The Best Trekking Poles

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After about 40 hours of testing on trails, streets, beaches, and many places in between—including extensive handling and testing in a physical-therapy office, among therapists, nurses, patients, and doctors in an orthopedic group—we’ve determined that the Montem Ultra Strong Trekking Poles are the best for nearly everyone. They’re simple to set up and use, comfortable, and ready to take a beating. Also, they’re a bargain.

Last Updated: May 4, 2017
The TSA has released some new travel restrictions for carry-on items, and trekking poles are now on the list of banned items. Even if you have collapsible poles that easily fit in a carry-on bag, you might be asked to check them; keep that in mind when planning your trip.
Expand Most Recent Updates
March 10, 2017: We’ve added another pole to our What to look forward to section, the Pacerpoles, after a few people pointed them out. Also, after reviewing reader comments following our initial publication of this guide, we’ve clarified a few points on product selection and usage.

If you walk or hike regularly (and, really, if you don’t, you should), we strongly recommend a pair of trekking poles, or at the very least a walking stick. Poles improve balance and cut down significantly on wear and tear in your legs, especially in your knees, particularly heading downhill. But poles also make walking—one of the best and certainly easiest workouts you can do—even healthier. They stave off injuries and lessen impact, sure, but they also get your whole upper body involved.

Our pick
Montem Ultra Strong Trekking Poles
This basic set of poles offers an excellent grip and easy-to-use adjustments.

If you’re looking for a fine, sturdy, simple set of trekking poles, Montem’s Ultra Strong Trekking Poles are our pick. They’re made of aluminum—a malleable, sturdy material that is not as brittle as carbon fiber—so you can scratch them, ding them, and generally bang them around without worrying they’ll break, yet they’re lightweight enough for most people. The EVA foam grip is less sweaty than cork and won’t chafe your hand over time like hard rubber, and the adjustment mechanisms are simple to use and tighten. Plus, these poles come with rubber tips and baskets included; for all our other picks (and most poles in general), you have to buy those pieces separately. Montem is a small company that makes pretty much nothing but poles, and when we contacted the customer service, we found it to be excellent––the founder and CEO is often the guy who picks up the phone.

Upgrade pick
Gossamer Gear LT4 Carbon Trekking Poles
Testers loved these lightweight poles above all others—they’re the most usable sticks for all situations and terrain.

Gossamer Gear’s LT4 Carbon Trekking Poles are exceedingly simple to set up and use, and they’re very comfortable. And since they’re made of carbon fiber, they’re the lightest poles available. They’re also expensive: more than $200 for the pair, plus shipping, on Gossamer Gear’s website. For some people, though, they’re worth the relatively high price. Among the dozens of poles we researched, and the 10 models we field-tested, the LT4 poles were the favorites across the board because of the overall simplicity of their design, which has only one adjustment point and nothing flashy. Ultimately the high price kept us from making this set our overall pick, but if you want the most comfortable trekking poles, these are the ones for you.

Also great
Leki Instructor Lite SL2
This set of poles has extremely comfortable (if dorky) grips and straps.

The differences between Nordic walking and a basic hike are subtle, but generally the finer mechanics of propelling yourself forward with a pair of poles (instead of just balancing yourself) come into play, as does pole handling with the use of the grip and strap (as opposed to an overreliance on the handle). Leki is a German company that specializes in poles and almost nothing but poles (folding chairs, too, which really are just a series of poles when you think about it). The outstanding aspect of the Leki Instructor Lite SL2 is the grip strap and handle, which the company calls the Trigger Shark. This bicycle-glove-like design appears a bit dorky, but it’s worth the looks you’ll get (we swear), as the glove-strap forces the poles into exactly the correct crook of your hand. These poles also ranked among our top picks for their clever, easy-to-use adjustment mechanism, as well as their simple two-part design—the upper section is aluminum and the lower section is a carbon composite, giving each stick a nice slightly top-heavy weight overall. We also like Leki’s hilariously in-depth guide to pole length, and the fact that a lot of the company’s poles can work for skiing with only slight alterations.

Also great

*At the time of publishing, the price was $140.

Black Diamond Alpine FLZ Z-Poles
This pair is for trail runners or mountain scramblers looking for very stashable poles.

