Trekking Poles have come a long way. In just over a decade, they have gone from a seldom-seen item to near mandatory. From day hikers to seasoned mountaineers, the majority are using them now. There are many advantages to using hiking poles, the main reasons being that they offer better balance during challenging and rugged backcountry travel, reducing stress on your body during both the descent and the ascent.
The Black Diamond Alpine Carbon Cork wins our Editors' Choice award, because it is fairly light, and is a durable, comfortable, and versatile product. While the Alpine Carbon Cork isn't as light or as compact as any of the folding "tent-pole" options, it is one of the more comfortable poles and is tougher than the folding options. We think if you're a climber and need to strap your poles to your pack, then there are better options; however, most folks are going to have their poles in their hands (rather than strapped to their pack) the majority of the time.
Our OutdoorGearLab Best Buy award goes to the Black Diamond Trail Back. The Trail Back is close in performance to many of the expensive poles (in several categories) but is less than half the cost of several of them. While it isn't the lightest or most compact, it is a durable, versatile product that will meet most people's needs and is by far our favorite pole in its price range. The Black Diamond Distance Z ($100) was a strong contender, because it's lighter, more packable, and features a more comfortable grip, but it is also $20 more. We think if you're willing to spend $100 instead of $80, we'd probably go with the Distance Z. If budget comfort is what you're after, the Leki Cristallo features a darn comfortable handle and is possibly more durable, but also checks in with a $120 price tag.
The Leki Carbon Ti was one of our favorite competitors and narrowly missed our Editors' Choice award as being the best overall. It remains a strong contender, nearly as versatile and offering what many of our testers considered a nicer and more ergonomic grip. If you're someone who "palms" their poles, then the Carbon Ti's oval-shaped handle will win you over. The Carbon Ti also weighs in one ounce lighter than our Editors' Choice, the Black Diamond Alpine Carbon Cork and uses a bomber lever lock mechanism. These poles recently received a new look in terms of strap colors and graphic design, yet remains unchanged in 2017.
The Black Diamond Distance Carbon Z was the obvious winner for the Best Lightweight Hiking Pole and gets one of our Top Pick awards. When you pick up the Carbon Distance Z, it is noticeably lighter than the Leki Micro Stick, with little compromise in toughness. Although it is a bit bulky and heavy, it surprised us with its durability. We found that the Ultra Distance had great rigidity and strength, which was an asset on trail. If you're looking to save some money, check out the base model, the Distance for a cool $100.
The Leki Micro Vario Ti COR-TEC gets one of our Top Pick awards for having the most comfortably designed and ergonomic cork handle, a tester favorite in a pole that collapses to a review small of 15". While it's only average in weight (18 ounces), the Micro Vario's design will be appreciated by climbers, trekkers, and backpackers alike and is reasonably priced, at $140. If you're looking for shock absorption, Leki also makes the Leki Micro Vario Ti Cor-Tec DSS.
The Alpine Carbon Z poles were a strong contender for our Editors' Choice award and were only barely edged out by the Alpine Carbon Cork because they weren't as durable nor did they offer an adjustment range for a similar weight. The Alpine Carbon Z remains one of our top scoring poles, featuring an equally comfortable grip, a similar weight, and superior packability. While we thought the Alpine Carbon Z was durable enough for most hiking applications and the most versatile of any of the Z series of poles, it wasn't as tough or as versatile as the Alpine Carbon Cork.
Dan Whitmore getting a feel for his Black Diamond Trail poles and the glacier fed waters of the North Fork Bridge creek with Mt. Goode and Storm King peak looming above, North Cascades National Park, WA.
What is the best set of poles for hiking and backpacking? We took 16 of the best poles and tested them head-to-head to find out. We took these poles up big approaches in the Cascades on traditional trails, burly cross-country routes, and on snow. We tested them on shorter hikes with heavy and light loads to see if we could feel a difference, switching between a half dozen (or more) poles throughout the day. We evaluated them by the following criteria: the comfort of the grip and strap, packability and compactness, ease of use, durability, weight, and overall versatility.
