How to Pick Hiking Poles

Trekking poles take pressure off your knees and hips on uphill and downhill sections of trail. They can be useful for day hikes and longer backpacking trips alike. But with a sea of trekking poles available everywhere and at nearly every price point, we wanted to find the most reliable and long-lasting trekking poles on the market.


We chose the Black Diamond Ergo as the Best Hiking Poles for Most People based on high praise from reviewers and our own tests. We chose the Leki Legacy as the Most Durable because of reports from many happy consumers and lifetime guarantee. If you're traveling, we recommend the Leki Micro Vario Carbon poles. If you’re on a budget or aren’t sure hiking poles are for you, the Cascade Mountain Tech poles are the highest rated of the sub-$50 hiking poles we investigated.

 



How we identified the best trekking poles

To try to find the best trekking poles, we aggregated reviews from Switchback Travel, Clever Hiker, Outdoor Gear Lab, Section Hiker, Adventure Junkies, and Backpacker.  We read reviews from Outside and Wirecutter, though based on other reviews, our picks varied. Then we cross-referenced these findings with Amazon and REI customer reviews to determine the most important criteria to hiking pole users.

In researching hiking poles, we learned that while choosing the right trekking poles may seem simple, minor differences in things like locking mechanisms can make or break a hike. No set of trekking poles is right for everyone, but knowing yourself, your trip, and your hiking style can go a long way to helping you find the trekking poles that are right for you.

For more expert advice, we consulted Naomi Hudetz and Junaid Dawud, two long-distance backpackers who together have nearly 20,000 miles under their feet. In addition to being a Triple Crown hiker, Hudetz is also on the board of the American Long Distance Hiking Association - West. Dawud is a two-time Pacific Crest Trail thru-hiker and is best known for connecting all the of all 58 of the Colorado fourteeners (14,000-foot peaks) on foot as a thru-hike. He’s previously worked for GoLite (RIP) and done hundreds of volunteer gear consultations, advising new thru-hikers on gear choices.

I personally have hiked over 3500 miles, including thru-hikes of the Pacific Crest Trail and Colorado Trail and a LASH (long-*ahem* section hike) of the Grand Enchantment Trail. Between those hikes and a stint as a Traveling Trainer for the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics, I've slept outside for nearly a year of my life. Whether it's living on the road or living out of a backpack, traveling and just being in the outdoors is second nature to me.

Based on their expert advice and our own research, we developed the following criteria (scroll down) into consideration for our Trekking Pole Picks.

Amanda Jameson researched and reported on hiking poles.   Photo courtesy John Carr

Amanda Jameson researched and reported on hiking poles. Photo courtesy John Carr

 

Criteria

After analyzing and aggregating reviews, we identified 17 sets of hiking poles that were praised by at least two reviewers. Using this criteria, we narrowed that list down to the top ten poles for most users.

Price

A great pair of trekking poles will meet all of your needs for function while also fitting into a reasonable budget. With some exceptions noted in Treeline Review, a great pair of trekking poles generally costs between $50 and $150. Though there are exceptions, our analysis of consumer reviews indicated that most trekking poles under $50 have flaws which lead to cracking, bending, snapping, or unexpected collapse. And while other models can cost $200 or more with shipping - including the Gossamer Gear LT4 poles, which Wirecutter loves - we think that for most hikers, the small decrease in weight isn’t worth the large increase in price.

Pole Material

Trekking poles are generally made from two different materials: aluminum and carbon fiber. Aluminum is the heavier and more durable of the two, as the material is thicker and less likely to break with rough use. Both Hudetz and Dawud recommended aluminum, particularly for first-time users. But if you’re gentle on your gear, and want to reduce weight and vibration in your trekking poles, carbon fiber might be for you - but the brittle composite material is prone to cracking and comes at a higher price. We recommend aluminum, carbon fiber, and hybrid poles that attempt capture the best features of both materials.  

Weight

Heavier poles and lighter poles can generally bear the same weight, so your weight shouldn’t be a factor when choosing trekking poles. Heavier poles will feel sturdier and more durable, where lighter poles mean less work and reduced arm fatigue at the end of the day. Unisex poles tend to be taller and heavier, whereas women’s poles ditch some weight by having a shorter adjustable length. Each pair of poles on Treeline Review is under 20 ounces, and half are even considered ultralight by REI. 

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Grip Material

Cork and foam are the two main types of grip material. Cork has mild shock-absorption properties, wicks away sweat, and molds itself to your hands over time. Foam absorbs sweat, is soft to the touch, and can be more comfortable than cork. Both have drawbacks: cork can be slippery on hot summer hikes, and can develop an odor over time. We considered poles with grips made of both materials.

Adjustability

Most trekking poles are adjustable, able to increase or decrease in height. Proper trekking pole height lets you keep a 90-degree angle in your elbow for ease of travel. To keep that proper alignment, people often shorten their trekking poles for extended uphill treks and lengthen them for long downhills. But do you really need the ability to adjust your trekking poles? Fixed-length trekking poles offer a substantial weight savings, but only provide real benefits if used on flat ground. We considered both fixed-length and adjustable trekking poles, but ultimately only adjustable poles made the Top of the Line.

