Sorting through the wide world of trekking poles

Trekking poles provide hikers extra points of contact to aid in stability when crossing a stream. (Provided photo — Spencer Morrissey)

While trekking poles are relatively simple to use, they can be confusing to purchase, and even a bit scary to those with commitment issues. It can be difficult to figure out the difference between the various kinds of poles.

Not only are there several different brands out there to choose from, but you have key features like materials, basket size, suspension or no suspension, grip ergonomics, weight, etc. What I would like to do is give you a bit of a primer on what to look for, if you are deciding to either pick up a new pair or try a pair for the first time.

Trekking poles often create a love-hate relationship with hikers. I love them because I love my knees. I find that trekking poles give me added power going up by incorporating the use of my arms as well as my legs. On the descent, I find they help me to be more efficient and aid in prolonging the life of my joints. When crossing brooks or rock hopping, they give me two extra points of contact for better balance and comfort.

Sometimes, they can be a hindrance or get in the way. In these cases — such as bushwhacking or on super-steep trails where the use of your hands to grab and pull are required — it may be best to leave them at home, or simply run your hand through the loops and let them dangle.

Large basket poles like these are often preferred for winter travel because they help with floatation on the snow. (Provided photo — Spencer Morrissey)

Brands of trekking poles

There are too many to list, but only a few are truly in the limelight as being the best and most dependable. Most snowshoe makers have their own trekking pole designed mainly for winter travel. These poles can be used in summer too by simply removing the baskets.

Many of these are inexpensive, heavy and very basic. Komperdell, Leki and Black Diamond create some of the most widely used trekking poles in the business. They are also some of the best and come with a warranty as well.

Komperdell is reasonably priced, but once you get into the Leki and Black Diamond brands you can drop a bit more pocket change.

Two-section vs. three-section

A two-section pole is much stronger, typically made of aluminum and better for skiing or in situations where durability is a factor.

A three-section pole has the advantage of collapsing to a much smaller, portable piece of equipment. The third section however is much less durable due to its smaller diameter and often not covered under many warranties.

Material

Aluminum — Poles are much heavier, but also much stronger. This durability makes them better for skiing. Aluminum is the least expensive option.

Carbon fiber — These are super light and much more expensive. The durability isn’t as high, but they can take some light abuse.

Fiberglass — Similar to carbon fiber but a bit less expensive. The durability is also similar and should be treated as such.

Grip

This is a personal preference so don’t let this be the only factor in buying or not buying (kind of like leather seats in a car). While many are made of some sort of rubber, some are made of cork.

The biggest complaint of cork is how fast it gets dirty. They also seem to gain an odor after many uses; you can blame the smell on your hiking partner, but sooner or later your pals will figure it out.

Some grips are slightly bent for a more ergonomic feel, which relieves some of the strain on the wrists. These are nice, but also seem to add to the sticker price.

Basket size

There are basically two basket styles available and some come with both: non-snow conditions and winter (snowshoeing and skiing).

Some hikers, like me, prefer no basket when snow is not in the mix. The baskets tend to snag on rocks, roots and branches. However, without a basket, there’s no stopping point in soft terrain. They also get stuck between things. Oh, how these decisions hurt my head.

A common error is a hiker placing the large one over the small one. This is not correct. One must be removed first. If not removed, the other will fall off during the course of the day.

The snow baskets are much larger and help with floatation on the snow and don’t punch through the middle earth as you are trying to get purchase. You will love a large basket in the snow and wonder how you went without so many years (like your first summit beer experience).

Suspension

Many poles now have a spring suspension built into the shaft or a cushion just below the grip. This suspension helps on the descent to take a bit of pressure and shock off the arms, legs, knees and back.

This is also a personal preference, but the suspension does come with a higher price tag. On some models, the suspension can be turned on and off, kind of like a mountain hike.

Locking mechanisms

There are two locking mechanisms on poles, and both have their positives and negatives.

Twist lock — This is the original method of adjustment. The largest downfall to this is the internal locking sleeves tend to get worn out and become smooth. To fix this you can replace the sleeve or use a bit of sandpaper to roughen it back up so it will grip. In the field, course sand or a rock to roughen up the surface temporarily.

Flick lock — This is a simple locking adjustment where only a flick of the thumb locks down the pole section. The tightness can be adjusted in the field with your thumb nail or a dime. The flick lock simply pinches the two pole sections together to keep them from collapsing.

Try before you buy

Here is a thought: Take them for a test run, kick the tires so to speak.

It really is the best way to see what you like. The only problem is you are limited to your choices in most rental programs, but it doesn’t hurt to ask. For about $5 per day, it’s better than buying something you don’t like and later turning it into a feng shui curtain rod. Not that I’ve done that, to your knowledge anyway.

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