There are hundreds of hiking poles on the market today. After extensive research, we narrowed the field down to sixteen of the best. The following explains what we found.
Trekking poles provide balance, timing and support especially on rougher terrain. Here Rebecca Schroeder crosses the frigid Early Winters creek below the Wine Spires near Washington pass, North Cascades WA.
Criteria for Evaluation
Combining the scores for all the metrics, weight appropriately, the table below displays the overall scores of all products reviewed. Following the table is a breakdown of each individual metric.
The comfort of the pole handle is derived from its ergonomics, material and, to a lesser extent, its straps. We weighted comfort higher than other categories, such as packability, because it is more important to a larger range of users. Obviously, comfort is an important factor, and all our testers felt differences among the poles tested. To what degree they could feel the difference varied from user to user. For folks who find themselves wearing gloves more of the time (for instance snowshoers and mountaineers), we found that comfort mattered less but still enough to make it a primary criterion for evaluation.
The Leki Carbon Ti was another top contender for its comfortable and lower diameter foam grip coupled with lightweight and durable construction. Some of our testers, especially those with smaller hands or who frequent warmer climates, prefer the Carbon Ti's handle to the Alpine Carbon Cork.
Trekking into Aconcagua's Plaza De Mulas while working comparing and contrasting models side-by-side for this review.
The ergonomics, or shape of the pole handle the single most important factor concerning how "comfortable" a pole is. While the material is important, it isn't as important as ergonomics, design, and shape. This is where personal preference is involved, as opposed to the much more black-and-white functionality of materials. So regarding the most "comfortable" shape of a pole, we pooled our friends, testing them as open-mindedly as possible. After years of testing, no matter which way we held our pole, the Leki Corklite and the Leki Micro Vario Ti COR-TEC (which offer identical grips), are our favorite. It wasn't the runaway favorite, but a clear-cut winner. We also liked the Editors' Choice Black Diamond Alpine Carbon Cork, Leki Carbon Ti, the Black Diamond Trail Ergo Cork, Leki Micro Vario Carbon, and the Alpine Carbon Z, but our testers loved the Corklite.
Comparing the some of our favorite grips, from top to bottom Black Diamond Alpine Carbon Cork, Leki Corklite, Komperdell C3 Compact (awesome grip for its weight), Leki Quantum, and the Black Diamond Contour Elliptic Shock.
Cork is typically the nicest material. Cork (like your Birkenstocks) can shape to your hand with time and is smooth, durable, and continues to wear well after years of use and abuse. It absorbs little water and doesn't take in much sweat, yet feels pleasant and resists chafing during hot weather.
Rubber is slightly better than cork for cold weather or mountaineering because it insulates better and is equal to cork for vibration dampening. Most of our users didn't find it as comfortable during hotter hikes or after years of use when the rubber handle gets worn down and looses its shape. While we tested, there were always more folks getting chafed hands with rubber grips compared to cork or foam. Some users noted little difference in rubbing between handle materials, while others would get the worst rub marks and blisters from rubber grips during warmer hikes compared with cork or foam. If you would consider yourself to have "soft hands" and aren't using your poles someplace cold, we advise sticking to cork or foam.
Foam is the lightest and most moisture wicking of the three common grip materials but is also the least durable. While it was great for desert hikes around the Grand Canyon, most of the foam grips we tested quickly lost their shape and got nicked and dinged easily. Many won't deal with this with their super light poles because the pole is likely to break before the grip wears out. Among the lighter weight foam-gripped poles, the Leki Micro Vario Carbon and the Leki Carbon Ti are by far our favorites, because they offered the best ergonomics and wore the best over time, compared with the Komperdell C3 Carbon (which has a very large diameter grip) or the Black Diamond Distance and Ultra Distance poles, which only offered narrow, basic shaped handles.
Trekking pole comparisons on Mt. Baker's Easton Glacier. For Mountaineering applications rubber or cork grips can be better than foam because of their insulative qualities and moisture resistant characteristics.
