Becky and Troy hiking in forest with trekking poles

How to Pick the Perfect Pair of Trekking Poles

A set of trekking poles is essential for many outdoor enthusiasts, whether they’re tackling high summits or exploring lowland traverses. With trekking poles being asked to serve such a wide range of activities, they have become more specialized by incorporating different designs, features, and materials.

This diversity means that, somewhere out there, the perfect set of poles is waiting for you. Let’s talk about the factors you should consider when choosing a set of trekking poles.

Material matters

One of the most significant decisions facing a trekking pole buyer is whether to choose a carbon fiber or aluminum pole. Poles made from carbon fiber seem like a dream, as they are lightweight, stiff, and strong—making them popular with everyone from heavy-duty backpackers to ultralight trail runners. Carbon fiber also dampens vibration, which can help save energy over the course of long days and lots of mileage. 

Carbon fiber poles are not without their disadvantages, however. Most notable is that they are more expensive than their aluminum counterparts. Also, despite being strong, carbon fiber poles can snap under stress, leaving you stuck somewhere without a pole (or forcing you to come up with a creative repair in the field).

Aluminum trekking poles, on the other hand, are known for their durability and ruggedness, making them a great option for backpackers to day hikers to backcountry skiers. Unlike carbon fiber poles, aluminum poles bend under stress, allowing for repair in the field by merely bending them back into shape. And, being less expensive than carbon poles, replacing a broken aluminum pole is a little less painful. However, aluminum poles weigh more than carbon poles. 

There are also options on the market that offer the best of both worlds. These ‘hybrid’ poles use both aluminum and carbon and give you the lightweight strength of carbon and the durability of aluminum. They tend to fall between the two extremes in price.

Adjusting the Length

Trekking poles are available in variable or fixed lengths.

The length of many trekking poles can be changed. These variable-length poles can adapt to people of different heights (or a fast-growing hiker). Experienced users adapt to changing terrain by varying the length of their poles. Variable-length poles are popular with backpackers due to their flexibility.

The dimensions of fixed-length poles cannot be changed. Given their single-piece construction, fixed-length poles are strong and not likely to break or bend. They are also lighter than variable- length poles because they lack the extra sections and locking hardware. You must be careful to purchase the proper length for your height and preferences, but fixed-length poles are a reliable, lightweight choice for high-impact applications like trail running.

Planning for collapse

Many trekking poles can be broken down for storage in a pack, or for carrying in luggage when you’re traveling. You have two choices in terms of how to break down trekking poles for easier handling.

  • Telescoping
  • Folding

Telescoping poles collapse just like you might imagine: smaller sections slide inside larger-diameter sections, shortening the overall length of the pole. 

Three-section telescoping trekking poles are the most common design, as they offer a good compromise between packability and strength. Three-section poles can adjust to fit most activities and accommodate multiple users while being compact enough to attach to a backpack when they aren’t needed.

Two section telescoping trekking poles are stiffer, offer fewer possible places for failure, and are less expensive than three-section poles. They are also less collapsible, which makes them popular with users who will rarely be without poles in their hands (backcountry skiers and snowshoers, for example).

Folding poles break apart into three pieces linked together by shock cords in an arrangement similar to tent poles. Folding poles are an increasingly popular trekking pole option. Although not quite as hardy as their traditional telescoping counterparts, folding poles are lightweight and more packable than multi-section poles, and up to most jobs in the backcountry. Great for users who sometimes stash their poles, folding poles are compact enough to be stuffed inside a backpack—and due to their diminutive packed size, they are also popular with travelers as they comfortably fit in most luggage. 

Buyers should be aware that some folding poles unfold to a fixed length, making them suitable only for users of a certain height. Other folding poles blend technologies and incorporate an adjustable locking section into their design. These adjustable folding poles offer the best of both worlds, delivering some of the adjustability of a section pole along with the packability of a folding pole. 

Locks

Locks are important to trekking poles. They secure the sections of a pole together to form a strong, supportive shaft. The two most common types of mechanisms are lever locks and twist locks.

While twist locks can offer a more affordable option for budget-conscious shoppers, lever locks reign supreme for their ease of use, especially in winter. They’re simple to access and operate while wearing gloves, for example. Additionally, they don’t suffer from freezing-up in cold weather, an issue that plagues twist locks. Twist locks, on the other hand, provide the greatest strength. Because their mechanism is inside the pole, twist locks are protected from dirt and damage.

Get a grip

The connection between person and pole happens at the handle, and the material used to make the handle is a good indicator of a pole’s intended use. Cork is frequently found on high-end trekking poles and over time will mold to a user’s hand, making it the most comfortable and personalized option (as an added bonus, cork also helps dampen vibration). A versatile four-season choice, cork-grip trekking poles breathe in warm weather and insulate in cold weather. Lastly, cork is antimicrobial and resists getting stinky with repeated use and exposure to sweat.

Although cork is fantastic, it is also expensive. Because of this, many users look to foam grips. Foam delivers many of the benefits of cork, is excellent for poles that may be used by more than one person (less personalized fit), does a great job of absorbing moisture, and is less expensive. In addition to cost, foam grips are softer than cork and may feel more comfortable in some users’ hands. For those concerned with weight, foam also has the added benefit of weighing less than cork. The downside to foam grips is that they can become slimy feeling or slippery when they get too wet. 

Rubber-grip trekking poles are the most affordable and durable option. Rubber grips don’t absorb water and can feel clammy and cause chaffing in warm weather. However, rubber grips are perfect for use in cold weather and are a popular choice for backcountry skiers, mountaineers, and snowshoers. 

Aside from materials, the angle of a pole’s grip can be important. Some trekking poles feature angled grips that allow the user’s hand to be in a natural and ergonomically-friendly position.

Trekking pole grips made of foam, cork and rubber

The basket case

Trekking pole shoppers who are going to subject their poles to a wide range of conditions will want to make sure that their poles can accommodate a variety of baskets. People planning on using their poles in winter need to be able to equip them with powder baskets—large baskets that keep the poles from sinking in the snow. More so, they will want to be able to switch to a smaller-diameter basket for non-snow use, as powder baskets have a tendency to get hung up on exposed roots and rocks in the warmer months. 

Three sizes of trekking pole baskets, from small to large
Woman with two young children overlooking mountain lake

Special Requests

To accommodate the diversity of the hiking public, some manufacturers offer women– and youth-specific trekking poles. These poles are designed with shorter overall lengths and smaller grips to better fit smaller frames.

Shocking…there’s more

Some trekking poles come with a shock absorber to absorb bumps, lessen vibration, and ease impact on joints. These poles work exceptionally well for people with wrist ailments or soreness, creaky knees, or wobbly ankles, but the comfort comes at a cost—the addition of a shock absorber typically adds between $10 and $20 to the cost of a pole. Additionally, poles with shock absorption suffer from a loss of propulsion on the ascent and a decrease in stability when descending, and they can feel unstable when being used on already soft surfaces, such as snow. 

The takeawaY

Our goal was to empower you by discussing some of the major features available in trekking poles. The next move is up to you:  find that perfect set of poles and hit the trail.

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Questions? Talk to a gear specialist.