Trekking Poles: Choosing and Using

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written by Kelly Bauer

Did you know that using trekking poles can reduce the compressive force on your knees by up to 25 percent? Or that poles can be used to put up lightweight shelters for you and your hiking partner, saving weight you would otherwise have to carry? How about that trekking poles make great wilderness lightsabers to battle that same hiking partner when you’ve spent one too many days together?

The last statement might not be entirely true, but as an avid trekking pole proponent, I am a firm believer in using trekking poles on everything from a day hike to extended backcountry trips. Shin splints, stress fractures and knee issues used to be in the back of my mind as I started every trek. With poles, I distribute my weight more evenly, reduce the force on my knees and stand taller which forces me to stand on my skeletal structure rather than slump over as I hike.

With so many types of poles out there, how do you choose the right ones for you? We’re going to break apart some key features to help you make the best decision. This guide aims to help you choose the right trekking poles for your needs and review two popular models.

Pole Design:

Trekking poles come in a variety of designs. Each will offer its own unique advantages and disadvantages.  

  • Two Section Telescoping: Two section telescoping poles are often seen in skiing, mountaineering or snowshoeing. The overlap in pole structure adds strength, durability but also weight. For the user that’s hard on their equipment these would be far more wear resistant but they do not pack as small as a three section pole.
  • Three Section Telescoping: Three section telescoping poles are the most common trekking poles. With two moving points they are less durable than the two section telescoping poles but they are more than rugged enough for most backpacking expeditions. Three section telescoping poles tend to also be lighter in weight and pack down smaller making them easier to stow in a suitcase or to the side of a climbing pack.
  • Three Section Folding Poles: These poles are generally the lightest and most compact of the three styles mentioned here. They are designed for the hiker that is concerned with counting ounces. They are also ideal for the trekker who needs to pack them in a suitcase for faraway adventures because of their packability. Be aware when selecting this style that not all models are snow basket compatible.

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Pole Height Adjustment:

The correct pole height will be a matter of preference, for most, the elbows will rest at around a 90 degree angle or the top of the pole will be 4-6 in. above the waist. Some will lengthen the pole while traveling downhill and shorten the length for the uphill.

  • Twist Lock: Twist lock adjustment mechanisms are the strongest locking mechanism for poundage of force. It’s important to take these apart and clean them or in dusty/sandy conditions they may fail.
  • Lever Lock: Lever lock mechanisms utilize an external lever to lock the pole in place. It is not as strong as a twist lock design, however, it is faster and easier to use than a twist lock.

Although lever lock mechanisms are newer than twist lock designs, they have become the most popular locking mechanism. When purchasing your own make sure you feel comfortable using them, some are tighter than others and have the capability to be adjusted in the field whereas others require special tools. Is this something you will feel comfortable using and adjusting while on the trail?

The Speed Lock 2 by Leki is field adjustable and offers easy tension adjustment even when wearing gloves in the snow or rain.

Pole Material:

Most poles on the market are made of carbon fiber or aluminum. Consider the length of your trips and terrain when choosing carbon fiber versus aluminum.

  • Aluminum Poles: Aluminum Poles are more economical and heavier but if they were to get bent in the field, would most likely still be usable.
  • Carbon Fiber Poles: Carbon fiber poles are generally lighter but once cracked are no longer usable.

Handle Grip Material:

  • Cork: Cork handles are the most durable and over time will begin to shape to your hand. Cork also reduces vibration and resists water which reduces chafing in hot weather.
  • Foam: Foam is soft to the touch and the most moisture wicking of the three options . However, foam is also the least resistant to nicks and cuts.
  • Rubber: Rubber handles are most often found on poles intended for cold-weather use. Rubber does well with insulating and shock vibration but some people report increased chafing in warm weather.

Women Specific Poles

Women’s poles often have a smaller grip and slightly shorter length than unisex poles.

Pole Review:

I recently hiked twenty miles in the Olympic National Park. On this trip I brought Black Diamond Trail Pro Trekking Poles and the Leki Legacy Poles. For the first ten miles I used the Black Diamond poles and on the second day I switched and used the Leki Legacy Poles.

Black Diamond Trail Pro Specs:

  • Weight (per pair): 18 oz
  • Usable Length: 25-55 in
  • Collapsable Length: 25 in
  • Dual Density Non-slip Foam Grip
  • Double FlickLock Pro – a low profile stainless steel external lever locking mechanism
  • Interchangeable Carbide Tip – adds versatility to the terrain you can comfortably navigate
  • Price: $129.95

Leki Legacy Specs:

  • Weight (per pair): 16.8 oz
  • Usable Length: 26-53 in
  • Collapsable Length: 26 in
  • Thermo Foam Grips
  • Carbide Flextip with Interchangeable baskets
  • Speedlock 2 Adjustment System
  • Price: $99.95

Both of these sets of poles are aluminum three section telescoping poles that utilize a lever lock mechanism for adjustability. I found the Speedlock 2 on the Leki poles to be more user friendly and I can see where in field tension adjustability would be a breeze with that system. The main difference that I noticed was when traveling downhill, there seemed to be a quiver of shaking in the Legacy whereas I felt completely supported with the Trail Pro’s. A lot of features were similar on these poles but I would choose the Trail Pro’s for the added stability and support they offered.

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