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.
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.
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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