You probably don’t need a highly packable set of trekking poles (more on that below), but if you read on and are convinced you do, the Black Diamond Alpine FLZ Z-Poles are the best option, as they’re comfortable, easy to adjust, and less expensive than similar models. Many testers found the entire tentpole (or Z-pole) style of folding trekking poles overly complicated, while others—interviewed experts included—brought up the increased likelihood of the poles breaking with so many joints. But if you’re looking for poles that you can quickly pull apart and put back together, with practice, these are a great choice.

Table of contents

What is a trekking pole?

At first glance, you might think a trekking pole is just a ski pole you use for walking. Nope. Though they look similar, trekking poles are usually adjustable—you can set the length to fit your body. Some poles might include internal springs to dampen impact. All adjustable poles also include a locking mechanism; some are proprietary while others are simple push-button or twist/telescoping mechanisms. At the bottom, you’ll find tips for better gripping of terrain. If you’re planning some urban hiking, look for grippy rubber walking tips. Sometimes they’re offered as an accessory; sometimes they’re included. The tips are usually surrounded by baskets, which prevent a pole from sinking too far into the dirt or snow. Bigger baskets are often available as an accessory, and they’re helpful when the terrain gets mucky. At the top are the grips. You’ll encounter various grip sizes, styles, and materials, and you’ll want to find the one that’s most comfortable—in terms of both fit and cushion—for you.

Who this is for

Do you believe in gravity? In the endless march of time? In the unsteadiness of the ground beneath you? If so, you need a trekking pole, or a walking stick, or a hiking staff, or a cane (mechanically, what they do is basically all the same). Any tool long enough to reach the ground and arrest your fall and aid your balance is a good tool to have around—a broom handle or a tree branch could work in a pinch. And yet, too often, so many people don’t have anything.

Maybe it’s because we might see a person using a stick to walk and think, “That person is old and feeble.” Or, if they are young and healthy, we might think, “What a dork.” I know, because I was one of those people once, not so long ago, on a slice of the John Muir Trail silently judging backpackers in their mid-30s, roughly my age, tricked out with gear, poles included. “Nerds!” I thought. Whereas I was a purist, with nothing but a pack, some running shoes, and a good hat. Nothing fancy. Definitely not a pole.

The assumption that trekking poles are only for serious hikers is deeply misguided.

But poles are valuable, as I learned the next day when an early-season blizzard forced us to hike out 27 miles through the high, extremely un-flat Sierras in about 12 hours. Descending at dusk, dropping thousands of feet via stairstep switchbacks—well, I’d like to say it brought me to my knees, but I didn’t even want to think about my (poor, tired, swelling) knees. By the end of the day, the three of us were staggering to our cars in darkness, wishing we’d had a stick or a pole or even a decent-size branch to lean on and help us on our pathetic way.

That day was extreme, sure, but it’s what got me interested in trekking poles not just as a necessary piece of gear for backpacking trips but also as a useful thing to have around on day hikes. More than that, what if I started using them even on more casual walks around Los Angeles? Would I feel silly sometimes? (Yes.) But also, sometimes, great? (Yes.)

What’s strange is that despite studies like this one and this one, which show how using trekking poles reduces force impact and distributes energy evenly across the lower body, many reviews begin with the idea that poles are “optional” or “not the most necessary piece of hiking gear.” That’s simply not true. Absolutely nothing is necessary to hike—plenty of people hike barefoot, maybe some of those people also hike naked, I’m not sure. But the assumption that trekking poles are only for serious hikers is deeply misguided. As usual, Northern Europeans are way ahead of the game on this front.

Sauvakävely is a Finnish word for “walking with poles.” It’s something cross-country skiers have been doing in the off-season for half a century at least, and probably a lot longer. Walking with poles didn’t really get much attention until 1979, when a physical education teacher who later became head of the Finnish Workers’ Sports Federation wrote about the practice, specifically how good it is as a total body workout. And it is! Nordic walking increases heart rate, blood flow, and oxygen consumption, burning more calories and strengthening the upper body while lessening impact on your lower joints. Dr. Timothy S. Church, chief medical officer of ACAP Health Consulting and co-author of the Nordic-walking study linked to below, explained to us that Nordic walking, while slightly more aerobic than typical pole-walking, looked a bit like cross-country skiing without skis—longer poles, larger arm motion, and a lot of work for your shoulders and triceps. “It really is a workout,” he said.