All the Leki poles had fantastic ergonomics and cork grips that only improved with time. The Black Diamond Alpine Carbon Cork and Trail Ergo Cork didn't feel as good at first but eventually broke in (more than the Leki poles) to make them as comfortable. One last consideration is the diameter. The Black Diamond cork handled poles are larger in diameter compared to either of their foam grip poles, (which also were the narrowest) or the Leki Corklite and Leki Micro Vario Ti COR-TEC, which featured the smallest diameter cork handle.
Ryan O'Connell using his Black Diamond Ultra Distance poles while crossing Midas Creek with Ian Nicholson and Andy Dahlen.
The diameter of a grip can vary a lot from model to model and manufacturer to manufacturer. If you have a smaller or larger than average hand grip diameter, this can be the biggest contributing factor to a pole's comfort. If you have large or larger than average hands, the grips on the Komperdell C3 Carbon are grittier than normal and awesome for big hands, but certainly not as good for smaller hands.
Comparing multiple handles designs and grip materials for our trekking pole review.
The Leki Corklite and the Black Diamond Alpine Carbon Z both feature narrower-than-average grips that nearly all of our smaller handed testers preferred compared with the larger Alpine Carbon Cork and Trail Cork Ergo. Other options for smaller diameter handles are the Black Diamond Distance Z, Distance Carbon Z, and Trail Back, along with the Leki Corklite poles. For most people, if you have to go with a grip that's a little too narrow, it's a lot better than a grip that's a little too big. If you're looking for the best combination of the lightest pole with the most comfortable handle, check out the 14.5-ounce adjustable Leki Micro Vario Carbon.
Ryan O'Connell looking at the mega classic Snow Creek Wall, testing what would become our OutdoorGearLab Top Pick award winner, the Black Diamond Distance Carbon Z trekking poles, for their superiority weight and packability. Alpine Lake Wilderness, WA.
Palmers and Cane Position
The word "Palmers" refers to people who prefer to hold the top of the pole in the middle of their palm compared to the more common hand on the handle grip (like you'd hold a ski pole). The shapes of the top of the grip are not created equal. For "Palmers," pretty much all the Leki handles are more comfortably designed.
Nick and Scott getting a feel for their Leki poles while testing their durability in the North Cascades long, steep and Rocky approach to Eldorado peak.
Overall, our "top grip pick" goes to the Leki Micro Vario Ti COR-TEC and the Leki Corklite, but we felt the Black Diamond Alpine Carbon Cork (our Editors' Choice award winner), Leki Carbon Ti, and the Black Diamond Trail Ergo Cork were also good choices. This is where some of the lightest poles faltered the most, offering less surface area, meaning they were generally less comfortable for our hands while "palming".
Tracey Bernstein packing his Black Diamond Trail Back poles after rappelling over Sharkfin Col into a large moat on the Boston Glacier. While the Trail Back poles are hardly the most compact pole, they do get plenty small enough to strap to the side of a backpack.
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 right) making them an obvious choice for climbers, or other activities where your pole must be carried on your back for longer periods of time.
Locking Mechanism and Adjustability
After testing of all the different types and designs of locking and pole adjustment mechanisms, we liked the external lever-lock style mechanisms better than most of the twist lock style mechanisms, because they were more durable and easier to use. Unlike just two years ago, when there was a small minority of pole manufacturers using lever lock style poles, now a majority of manufacturers use them, including most of the pole manufacturers reviewed. Is there an advantage to twist lock style poles? The answer is yes; twist lock style mechanisms are lighter, tend to need less adjusting, and are less bulky. These were all small differences, but the greater advantage of the lever style mechanisms' ease-of-use and durability was enough for all of our testers to favor them.
Even just a few years ago, our testers preferred Black Diamond's FlickLock system, but recently, many pole manufacturers have answered back with better and better lever-locking style mechanisms (Black Diamond has also continued to update their own FlickLock system). Most recently, Leki released their updated SpeedLock 2 external lever locking system, which proved equally as durable and reliable as BD's FlickLock. The SpeedLock, on top of being as functional, proved to be the easiest mechanism to adjust; no coin or special tool is needed, and we found it easy to do with a bare or gloved hand.
