First off, if you are wondering "why do you even need trekking poles for hiking?", then check out our article 10 Reasons For Trekking Poles as well as our The Best Trekking Pole Review For Hiking and Backpacking where we pitted eleven of the best and most popular trekking poles head-to-head in a series of real-world testing and evaluative comparisons.
Here are things to consider when shopping for trekking poles.
Pole adjustment mechanism
The lever lock action trekking poles are easier, more durable and quicker to adjust than twist lock products. After extensive testing, we also feel that nearly all of the lever lock style mechanisms just plain outlast the twist lock style and are less troublesome like the twist lock poles can be on dusty trails which we found to have negative effects when dirt and grit got into the twist mechanism. This is becoming less of a big deal because just three or four years ago only one or two companies were using a lever lock and now a majority of the contenders in our review use one. In fact, this year for our trekking pole review not one of the poles we reviewed had a twist lock mechanism. All of the poles had some form of lever lock mechanism.
Number of Sections and Overall Design
There are three significant designs that nearly all trekking poles use; two section telescoping, three section telescoping, folding/tent versions, and sometimes a combination of telescoping and folding. Each style offers distinct advantages and disadvantages.
Basic Pole Designs
Two Section Telescoping
Two section poles are the strongest and stiffest overall design and thus better for activities like skiing, snowshoeing or for folks who are just plain super hard on their poles. Two section poles do, however, pack down the least and don't carry on a pack very well even when shrunk down as short as they will go. Because these poles tend to be designed with the above advantages in mind there tends to be a lot of pole overlap to make them even stronger; so while they only have two sections, they are rarely lighter and most often slightly heavier than other pole designs.
Three Section Telescoping
Three section telescoping poles the most common trekking pole design and are significantly more compact than two section poles, and nearly all three section options can be strapped to a backpack or put into an averaged sized suitcase just fine. Three section designs tend to be equal to, or most often lighter than two section poles but aren't nearly as strong, though they are strong enough for rugged or even heavy duty backpacking and mountaineering. Three telescoping section poles are what most people buy for hiking, trekking, backpacking, mountaineering, and climbing.
Folding or Tent pole style
Newer folding or "tentpole" style trekking poles have only really been out for what's now going on three or four seasons. These folding poles are some of the lightest and most compact models out there, but they aren't nearly as durable as most two or three section telescoping poles. They are durable enough for most climbers and hikers for backpacking trips on trails and medium duty cross country travel. For climbers they are specifically nice because they pack up so small you can carry them on, or better yet, inside your climbing pack to carry up and over alpine rock climbs. As a whole, most folding style trekking poles are 7-9 inches shorter than most telescoping poles and depending on how "light-duty" you go, can be 10-14 ounces lighter weight. Several of the folding style poles don't feature removable baskets. One reason is to lighten the pole further, but the other reason is that several of them are not sturdy enough for this intended use.
Many new folding style poles also feature one section of telescoping pole so that it is possible to adjust the pole when it is deployed. We found this to be a great addition to the folding style pole as it allows it to be more versatile. Although not as adjustable as a full 3 section telescoping pole, we found that the combination poles were plenty adjustable for our uses.
Aluminum and carbon fiber are the two most popular materials used in trekking pole construction. Carbon is lighter, stiffer and stronger, but if they take an impact and get a dent or a crack, they are done. Comparatively, aluminum is slightly heavier but can take a dig or two and keep on trekking and are easily repairable in the field.
Pole basket size depends on what activity you plan to do. Most pole manufacturers have different diameter holes, and thus baskets are not interchangeable. However, many manufacturers do crossover, like two of the biggest, Leki and Black Diamond. When buying new baskets for your poles, bring them to the store to make sure they fit or potentially find a different brand that fits your poles. Larger baskets are better for snow but get hung up on roots and bushes if your hiking through the woods. Some companies make 3/4 baskets, but these like you might guess, are still a compromise.
Are they a gimmick? A few people swear by them. All of our testers didn't feel the shocks make the pole any more comfortable. The shock did make the pole feel slightly less stable while hopping on rocks crossing streams or other times when the poles were required for additional balance. So think critically about if you want or need a shock absorber before you focus on poles that have them just because it sounds like a good idea.