Walking with poles more generally, interviewed experts agreed, improves stability, stops falls, and may save lives. Okay—that last claim is a tough one to study, but there’s research supporting every other claim, like this 2002 study of all the physiological benefits of walking with poles, to say nothing of the studies showing how walking improves mindfulness, promotes creativity, and relieves stress. So walk, use poles. You’ll feel better. You’ll feel good.

Why you should trust us

I’ve written for The New York Times Magazine, MIT Tech Review, Fast Company, and Outside—and before I was writing, I was an editor at Fortune, Popular Science, World Policy Journal, and National Geographic Adventure. Before I was editing, I was backpacking. And before I was backpacking, I was walking. I’ve been walking nearly all my life.

I interviewed Dr. Timothy S. Church, former researcher at the Cooper Institute, co-author of a Nordic-walking study, and chief medical officer of ACAP Health Consulting, as well as Carol Ewing Garber, president of the American College of Sports Medicine and a professor of movement sciences at Columbia University.

I also leaned heavily on my dad, Gary Bradley, for research, expertise, and testing support. He has been an orthopedic surgeon for decades, and he’s writing a book about walking, which I’m helping him with. He brought the 10 pairs of trekking poles into his office and left most of them upstairs, in a physical-therapy center, where they were assessed over afternoons and taken out into the surrounding mountains on weekends and evenings, tested by assorted doctors, patients, nurses, assistants, therapists, and anyone else who happened to pick up a pair. Some of the testers even filled out survey sheets we left behind, too.

Where we tested

I tried the poles in small batches for a series of hikes, some short (less than 3 miles) and some long (about 10 miles), over as many different terrains as California in the late summer and early fall could muster: hard dirt, soft dirt, sand, and sandstone; oaky woods and scraggly chaparral; some desert, some beach, a little jaunt in foothills of the Sierras.

Trails:

Beaches:

  • Summerland Beach
  • Carpinteria State Beach

Streets:

  • All over mid-city, Los Angeles
  • Fire roads and some paved paths in the San Gabriel Mountains, north of Los Angeles

How we picked

handles and tops of four picks on ground

Left to right: our picks from Montem, Black Diamond, Gossamer Gear, and Leki.

If you don’t use a pole, what good is it? No good. On my treks, even in walks around the city, it’s amazing how many people I’ve seen with poles stowed away, sticking out of their pack, or carried in the crook of their arm, not touching the ground. What a sad pole! You have to use the pole. Don’t be afraid of the pole. In this spirit, usability was by far our main concern and the metric we returned to most often in deciding the best set of poles overall. But it’s also a huge, slightly fuzzy category that covers more concrete factors such as the following.

locking mechanisms on four top picks

The locking adjustment mechanisms on our favorite poles.

Adjusting mechanics: How easy is it to adjust the pole on the trail? Or to fold it away quickly into your pack? Generally, the locking mechanism is the agreed-upon easiest and best method for adjustment, but I’d argue that ease of adjustment has a serious downside: More joints where you might adjust a pole mean more places for the pole to fail on the trail. Ultimately, in our experience the easiest-to-use adjustment mechanisms were minimalist. The Gossamer Gear pole uses a twist lock mechanism, which adds to that pole’s overall simplicity. Our other picks all use simple flick locks for adjustments and offer the added benefit of measurements for remembering your preferred height.

Portability: A lot of trekking-pole reviews heavily weigh how quickly and well the poles collapse for packing. We realize some hikers have some extreme portability needs for which these highly collapsible poles are ideal, but for most hikers we think our picks are perfectly portable during travel. Not one of our 30-plus testers had much of anything to say about how packable any set of poles was, because, of course, they were busy using the poles, but if you need something that packs small, our collapsible pick might be the best choice for you. Note that you’ll probably have to check your trekking poles in your luggage, regardless of size, due to new TSA carry-on restrictions; keep that in mind if you’re planning on flying with them. Afterward, however, set them up—that’s the best and surest way to make sure you use the poles. Despite all this, I spent several hours on several hikes swapping between pole sets, collapsing and adjusting, collapsing and adjusting, knowing in my heart of hearts that were I not researching these poles for review, I would not have been engaged in such mid-hike foolishness.

