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Stability and Strength: Choosing the Right Trekking Poles for You

Posted by db06976a4a484f5a88518a31814f4d06 at Oct 11, 2019 08:46 AM |
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Here's what you need to know to pick a pair of trekking poles — and make hiking and backpacking just a bit easier.

By Dawn Hammer

Trekking poles are a great addition to your hiking kit. They add stability — especially on uneven surfaces or when carrying a heavy load — and they reduce the impact on hips, knees and ankles, especially when traveling downhill. They’re also excellent for brushing aside overgrowth on trails, discerning the depth of snow or water and creating a lightweight shelter when used in conjunction with a tarp or tent rainfly. If you’d like to give trekking poles a try, there are several features to consider. Here are some tips to get you started.

What to know: There are three types of trekking poles to choose from: telescoping, folding or fixed. In telescoping poles, one section slides out from inside another and locks into place. Folding poles are similar to tent poles: Sections slide out of the shaft and fold for compaction. Fixed length poles offer no adjustability. Folding poles are the most compact, shortening up to 10 inches more than telescoping poles. They also offer the lightest weight due to thinner shafts, but this also results in less durability.

A hiker stands in front of a scenic trailscape with trekking poles in hand.
A hiker enjoying the view with a set of trekking poles in hand. Photo by Alexander Ryckman.

Materials and components: Trekking pole shafts are made from aluminum, carbon fiber or a combination of both. Aluminum is heavier but more durable, while carbon fiber is lighter but can shatter more easily. Some manufacturers offer shafts that are a combination of both materials: a lower aluminum shaft that can bear the brunt of smashing into rocks and upper portions of carbon fiber that shed ounces.

Other things to consider

  • Locking mechanisms: Lever locks are now standard on most poles. This mechanism utilizes an easy-to-use external clamp that opens to adjust and closes to lock. Some models use a twistlock system in which each section of pole twists to lock in place.
  • Grips: Grip materials are either cork, foam or rubber. Cork will conform to the shape of your hand over time and wicks moisture; foam is soft and offers some shock absorption; rubber is the most budget-friendly option.
  • Price: Lightweight carbon fiber poles are more expensive than aluminum, and adding cork handles, ergonomic grips, padded wrist straps and interchangeable baskets and tips can also increase the price.
  • How to choose: Consider your intended use. Are you going ultralight? You’ll want a light, compact version. Do your poles need to handle everything from a snow-filled winter trek to a multiday summer backpacking trip? Go with something you can strap easily to your pack but that offers durability for longevity.
  • How to size: Ideally, your elbows should be bent at a 90-degree angle when pole tips are on the ground. Adjustable-length poles will accommodate most heights, but if you are over 6-feet tall, look for poles with a maximum length of at least 51 inches.
  • How to use: To properly use attached wrist straps, slide hands up through the strap loops from the bottom and rest wrists on the loops. For most hiking, keep elbows bent at a 90-degree angle for comfort. On long uphills, shorten the poles by about 2 to 4 inches (or 5 to 10 centimeters, many poles have centimeters marked on them) so your shoulders are not strained. For downhill sections, lengthen the poles to keep your body upright. 

A hiker posing with trekking poles along the PCT.
Hiking with poles can make things easier while backpacking. Photo by by Annamarie Askren.

Kelty CarinKelty Cairn

Affordable, adjustable, lightweight and not bad on the eyes — what more do you need from a pair of trekking poles? These poles are designed specifically for those of shorter stature, cutting unnecessary length and weight with range of 31 inches to 49 inches. Coming in at only 17 ounces, these aluminum poles will hardly weigh you down as you ascend up classic Washington inclines. They collapse down to 23 inches when not in use. The cork handles help keep perspiring hands dry while the easily adjustable locks allow for quick tweaks in pole height. These poles kept us upright while traversing loose rocks, post-hole worthy snow and fast-flowing water crossings. And to boot, they helped make a rock-solid pitch for our non-freestanding tent. $69.95, kelty.com.

Leki PoleLeki Micro Vario Cor-Tec

These folding poles are ideal for any hiker who wants poles that packs small. When folded, they’re just 15 inches long and come with a carrying pouch that makes them easy to stuff in any bag without worrying about snags. The poles have a single point for adjusting the length and a push-button mechanism locks them in place — and allows for easily unlocking and folding up the poles. The cork handle is well shaped, both the grip and the top. On steep sections or large steps, it feel comfortable and stable to rest your hand on top of the pole as you descend. The poles adjust from 43 to 51 inches and weigh 20 ounces per pair. $139.95, rei.com.

Kelty SnapshotKelty Snapshot

This simple, single pole has a snazzy feature. Screw off the top of the handle and the pole converts to a monopod for your camera. With a low price tag, it’s an affordable addition for hikers who prefer a single pole or photographers who want to add a bit of stability to their photos. The pole adjusts simply with twist-locks. You can quickly adjust the length for your photo and then just as quickly return it when you’re ready to hike again. We like that this pole is affordable and multiuse. Ours now lives in the back of our car for any unexpected photography or hiking needs. The aluminum pole adjusts from 35 to 54 inches and weighs 10 ounces. It’s 27 inches long when fully collapsed. $24.95, kelty.com.

MSR PoleMSR Explore

These aluminum poles helped carry us easily up and down trails in the Cascades this summer. They have comfortable handles with especially easily adjustable wrist straps. The poles have a sturdy feel, without feeling rigid or transmitting vibrations into your hands. The poles collapse in two places, and the shafts are clearly marked. Once you know what length works best, you can easily find it again by using the markings along the shafts. The locking mechanism have adjustable tension, to ensure you get a secure lock. They weigh 19 ounces and adjust from 39.5 inches to 55 inches. They come with interchangeable baskets for either hiking or snow. $99.95, rei.com.

This article originally appeared in the Fall 2019 issue of Washington Trails Magazine. Support trails as a member of WTA to get your one-year subscription to the magazine.

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