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, for many years as the lead gear reviewer for Backpacker magazine, and now for this blog.
You may also want to see my review of “The Best Trekking Poles” and my “10 Best Expert Tips for Hiking With Trekking Poles.”
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
• 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:
• 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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• 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 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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• 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.
• 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.
• Some poles have a folding design, with an internal tension cord that locks the sections (usually three) together, like a tent pole.
• Some cannot be adjusted for length but come in different sizes; others have an adjustable top section, but usually not the adjustability range of telescoping poles.
• Benefits include superior packability—they are much shorter than collapsible poles when folded—and often lower weight.
• They are sometimes made with lighter materials and can be less durable.
• Poles that are not adjustable, collapsible, or folding, and often come in different fixed lengths, are typically among the lightest models.
• They are not easily packable and thus not practical for traveling with or fitting into luggage.
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• The range of useable length to which poles adjust varies widely, from just 20cm (example: 100-120cm) or less, or no adjustability, in folding poles, to a range of 20-30cm or more in telescoping/collapsible poles.
• The length of poles when packed (collapsed or folded) varies from as impressively compact as around 33cm/13 inches to more than twice as long, up to around 74cm/29 inches.
• That matters when you’re attaching them to the outside of a backpack or especially a daypack and trying to fit them inside a gear duffle or luggage.
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• Adjustable poles employ a few different types of mechanisms for locking their sections into place.
• Traditional twist locks often work quite well—especially for users who pay attention to not over-tightening them (read the pole instructions)—but can be a little finicky.
• Locking levers are simpler and highly reliable, and it’s often easy to adjust the tension on the levers in the field. The tension adjustment sometimes requires a tool, like a screwdriver commonly found on multi-tools carried by backpackers and dayhikers, but some require a specialized tool like an Allen key.
• Pins are another simple locking mechanism used in sections that cannot be adjusted for length; generally reliable, they may occasionally get jammed with dirt or debris.
• Hand grips are generally made of either cork, foam, or rubber.
• Cork is more comfortable, durable, and expensive.
• Foam is also comfortable and more affordable but can deteriorate faster, especially in dry environments.
• Rubber is heavier, durable, and somewhat less comfortable and greasier when wet.
• If you’re an off-trail hiker, climber, or backcountry skier, look for poles with grips that extend down the uppermost shaft, for holding the poles below the grips without your hands slipping or contacting cold metal.
• Generally made with nylon, straps should be easily adjustable and not slip.
• Lighter poles tend to have thinner straps, while heavier poles have wider straps for better comfort.
For lightweight and ultralight backpackers and thru-hikers, an additional measurable benefit of some poles is that they enable you to use a tent that pitches with trekking poles, eliminating the significant weight of tent poles from your pack. That’s the single biggest possible cut in the weight of a standard backpacking kit (short of foregoing a shelter altogether and sleeping under the stars). Those poles have to be sufficiently sturdy, typically telescope out to a minimum length for use with some tents, and usually collapsible (rather than folding or fixed).
To help you choose poles that match your activities and how you pursue them—for example, if you’re a backpacker, whether you go ultralight, lightweight, or carry a moderate to heavy load—the chart below describes four categories of trekking poles and recommended user groups for each type of pole.
Matching Trekking Poles and Users
|Type of Trekking Pole||Recommended Use|
|Ultralight, folding poles||Best for users who prioritize minimal weight and packability, including lightweight/ultralight backpackers, thru-hikers, dayhikers, and ultra-hikers and runners.|
|Ultralight, adjustable, collapsible poles||Best 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 poles||Best 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 poles||Best 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 “12 Expert Tips for Planning a Wilderness Backpacking Trip” and “A Practical Guide to Lightweight and Ultralight Backpacking.” If you don’t have a paid subscription to The Big Outside, you can read part of both stories for free, or download the e-guide versions of “12 Expert Tips for Planning a Wilderness Backpacking Trip” and the lightweight backpacking guide without having a paid membership.
Learn the tricks for gauging a hike’s difficulty before you leave home—including a five-level difficulty rating system—in my story “How to Know How Hard a Hike Will Be.” You can read part of that story without a paid subscription to The Big Outside, or click here now to download the e-guide version it.
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 my gear reviews at The Big Outside.
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