Here’s what I learned: Most trekking poles collapse into themselves by telescoping at two joints—the wider one attached to the handle or grip, the smaller one nearer the ground. The two-joint design means the poles are more packable, as they collapse smaller, but it also means more can go wrong. There’s also the unpleasant possibility of a slight rattling, making a little noise and causing a very minor tremor in the stick. A lot of people aren’t really bothered by the rattle. I was, because I crave as much silence as possible when I hike, except in bear country.

You’ll also find a newer style of collapsing poles where the sections come apart like tentpoles and have a single locking mechanism near the top. If portability is important to you, tentpole-style collapsible poles, like our pick in the category, the Black Diamond Alpine FLZ Z-Poles, are a great option. With a little practice, you can pull them apart and put them back together again in under a minute. In our tests, this type also tended to be quieter and less rattly than the telescoping versions. A bonus.

Comfort and versatility: What sort of options does the pole offer? Can you exchange the baskets or tips for different terrain or weather conditions? Do you have a bunch of different ways to hold the stick?

Grip shape and texture: One of the factors that most immediately determine whether someone will connect with a pole is how it feels in their hand. One tester—a physical therapist—gestured toward a clutter of poles in the corner of the office, where patients had been trying them out. “The first thing you see everyone do, without fail,” he said, “is pick one up, give it a squeeze, and then nod—sometimes satisfied, sometimes not.” Cork is generally a favorite grip material because it breaks down over time and slowly shapes to your hand. Cork stays cooler than rubber but is heavier and sweatier than foam. Rubber doesn’t absorb any water, so it’s probably better for hardcore mountaineering and winter treks, but rubber in hot climes or in sweaty hands might chafe after a while. The ability to grasp a grip in multiple ways, from multiple angles, is a big benefit, too—you don’t want to be locked into a single hand position if you’re using these poles for the long haul, over many years, in all sorts of places and weather conditions.

Aluminum versus carbon fiber: We were skeptical about the difference in feel between a carbon fiber pole and an aluminum pole—we thought the effect had more to do with weight and less to do with feel. Boy, were we wrong! Carbon fiber poles are lighter, of course, but also much stiffer. A downside: “Stiffer” is one way of saying “extremely brittle.” We didn’t have a problem with any of our carbon fiber poles, but plenty of other people have reported that a bad nick can quickly turn into a crumbling seam, causing an entire section of pole to fail. Aluminum is heavier but more malleable, able to survive nicks and scrapes and even bends, and it’s generally a less expensive option. In our experience, we tended to like the feel of carbon fiber more, but plenty of reviewers say they barely notice the difference. We found one upside to carbon fiber, too, in that it tended to be quieter on the trail.

Tips: Carbide or steel tips offer good traction in most natural environments, even on ice. Rubber tips are good for stowing and for use around the house or town, or in sensitive natural areas; some poles have angled rubber walking tips sold separately for asphalt or urban walking.

Strap or no strap: Extremely passionate backpackers have been engaging in a rather intense debate about this, but here’s our two cents: Get a strap, have a strap, use the strap. You can find a lot of poles with removable straps, but why would you want that? To avoid, like, a strap tan? To us, a removable strap is just one more part to lose, one more unnecessary thing to fuss with. Some straps are way more comfortable than others, and Leki’s trigger-grip straps are slightly divisive (this reviewer unexpectedly grew to love them). But the main thing about straps we found is that you are more likely to regret not having one when your pole careens halfway down a mountain or into a stream. Also, if you do decide to use your strap, make sure you’re using it the right way so that the strap helps support your wrists.

Baskets: The basket at the bottom of the pole says a lot about what you’re using it for: A smaller basket (or none at all) means more general everyday hiking, while a larger basket makes more sense for snow or scrambles or off-trail, muddy scenarios. Most of the poles we looked at either come with additional baskets or make it very easy to add a basket, but for the most part the majority of people are almost never going to think about the baskets on their poles.

Shock absorbers: Do you need them? No. Do you want them? Maybe. Do they work? Sometimes—and only really downhill. They actually work against you going uphill, but some people seem to swear by them. None of the models we extensively tested had them, and you can mimic plenty of the absorption action with a good $20 pair of rubber tips. At the end of the day, a pole is just a pole; too many whiz-bang options will overcomplicate a very simple tool and add more things that can break.