A few tips about shock absorbers
Shock absorbers do more good on the way down than the way up, where your body is taking the most impact. Many shock absorbing poles offer a feature where the user can turn off the shock feature. This is nice because you will get more "power" from your poles on the way up a hill. The other time it can be nice to turn the shock absorbers off is while aggressively using your poles for balance such as crossing a talus field, hoping along rocks or walking on a downed log over a river where you are pushing on your poles and don't want the "cushion" that the shock provides.
Obviously lighter is better than heavier. One thing to take into consideration about trekking pole weight is when compared with larger items like packs or tents, there doesn't appear to be nearly as big of a difference between different trekking pole weight. For instance, in our review the biggest difference from the heaviest pole to the lightest pole was 14 ounces with most poles fitting into a 10-ounce range, adding 5 ounces to each arm. This might not seem like a lot at first, but consider you are lifting your arm up thousands of times per day, potentially 10,000 or more times on a multi-day trip. This aspect is where the weight savings and reduced fatigue can really add up, so don't just brush off the lighter poles because they are only 5-10 ounces lighter. Lastly, people who initially don't like poles are often even more impressed with lighter ones.
Grips Ergonomics and Material
There are numerous styles of handles available primarily using three different types of materials; cork, rubber, and foam. Each of these elements offers various advantages and some disadvantages. Overall, cork grips are a favorite because they break into the shape of your hands like a Birkenstock sandal does to your foot. They are cooler than rubber grips, but more substantial and maybe a touch sweatier than foam grips. Rubber grips don't absorb any water, whereas cork can absorb a little bit of moisture and foam can take in a lot. Rubber grips are better for people who want to use their poles mountaineering, snowshoeing, skiing or other winter sports.
Foam grips also feel the least cold, something that's not an issue for most backpackers but a more significant factor for climbers and mountaineers. Some people who hike in hot climates or have particularly sweaty hands can get chaffing on their hands over long distances with rubber grips. Rubber grips also tend to be the heaviest of all the grips materials. Foam grips are a little softer to hold thus minimizing rubbing and keep your hand slightly cooler than cork and even more so compared to rubber. Besides keeping your hands cooler, foam handles can absorb water and snow can stick to them making them even less ideal for cold weather actives. Foam is the lightest of all the grip materials, and it's what you will find on all the super light 15 ounces and below poles.
Packability is more important to some people than others. Climbers, mountaineers and some backpackers need the ability to carry their poles on, or even sometimes inside their pack and generally the shorter, the better. Another advantage to having shorter poles is that they are easier to travel with, packing more easily into a suitcase. If you don't plan on traveling or packing your poles much then compactness is much less of a factor.
Versatility refers to how many things your pole can do or will excel at. We compared these poles and in each review talked about how each pole stacks up for hiking, backpacking, trekking, climbing, mountaineering, skiing, snowshoeing, and splitboarding. Some general thoughts are that poles that get smaller are better for activities where you carry them on your back such as when climbing or splitboarding. Poles with shocks are nicer for hard well-worn trails but aren't quite as nice for rocky or off-trail terrain where you are using your poles to balance. While the shock absorption doesn't hurt this balance much, it is unnecessary and only adds weight.
Make Your Poles Last Longer
A tip for making your Trekking poles last longer, after every use, especially on wet hikes or on snow, take your poles apart to let them dry.
Chris McNamara's Story
After getting a severe leg bruise, I had to hike to the top of El Capitan. Luckily, as we were driving into Yosemite Valley, the Yosemite Mountain Shop was open. I asked for their cheapest poles and they gave me the Trail. They literally saved my legs that day. I was able to put a lot of weight on my arms on the hike up. Then, when we rappelled the face of El Capitan to rig ropes for filming Steve Wampler's climb, these poles fit easily off to the side of my harness without getting caught in the ropes (the extra shortness was key). When we got to the base of El Capitan, I extended the poles again and used them to walk down to the car. I liked them so much I took them on my next El Capitan climb - something I had never done before. Because they are so compact, I could clip them under the haul bag without them getting too tangled. When it came time for the East Ledges descent, out came the poles and saved my knees again!