. This pole has thick carbon shafts that didn't bend at all when weighted, and burly metal lever locks that inspire confidence and perform well. We also liked the bomber construction of the Leki Makalu Lite, which along with the BD Carbon Cork, would be our top choice for heavy duty trekking in remote locations or while carrying heavy backpacks. 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.
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 approaches or 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 hike and long backpacking trips to technical climbs and ski tours. Most folding poles are weaker than their telescoping counterparts, and thus can't be recommended for rugged terrain while carrying heavy backpacks, but the Micro Vario somehow does it all. The BD Alpine FLZ is another highly versatile pole, only losing points here 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 backpacks. 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 Tech Carbon Fiber Quick Lock comes with two different pole baskets and three different tips.
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. We hope that our in-depth reviews will help you to find the best pole to suit your needs.
— Jeff Dobronyi, Graham Williams and Sibylle Hechtel