We only considered poles with lever-locks to adjust the height. While twist-locks are a little lighter, they have a tendency to slip and subsequently drive their owners nuts.   Photo by John Carr

We only considered poles with lever-locks to adjust the height. While twist-locks are a little lighter, they have a tendency to slip and subsequently drive their owners nuts. Photo by John Carr

Locking Mechanism

On adjustable trekking poles, the locking mechanism keeps the pole at the length you set. There are two types of locking mechanisms: lever-locks and twist-locks. Lever-locks open to allow for a change in length and lever closed when you’re finished. Twist-locks twist to loosen so that you can adjust the length. Twist locks have a tendency to loosen too much and fail over the life of a trekking pole, and as primarily internal mechanisms, they are difficult to fix. Hudetz, Dawud, and all the sites we reviewed prefer lever-locks, and as such, all of our picks have adjustable trekking poles are equipped with lever-locks.

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Features

The main feature available on trekking poles is shock absorption. A system including a small spring, located in one of the joints or near the tip of the pole, purports to reduce impact and vibration on the downhill. However, both Hudetz and Dawud, emphasized the drawbacks to shock absorption systems. They tend to make uphill travel harder, make poles weightier, and have more moving parts that can fail. While three of the ten poles on Treeline Review can be purchased with shock absorption, we do not recommend models with shock absorption. Other features include interchangeable baskets for snow and mud, extended foam grips for choking down on uphills, and replaceable parts if something breaks. Chances are the tips on your hiking pole will break before the other parts. Poles that have replaceable tips can extend the life of your investment.

Poles that collapse easily not only are easier to travel with, but allow you to stash your poles in your backpack for sections of trail that may require your hands for scrambling.  Photo by John Carr

Poles that collapse easily not only are easier to travel with, but allow you to stash your poles in your backpack for sections of trail that may require your hands for scrambling. Photo by John Carr

Packability

If you intend to travel with your trekking poles, you won’t want to keep them at their full length. While TSA Guidelines suggest you can’t fly with trekking poles in your carry-on, they can be checked in a suitcase or backpack. Trekking poles are either folding poles, which disassemble into a z-shape, or telescoping, which foldinto themselves. Folding poles generally have more moving parts, making them more prone to breaking. No matter how they get shorter, all trekking poles on Treeline Review, including the fixed-length trekking poles, collapse for travel.

 

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Trekking Pole Tips and Tricks

 

trekking pole tips and tricks

Tighten your lever locks before you head out for the first time. A common complaint in Amazon reviews of first-time trekking pole users was lock slippage, which is normal immediately after purchase. Open the lever and play with the tightness until you’re sure the pole will stay put. Some lever locks require a screwdriver to tighten, but others can be tightened with a dime, or with your fingers in some cases.

Check to see that you’re using the straps correctly. Sticking your hands straight through trekking pole straps provides no benefit. Coming up from below the strap and sticking your hand through will not only secure the pole to your hand, but will allow your palms to do some of the work for your fingers. And while some trekking poles don’t differentiate between a right-hand pole and a left-hand pole, using them in the correct hand if they are different will increase your strap comfort as well. Thru-hiker Justin Lichter suggests advanced poling techniques to increase efficiency.

The goal of using your straps is to create another leverage point to help you push down on your poles.   Photo by John Carr

The goal of using your straps is to create another leverage point to help you push down on your poles. Photo by John Carr

Practice adjusting and collapsing your pole length before going into the field. It doesn’t matter how much experience you have in the outdoors. Sometimes, collapsing systems for poles just aren’t that intuitive. We learned this firsthand when one of our testers took out a new pair of poles. This guy (also our photographer) has hiked thousands of miles with trekking poles and thought he could figure it out. But after some minutes of frustration, he called our editor from the top of a mountain on a Thursday morning to ask, “How do I collapse these things?

Save yourself some frustration and learn how to adjust and collapse your poles before heading out on the trail.   Photo by John Carr

Save yourself some frustration and learn how to adjust and collapse your poles before heading out on the trail. Photo by John Carr

Save yourself the trouble. Watch a YouTube video for your specific pair, especially if your poles have a button-release system like the Black Diamond Trail Ergo. Your hiking self will thank you for it.

With a little practice, your new pole adjustment system will become second nature.

Think of hiking pole tips like tires on cars. They’ll need replacing every once in a while but are a lot less expensive than buying a new car.   Photo by John Carr

Think of hiking pole tips like tires on cars. They’ll need replacing every once in a while but are a lot less expensive than buying a new car. Photo by John Carr

What to do when your tips break? Tips take the brunt of the force when you’re hiking, so can break or wear out faster than other parts of your poles. Don’t despair! Many poles allow you to replace the tips for about 1/5th the price of buying a new set of poles (see here for replacement Leki tips). Replace your tips at home, if you can. It’s most easily done with a crescent wrench and will take you about 5 minutes. And, as with most things these days, there is a YouTube video for replacing Leki tips.

 

Curious about what hiking poles made our list? 

Read Treeline Review’s Best Hiking Poles of 2018 full comparative review here or check out the comparison chart.

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Sources

  1. Hiking Poles | Transportation Security Administration https://www.tsa.gov/travel/security-screening/whatcanibring/items/hiking-poles accessed 6/4/18

  2. How To Choose Trekking Poles and Hiking Staffs

    https://www.rei.com/learn/expert-advice/trekking-poles-hiking-staffs.html

    Accessed 6/3/18

  3. Interview with Junaid Dawud, 6/3/18

  4. Interview with Naomi Hudetz, 6/4/18


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