How to Choose Trekking Poles

How to Choose Trekking Poles: Female hiker using trekking poles on a scenic mountain trail

In this post, we'll take a look at:

Have you ever wondered how some hikers effortlessly walk up really steep mountain trails when you have to work really hard just to keep from falling? The secret may be in what they carry – trekking poles.

This guide will help you understand the basics of these nifty hiking accessories and, most importantly, provide tips on how to choose the trekking poles that will make hiking or walking more fun and less tiring.

Types of Trekking Poles

Trekking poles come in various designs, and understanding their differences is crucial in finding the right pair. Here are the four main design configurations:

1. 3-Section Telescoping Poles:

LEKI Cross Trail Lite Carbon Trekking Poles

This design is popular and effective on different terrains. You can change the length for uphill and downhill parts. They are collapsible and usually measure between ~24 inches (packed) and ~54 inches (fully extended) (61-137cm). Telescoping poles often come with built-in shock absorption, reducing joint strain as you go.

2. Folding Poles:

LEKI Black Series FX Carbon Trekking Poles

Folding poles are a relatively new design in the trekking pole market. They are the most compact option in terms of pack size but might not be as durable as telescoping ones. Also, many folding poles lack the adjustability of telescoping poles, offering only 6 to 8 inches (15-20cm) of length adjustment.

3. Fixed-length Poles:

Leki Fixed Length Platinum trekking poles

Some poles come in a single, fixed length with no collapsibility or length adjustment. This design reduces weight and adds strength by eliminating adjustment components. Fixed-length poles are ideal for those focused on minimizing kit weight or those who are into trail running. However, as you can imagine, these are challenging to travel with and nearly impossible to bring on a plane.

Unpacking the Key Features

Trekking poles placed crisscross on a field

Shaft Material

The material of your trekking pole shafts plays a significant role in their performance and durability. Trekking poles are primarily constructed from two different materials: carbon fiber and aluminum:

  • Carbon Fiber: Carbon fiber poles are extremely lightweight and offer great strength when loaded vertically. However, they can be expensive and more prone to chipping or cracking, especially in rough terrain.
  • Aluminum: Aluminum poles are heavier than carbon fiber, but they are exceptionally durable. They can endure bending without snapping, making them a reliable choice for long-distance trekking and rugged terrain. They are also often more budget-friendly than carbon fiber options.

Pole Adjustment Mechanism

Trekking poles offer adjustable features to suit hikers’ preferences and terrain. Knowing these mechanisms is vital when selecting the right poles.

Key adjustment mechanisms include:

  • Lever Lock mechanisms have become the standard for adjustable trekking poles. Some poles use plastic lever locks to save weight, but they may be more susceptible to snapping or damage when mishandled. More robust options feature aluminum lever locks that provide added durability.
  • Twist Locks: While less common today, some older trekking poles still use twist-lock mechanisms. Twist locks can be reliable, but they may require more effort and time to adjust compared to modern lever locks.

Tips

The tips at the bottom end of trekking poles play a critical role in traction, durability, and performance on different terrains.

Here are some key things to know about pole tips:

  • Carbide Tips: Made of tungsten carbide, these are extremely hard and durable while still providing excellent traction. They excel at withstanding repeated impact on rocks and rugged trails. However, they can be prone to cracking if excessive lateral force is applied.
  • Steel Tips: More affordable but less durable than carbide, steel tips work well for general hiking conditions. Their softer metal wears down faster on rough terrain.
  • Rubber Tips: Providing good traction in mud, snow or wet conditions, rubber tips are quieter, provide great absorption, and more protective of sensitive surfaces like wooden footbridges. However, they lack the hardness for technical trails.

Luckily, many poles allow interchangeable tips that screw into the final pole section. This allows customizing your tips based on current terrain and conditions.

Basket Size

The size of the baskets on your trekking poles affects how well they perform in different terrains and weather conditions.

Here’s what you need to know about basket sizes:

  • Small baskets typically have a diameter ranging from 2 to 3 inches (5-7.6 cm). These baskets are best suited for dry terrain, such as dirt trails and rocky paths, where obstacles are minimal.
  • Large baskets have a significantly wider diameter, usually between 4 and 6 inches (10-15.2 cm). These baskets excel in snowy, soft, or loose terrain, providing stability and preventing the poles from sinking deep into the snow.

Some trekking poles have interchangeable baskets that allow you to switch between small and large options, providing flexibility for various conditions.

Grip Ergonomics and Material

The grip is critical for comfort and control. Understanding ergonomics and materials is key to choosing the right grip.

Grip Shapes

  • Contoured Grips: Many trekking poles feature contoured grips designed to fit the natural shape of your hand. These grips are ergonomic and offer comfort during extended treks. They help reduce hand fatigue and blisters.
  • Straight Grips: Some poles come with straight or cylindrical grips. While these are less ergonomic, they can still provide a secure hold for those who prefer a simpler design.

Grip Materials

  • Cork grips are a favorite among hikers because they mold to the shape of your hands over time, providing a personalized fit. They are smooth against the skin and remain cool during warm hikes. However, cork grips do not absorb sweat well and may feel slippery during extended use.
  • Foam grips are comfortable and lightweight. They excel at absorbing sweat, making them an excellent choice for warm-weather hiking. Foam grips are often found on poles designed for fast hiking and running.
  • Rubber grips do not absorb water and can chafe bare skin. However, they provide excellent insulation, which can be advantageous in colder conditions.

