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How to Choose The Right Trekking Pole

Testing out poles in the rocky and variable terrain of Utah.
By Jeff Dobronyi ⋅ Review Editor
Friday August 21, 2020
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Trekking poles have risen from obscurity and are now a key piece of gear for hikers, backpackers, trail runners, trekkers, and climbers. They allow you to incorporate your upper body into uphill travel and help absorb shock on your knees while descending. The more weight on your back, the more trekking poles become life-savers. Some studies have shown that using poles can reduce impact force by up to 40% on your knees, especially on long downhills. No matter your age, using poles while hiking will save energy and reduce knee pain. They also help with balance during tricky creek and log crossings.

If you are wondering "why do I need trekking poles for hiking?", then check out our 10 Reasons For Trekking Poles article as well as The Best Trekking Poles review where we rate the top options on the market head-to-head in a series of real-world comparisons. We looked at a variety of factors in each pole, including weight, durability, comfort, and more.

Trust us. Integrating trekking poles into your hiking kit will allow you to hike more miles and keep a smile on your face while doing so. Once you try them out, you'll never look back. Read on to discover which pole is right for your needs and activities.

Trekking poles help engage your upper body in the walking motion  helping you save energy and take some strain off your lower body.
Trekking poles help engage your upper body in the walking motion, helping you save energy and take some strain off your lower body.

Design Configuration


Trekking poles come in one of three designs: three-section telescoping, folding, and combination versions. Most modern options come in three sections, and the design configuration mostly refers to how a pole lengthens the three sections into a strong extended pole. In general, telescoping poles are very strong and adjustable, folding poles are light and collapse smaller, and combination poles allow for a mix of attributes. Each style offers distinct advantages and disadvantages.

Three different trekking pole designs  from left to right: three-section telescoping  folding  and combination.
Three different trekking pole designs, from left to right: three-section telescoping, folding, and combination.

Three Section Telescoping


Three-section telescoping poles are the most common design on the market. They are the strongest and most durable type of pole and also allow for a wide range of length adjustment — usually between 12 and 16 inches. Furthermore, they are generally less expensive than other designs.

A three-section telescoping pole  fully compacted.
A three-section telescoping pole, fully compacted.

The major downside to the telescoping pole design is that the minimum packed size is longer than any individual piece of the pole. This means that they don't pack to a short length for easy stowing on the outside or inside of a backpack. If your expected activities include time when you'll need to use your hands on the terrain while moving, such as scrambling and technical climbing, you'll need to strap your poles to your pack or stow them inside, so the final packed size is important to consider.

Folding


Folding poles are relatively new to the trekking pole market. They are the lightest and most compact models out there, but they aren't nearly as durable as most three-section telescoping poles. They are, however, durable enough for most climbers and hikers wearing lighter backpacks and are perfect for runners. For climbers, folding poles are especially nice because they can disappear into a backpack during an alpine climb. In general, folding poles are significantly lighter and more compact than three-section telescoping poles. Several of the folding style poles don't feature removable baskets, and they lack the ability to change lengths depending on the user's height or terrain needs.

A folding trekking pole  fully collapsed.
A folding trekking pole, fully collapsed.

Combination


Many new folding style poles also feature one section of telescoping pole so that it is possible to adjust the pole length, though not as much as a three-section telescoping pole. Usually, combination poles allow six to eight inches of length adjustment, as much as you'll ever need. We found this to be a great addition to the folding style pole as it allows it to be more versatile. If you don't mind the extra few ounces, these poles take the best aspects of each style. The combination design is our favorite of the modern trekking pole designs.

A combination pole  which is a folding pole with some length adjustability below the grip.
A combination pole, which is a folding pole with some length adjustability below the grip.

Shaft Material


Modern trekking pole shafts are constructed from either carbon fiber or aluminum.

Carbon Fiber


Carbon is a light and stiff material used in products that need to support a lot of weight, but also need to be light. Carbon fiber poles are extremely strong when loaded vertically, and are the lightest pole options on the market. However, they are weak when bent horizontally. They also can chip or crack easily on rocks, which makes them more likely to snap. Carbon fiber poles are best for light to moderate duty use where weight is the most important consideration, like ultralight backpacking, climbing, and running. Be prepared to pay more for carbon fiber poles.

Carbon pole sections are light and strong in compression  but can chip around the edges and snap unexpectedly with lots of wear and tear.
Carbon pole sections are light and strong in compression, but can chip around the edges and snap unexpectedly with lots of wear and tear.

Aluminum


Aluminum poles are heavier than carbon fiber poles, but they are much more durable. They also tend to be cheaper. Aluminum bends without snapping, which can be a lifesaver on long trips where breaking a pole would be a major problem. These poles are best for long-distance trekking, trips where durability is the primary concern, and for hikers on a budget.

Aluminum pole shafts are heavier than carbon shafts  but they bend before breaking  are more resistant to chipping  and are less expensive.
Aluminum pole shafts are heavier than carbon shafts, but they bend before breaking, are more resistant to chipping, and are less expensive.