Showing the locking mechanism on several models. As a whole we like the external lever lock style mechanisms far better than the internal twist lock mechanisms because we thought they were easier to use and more durable.
The Push button or push-pop locking mechanism on the Black Diamond Distance Z. While this system is no-frills and pretty basic our testing team found it very functional and extremely durable. It's only disadvantage is that it offered no range of adjustment.
While we tend to like external lever locking systems better, not all twist lock systems are created equal (and there are some BAD ones out there).
Comparing the external leaver locking mechanisms of Black Diamond's FlickLock (left) and Leki's SpeedLock 2 (right). Previously the Black Diamond Flick had been a runaway winner for functionality and durability, but now it faces as stiff of competition as ever. Currently we think the Leki SpeedLock is equally as reliable but features the added advantage of the easiest-to-adjust tension of any pole mechanism in our review.
A new contender to the pole adjustment mechanism world is the "pin-pop" (or push button/push pin) style. Most of these are basic but functional and durable. Many of the pin pop mechanisms are found in the Z-series or folding/collapsing-style folding poles like the Black Diamond Distance Carbon Z or the Leki Vario series like the Leki Micro Vario Carbon or Leki Micro Vario Ti COR-TEC. Some of these poles, like the Leki Micro Vario Ti COR-TEC, and Black Diamond Distance FLZ, feature two different systems, a pin pop to erect the pole and a single additional lever-lock system to add around 20 cm of adjustment.
We think the Black Diamond Distance Carbon Z, at a scant 10 ounces (for the 110 cm size) feel light when you pick them up and are tough enough for most backpackers, trekkers, or climbers (you can't put snow baskets on them), though they offer essentially nothing in height adjustment and aren't nearly as tough as more traditional telescoping poles (though we haven't broken ours yet and have used them a lot). Another note about the lack of adjustment on the Distance Carbon Z (available in 100, 110, 120 and 130 cm sizes) is that our testers found this wasn't as big of a deal after extensive use, as long as you purchased the correct size to begin with, because for a majority of treks we rarely adjusted our poles.
Another one of our favorite poles were the Komperdell C3 Carbon Compact, at 13.5 ounces they are light, fully adjustable poles and are a step up in durability from the Black Diamond Ultra Distance. We do feel that our OutdoorGearLab Editors' Choice award winner the Black Diamond Alpine Carbon Cork (16 ounces), and the Leki Carbon Ti (15 ounces) are a little more durable, but both are heavier.
The difference in weight between poles might not seem like a lot at first, even in our review the maximum difference is 16 ounces. But consider you are lifting your arm up thousands of times per day, potentially 10,000 or more times on a multi-day trip, and this is where the weight savings and reduced fatigue can really add up, so don't just brush off the lighter poles because they are only 5-10 ounces lighter. Here Andy Dahlen, Ryan O'Connell and Ian Nicholson comparing products while hiking into Boston Basin, with Forbidden Peak towering above.
Among the aluminum telescoping poles, the REI Traverse Trekking Poles tipped the scales the same as the Leki Micro Stick at 17.5 ounces, and the REI Traverse Shocklight is only one ounce heavier, adding a shock absorbing mechanism and an extra $10. We think that the Leki Corklite felt lighter on long treks than its scale weight might have lead us to believe.
Comparing the grips from several models and manufacturers. Below we talk about the advantages and disadvantages of different grip materials and shapes.
Our packability comparison is mostly how compact a pole collapses to make it easier to carry on a backpack or in a duffel for travel. For your average backpacker or day hiker, packability is a less important consideration than many of the above categories, and we scored it in our comparisons appropriately. With that being said, for certain user groups, like alpine rock climbers, B.A.S.E jumpers, or folks who travel to do most of their hiking, it can be a big consideration.
