The Best Trekking Poles for Hiking and Backpacking
By Graham Williams and Ian Nicholson
Thursday October 19, 2017
The market is saturated with a wide variety of trekking poles. To help, we researched over 60 models and purchased 11 of the best to test out in the field, submitting them to our side-by-side comparisons. Over the course of spring and summer, and with comfort, stability, and durability in mind, our experts hiked local trails, summited mountains, and loaded weights on their backs to figure out which contenders genuinely have what it takes for your next adventure. While once thought of as a luxury in the outdoor world, trekking poles are now commonplace. We understand that everyone has different needs, wants, and expectations from their poles, which is why we've found something for everyone.
Updated October 2017
Our experts breezed through all sorts of rocky and uneven terrain this summer, pushing each model to its limit. What did they find? The Black Diamond Alpine Carbon Cork remains our Editors' Choice award winner, and our Best Buy winner takes the cake for the second year in a row. The Leki Corklite DSS is new to the mix this year, taking home a valuable Top Pick, while the Black Diamond Distance Carbon Z keeps its title as Top Pick for Lightweight Adventures.
Not as compact or light as "tent-pole" style poles
In case you couldn't tell, we love the Black Diamond Alpine Carbon Cork. This model takes our Editors' Choice pole yet again for another year, and with good reason. The Alpine Carbon Cork poles have been tested extensively over the years, and each year they just keep getting better. One of our gear testers has had his set for the past seven years, and even after repeated abuse, they continue to perform fantastically. They are relatively light and compact, but most notably they are durable, comfortable, and versatile. From miles and miles on thru-hikes to high alpine climbing objectives, these award-winning poles continue to perform fantastically.
The Black Diamond Trail Back takes the Best Buy award from OutdoorGearLab this year. Although it performs similarly and achieves the same scores as some of the other poles in our review, there are a couple of standout differences that let it rise above the rest. Some notable features are its robust locking system, burly construction, and comfortable rubber grips. We think that this is an excellent entry level pole for someone just getting started in their hiking or trekking career or for a budget-friendly adventurer who doesn't want to drop a ton of cash. At $79.95, this model is a steal and will last you for years to come. The only better deal, it to make your own from old ski poles (more details below).
The Leki Corklite DSS Antishock pole takes home a Top Pick, as its the most comfortable model in our fleet, earning an exceptionally high score in the comfort metric. Although it's not the lightest or most compact in our lineup, it wins our seal of approval concerning comfort, which we think is worth a couple of extra grams. It might be a coincidence that the same pole that won most comfortable also has anti-shock technology in it, or it might just be that Leki makes a fantastic pole. While we haven't had great success with anti-shock tech in the past, whatever it may be, this pole is the luxury liner of the lineup this year. Also worth noting is Leki's incredible cork handles, which were featured on another Top Pick pole in this year's fleet.
It's no surprise that the Black Diamond Distance Carbon Z takes our Top Pick as the Best Lightweight pole. Carbon fiber shaft material, foam grips, and stripped down features lead it to be the lightest pole in our review, beating all other poles we tested by at least four ounces. Often, lighter poles may feel cheap or flimsy, which wasn't the case for the Carbon Z. Although we wouldn't suggest using it for heavy duty trekking and backpacking, the Carbon Z is relatively versatile and excels in lightweight backpacking, hiking, and trail running. To cut weight, the Carbon Z isn't adjustable and instead comes in four sizes, which could potentially cause an issue for those in between sizes.
Great price for cork handles and break apart style pole
It's no wonder that another of Leki's poles took a Top Pick this year in our lineup, as the German company specializes in making fantastic trekking and ski poles. The Leki Micro Vario Ti Cor-Tec takes our most comfortable folding pole award this year. Leki took its incredible cork handle technology and put it into a break apart style pole that although isn't anything special in its weight, packs a punch in the packability and comfort scores of our lineup this year. We at Outdoorgearlab agreed that it was on par with our most comfortable pole: the Corklite DSS anti-shock, but was more packable and slightly lighter, allowing it to fill a nice hole in our top picks.