Pole Adjustment Mechanism


All of the adjustable poles in our review use a lever lock adjustment system. This system has replaced the old twist-lock system used extensively in the past. If you are new to the lever lock system, you will be impressed by the ease of use and secure locking that this system provides. Some poles use plastic lever locks to save weight, which are more prone to snapping or getting smashed when thrown down onto the ground. The more durable options feature aluminum lever locks that rarely break in the field.


Basket Size


Different activities require different size pole baskets. Some poles come with fixed baskets, while others have the option to use interchangeable baskets. Larger baskets are better for snowshoeing, mountaineering, and skiing or snowboarding, but get hung up on roots and bushes if you're hiking through the woods in the summer. Smaller baskets are better for dry hiking on dirt, gravel, and rocky trails. Many options come with a small basket for the summer and a large basket for snowy conditions.


Weight


Many users don't pay attention to how much their equipment weighs. Early adventurers picked up their equipment from the nearest military surplus store and bolted off into the wilderness with heavy loads and positive attitudes. Luckily, the explosion of interest in outdoor activities has brought major advances in materials and design to outdoor gear of all types, including trekking poles. While old-school thinkers may eschew these advances as unnecessary, we can't deny the increased possibilities that lighter, stronger gear provides.

As such, weight should be a concern in proportion to how lofty your objectives are. If you are new to hiking and plan on using poles for day hikes and relatively easy overnight backpacking trips, then weight is not that important. These users will be unlikely to see any major benefits from selecting lightweight (and expensive) poles, compared to heavier, more comfortable, and perhaps more affordable alternatives.

However, for users who plan on going big, like thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail, long-distance mountain running, or approaching difficult alpine climbs, lightweight poles might mean the difference between success and failure, and they'll certainly make the effort more enjoyable. For these users, we strongly recommend that you incorporate weight into your trekking pole selection.

The Distance Carbon Z is our favorite ultralight pole.
The Distance Carbon Z is our favorite ultralight pole.

Grip Ergonomics and Material


Each pole manufacturer seems to have a different grip design, meaning that some contour to the muscles of the hand better than others. The more expensive options generally have better grip ergonomics, but — we feel — are worth the cost. Over a long trip, hand comfort goes a long way.

Showing the several styles of grip shapes and materials used on trekking poles  with several cork models on the left  rubber handles in the middle and foam on the right.
Showing the several styles of grip shapes and materials used on trekking poles, with several cork models on the left, rubber handles in the middle and foam on the right.

Pole grips are made out of foam, cork, or rubber. Overall, cork grips are a favorite because they mold to the shape of your hands over time. They are also smooth against the skin and keep cool during warm hikes. The downside to cork grips is that they don't absorb sweat very well and can feel slippery during long trips. Foam is more comfortable than rubber, absorbs sweat very well, and is the lightest grip material. As such, it is used on the lightest poles that are designed for fast hiking and running. Rubber grips don't absorb any water, can chafe bare skin, and are the heaviest option, but they do insulate better than cork or foam. This makes rubber a great grip material for poles used in mountaineering, snowshoeing, skiing, or other winter sports.


Packed Size


Packability is more important to some users than to others. If you are going to be using your poles for every mile of your trip, and you won't be packing your poles in airplane luggage, then packability is not very important. Climbers, mountaineers, and backpackers who might encounter technical terrain need the ability to carry their poles on or inside of their pack. For these users, or for anyone trying to take up less space in luggage, poles that collapse to a shorter length are better.

The Distance Carbon Z trekking poles are excellent in regards to packability and weight-savings.
The Distance Carbon Z trekking poles are excellent in regards to packability and weight-savings.

Versatility


Trekking poles are employed in a variety of activities, including hiking, trekking, backpacking, approaching technical climbing and mountaineering objectives, trail running, and even skiing and snowshoeing. Some poles are purpose-built for a very specific activity, and others are capable of performing well across the board. All of the poles in our review can be used for light hiking, heavy backpacking, and trail running. Some are better at one activity or another, but they can all be used in a variety of situations.

Truly versatile poles won't be the lightest carbon models for running ultra marathons, and they won't be as strong as the heavy-duty workhorses designed for rugged travel to places like Everest Base Camp. However, most aluminum poles with solid lever locks, three-section designs, and relatively small packed weights will be versatile enough for most trail uses. Unless you plan on carrying a heavy backpack in rugged off-trail travel conditions, we'd recommend opting for a lighter option with a small packed size. Even the lightest poles in our review will be durable enough for most uses, and the weight savings are noticeable with each step.

In general, the foldable poles are better for climbing, mountaineering, and splitboarding, where they need to disappear onto a pack for much of the day. The lightest poles are great for running and ultralight backpacking but lack the strength needed for heavier impact activities like long-distance backpacking and snowshoeing. Additionally, more adjustable poles and those with exchangeable baskets can be used for a wider variety of activities.

Testing the BD Distance Carbon FLZ on a training run.
Poles are incredibly helpful for steep climbs  especially when hiking off-trail in the High Sierra above 11 000 feet.

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