As our 2017 trekking pole test concluded, we discovered some major leaps in performance in this category across the board. Some testers found the lightweight models made choosing to carry and use poles on all trips regardless of length, both for ascent and descent, made more sense. Our technical rock climbers were pleased that folding pole technology allowed them to bring and easily stash a pair of trekking poles in small technical climbing bags once they reached the cliff. Our winter trekkers and skiers all felt like these models could serve multisport purpose and had great year-round versatility. In the future we will likely segregate folding pole models with traditional collapsing models as we expect the industry will continue to design great models utilizing both technologies.
The lightest model we tested was the REI Flash Carbon. However, three other models were within one ounce and had other features that ended up pushing the REI Flash Carbon down the overall list. The heaviest model we tested was the Mountainsmith 7075 Pyrite trekking poles.
The Leki Micro Vario Carbon and Black Diamond FLZ tied for most-packable models in our lineup, collapsing down more than 10 inches smaller than any other models because they were the only two that used foldable technology. The Montem Ultralights were the most packable model that used the traditional collapsing technology and the REI Flash was the least packable in the test.
The Montem Ultralights and Leki Micro Vario Carbons tied for most comfortable grips and balanced swing. Despite a cork grip, the Mountainsmith 7075 Pyrite scored the lowest in comfort/swing due to its weight and less ergonomic grip.
The Leki Micro Vario Carbon, Montem Ultralight and Leki Carbon Ti all tied for best features. Testers looked for glove-friendly tensioner adjustment, and included accessories like trekking baskets, powder baskets and storage bags when considering overall features.
Since none of the models failed throughout the testing period it was difficult to discuss durability, so all models seemed quite equal. Both aluminum and carbon fiber models showed little more than slight cosmetic scratches in the finish. Testers were all experienced hikers who used extra caution when hiking in large boulder fields/talus slopes where many have snapped a lower section of a trekking pole when it gets caught in a crevice and the traveler maintains forward momentum.
Our testers put hundreds of miles on each model in mountain ranges around the world. From the White Mountains of New Hampshire to the Cascades of Washington and even a trek to Everest Base Camp we were happy to find not a single model tested failed over all that terrain.
This concrete criteria is verified by a calibrated digital scale and is recorded with only trekking baskets in cases where additional accessories are included. Powder baskets, travel tips, indoor tips, are not included in measured weight.
We determine this by measuring the minimum collapsed or folded mode. While collapsable models can sometimes be disassembled to pack, we do not consider that convenient for those in the field so we omit that info/option in our testing. Some consideration is given to the diameter of the poles.
To determine how comfortable a model is we look at multiple aspects. The grip material against bare skin in all weather conditions, the adjustability and padding (if any) on the wrist strap, the ability to “choke down” on the grip, the balance and “feel” of the pole as the tester swings it into position for the next placement, all get considered when determining overall Comfort/Swing scores.
In this category we look at everything from adjustable wrist straps to included accessories. Tool free adjustment of tensioners and included accessories like powder baskets, travel/storage bags, etc. all help drive this score up.
In order to test durability we require more than a hundred miles be put on each test model. We then inspect each model for damage or any sign of excessive wear. We check the adjustable tension of expanding nuts in collapsible models and look for any stress cracks in our carbon fiber models.
What is a Trekking Pole?
Trekking poles are much more than “hiking sticks.” Modern design creates high performance options that help backcountry skiers, hikers, snowshoers and climbers go further and faster with less stress on their knees during descents, and more all body power on ascents. Once you start hiking with trekking poles you wonder how you hiked for so long without them!
The two biggest distinctions in this category is collapsible (usually telescopic) versus foldable and aluminum versus carbon fiber (or composite). Collapsible tend to be more affordable, but do not pack as well as foldable. Aluminum is heavier than carbon, but also more affordable and durable.
Our highest rated poles were very lightweight, packable and comfortable to use. Lower rated poles tended to be heavy, have more difficult adjustment mechanisms, and not collapse small enough to conveniently travel with or strap to the outside of a small pack when hands are needed during scrambles.
It is clear that manufactures are using lighter materials and design to trim weight while maintaining adequate durability. Typical retail price ranged from $55 for budget models up to $200 for “performance” luxury models.
All models in our test had height adjustable features. Some telescoping models use an internal cam that expands when you twist the adjacent pole section. Others had a level lock style cam that might require some tweaking with a tension adjuster. The folding models all had the lock style cam on their upper pole section allowing for some adjustability. Some models also offered some level of shock absorption either through an internal spring that acts like a strut while others made of carbon fiber had an overall dampening effect.
Handle/Grip: The top of the pole meant for your hand
Pommel: A rounded feature often on top of the handle that allows an open-palmed grip, useful during descents
Shelf: A raised section on the handle/grip that you can slide your hand down to for short steep sections
“Choke Down”: the act of sliding your hand down the handle/shaft to keep your arms in a more balanced position when encountering a short steep section of trail
Trekking Basket: a small basket that is attached to the bottom of the trekking pole intended to help keep the pole tips from penetrating to deeply in mud and earth
Powder Basket: a large basket that is attached to the bottom of the trekking pole intended to help keep the pole tips from penetrating to deeply in snow
Carbide Tip: the durable metal tip on the bottom which grips well on both rock and in dirt
Indoor/Walking Tips: a thick rubber tip meant to protect indoor floor surfaces from the carbide tip
Travel/Storage Tips: thin plastic covers for the carbide tip for storage/travel, not to be kept on when poles are in use