Tuesday, September 30, 2014

A Quick Guide to Trekking Poles

Trekking Pole Guide

I'm a big advocate of trekking poles as are most hikers with even modest experience. They just make life easier on the trail. I won't bother to restate that argument, as my last post details the many benefits of using trekking poles. I will, however, briefly discuss some of the features found in today's trekking poles designs. As a disclaimer of sorts, I should note that I prefer a very basic and simple design for my own use. Because I realize everyone's needs are different, I'll also offer some information about poles with added features and special materials. Let's get into it…

First of all, I would avoid purchasing cheap trekking poles from big box stores. More than likely the materials used and the manufacturing are inferior. If you're willing to dig around online a little bit, you can get a solid set of poles for only a little more money than spent at one of those cinderblock temples to cheap consumerism that seduce us all. Major brands to look for are:
  • Leki
  • Komperdell
  • Black Diamond
Almost all contemporary trekking pole designs have shafts made from aluminum or carbon fiber. Both materials are very durable and lightweight, but to mildly varying degrees. Here's an overview of each.

  • Less likely to break under stress
  • More affordable
  • Weighs slightly more than carbon fiber 
  • Less shock-absorbing/more vibration on contact
Carbon Fiber
  • Lightest weight
  • Excellent at absorbing shock/minimizing vibration at contact
  • More brittle material and likely to break under extreme stress
Types of trekking pole grips
Given that you will be holding your poles with every step, it is important to make sure your grip is comfortable and well-sutited to your hand. Some pole will have an extended grip that extends several inches down the pole for an extra area to place your hands, particularly if hiking uphill or using the pole to "hoist" yourself over a larger boulder where you can't easily reach the top of the pole. Here are the most common grip materials

  • Resists perspiration
  • Absorbs shock
  • Will eventually deteriorate over time (typically many years, however)
  • Absorbs sweat
  • Absorbs some shock
  • Soft, pliable
  • Least durable
  • Some shock absorption
  • Insulates well in cold
  • Can cause blisters and chafing, especially in warm weather
Polyethylene Plastic
  • Extremely durable
  • Minimal shock absorption
  • Can cause blisters and chafing due to hardness
Twist lock vs. flip lock trekking poles

Trekking poles are typically made from 2 or 3 telescoping sections as a space-saving measure and so that poles can be dialed in to just the right height for an individual hiker or situation. Two basic types of locking mechanisms are used to hold the sections in place.

  • Twist Lock - These work by simply twisting the pole section to lock or unlock. Poles with this mechanism are usually a bit cheaper but are slightly less convenient to adjust. This style is reportedly more prone to failure, though mine have held up fine thus far with no issues.
  • Flip Lock - This mechanism has small lever which is simply flicked open to allow adjustment. Poles with flip locks typically cost a bit more but are more convenient and, reportedly, more reliable. 
Many poles come with an anti-shock feature that uses a spring to absorb some of the shock with each point of contact. This feature can be turned on or off as most prefer to use it primarily when going downhill. This feature will add a bit of weight and bit to the price tag. I prefer poles without this feature due to the extra complexity (something else to go wrong) as well as the extra weight and price. I also don't find the shock absorption to be especially beneficial. Those with serious health issues in their knees and ankles (or even their arms) might find the feature worthwhile, however.

The majority of trekking poles are equipped with carbide or steel tips which can stand up to rock and ice. You can buy rubber tips to slip over your metal tips, however, to increase the life of the metal and to reduce impact on the ground. I almost always keep my rubber tips on unless I'm on icy terrain. 

Any decent poles will come with hand straps to help ensure that you don't drop your poles down a canyon or simply have them slip out of sweaty hands. Straps are adjustable and better ones will be padded or lined to prevent blisters and chafing. 


Trekking pole baskets, snow and regular
Poles are designed to use small round "baskets" on the end to help aid in stability and to prevent your pole from penetrating too deeply in soft ground or snow. Many poles with come with smaller "regular" baskets, and snow baskets, which are much larger for more stability. Baskets can be easily removed and interchanged. 

As mentioned above, I would steer clear of big box stores and go to your local outdoor gear store or another dedicated store like REI. The best deals I've found are at Sierra Trading Post, especially if you sign up for their email coupons. I use a basic Komperdell model (very similar to this one) that I got for little more than $30 on sale and with a coupon at STP. 


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