You'll see them used by day hikers, backpackers, thru-hikers, mountaineers, and even trail runners. Trekking poles help to reduce stress on your body, especially your knees, allowing you to trek more miles in the moment, and much more in the future. Now that they are so popular, it seems that everyone is making a different type that is advertised with "anti-shock" technology or six different kinds of handles. To find the best overall, and find the specific needs for a wide range of users, our testers took 11 different sets of poles out into the field to test. There was a wide variety from well known to lesser known brands along with many various price points and specifications. We took these poles out on local trails from a half mile to 10 miles, approached climbs, received insight from thru-hikers, and took multiple poles out on single days to test the differences between each.
Poles are essential for steep climbs, especially when off trail in the High Sierra above 11,000 feet.
We went out with light day packs and loaded up our bigger backpacking packs with weights to determine which pole would be ideal for heavier or lighter loads. We weighed each set of poles and compared them to their advertised weights, which sometimes differed by a few ounces. We jammed them into packs, strapped them to the outside of our bags, and carried them. We evaluated the poles on the following metrics: comfort, locking and adjustability, weight, packed size, durability, and versatility. We believe that our extensive testing will help you determine which pole is best for your needs and we've included additional information on tips for purchasing a set, which you'll find in our Buying Advice Guide.
Pausing to study the map, deep off trail in the High Sierra, in search of Lunker Lake.
After we tested each pole, we rated them on a scale from 1-10 (1 being the bottom of the barrel, 5 being average, and 10 representing the absolute best) and then looked at the combined metrics to determine which pole was better suited for a particular task. Below you'll find the results of our tests and a breakdown of each metric.
The first job of any trekking pole is to make your hike more comfortable, whether that be providing support on the trail, balance while crossing streams, or helping reduce the weight put on your joints. If a pole isn't comfortable, it won't do you much good on the trail. We based our comfort rating on handle materials, ergonomics, shaft materials, and straps. Although all of these metrics are relative to the user, materials like cork handles are more comfortable than rubber or foam counterparts as they'll contour to your hand over time.
Without a doubt, the Leki Corklite DSS Anti-Shock from Leki was our most comfortable poles, which is why it won our Top Pick and received the highest score in the comfort metric. Although "anti-shock" technologies are up for debate as to whether they're effective, this contender, complete with anti-shock, was the highest scoring in the fleet. Our Editors' Choice winner, the Black Diamond Alpine Carbon Cork, was not quite as comfortable as the Corklite DSS Antishock, but is also a high contender for the comfort rating, thanks to its cork handles and carbon fiber construction. One of the reasons Leki models scored so well in our comfort metric is due to the excellent handle design, which features an ergonomic grip that rivals Black Diamond's design.
Leki's Micro Vario Ti Cor-Tec also scored high in our comfort metric, earning a 7 out of 10, thanks to its well-designed handles, which can also be found on the Leki Corklite DSS Antishock. Unfortunately, the Micro Vario contender was not as comfortable to hike with (as the Corklite DSS), which we attribute to it lacking an anti-shock system. In fact, we found that poles constructed with carbon fiber had less trail shock, as carbon fiber has some vibration dampening properties. The Alpine Carbon Cork, which features carbon fiber construction, earned a 9 out of 10, offering a high level of comfort that is on par with the Leki Micro Vario Ti COR-TEC.
Ergonomics refer to the shape of the trekking pole handle and the shaft design, which are arguably the most important factors in determining how comfortable a pole is. If a pole is uncomfortable to handle and use, then it won't do you much good on the trail. We've found that handle and shaft material can make a big difference in a pole's comfort, but the overall design still reigns over the comfort category. Different people desire different shapes and designs, but overall we found that all of Leki's poles that we tested were supreme in the comfort category (After all, they've been constructing trekking and ski poles since 1948). Of the three Leki poles that we tested, the Corklite DSS Antishock and the Micro Vario Ti were by far the most comfortable. The Alpine Carbon Cork and the Alpine FLZ from Black Diamond both came in a close second - thanks to their cork handles that molded to our hands over time.
The class of 2017
Shaft Material Aluminum
Aluminum poles are cheaper and more durable than their carbon fiber counterparts. Truly it depends on what your intended usage of the pole is. Aluminum poles excel at shorter trips for those concerned with weight, but long trekking trips with lots of off-trail travel might lend themselves more towards an aluminum pole for the durability aspect. Aluminum can be bent and still be usable or bent back into shape, versus a carbon fiber pole which will generally just snap under too much weight.