A few other factors we considered (and will be considering during ongoing testing) are the lifespan of the pole—not just the general durability but also the warranty it comes with and the manufacturer’s reputation—and that extremely vague but important metric known as performance. Basically, after several days, weeks, months, and eventually years of using some of these poles, are they still great? So far, our picks are. But if something changes we will let you know.

Simplicity won out, both in setup and design.

Using all those variables for consideration, we had various testers (doctors, patients, nurses) in a physical-therapy office fill out ratings forms with room for comment. We also interviewed several of the testers about their experience with the poles as well as their observations of patient behavior and response to selecting a pair from the group.

The usability/attractiveness test was especially interesting. The more technical-looking a pole—the more adjustment mechanisms, the fancier the grip, the more radical its paint job—the less testers were drawn to it. Simplicity won out, both in setup and design. Very quickly, a favorite emerged, in part because it looked like not much more than what it was.

Our pick

montem poles on rocky ground

Our pick, the Montem Ultra Strong Trekking Poles.

Our pick
Montem Ultra Strong Trekking Poles
This basic set of poles offers an excellent grip and easy-to-use adjustments.

Simple, sturdy, and available at a great price, Montem’s Ultra Strong Trekking Poles are our overall pick. We liked their basic design, the ease of adjusting them on the trail, and the comfort of their straps. Made of aluminum, these poles won’t have any of the potential durability issues that more-brittle carbon fiber sometimes will. The trade-off is that they’re a bit heavier, but unless you’re an ultralight hiker we bet you won’t notice.

The grip, made of EVA foam that lightly mimics cork but is far more durable, is excellent, and the carbide-tipped poles come with interchangeable rubber tips and baskets, too. We also like the flick-lock system Montem has developed, which puts all the adjustments and pole-tightening mechanisms outside the pole so that you can easily, quickly access them.

hands holding montem poles

Montem is a small company that makes almost nothing but poles. Often, when you call the company, its founder is the guy picking up the phone. Plus, the poles come with a one-year warranty that covers a fairly broad range of manufacturing failures and defects. For all these reasons, and because they are such a bargain, the Montem Ultra Strong Trekking Poles will work for nearly everyone, from the occasional hiker to the die-hard backpacker.

Flaws but not dealbreakers

One complaint with the Montem Ultra Strong Trekking Poles is how difficult it can be to tighten them enough so that they don’t rattle slightly, causing a slight disruption on an otherwise quiet trail. Even after many attempts at tightening, we detected a small rattle to the poles, a minor bummer. Along those same lines: We really believe the three-piece telescoping mechanism is more prone to come a bit loose on the trail, requiring further adjustment. And fundamentally, we think that more parts often mean more potential problems. It’s great to see newer poles moving away from that standard, into fewer pieces with simpler mechanics. Still, for the price, the Montem brand is tough to beat.

A unanimous favorite

Gossamer poles on rocky ground

An upgrade for serious hikers, Gossamer Gear’s LT4 Carbon Trekking Poles.

Upgrade pick
Gossamer Gear LT4 Carbon Trekking Poles
Testers loved these lightweight poles above all others—they’re the most usable sticks for all situations and terrain.

Perhaps you believe a pole is just a pole—and that’s fine (and mostly true). But the poles that were the simplest in every way, from their setup to their overall stripped-down look, the poles that every tester agreed were extraordinarily comfortable, not just by virtue of being so light but by having a great, slightly squishy grip, the poles that everyone eventually fought over, were the Gossamer Gear LT4 Carbon Trekking Poles. In addition to being sturdy and feeling great, they ranked as our top-rated set in the usability category. The biggest downside is the price, but if you’re an avid hiker and you plan to incorporate poles into that routine, we think a little more than $200 for poles like these is worth it.

