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Selecting a Pair of Trekking Poles

If you're familiar with the benefits and drawbacks of trekking poles and the parts of a trekking pole, you're ready to narrow down the choices available at your local outfitter and find the right pair of poles for you and your treks.

As with all gear choices, when selecting a pair of trekking poles consider:

Hiking Style and Terrain

(Image courtesy Leki/Laptad )

Ask a dozen hikers which trekking poles are best and you might get a dozen different answers. As with other gear choices, selection starts with knowing the individual's hiking style and preferences, and where and how she or he will use the gear.

To start narrowing down the variety of choices, first ask yourself questions like the following:

  • What type of terrain will I cover? Flat and fast? Steep and rocky? A variety?
  • Do I want lightweight poles for a comfortable swing weight or is weight secondary to other qualities? (Carbon fiber is lightest.)
  • Do I need durable poles to withstand rocky, rugged conditions and avoid nicks and breakage? (Lightweight and strong aren't mutually exclusive, but you'll typically pay more for both qualities.)
  • Will I use the same pair of poles in both summer and winter? (You'll want interchangeable baskets.)
  • Will I need to stow away my poles regularly for scrambles or to climb ladders up the trail? (Consider how easy the poles are to adjust and stow on the fly.)
  • How small do I want them to collapse to strap on my pack? (Poles come in a range of expanded and collapsed lengths.)

Knowing how and where you'll use trekking poles is an important first step in selection. 

Your Body Type and Size

Poles come in different grip sizes, lengths, and materials, just as hikers and backpackers come in different body types. While trekking poles can appear deceptively similar to one another, different poles have different dimensions and features best suited for different people.

Gender: Many brands offer women's-specific poles. Leki's poles for women are lighter and have a fifteen percent smaller grip size to accommodate a woman’s slightly smaller hand. Black Diamond, on the other hand, makes compact models useful for all shorter hikers with smaller hands.

Height: Got a young hiker constantly borrowing your favorite pair of poles? In addition to compact models, several manufacturers make poles for children, often with only two segments and smaller grips. Tall hikers will want to steer clear of compact models and judge if a regular pole's maximum length is long enough even on descents.

Weight: If you are a heavier hiker or anyone with balance issues who will regularly rely on poles to bear your full load when descending, avoid aluminum shafts, as they are the most likely to break. Go for stronger poles, like those made of titanium alloy.

Medical Issues: Do you have joint problems, particularly in your ankles, knees, and hips? Shock absorbers will reduce a pole's vibrations. How about balance, muscle, or vision issues? The safety and reliability of trekking poles is even more critical for those with medical conditions who depend on them for stability and balance. 

Whether you choose a compact, women's, youth, or "regular" trekking pole, make sure the grip's shape and material and the strap are comfortable in your hand. Also, be sure you have the strength and ability to comfortably adjust and securely lock your poles on your own. 

Black Diamond's external FlickLock

Pole Features

Personal preference means individual hikers will prefer different locking mechanisms over others. If possible, try out both the internal and external locking mechanisms on different brands of poles before buying. Then, put on gloves and adjust the and lock the poles again if you'll be using them in winter.

If you're considering poles with anti-shock devices due to medical concerns or plain preference, see how different models feel. Some hikers like and/or need shock absorbers to reduce vibration in poles; others dislike their feel and the extra weight and parts.

As mentioned in "Trekking Poles: Parts Explained," some trekking poles come equipped with special features. Poles with compasses embedded in the grips can give a general sense of direction, but are inadequate for real navigation. Some poles are even equipped with LED flashlights or secret storage areas, but most of these features fall firmly in the realm of the gimmick.

More common and far more useful are poles that convert to monopods for photographers. Monopod poles have screws that fit the universal mount on a camera’s bottom, stabilizing it for shooting in low light or with long lenses.


Leki's external SpeedLock

Trekking poles also can be used as tent pole substitutes to pitch lightweight tarps and tents, with some shelters specifically designed to utilize trekking poles. Hikers also can jury-rig regular shelters to take advantage of trekking pole support. Using a trekking pole to pitch your shelter doesn’t require a special type of pole, but consider that tight guy-lines can cut foam grips, so cork or rubber composites are often a better choice.


Your Budget

Only you know how much you can afford to spend on a pair of trekking poles and what certain features are worth to you. Some features, like a specific locking mechanism, may be essential to you, while others are simply nice to have. To further determine value ask yourself, how often will I use the poles? Every week or just a handful of times a year?