Advancements in carbon fiber technology have allowed pole manufacturers the ability to construct strong and light poles that are comparable to aluminum. However, we would still consider aluminum to be a beefier and stronger material. Carbon Fiber can also help with shock absorption, and thus increasing comfort levels while on trail. If you are hiking mostly on trail or worried about weight, carbon fiber poles may be the choice for you. Although poles like the Alpine Carbon Cork can handle plenty of abuse, it is important to use just a bit more caution with them.
Handle Material Cork
Cork is the ideal material for comfort, as cork is smooth, durable, and will mold to your hand over time. Cork typically doesn't chafe and lasts for years. We would consider cork handles to be the most luxurious of trekking pole handles.
The Corklite DSS Anti-shock cork handle is the most comfortable cork grips we've tested.
Rubber is probably the most common and run of the mill trekking pole handle material. It's relatively inexpensive and is great for cold weather sports like mountaineering and skiing. This is because it insulates better than cork or foam. However, rubber typically isn't as comfortable as cork or foam in hot weather. Our testers found that rubber handles got more slippery from sweat or moisture than their cork or foam counterparts. Rubber is also a likely material that could cause chafing on your hands.
The Black Diamond Trail Back rubber grip.
Foam is what is found on ultralight poles like the Distance Carbon Z. This is because it's the lightest handle material available. It also wicks moisture better than cork and rubber. However, it is important to note that foam is also the least durable of the handle materials. We've found that foam can get chunks taken out of it much more efficiently than other materials. The Micro Vario Carbon also has excellent foam handles that we felt were a bit more durable than its ultra-light cousin, the Distance Carbon Z.
The Black Diamond Distance Carbon Z foam grip.
The Black Diamond and Leki poles had the best quality of design and materials for handles. The Black Diamond Distance Carbon Z, which featured a foam grip with ribbing on it, was one of the more comfortable foam grips that we tested. While the Black Diamond poles fared better in most metrics, the Alpine Carbon Cork and Leki poles were also exceptionally comfortable, thanks to their well-designed handles.
Mt. San Jacinto, CA. For snowsports, rubber handles are often best, as found here on these Black Diamond poles.
Locking and Adjustability
Just like the poles themselves, each one comes with a different locking system for adjustability of the pole. All of the poles that we reviewed this year had some shape or form of the lever lock system.
Although each brand has its proprietary take on the lever locking system, the system is simple to use: just unlock the lever, extend the pole to the desired length, and then lock the lever down. Depending on the diameter of the pole and where you use it, for the duration of the shaft, sometimes you need to tighten down the lever mechanism. This can be done with a screwdriver which provides a secure lock, which we found was the case on the Black Diamond (FlickLock) and REI poles.
Lever Locking Mechanisms found on the Black Diamond Trail Back (FlickLock), Alpine Carbon Cork (FlickLock Pro), and the Leki Corklite DSS Anti-Shock (SpeedLock 2).
Leki has created an ingenious design (SpeedLock) with a small dial that can be adjusted while on trail to avoid the use of tools. The Foxelli and Hiker Hunger poles both feature a design similar to the Leki poles, with a small dial and locking lever, but we found that they didn't stay as secure as the Leki design. This was due to the less robust levers and materials that we determined were a bit rattly and loose when unlocked to be adjusted.
Push Button Locking Mechanism found on the Black Diamond Distance Carbon Z.
The other common type of pole locking and adjustability seen is the Z-Style or collapsible style pole. These poles often break into three pieces which offer superior packability to the traditional collapsible poles. The Distance Carbon Z or the Alpine FLZ are great examples of this. Although the Distance Carbon Z is non-adjustable, the Alpine FLZ or the Micro Vario Carbon offer a single lever lock to adjust the upper portion of the pole.
Telescoping poles like Black Diamond Trail Back and Alpine Carbon Cork break down to around 24-26" while the folding/tent style poles often collapse 9-11 inches shorter (the three models on the top, starting in the middle, the Black Diamond Alpine FLZ, Leki Micro Vario, and Black Diamond Distance Carbon Z, respectively) making them an obvious choice for climbers, or other activities where your pole must be carried on your back for longer periods of time.