The “LT” in the name stands for Lightrek, a Gossamer trademark that speaks to what these carbon fiber poles are all about. They’re for ultralight hiking, a backpacking subculture that values cutting unnecessary ounces (some would say to an extreme degree, shaving down toothbrush handles and whatnot) on the trail.

hand holding gossamer gear pole

But a stripped-down approach turns out to be exactly right for making a trekking pole. The biggest complaint and mark against every other model we tested was that they had too much going on—too many adjustment locks or an excessively complicated strap, a weird handle shape, or a tip or basket system that was overly tricky. Instead of flick locks, those poles have a twist mechanism to adjust their height. The LT4 has exactly two parts: the tip section that hits the ground, and the grip section that sits in your hand. The tip section screws into the grip section. That’s it. It’s dead simple, and it simply works.

The grip, too, is a stripped-down compromise that manages to feel just right. Gossamer calls the material, a cork-like foam, Kork-o-lon. In our tests, it soaked up palm sweat better than cork, and it has begun to age and warp into my specific grip with time. It’s also getting a cool grungy trail patina, making it appear more natural than it really is. The tips are carbide, which has been fine on every condition we’ve tested it on (except nice wood floors). These poles don’t come with rubber tips and baskets included, as the Montem poles do, but they are compatible with Leki-made rubber tips and baskets. The poles also float, and you can extend them up to 140 centimeters, not for hiking, but to pop up a tarp for shelter (another feature for ultralight hikers).

Flaws but not dealbreakers

For such an expensive set of poles, the wrist loop on the Gossamer Gear LT4 Carbon Trekking Poles feels extremely cheap. It’s screwed onto the top of the grip and easy to adjust, but it offers none of the small comforts or nods to ergonomics that most other models do. In addition, some reviews on Gossamer’s website and elsewhere complain that the screw system, namely where the tip screws into the grip, can get sticky and hard to deal with in cold weather. This didn’t happen to us, but we didn’t try it below freezing.

And finally, Gossamer’s warranty isn’t great. It does not cover failure due to the durability of its carbon fiber, and carbon fiber can break more easily than aluminum. We’ve seen a few sad tales of folks using these poles for cross-country skiing or going up a scree field and snapping them within days of purchase. We’ve also seen stories of other ultrarunners and thru-hikers who have used these poles over tens of thousands of miles without an issue. Gossamer is very up front with the limitations of carbon fiber. The company has excellent customer service and is clearly dedicated to getting things right. One longtime customer and hardcore backpacker I met on the trail said he’d eventually snapped the bottom part of one of his poles a few years back, after nearly a decade and probably a few thousand miles, and Gossamer had cut him a deal on a replacement part after he’d emailed about it.

Nordic-walking sticks

Leki poles on rocky ground

The Leki Instructor Lite SL2 poles (with the Trigger Shark strap removed).

Also great
Leki Instructor Lite SL2
This set of poles has extremely comfortable (if dorky) grips and straps.

The main difference between trekking poles and Nordic-walking sticks seems to lie in the general ruggedness (trekking poles tend to be more rugged, and poles for Nordic walking less so). But this is splitting hairs, because a well-made Nordic-walking stick uses materials that are just as strong as those in plenty of trekking poles, and Leki’s Instructor Lite SL2 is our favorite set overall. The design offers a clever, easy-to-use flick lock adjustment mechanism, as well as the simplicity of just two parts—the upper section is aluminum and the lower section is a carbon composite, giving the sticks a pleasant, slightly top-heavy weight.

hands in Leki straps holding grips

The fashionably controversial (but awesome) straps position your hand exactly the right way.

Leki is a German company that specializes in poles. Seriously, that’s almost all it does! It has made ski poles since the 1950s and was one of the first to incorporate fiberglass composite, and then aluminum, into pole shafts, and it has been at the forefront of Nordic walking since Nordic walking has been a thing (1973 or so). We tested these poles for regular walking and hiking (and loved them), but if you prefer to practice Nordic walking, a type of full-body aerobic walking, these poles allow you to adjust for those types of exercises, as well. The company also has an amazing variety of accessories, especially pole tips. We like Leki pole tips a lot. But the outstanding aspect of the Instructor Lite SL2 is the grip strap and handle, a whole system of Leki’s design called the Trigger Shark. It looks, well, almost too dorky. You have to strap your hand and wrist into the thing as you would a bicycle glove—all for some walking.

Leki hand straps next to pole grips on rocky ground

You can easily slide the Trigger Shark grips (Leki’s fancy name for its glovelike hand straps) onto or off of plastic points built into the handle.