Remember, price alone does not indicate the quality or value of gear. That said, well-made, reliable gear that costs a bit more can be a far greater value in the long run than cheap gear that breaks on the trail or can't be trusted.

Selecting a Pair

In selecting gear, there's no one-size-fits-all approach or answer. Know what's most important to you: weight, materials, features, price. Then consider how you, not anyone else, will use the trekking poles.

Are you a beginning day hiker on a budget with knees and shoulders that are prone to aches? Consider a pair of three-section, aluminum poles with cork grips, shock absorbers, and small baskets.

Are you a speedy ultralighter with some cash to burn? Consider a pair of three-section, carbon fiber trekking poles with foam handles, no shock absorbers, and no baskets.

Narrow down and select the features that work with your hiking style, typical terrain, and budget.

Finally, read the Trailspace gear reviews for firsthand user accounts by other hikers and backpackers of how specific models of trekking poles fared in the backcountry. Then buy the best pair of poles you can afford, the ones that meet your backcountry needs, preferences, and budget.

Further Info

Trekking Poles: To Use or Not?

Trekking Pole Parts Explained

Trekking Pole Fit, Maintenance, and Tips

Trekking Pole Reviews


Then there are folks like me who have several sets of hiking poles for different types of terrain and travel. For example, I use 3-section poles for expeditions where I have to travel by plane and thus require compact packing. For my daily hikes, where I don't want to keep beating my more expensive poles, I use a pair of cheap REI poles I got on one of their sales (I do NOT recommend those poles for serious hiking - my Lekis, which I have reviewed on Trailspace, and Black Diamond Expeditions are what I use on expeditions and serious, long hikes, mostly the Lekis these days).

On poles that double as monopods - be very careful when selecting these. My first camera monopod/hiking pole was a fold-up model that used a bungee to hold it in its unfolded configuration. It had a number of problems. First was that it was not adjustable, though it folded compactly for storage and carrying. Second was that the bungee was not really strong enough to hold the pole in assembled mode - if the tip got caught in a crevice between rocks or roots, for example, the lower section would get left behind, separating it from the middle section. When you noticed the pole pulling back and backed up to free the lower section, it wouldn't quite line up, resulting in a comical floppy multipole. Third was that as a monopod, the stability left a lot to be desired.

The major high quality camera tripod manufacturers (Gitzo, Manfrotto, Giottos), as well as the less expensive ones (Slik, etc), make monopods and unipods that are primarily camera stands, not hiking poles. And they can be much more expensive than hiking poles. Some have fold-out legs at the bottom to form a stand, though these are nowhere as stable as a true tripod (very easy to knock over, dropping your expensive DSLR onto the rocks). And they are sold as single poles, meaning you end up borrowing a regular hiking pole from your "other set", and thus being unbalanced, though not as much so as hiking with a single pole.

The monopod/hiking pole I have been using for awhile is one from Leki. It has a shock absorber in it and a positive twist lock. I almost always lock the shock absorber out. It has proven very satisfactory for those cases where I wanted the camera support (such as on Kilimanjaro). I have had several discussions with Elder (a Leki rep who posts here from time to time) about the mixed pole question. He strongly makes the point that mixed pole types is not a good idea for numerous reasons. I tend to agree, but when you need a monopod, rather than carrying the extra weight of a tripod, that's the compromise you have to make.

On the other hand, a monopod is not a full substitute for a tripod. So there are times when you have to use your regular hiking poles and carry a good tripod. I sometimes use my Gitzo Traveler (very light weight, but quite sturdy), and sometimes (as on the upcoming Easter Island trip next week) take the Gitzo Mountaineer (still pretty light, but sturdier, plus I can hang a water jug on the hook under the center pole to make it more solid).

re monopods: I suspect the people must tempted to buy one are using smaller compact digital cameras, but I can't help thinking that holding my point-and-shoot would be only marginally less shaky on top of a single pole.

I strongly suspect that for best results with a monopod, you need the weight of a big SLR, which would provide a bit of gravitational stability that you'd never get from a compact.

I've seen professional photos using monopods at football games with those huge long lenses that must weigh 10 pounds -- I can see where it might work better with that heavy rig.

Hi Bill

I recommend those gorilla pods (?) that spider around the top of the poles.

Bipods prop easily, and a spare stick makes a tripod.

I always suggest paired trekking poles over single staff for anything except short distance hiking...birding for example.

Have you tried the Stickpic yet..pretty cool.

It fits the pole tip and allows you to include yourself in the shot..or not.

I have a stick pic ordered, I'm eager to try it out.

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