In a world where thru-hiking and ultra-light backpacking are becoming more and more popular, weight is an ever increasing issue. Although most of the time decreasing weight decreases durability and versatility, if you're ultra-light backpacking on the trail, you probably don't need a super heavy-duty pole. The Distance Carbon Z is by-far the lightest pole in our lineup this year at 10 ounces; this comes at the price of adjustability (you can only buy them in one of four sizes), as they don't have have any lever locking system. The Co-op Flash Carbon (about 14 ounces) came in second here as one of the lighter full featured poles thanks to carbon fiber shaft material and foam handles. The Hiker Hunger and Foxelli are also quite light, although not as durable as other options.
Generally speaking, the carbon fiber poles were the lightest of our lineup, with the Corklite DSS being the lightest of the aluminum pole designs at 17.8 ounces. The Alpine Carbon Cork was the heaviest of the Carbon Fiber poles, weighing in at 17.8 ounces, the same as the Corklite DSS Antishock. The weight is due to its thicker carbon fiber wrap, making it more burly and durable, albeit a bit heavier.
Ian Nicholson approaching La Hoja, Torres Del Paine, Patagonia.
Best Super Budget Lightweight Option: Use Ski Poles
If you're on a tight budget, or just love to save money, consider ski poles. You can usually find a pair for less than $5 at a thrift store. You can use as is or, as we prefer, remove bulky handles and add tennis grip tape. This removes the wrist straps which might be a deal breaker for some. However, we love the lighter package and the freedom to grip anywhere and adapt the "effective pole length" instantly to the terrain. The pair below started at 19 oz for a pair. But, after removing the grips, they were only 13 oz for the pair, making them only a few ounces heavier than our Tip Pick for Ultralight, the Distance Carbon Z and 4 ounces lighter than the Editors Choice, the Alpine Carbon Cork.
Packability is especially important for those using their poles for sports other than just hiking and backpacking. Generally, as a hiker or backpacker, you will almost always have your poles in hand, while alpine rock climbers, backcountry snowboarders, and those who travel via plane for their hiking will find this metric the most important. For example, backcountry snowboarders have no use for their poles once they reach the end of their uphill travel and often have limited space to put objects. Thus, packable poles are especially useful. However, for the general user, this isn't as important, and we've made sure to weight this accordingly.
The most packable poles on the market today are the Z-style poles, often referred to as "tent-pole" style or "break-apart" poles. In the past few years, these poles have exploded onto the market, and with good reason. They are far smaller when packed away than any of the collapsible poles. Black Diamond revolutionized and popularized the Z-pole, and now just a few years later many brands have their own version of the design. The Micro Vario Carbon packs down to the smallest of all of the poles in our lineup (at about 15 inches), with the Distance Carbon Z coming in close second (15.5 inches), and the Alpine FLZ in third (16 inches). Granted, these are only about a half inch apart, and the Distance Carbon Z is by far the lightest pole and thanks to its smaller diameter, actually takes up less space than the Micro Vario Carbon, despite being a half inch longer.
2017's trekking pole line up fully compacted. It's easy to see why tent style poles are so popular for those looking to conserve space.
More often than not, the more compact and light a product gets, it has some detriment to durability and adjustability. If packability is still important to you, but not as much as robust and durable design, we found Black Diamond's Alpine Carbon Cork and Trail Back to be the shortest of the collapsible pole design. Indeed only by a half inch or so of the rest of the competition, but it is worth mentioning if you're trying to plan your luggage down to the T.
Poles, like most things in life, do have the potential to break. Over many years of being on the trail, we've seen more than our fair share of broken trekking poles. Although most newer models should last you some time, not all are created equal. Although Carbon Fiber has come a long way and is relatively strong, they still won't be as robust as aluminum poles. Often, poles are strongest when loaded in a compression manner, from top to bottom. When a sheer or horizontal load is put into the mix, is often when you'll see a broken pole. Carbon Fiber tends to snap, rendering the pole useless, while Aluminum bends and in ideal circumstances can be bent back and repaired in the field to limp home.
The Leki Micro Vario Cor-tec TI and Black Diamond Alpine FLZ tent style poles can hold up to even the most adverse conditions....
We found that poles of higher weights, like those made of aluminum, were much more robust than their lighter carbon fiber counterparts. The Distance Carbon Z, although probably not chintzy, is lighter and not designed as a heavy duty trekking pole, but surprised us in its durability during testing.
