Trekking poles fall into that category of gear that appears dorky and superfluous when you first see it, but becomes essential the first time you get it in your mitts. For quickly making your way across steep trails, over streams, and up rocky terrain, these increasingly technical aluminum or carbon fiber poles provide crucial stability and balance. They also displace some force onto your upper body for fewer injuries and better endurance over long treks. And with some recent tent models, they perform double duty as a tent pole. The more you hike, the more likely you are to use them, according to Appalachian Trail Conservancy, which estimates that over 95 percent of thru-hikers use them, compared to 15 percent of day hikers.
At the end of the day, trekking poles are still glorified walking sticks. I think that gets lost when you start reading about some of the cool German, Swiss, or Austrian innovations that go into them. Prices range from $50 to $225, with poles on the high end featuring designer carbon fiber shafts with sophisticated locking mechanisms. Most poles adjust to your height, and break down into a small package for stowing. Some have internal shock absorbers and some have quick ways to switch out the carbide tips and the baskets to protect the surface and vegetation on trails. There’s a movement to minimize the environmental harm from trekking poles on trails, and it’s clear that the manufacturers welcome this as another engineering challenge to meet head-on.
After the jump, we’ll look at a range of new trekking poles with the latest tech designed to keep your hikes smooth and safe.
FL Trekking Pole
Instead of telescoping down into a small package like the rest of the trekking poles in this bunch, Black Diamond’s Women’s FL trekking poles ($130) collapse into a handy Z-shape for easy storage. To do this, you simply press a button. To straighten them out again, you pull on the grip, tightening a Kevlar cord inside, locking them into place. A nice feature on these poles is the interchangeable tips, which allow you to switch carbide for rubber to reduce your impact on the trail.
REI Carbon PowerLock
In the photo above, it looks like these trekking poles are made specifically for people who have one arm longer than the other. The image is really to illustrate the adjustability of REI’s Carbon PowerLock trekking poles ($130), which can be set from between 27.5 and 55.1 inches. (And occasionally steep trail conditions warrant adjusting one side higher than the other.) As the name suggests, REI uses carbon fiber to dampen vibration and provide strength, while reducing the weight to a low 14.6 ounces. They come with tungsten carbide tips, ergonomic foam handles, and baskets near the end, which can help with stability in boggy terrain. The poles won’t slip under pressure, thanks to the PowerLock II mechanism, which provides a wide area of pressure against the pole walls and are easy to set: even when wearing gloves, you lock the poles by simply twisting to the right.
Leki Carbonlite Aergon XL
The German-made Carbonlite Aergon XL ($220) trekking poles are the most expensive in this group, but they also pack the most cutting-edge technology. Foremost, they are the lightest at 14.25 ounces, with heat-treated carbon fiber shafts for increased tensile strength. The grip turns into a mounting screw for a camera. And the locking system can withstand over 300 pounds without slipping. This Super Lock system seems more appropriate for a performance aircraft than a set of walking sticks, but it uses an expander and screw to hold the three-section shafts to your desired height (they adjust between 24.5 and 53 inches).
Exped Explorer 130
Light weight is key when hiking for miles in the wilderness, so trekking pole manufacturers are pioneering specialized materials that keep weight to a minimum. Aluminum is usually heavier than carbon fiber, but Swiss company Exped has designed the $130 Explorer model to use an aluminum alloy called TH72M, for a 4.5-ounce pole that’s one of the lightest in the group we've reviewed here. Grips are soft foam with adjustable wrist straps covered in a quick-drying padding to reduce friction and protect bare skin. The Explorers adjust from 41 to 51 inches, and pack down to the smallest of the group, a mere 19.3 inches.