How to Choose Trekking Poles

By Michael Lanza

You want trekking poles for backpacking, dayhiking, running mountain trails, ski touring, or other backcountry activities, but the abundance of models and designs out there can seem overwhelming. Collapsible or folding, ultralight or heavier and sturdier, adjustable or not—which style is best for you? Save yourself a lot of time and the expense of making the wrong choice. This article will explain the key differences between models of trekking poles and how to choose the right poles for your needs.

My tips come from thousands of trail and off-trail miles using every type of pole out there on backpacking trips, dayhikes, mountain climbs and scrambles, ultra-trail runs and dayhikes, and backcountry skiing over more than a quarter-century of testing and reviewing gear, including 10 years as the lead gear reviewer for Backpacker magazine and even longer for this blog.

See my review of “The Best Trekking Poles” and my “10 Best Expert Tips for Hiking With Trekking Poles.”

Click on any photo below to read about that trip. Share your own tips or questions in the comments section at the bottom of this story. I try to respond to all comments.


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A backpacker on the Redgap Pass Trail in Glacier National Park.
Todd Arndt backpacking the Redgap Pass Trail in Glacier National Park. Click photo to see my e-guides to Glacier and other parks.

What to Look for in Trekking Poles

Look closely at trekking poles and you will see they are not nearly all the same. In fact, poles differ in many significant ways besides price and weight, including:

• Adjustable or fixed length (not adjustable)
• Adjustability range
• Collapsible or folding
• Collapsed or folded (packed) length
• Features like the length-adjusting mechanism, straps, and grips
• Materials used in the shafts, grips, and straps
• Durability
• Recommended uses

The poles you buy should match the type and style of activities for which you will use them.. Consider these factors when shopping:

Price

• From around $60 to well over $200, trekking poles come in a huge range of prices.
• Price is often driven by materials—you’ll pay extra for lightweight, strong carbon fiber shafts and soft cork grips.

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A hiker at Goat Lake below Thompson Peak, Sawtooth Mountains, Idaho.
My wife, Penny, hiking past Goat Lake, below Thompson Peak, Sawtooth Mountains, Idaho. Click photo to learn how I can help you plan your next trip.

Weight

• While the weight of poles may not seem to differ much at first glance, it becomes noticeable the more miles you hike with poles in your hands.
• Their weight—as well as packed length—also matter when the poles are attached to your pack at times while hiking.
• Among the models reviewed here, the heaviest are about twice the weight of the lightest.
• Benefits of lighter poles include decreased arm fatigue and often better packability.
• Tradeoffs sometimes, but not always, include a higher price and less durability or strength for hard use and for pitching an ultralight tent using trekking poles.

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Materials

• Hiking poles are generally built with either aluminum or carbon fiber or a combination of both.
• Aluminum is heavier, less expensive, and more prone to bending under heavy pressure but not breaking—so they typically last longer.
• Carbon fiber is lighter and easier to carry, especially on longer days in the backcountry; but also more expensive, and in some ways stronger, but can also snap, although that occurs only in unusual circumstances.
• Heavier poles are generally more durable, especially for hard use; but I’ve had some ultralight poles for years of trail hiking without breaking them.

A backpacker hiking the Tapeats Creek Trail on the Thunder River-Deer Creek Loop in the Grand Canyon.
Chip Roser backpacking the Tapeats Creek Trail on the Thunder River-Deer Creek Loop in the Grand Canyon. Click photo to read all stories about Grand Canyon backpacking trips at The Big Outside.

Collapsible

• Collapsible poles have two or three sections that telescope or collapse together for transport and storage and extend to a range of lengths for use.
• These typically employ a twist- or lever-locking mechanism or retractable, spring-loaded pin to lock the sections in place.
• Note the packed length of these poles: It can vary significantly, which matters when you’re attaching them to the outside of a pack—especially a small pack—or putting them in luggage.

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A backpacker in The Narrows in Zion National Park.
David Gordon backpacking The Narrows in Zion National Park.

Matching Trekking Poles and Users

Type of Trekking PoleRecommended Use
Ultralight, folding polesBest for users who prioritize minimal weight and packability, including lightweight/ultralight backpackers, thru-hikers, dayhikers, and ultra-hikers and runners.
Ultralight, adjustable, collapsible polesBest for backpackers, dayhikers, climbers, and others seeking a balance between reasonable strength, durability, and low weight, and lightweight/ultralight backpackers using tents that pitch with trekking poles.
Lightweight, collapsible polesBest for many backpackers, dayhikers, and climbers who want one versatile pair of poles that balance strength and moderate weight.
Sturdier and heavier, collapsible or folding polesBest for users who prioritize durability and crossover to multiple activities over low weight, including backpackers carrying moderate to heavy loads, dayhikers, backcountry skiers and split-boarders, snowshoers, and anyone climbing mountains and hiking off-trail.

See my picks for “The 10 Best Trekking Poles” and my “10 Best Expert Tips for Hiking With Trekking Poles,” and all of my reviews of backpacking gear, ultralight backpacking gear, and hiking gear.

Whether you’re a beginner or seasoned backpacker, you’ll learn new tricks for making all of your trips go better in my “How to Plan a Backpacking Trip—12 Expert Tips,” A Practical Guide to Lightweight and Ultralight Backpacking,” and “How to Know How Hard a Hike Will Be.” With a paid subscription to The Big Outside, you can read all of those three stories for free; if you don’t have a subscription, you can download the e-guide versions of “How to Plan a Backpacking Trip—12 Expert Tips,” the lightweight and ultralight backpacking guide, and “How to Know How Hard a Hike Will Be.”

NOTE: I tested gear for Backpacker Magazine for 20 years. At The Big Outside, I review only what I consider the best outdoor gear and apparel. See categorized menus of all gear reviews and expert buying tips at The Big Outside.

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