The mid-weight poles we tested, such as the Alpine Carbon Cork and Corklite DSS Antishock were of the most durable, weighing in around 15-20 ounces and had robust metal locking mechanisms. The Corklite DSS Antishock was of aluminum construction, which as we mentioned above, is less prone to snapping. While the Alpine Carbon Cork is made of carbon fiber, a weaker material, it has a much thicker carbon weave, making it one of the sturdiest carbon fiber poles we tested. Our heavyweight contenders, the Trail Back and the Co-op Passage were the most durable, but also weighed the most out of all of the poles; this is due to their heavy-duty aluminum construction and well-built locking mechanisms that were either metal or a thick, confidence inspiring plastic.
We defined versatility as extra additions that the pole may have come with, and what the pole could be used for.
For instance, the Distance Carbon Z is a lightweight pole that excels in the ultralight or trail runner usage, and although could be used for other sports, it doesn't come with any other baskets, and wouldn't hold up as well to heavy duty usage as some of the more massive poles. On the opposite end, we have poles like the Co-op Passage that are heavy duty aluminum and built for robust usage for long trekking and off-trail travel. However, some of the heavyweight offerings such as the Black Diamond Trail Back were fantastic choices for multiple sports. Although they came with simple trail baskets, larger powder baskets could be attached, and their durable construction makes them an excellent choice for just about any application, although we think there are better options for ultra-light backpacking.
Trekking Poles can be utilized with Tarps and other backcountry tents to provide a lightweight alternative to standard tent poles.
We found that poles in the mid-weight range were the most versatile and often came with snow baskets. Light enough to be used on most trails, but heavy duty enough to be used for off-trail travel. The Alpine Carbon Cork, our Editors' Choice, excelled at just this and is an exceptional choice for backpacking, backcountry skiing, or mountaineering. The Alpine FLZ from Black Diamond was also another great contender in our versatility metric, thanks to its cork handles, detachable powder baskets, and folding Z-style design.
Trekking poles are fantastic for Backcountry Skiers especially when paired with powder baskets.
Other Pole Considerations
Most poles have carbide or steel tips to provide traction over multiple types of terrain. Carbide being the most commonly used in higher end poles, although both steel and carbide are great choices for traction.
Selecting the right basket for your trips is important. If you use big baskets on a trek through the woods, they will annoyingly get hung up all the time. If you use small baskets on snow, you are asking to break your poles.
Some poles come with multiple end coverings, rubber ends for asphalt or tip covers for stowing in a pack.
Comparing different tip designs for our trekking pole review. A few poles like the light weight rubber coated tip on the far right is fine for on-trail-use and ideal for concrete but mediocre for off-trail use and offers no option to use a larger basket for winter-time use. Many of these rubber tips could be removed and replaced with a more traditional metal tip. The three poles on the left are examples of more traditional looking tips with interchangeable baskets.
Most poles also come with a spare set of broad "powder" baskets for snow use. Primarily, the large basket doesn't allow the pole to punch through the snow as easily. This is great for backcountry snow travel, either snowshoeing or backcountry skiing or snowboarding.
Most poles come with a variety of baskets. The right-most basket being a powder basket, whilst the left-most is a basic trekking basket. Most of these can be purchased separately, although most poles come with at least one set.
The trekking baskets that are found on most poles are much smaller and will help with mud and branches, but do not provide adequate float for snow usage.
Baskets as found on the poles themselves, from super light weight almost non existent baskets on the Black Diamond Distance Carbon Z on the left, to the super wide attachable powder baskets found on the Black Diamond Alpine carbon cork. The two center poles are good examples of different trekking baskets.
Shock Absorbing Systems
Although there is some debate on whether shock absorbing systems work, we found that our most comfortable pole, the DSS anti-shock, featured Leki's anti-shock system.
It provided a bit more comfort while on trail. Leki's system is unique in that it is located at the bottom of the pole next to the tip when pressure is applied to the pole the anti-shock depresses as can be seen in the photos below.
With as many poles as there are out on the market today, it can be a bit challenging to find the perfect pair. Our testers have been testing poles for years to find their perfect fit. Generally speaking though, mid-weight poles with robust locking systems tend to excel the most here. The Alpine Carbon Cork is a great example of this, although it is a little pricey, and some hikers may find more value in something less expensive. We hope that our in-depth reviews will help you to find the best pole to suit your needs.
Gear tester Graham Williams hikes on the John Muir Trail in the Sierra Nevada Mountains with the Black Diamond Alpine Carbon Cork trekking poles.
Interested in how to fix a broken trekking pole using only tape and tent stakes?