Alison Culshaw from Adventure Expeditions offers some tips on choosing trekking poles, and reviews three pairs, each with their own unique features and types of locking mechanisms, making them suitable for different situations: the Black Diamond Contour Elliptic Shock Compact Pole, the Grivel Trail Pole and the Fizan Compact Trekking Pole.
Read Alison's trekking pole skills article here: Trekking Poles: Help or Hindrance?
Advice on choosing trekking poles
Buying trekking poles is not nearly as simple as it used to be. With so many different types available on the market the decision of which ones to buy can sometimes seem overwhelming. It's worth having a good think about what you will be using your poles for before you start doing your research. Ask yourself questions like:
Will I use them for approaching climbs?
Consider whether they will fit inside your rucksack when on the climb so they don't get caught up with slings etc.
Will I be using them in summer or winter, or both?
If you will be using them in winter you will need to consider how easy they are to operate with gloves on, and you will need poles that will take snow baskets.
Am I just going to carry them for use in emergencies, i.e. crossing rivers or will I walk with them all the time?
If you are going to walk with them all day the grip will need to be comfy to hold in a variety of positions, i.e. for traversing slopes you may have to hold your uphill pole half way down the shaft.
What sort of ground will I be using them on, rocky, heather, paths, tarmac?
Some lighter poles will not feel as comfortable on rougher terrain.
How often will I be using them?
This will affect how robust you need them to be and how long you expect them to last.
How much do I want to spend?
It sounds obvious but there is little point in looking above your budget as you will only be swamped with more choices. Decide how much you want to invest in your poles.
Do I need fixed length or adjustable poles?
Do you envisage needing to adjust them during your day – for example many people like to have them longer for descending, but this function would not be essential if the majority of your walks are on flat ground, or if the pole is comfy to hold at different heights without adjusting it.
Which locking mechanism?
Play around with these in the shop to find one that you can adjust easily (and with gloves on if needed).
After going through this process you will probably find that there are only a few that meet all of your requirements, making the decision process much easier!
Black Diamond Contour Elliptic Shock
- Weight: 316g per pole
- Compact Size: 62cm
- Length: 70cm – 125cm
- Price: £99.99 RRP
More info on the
Black Diamond Website
First impressions of this pole are that it looks and feels well made. It instantly feels comfortable to hold, robust and has a professional look to it, giving me confidence in it right from the beginning.
The comfort comes from three specific features – the wrist strap, the top handle, and the extended foam grip. The wrist strap is padded, and the ergonomic shape of the handle makes it secure to hold. My hands didn't get sore holding it all day – no sign of any blisters. The extension of the foam grip down the pole makes it great for traversing when you want to hold the inside pole lower down and the outside pole normally. This is far more comfortable than holding aluminium especially in colder climates eg. Scottish winter.
The robust feel of this pole was primarily due to Black Diamond's 'Control Shock Technology', which is great for hard pack surfaces. This is a 'cutting edge' three-stage shock system that both absorbs impact and stops the pole from 'pogo-ing' back up from a hard surface. This is my favourite feature on this pole. You can see it compressing and expanding as you walk over hard terrain. The poles always felt solid and reliable. A friend tripped over one of them and landed on it and it did not buckle or bend - pretty good!
Black Diamond have designed a Flick-lock system for adjusting the length of the poles. This is really easy to use, even with gloves on, and never seemed to freeze up; you just had to be careful to keep it snow free. With a locking system that is so easy to use in winter this makes a good year round pole.
One drawback I found was that these poles came supplied with small baskets. Although larger snow baskets are readily available, when I came to change them to test them in winter conditions, it took me a while to do this and a lot of force. At least once on they are definitely on; I'm not likely to lose them. You wouldn't want to be swapping the baskets round often though. Another minor point to watch for with these poles is that the numbers showing the different lengths started to come off not long after starting to use them, making it harder for me to adjust them both to them same length quickly.
This is the pole I would choose when I want a pole in my hand rather than on my rucksack. It collapses to 62cm which still makes it quite long for putting on to a rucksack without the risk of it catching on rocks, trees or other people, or getting caught off balance in the wind.
At 632g per pair this is a light set of poles considering all the features Black Diamond have managed to pack into it! When I know that I am going to use my poles often, if not all day, then these are the poles I would take out with me. Their performance on rough ground with the Control Shock Technology really does make them 'all terrain'.
Grivel Trail Pole (fixed length pole)
- Weight: 218g per pole
- Compact Size: 39cm
- Comes in 2 fixed lengths: 115 and 125cm
- Price - £80 RRP
More info on the Grivel Website
This pole folds up to 39cm! Having trekking poles attached to the outside of my rucksack has always seemed a problem to me – whether it be the end getting caught in trees, getting battered when I put my rucksack down, getting in the way when climbing or the annoyance of what to do with them when putting my bag on public transport. The idea of a sturdy pole that collapses small enough to fit inside my rucksack seemed the ideal solution to reducing the faff factor of carrying a pole.
