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How to Choose The Right Trekking Pole

Trekking poles add a lot of stability  something that becomes even more apparent the rougher the trail or the more arduous the terrain becomes. Here  Dan Whitmore gets a feel for the Black Diamond Trail Back while hiking into the North Fork of Bridge Creek.
Friday January 3, 2020
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Ten years ago hardly anyone used trekking poles. These days you'll find them used by casual hikers, trail runners, mountaineers, and thru-hikers. Trekking poles help save your joints, aid with balance, and save energy on steep climbs. 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.

First off, if you are wondering "Why do I need trekking poles for hiking?", then check out our article 10 Reasons For Trekking Poles as well as The Best Trekking Poles where we rated 13 different trekking poles 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.

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.

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.

The FLZ's locking mechanisms: a push-button that locks the folding sections into place  and a lever lock for length adjustments.
The lever lock tightening dial is easy to adjust by hand.
The Leki's lever lock (left) and push button (right) combine to provide secure locking and length adjustment.

Number of Sections and Overall Design


There are three designs that nearly all trekking poles use: three-section telescoping, folding, and combination versions. Two section poles are the strongest, and poles that feature a combination of telescoping and folding offer a great combination of packability and adjustability. Each style offers distinct advantages and disadvantages.

Folding and combination-design poles (left and center) pack smaller than three section telescoping poles (right). Telescoping options usually have more length adjustability.
Folding and combination-design poles (left and center) pack smaller than three section telescoping poles (right). Telescoping options usually have more length adjustability.

Three Section Telescoping

Three-section telescoping poles are the most common design on the market. They are the most durable type of pole, and also allow a wide range of length adjustment. They can be strapped to a backpack or put into an averaged sized suitcase fairly easily, and can be taken apart into three sections for even smaller packed size. They are also what most people buy for hiking, trekking, and backpacking due to their durability. This was the most common design in our reviews this year.

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 durable enough for most climbers and hikers wearing lighter backpacks and are perfect for runners. For climbers, they 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 option to adjust the poles extended length.

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. 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.

Material


Aluminum and carbon fiber are the two most common materials used in trekking pole shafts.

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.

Thin carbon shaft sections help the FLZ remain lightweight while providing strength.
Thin carbon shaft sections help the FLZ remain lightweight while providing strength.

Aluminum

Aluminum poles are heavier than carbon fiber poles, but they are much more durable. Aluminum poles also tend to be cheaper than carbon fiber poles. 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.

Solid aluminum shaft sections give the Makalu excellent strength and durability.
Solid aluminum shaft sections give the Makalu excellent strength and durability.

Basket size


Different activities require different sie 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.

This pole comes with small baskets  rubber tips (shown)  and carbide metal tips. It is also compatible with BD's Z-Pole Snow Baskets (sold separately).
The Komperdell's baskets are a good size for most hiking uses. In dense brush  they'll get caught.

Weight


Pole weight is more nuanced than it sounds. Many people are drawn to the lightest poles on the market for their pleasant swing weight and ability to disappear into a pack when they aren't being used. However, lighter poles tend to be less durable than heavier poles, either because they are made with more fragile carbon fiber material, or because they have a thinner construction. Lighter poles also tend to be more expensive, but not always. The good thing is that there is not much difference between the lightest poles and the heaviest poles, compared to other backpacking equipment like tents and sleeping bags.

Grips 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 seemed to have better grip ergonomics, but we found that they were 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 win our Top Pick Award for their packability and weight-savings.
The Distance Carbon Z trekking poles win our Top Pick Award for their packability and weight-savings.

Foldable poles usually collapse much smaller than three section telescoping poles, but foldable poles are not adjustable. Some poles on the market fold down to a short length, but also feature one lever lock adjustment mechanism to provide some length adjustment.

Versatility


Versatility measures how a pair of poles can be effectively used in different activities. We compared the poles and in each review talked about how each pole stacks up for hiking, backpacking, trekking, climbing, mountaineering, skiing, snowshoeing, and splitboarding. Many of the poles in our review can be used for light hiking, heavy backpacking, and skiing.

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 essential for steep climbs  especially when off trail in the High Sierra above 11 000 feet.


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