Buying trekking poles is a complicated business nowadays with hundreds of brands pushing different styles of poles ranging from £30 to £150. When I first started climbing and mountaineering in the 80’s poles were basically shunned, and associated only with skiing. Over the past ten years poles have become the norm in the mountains, whether you’re alpine mountaineering Jedi or experiencing your first glacier trek there’s a pole designed for you. The main problem is choosing between all the pole brands and features! There's no disputing that poles help with stability and propulsion both on the up and down hill. For a lot of mountain guides in the Alps they help save our knees, backs, hips and any other load bearing joints, especially on the downhill.
If you intend to climb with poles then the sectional designs are best as they fold neatly into your rucksack. Most are very light for the weight conscious but can be fiddly to erect and aren’t as strong as standard poles. They lack any length adjustment (although some brands such as Black Diamond are now addressing this) having basic hand grips and wrist loops. I personally have a pair of Gipron poles for all my mountaineering as they are basic, light simple and fairly cheap.
If you are using them in summer and winter, make sure they can operated with gloves, and have they got large snow baskets? Note that with most poles you can change the baskets easily enough. What terrain and how frequently are the trekking poles used? If the walking poles are used frequently on rough ground then a robust pole is a must. Also think about the materials and construction. Carbon poles are very light but expensive compared to their aluminium counterparts. Is saving 100g and spending an extra £70 worth the weight saved? This brings me on to the thorny subject of trekking pole strengths and comparing carbon to aluminium. I my experience carbon trekking poles tend to break more easily rather than bend (which is what happens to aluminium).
Personally I can’t justify spending £130 on some posh carbon poles for them to be abused on rocky ground and break after a few weeks. To counter this argument aluminium poles do corrode and can seize up. If you opt for the adjustable type of walking pole then which locking mechanism would you choose? Try some out in the shop with gloves on and see which are easiest to use. Most manufacturers are moving away from the 'twist lock' type to the 'flick lock'. The twist lock mechanism can be frustrating with problems of not locking or coming unlocked when in use due to the rotational action of pole placement. I have had many a near head plants with collapsing twist lock poles! A more miner consideration for me is the handle grip and wrist strap (I use my poles every day for most of the summer and opt for the most simple light foam grip and strap I can find).
Some trekking poles have amazingly comfy and complicated strap and grip systems from cork composite to dual density rubber and padded Velcro cuff supports. The more complicated telescopic poles have sprung shock absorbers incorporated for descents. As with all mountaineering equipment I always try and go light simple and strong, so I would avoid all these gimmicks that add extra weight. Below is an overview of the best trekking poles on the market. I have only covered the main manufacturers (they are ranked by brand not best to worse) but there are hundreds of other brands that look similar and will do the job. I have also included some ultra light poles for all you mountain marathon runners that love Chamonix’s Ultratrail du Mont Blanc: www.ultratraildumb.com
The Black Diamond Ultra Mountain Carbon is a lightweight carbon pole with the Black Diamond Z construction allowing them to be folded into 3 sections. These poles are well designed and light with a summer walking and winter snow basket included. They are on the pricey side at £120 and not as hard wearing as the cheaper Black Diamond Distance Aluminium. These poles are non adjustable and need to be bought in the correct size. For weight conscious ultra distance runners there’s a Distance Carbon pole to complement the aluminium version, but is too lightweight for everyday mountain use. Black Diamond also has an adjustable range which are slightly heavier but very good quality and durable.
The Ultra Mountain FL adds a flick lock section to the top of the foldable Z- pole so it is easily adjusted to your height. These poles are used by many mountain guides and are a solid workhorse in the mountains. The more durable poles from BD are heavier but will take loads more abuse in the hills. The Black Diamond Trail trekking pole and the Black Diamond Trail Back are no frills with plastic as opposed to rubber handles but work really well and should give you years of service. I have excluded all the shock absorbing versions of the above poles as they’re an unnecessary gimmick that adds weight.
In Leki’s terms titanium equates in fact to aluminium (!) and all their foldable poles like the BD system are joined by a Kevlar tension cord coated in rubber for longevity. There Carbon Titanium is a good all rounder, both strong and lightweight but still on the pricey side at around £110. If you want something that that is super strong then go for the Sherpa XL with a 3 stage Speed Lock and good quality grip it should take you around the world and back!
This Austrian manufacturer is associated with top end high quality and thus is reflected in the price. Having said that, I had a pair of these poles for years and they paid off outlasting all my others until I inadvertently left then in a mountain hut.
The Carbon Ultralite Vario 4 is similar to all the 3 stage Z-poles mentioned above but ridiculously light - weighing only 170g! The C3 Carbon Power Lock is a more traditional 3-stage pole but still amazingly light at 224g. They also have a bombproof aluminium pole the Explorer Contour Power Lock, which is still very lightweight.Gipron Trekking Poles
Gipron are an Italian mass-market producer associated with cheaper poles. Having said this don't discount them especially if you’re on a budget. Make sure you get their flick lock system as they give you a choice between this and the old school collapsing twist lock on most of their poles.
The Gipron Air Trekk is a good all rounder, and for the budget conscious try the Trekking which has flick locks and comes in lots of funky colours. For my every day pole on the mountain I use a pair of Gipron Mont Blanc poles, which are designed for ultra trail running but are very light, cheap and surprisingly strong. They fold down neatly into my rucksack when I'm climbing and if left again in another hut it won’t break the bank!
As I mentioned before, for the more weight conscious trekker, climber or ultra trail runner these poles might be worth a look. Don't expect them to stand up to much abuse though as they are basically not much more than tent poles with a bit of string holding them together. Ferrino Eiger 135's are very minimalist and reasonably priced, my wife ran the Ultratrail du Mont Blanc with these and they lasted very well. Raidlight is the market leader with running poles, their Trail Pole is light but pretty strong. As I mentioned before, the Black Diamond Distance Carbon is a popular choice with trail runners.
Do beware of very cheap poles they are awkward to adjust, bend and the locking mechanisms fail easily. Whatever your budget there are poles that will fit your needs and save your knees!
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Nick, Olly and Matt are all fully-qualified UIAGM Mountain Guides and members of the British Mountain Guides Association.
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