A pole that folds up small means you can carry it in your rucksack, knowing it is there if you need it for river crossings, tricky descents or when your legs get tired. What's more, at just 218g the weight is barely noticeable! I was able to easily put it away inside my rucksack and not have the worry of having it on the outside and thinking about what it will get caught on. I am sure that putting it inside the rucksack will also increase the life span of pole with it not seeing as much wear and tear.
The grip extends 28cm down the pole making it comfortable to hold at different heights. I use this technique a lot when traversing slopes – and the extended EVA grip meant that my uphill hand was warm and comfy rather than holding onto aluminium. At first I thought that not being adjustable would be a limitation of this pole, but with a comfy grip that extends so far down, it is adjustable without needing a mechanism to adjust the height. This helps to keep the weight down and the number of parts that can potentially break or need replacing. I have often seen adjustable poles collapse when you least want them to and there is no chance of that happening with this pole.
While the small basket on this pole contributes to keeping it lightweight, it does limit its use to summer time, or walking on hard snow. In soft snow the pole will just sink giving you little stability and being more of a hindrance than a help. However it's the small basket that makes it easy to slide into my rucksack when I don't need it – you can't have everything and it's a small price to pay for a pole that you can stow away easily.
The main limitation of this pole is the locking mechanism. It is fast to put together with the 3 sections coming together with a quick pull of the wire at the top of the pole. There is a clear picture of a hand pointing to the hole that needs to be lined up to fix the pole in place. It was putting the pole away that was fiddly. You need to press the small metal stud back through the hole for the pole to collapse. I couldn't operate this mechanism with gloves on (again making this a limitation for winter use) and it was painful, and time consuming to do without gloves on.
However, that was a small sacrifice for a lightweight pole that I can put away in my rucksack. When supervising my D of E groups I am often on my bike, but like to carry a pole in case I need it for river crossings or if someone gets injured. This is where the pole really came into its own. I didn't have the worry of having a pole on my rucksack when cycling, but could have all the benefits of it when on the hill. For those Munro baggers, that often cycle into the hills, or for those that travel on public transport and want their poles packed away then this pole is fit for purpose.
Fizan Compact Trekking Pole
- Weight: 158g per pole
- Compact Size: 58cm
- Usable Length: 58cm to 132cm
- Price: £50 RRP
More info on the Fizan Website
It wasn't a surprise that this is the lightest 3 part pole available as I am sure I have never picked up a pole this light before. You can really feel the difference. It's hard to believe that you are actually holding a trekking pole!
Not only did this make it a pleasure to walk with, but also to carry too. I barely noticed the additional weight on my rucksack when I put it away for short scrambling sections, or when I didn't need it. If I was to fly to go away on a trekking trip this would be the pole of choice – meaning I could take my pole, even two, without having to worry about affecting my luggage allowance. It is made from lightweight 7001 aluminium alloy.
These poles look smart and feel expensive, but in fact are very good value. Often outdoor kit gets more expensive the lighter it gets, but with these poles that is not the case. At first you could think the pole feels flimsy due to the lightness, but with extensive testing it held up to all that I exposed it to. It gave me the stability I needed on more technical descents and could assist me effectively during river crossings.
The only downside to these poles was the 'vibrating' felt when I placed them on a firm surface. For example, when walking along a land rover track or on tarmac they resonate and vibrate in a way that became irritating and tiresome during prolonged use. But it's a small price to pay for a pole this light.
The grip on these (EVA with a neoprene strap) is incredibly comfy, making it easy to walk with them for extended periods of time without developing any sores. However, it is difficult to vary the hand position (for traversing or descending) as it is not comfy to hold them in any other way. I sometimes like to hold the handle with the top in my palm and my hand curled slightly round it for descending and the top of the handle is too flat for this, with unrounded edges.
The absence of any foam further down the pole makes it less comfy to hold halfway down when traversing, but of course with extra foam we would no longer have such a light pole! And you can easily adjust the length of the pole so you have the uphill pole shorter for traversing. At first I found them hard to adjust with gloves on as they lacked the little plastic grips at the end of each section for gripping to rotate them for loosening, adjusting, and re-tightening. But again this would add more weight and we would lose the primary feature of this pole.
These poles come with 50mm baskets as standard, but 85mm powder baskets are available as an option extra making them usable in all conditions.
If we want a 'lightweight' version of anything there are some features that will need to be left out. And with this pole they have managed to only leave out those that give us small benefits, and keep in all those that still give us a sturdy pole, that is comfy to hold and incredibly light.
About Alison Culshaw
Alison Culshaw and Cat Freeman run Adventure Expeditions - an extensive programme of Open Gold D of E and School Expeditions across the UK and Alps. They also offer outdoor training for leaders at all levels, including navigation, ML and WGL courses.