Some other testers weren’t as won over and found the whole thing a bit too technical and weird looking, but it’s worth it, I swear. The glove-strap forces the poles into exactly the correct crook of your hand. It’s all so snug, I loosened my grip on the poles themselves substantially, which made them much more comfortable over time.

Flaws but not dealbreakers

The only drawback of the Leki Instructor Lite SL2 set is that the grip is extremely skinny, and in our tests nearly everyone found it unsatisfying, especially without the hand strap. In addition, Leki’s customer service, in the US at least, felt a bit sluggish. I called and emailed every pole company as if I were a typical customer with a problem, and most of the time I got a fairly prompt call or email back, but Leki took more than a week.

Ultra-packable poles

Black Diamond brand poles on rocky ground

The Black Diamond Alpine FLZ Z-Poles, our packable pick.

Also great

*At the time of publishing, the price was $140.

Black Diamond Alpine FLZ Z-Poles
This pair is for trail runners or mountain scramblers looking for very stashable poles.

Despite all the arguments against the need for a highly collapsible portable pair of poles, maybe there’s a particular scenario you’re dealing with. Maybe you’re out splitboarding in the backcountry, and you need to put your poles in a pack for the descent. Maybe you need to fit one in a small summit pack. Maybe you’re just thinking how nice it would be to stash your poles until you reach that epically long uphill or downhill section of trail. If you’ll be in such situations, the Black Diamond Alpine FLZ Z-Poles are for you.

Person holding collapsed Black Diamond brand poles

The Alpine FLZ Z-Poles collapse into three sections, held together by an internal cord (just like a tentpole).

Unlike our other picks, this model is a tent-style pole. It has one flick lock adjustment near the handle, and the rest of the pole, nearer the ground, breaks apart into two pieces, held together by an internal cord, like—yes—tentpoles. In our tests it was off-putting to a lot of the trekking-pole newbies, this system, but after a few setups and takedowns, it was a snap.

The poles themselves are made of aluminum, and the grips are made of cork, which we liked. Also, the Alpine FLZ Z-Poles currently cost about $100 less than similar competing models (mainly those from Leki). We still have a lot of questions about the long-term durability of the tent-style pole system, but if you are often in highly specialized scenarios in which you need a pole that packs down especially small, it’s the best of the bunch. We’ll continue taking these out in the field for at least another year, and we’ll update this guide if we have any problems.

Pole-tip tips

tips of all four top picks

Left to right: the Leki, Black Diamond, Montem, and Gossamer Gear poles. The Leki tips don’t come with the pole, but the Montem tips do.

A quick word on what a difference a good pole tip can make, especially on city streets or rocky trails: It’s a huge difference! Even if you already have a pair of poles and are happy with them, we recommend trying some tips, both to improve grip and to lengthen the life of your poles. They also very slightly reduce impact and act as an additional cushion, and they cut down on the noise of the pole striking the ground, if you’re into maximum noise reduction.

Our top choice comes with a pair, but our other picks don’t. We like Leki’s rubber tips because they worked on most of the sticks we tested. Two especially good tips are the Leki Trekking Silent Spike Pad and the Leki Rubber Fitness Walking Tip. Both of those, and most others available, top out at about $20, which, for such an immediate and worthwhile improvement, is generally a good investment if you’ll use your poles fairly regularly.

The competition

We tested a huge range of poles from the two biggest manufacturers, Black Diamond and Leki, as well as a very cheap and best-selling model on Amazon from Bearios. All of them were well-reviewed elsewhere and worked pretty well for us in general. We’ll say this again and again and again: The best pole is the pole you use consistently, and most poles out there work just fine. Still, following are the reasons why we ultimately dismissed some of the models we tested.

The Bearios carbon fiber poles we tried, best-sellers on Amazon, were especially impressive for the number of accessories included, but in the end we passed on them because the locking mechanisms kept failing on the trail, and the poles collapsed several times under added pressure.

Aside from the Alpine FLZ Z-Poles, our recommendation for a packable set, Black Diamond’s poles—we tested the Alpine Ergo Cork and the Carbon Cork—are equipped with the standard three-piece telescoping adjustment system that most poles seem to have and that we’ve already said we’re not terribly in love with. They collapsed sometimes, and required extra fussing to stay locked and pole-like. Tightening the locks on Black Diamond’s poles is far more difficult than on, say, Montem’s. But generally these were lighter and stiffer when everything worked. The cork grip handles were also very comfortable, but they weren’t—as we sort of expected them to be—a difference-making step beyond the mock-cork of certain foam grips we ended up liking best.