Hand Straps

Pay attention to the design and material of the hand straps. Look for padded and adjustable straps that distribute the pressure evenly across your hand and wrist. Breathable strap materials like nylon or polyester prevent skin irritation. Leather is always a good premium option.

How to Choose Trekking Poles

Hikers using trekking poles to navigate a mountain hillside

Now that you’re well-versed in the essential aspects of trekking poles, it’s time to make an informed decision and choose the right pair for your outdoor adventures.

Follow these steps to ensure you select trekking poles that suit your needs:

  1. Consider Your Terrain established trails favor fixed-length poles, while adjustable ones suit rugged or snowy conditions. Opt for poles with interchangeable tips. Choose larger baskets for mud, snow, or loose ground; smaller ones for solid, dry trails.
  2. Assess Your Goals: What are your hiking goals – short day hikes, backpacking trips, or thru-hikes? More ambitious plans require premium poles with maximum durability and versatility. For big adventures, invest in top-quality poles that will fully support your needs over long distances. Don’t skimp on critical gear for ambitious treks.
  3. Determine The Correct Pole Length: Choose the appropriate pole length based on your height and intended use. Most poles offer adjustable lengths to accommodate different terrains and activities. Telescopic and folding designs allow for more flexibility in adjusting pole height. You can learn more here.
  4. Assess Grip Ergonomics: Select a grip material and shape that ensures comfort during extended use. Cork grips mold to your hands over time but may not absorb sweat well. Foam grips offer comfort and moisture absorption, while rubber grips excel in winter conditions.
  5. Consider Packability: Evaluate the packed size of your poles, especially if you’ll need to stow them during certain activities or while traveling. Foldable or compact designs are beneficial for climbers and ultralight backpackers with limited space.

To make your life a bit easier, here are some popular ultralight trekking pole options:

Brand / ModelWeight per pole oz (g)
Gossamer Gear LT5 Three Piece Carbon Trekking Poles4.9 (139)
Black Diamond Distance Carbon Z Poles5.1 (145)
Zpacks Carbon Fiber Trekking Poles7.2 (205)
Helinox Passport TL130 Adjustable5.8 (164)
Mountainsmith Andesite Trekking Poles5.3 (150)

Conclusion

In conclusion, trekking poles are extremely helpful for outdoor fans. They offer many benefits like better stability, less joint impact, saving energy, improved balance, and use in different activities.

To pick the right pair, remember it’s important to know about the designs, materials, adjustments, basket sizes, grip comfort, and hand strap styles.

We trust this post was useful. Treat yourself to a new pair of dependable companions and step into the outdoors with confidence. Happy hiking!


Interested? You can also check out our TOP 5 Guide for the lightest trekking poles on the market.

FAQ

What are the main benefits of using trekking poles?

Trekking poles make hiking easier by providing better stability, balance, and shock absorption on rough terrain. They reduce strain on your knees, ankles, and lower back. With four contact points instead of just two feet, they help save energy, making it easier to handle slopes and long distances. Trekking poles also improve posture, offer an upper body workout, and help check depth and ground composition. Whether going uphill, downhill, or crossing streams, these poles enhance traction, support, and safety. Adjustable and lightweight poles, customized to your height and hiking goals, ensure confident navigation and a more enjoyable outdoor experience.

What materials are trekking poles typically made of?

Trekking poles are typically made from either aluminum or carbon fiber, each with its own pros and cons. Aluminum poles are sturdy and can handle pressure and impacts on rough terrain, although they are heavier than carbon. They offer reliability at an affordable cost. On the other hand, carbon fiber poles are super lightweight, provide stiffness and stability when loaded vertically, and dampen vibrations effectively. However, they are pricier than aluminum and may not withstand lateral forces or falls as well. Considering factors like weight, strength, price, and durability will help you choose the right pole material for your hiking needs and budget.

Are there specific features to look for when choosing trekking poles?

When picking trekking poles, choose adjustable telescoping or folding designs for versatility on different terrains. Check grip and strap ergonomics for a comfortable fit, moisture-wicking, and even pressure distribution to avoid fatigue. Be aware that lever-based adjustments are quicker, while twist locks may get stuck over time. Select basket sizes based on conditions—smaller for dirt or rocks, larger to avoid sinking in mud or snow. Consider durability and capabilities in terms of hiking distance, elevation gain, and off-trail needs. The best poles offer flexibility, comfort, safety, and terrain-specific features like shock absorption and anti-microbial grips, all within your budget. With many factors to consider, seeking expert advice can help find the perfect poles for your hiking preferences and destinations.

Are adjustable or fixed-length trekking poles better?

When choosing trekking poles, consider the benefits of adjustable and fixed-length options based on your priorities. Adjustable poles, with telescoping or folding designs, offer the flexibility to change length for uphill and downhill terrain, navigating obstacles, and easy storage. They are versatile and suitable for various terrains and activities. On the other hand, fixed-length poles are great for those focused on minimizing weight and maximizing durability, as they eliminate movable parts. However, their lack of adjustability makes them less portable. Most hikers find adjustable poles, offering flexibility and packability without much added weight, to be the best choice. Yet, ultralight backpackers and trail runners may prefer fixed-length simplicity for gram savings, sacrificing some convenience. Knowing your needs helps strike the right balance between adjustability and minimalism.

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