Overall, the most compact hiking poles on the market are the folding "tent-pole" style poles, which collapse shorter than traditional telescoping poles. The folding "tent-pole" style is new and gained traction a couple years ago, popularized with Black Diamond's Z-Pole line and followed by Leki's Vario Line. Just a few years later there are dozens of options from several manufacturers. The most compact option is one of our Top Picks, the Black Diamond Distance Carbon Z and Black Diamond Distance Z, which breaks down to less than half the length of other products with a minimum size of 14" and offers zero adjustability. The Leki Micro Vario Carbon packs down to 14.5" while the Leki Micro Stick, Leki Micro Vario Ti COR-TEC, and the Alpine Carbon Z pack down to the same size of around 15" and all but the Alpine Z offer some adjustability. Even the longest of all these folding "tent-pole" style products is at least 9" shorter than most of the telescoping poles reviewed. The exception is the Komperdell C3 Carbon Compact, by far the shortest and lightest telescoping option, which packs down to 21.5".
Comparing the compacted lengths of the Komperdell C3 Carbon Powerlock Compact and the Black Diamond Distance FL. Despite the C3 Carbon being a telescoping design and the Distance being a folding tent pole design, there is only 4" of difference between them for their minimum length.
The Black Diamond Distance Carbon Z is light and our favorite pole for light to medium use. It's much lighter than the other top scoring poles and folds down to nothing. While it isn't quite as versatile as many of the traditional telescoping poles, it is great for most backpackers and trekkers and is a stellar option for climbers.
The Leki Micro Vario Ti COR-TEC is a packable pole that folds down to an impressive 15". Not only does it feature our favorite grip among collapsible poles, but it also features our favorite handle reviewed. Best of all, it's on the less expensive side of all of the poles tested, at $140.
"Tent pole" style trekking poles as seen above are much more compact and lighter weight than traditional telescoping trekking poles. In the photo above from left to right: Black Diamond Ultra Distance, Leki Microstick and Raidlight trekking poles when collapsed.
If packability is one of the most important features you're looking for, then be sure to check out the shortest of the products mentioned above, but remember that most of these products have at least some compromise in adjustability and durability. They're good for day hiking and backpacking, but likely inappropriate for most heavy duty uses. One nice thing about the Black Diamond Distance FLZ, Leki Micro Vario Ti COR-TEC, and The Micro Vario Carbon is that they are nearly as compact, all breaking down to around 15" but all offer around 20 cm of adjustability. The Komperdell C3 Carbon is the most compact traditionally telescoping design and has a maximum length of 120 cm, around 20 cm shorter than most comparably designed model reviewed.
The Raidlight is the lightest and most compact trekking pole we tested. This makes it ideal for wing suit BASE jumping. The Raidlight while super light and okay for light duty approaching and hiking, it's likely not durable enough for most people's everyday trekking and backpacking needs.
We have broken a lot of poles during testing as well as through the 15 plus years we've been using them. The most common breaks occur when one punches through snow or into a gap between rocks and we bend or fall. While all poles are far from being "break-proof," some are more durable than others. The biggest contributing factor to durability is shaft construction and material.
Aluminum poles typically use higher 7075-T6 or 7075 grade aluminum. Aluminum tends to be more durable; (being straight up beefier to begin with) and aluminum can bend and still be functional, while carbon fiber has little bend and will snap if pushed too far. Aluminum poles range from the lighter side being around 16 ounces per pair to around 22 ounces in this review. Not everyone needs a more durable product. If you are primarily day hiking or backpacking on trails, you can get away with a light pole compared to bushwhacking with a heavy pack. We used the Black Diamond Ultra Distance on lots of rocky, trail-less terrain, we were just more careful and aware that we were more likely to break it while doing so.
Testing durability and comparing shaft materials at the half way point of Washington's burly week-long Isolation Traverse for our Trekking pole review. Primus Peak, Austeria Peak and the Northern Eldorado Ice camp.
Carbon fiber construction makes the product lighter than aluminum, with the heavier carbon fiber hiking poles weighing around the same as the lightest aluminum versions. While we do think that in general, aluminum products are more durable, we think that beefier carbon fiber poles, like the Black Diamond Alpine Carbon Cork, or other heavier, sturdier carbon fiber options are at least as durable as other super lightweight aluminum poles that weigh the same amount.