As for Leki’s poles, we tested the Micro Vario Carbon, Carbon Ti, and Carbonlite Aergon, as well as a range of the company’s expensive, trail-runner Z-collapsing models. They often suffered from appearing overly technical, and they turned a lot of casual users off with their complicated folding systems and radical handle design. Also, most of Leki’s poles ranked among the most expensive models we saw in our research and seemed to be made for a very specific user (the extreme trail runner who also cross-country skis). If you’re a sucker for the latest and greatest in materials and design, and if you have some slightly off-piste uses in mind for your poles, we recommend going to a store and testing them in person.

Care, maintenance, and sizing

The best poles should require minimal care, and all our top picks shouldn’t need much at all—just give them a quick wipe-down, and if they get especially wet, take them apart at the end of the hike or the day and make sure they dry out. Moisture can do all sorts of strange things to even the most noncorrosive metals.

As far as sizing a pole correctly goes, you can find a lot of information out there, and a lot of these companies will send detailed instructions on how to make your poles the right length for you. We like the test where you put your arms at your side and then bend them at the elbow, about 90 degrees; wherever your hand ends up is about right. Lots of serious hikers swear by lengthening poles slightly while on a long downhill, and shortening them slightly for uphill. But as ever, for always: The pole that’s best is the pole that you use the most.

Long-term test notes

We kept encountering various reviews and message-board posts about how wild temperature swings can radically affect a pole’s performance, expanding and contracting the metal, and challenging the locking mechanisms. So on one February weekend we took three of our top picks into the southern Sierras, at the edge of Sequoia National Forest, and tromped around in the snow and ice awhile, up and down the side of a mountain. We also left the poles out overnight, when temperatures remained in the low 20s. We adjusted and readjusted the poles, and leaned on them heavily.

The good news is that overall none of our top picks showed any significant failure in the cold. We stand by those choices. We will say, though, that the standard locking system in both the Montem and Leki poles can be a challenge to adjust with gloves on, and that the biggest challenge of all when you’re messing around with poles comes when your hands are halfway frozen, shaky, and no good for delicately screwing and flicking lock systems. Gossamer Gear’s simple screw lock system won here, though it did seem to require extra care in tightening in especially cold conditions. The top of the grips, too, in snow, especially going uphill, mattered significantly, and those of Montem’s Ultra Strong Trekking Poles stood out as the most comfortable in this case. Leki’s grip-strap system didn’t work at all with bulkier gloves or mittens, so we can’t recommend that set if you’re planning on a lot of snowbound (or gloved) excursions.

What to look forward to

Extreme temperatures can warp poles, and we didn’t make it out to Death Valley in the summer (that’s for masochists), but we will continue testing with our top picks in a larger range of conditions.

Montem recently released a carbon fiber version of our top pick (the Ultra Strong Trekking Poles are aluminum), which we’ve received and are beginning to test. They cost $10 more, but if they’re better than our pick, more than $10 worth, we’ll update. A few people have also mentioned the Pacerpoles, which we didn’t look at this time around. The grip on the Pacerpoles looks especially intriguing to us, so we will likely add this model to the mix for future testing.

One last thing: Women-specific trekking poles are available, too. Such models are different in subtle ways—slightly thinner, especially around the grip, and slightly shorter. I asked a few companies that make gender-specific trekking poles to send me review units, and I should be getting a few in soon. We will update this guide with insights and additions from women testers (and maybe even from me, a man) when they come along.

(Photos by Daniela Gorny.)

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Sources

  1. Ian Nicholson, How to Choose the Best Trekking Pole, OutdoorGearLab, July 31, 2014
  2. Church TS, Earnest CP, Morss GM, Nordic Walking Study, The Cooper Institute, September 2002
  3. Dr. Timothy S. Church, chief medical officer of ACAP Health Consulting, interview
  4. Carol Ewing Garber, president of the American College of Sports Medicine and professor of movement sciences at Columbia University, interview

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