An assortment of trekking poles help tester Ian Nicholson manage a 75lb load carried into the French Valley while comparing products for this review. Torres Del Paine, Patagonia, Chile.
We tested both the durability of the shafts and the locking mechanism. The toughest contender in our review was the Leki Cristallo, Leki Corklite, Black Diamond Trail Ergo Cork and the Black Diamond Alpine Carbon Cork. Until you get below 13-15 ounces there isn't a giant difference in durability, with poles like the Leki Quantum being built to last a lifetime. Among the midweight poles, the Alpine Carbon Cork impressed us. But once you start comparing poles below 13 or so ounces, the shaft durability becomes more suspect. Of the "Super Light Poles" the Black Diamond Distance Z seemed the most durable and WAY more durable than expected. e used it for burly cross-country travel and it performed.
Comparing products with Cerro Cuerno looming above, Argentina.
Other Pole Considerations
Most poles use carbide or steel tips to provide traction. Carbide seems to wear better, but both provide near equal traction on dirt, ice, or snow. Many poles come with rubber or plastic tip protectors that are most effective for protecting your gear from your poles during travel or storage. If you plan to use your poles on asphalt a fair amount, consider buying a pair of poles that comes with rubber tips or, better yet, separate angled rubber walking tips (sold separately) to help prevent premature wear of your tips and help increase the versatility of your poles.
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.
A cool feature a few lightweight options like the Black Diamond Distance Z-series poles have is their interchangeable tip options; a rubber coated tip that performed fine for normal on-trail hiking and in more urban areas (like on concrete) and a more traditional carbide tip that works better on steeper, muddier, off-trail terrain. However, many of the Distance Z poles don't feature an interchangeable basket, fine for summertime use but inadequate for winter or mountaineering.
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.
Most of the hiking poles tested featured removable baskets, with the exception of the Black Diamond Distance Z and Distance Carbon Z. Most manufacturers make two or three sizes of baskets, one trekking basket, which is smaller and will help in mud and won't get hung up on branches. These trekking baskets are generally not suitable for snow and shouldn't be used in such conditions because you risk your pole sinking and subsequently bending or snapping. Snow baskets offer superior float in snow but tend to get hung up more often while trekking through the forest and are heavier.
Amos Galpin using poles on a typical Cascadian approach.
Shock Absorbing Systems
After weeks and weeks of comparison, our testers typically didn't feel we needed shock absorbing systems and felt there wasn't much-reduced fatigue at the end of long days. Testers didn't like how they handled rough terrain where we were using our poles aggressively for balance. With that said, there are some people who do like them, so we reported our findings. Among the shock-absorbing poles tested, we liked the simple durable shock absorbing system of the Black Diamond Trail Pro Shock the best. It wasn't a runaway winner, but we like the weight of the pole and it's bomber shock system. We also like the REI Traverse Shocklight ($90), because what you get for the price is a pretty solid pole for $50 less than many other poles.
Our testing team at OutdoorGearLab didn't feel like needed shock absorbing mechanism primarily because after our extensive side-by-side testing our testers noticed very little, if any reduction in fatigue. Shock absorbing poles didn't handle rough terrain as well where we were using our poles aggressively for balance.
If you plan on hiking in snow, it is important to change the baskets on your poles to designated snow baskets. The Leki Snowflake Basket is one option that performs well in snow.
The Leki LED Pole Light clips onto your pole to light the path when you are hiking at night.
Ryan O'Connell using his Black Diamond Ultra Distance poles while crossing Midas Creek with Ian Nicholson and Andy Dahlen.
Finding the perfect set of poles geared toward your hiking preferences isn't an easy task. The best products in this category tend to be lightweight yet durable, feature strong locking mechanisms, save ounces and space, and are comfortable in hand for hours on end. But, these top-shelf products are also pricey, and, depending on where and how you hike, are perhaps more than you need. It is our hope that our analyses will provide positive assistance in your search for a new pair of hiking poles.
Be sure to see our video on how to fix a broken trekking pole using tape and tent stakes.