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Published Sep 19, 2022 8:29 AM

If you’ve ever watched a four-legged critter scamper over terrain that would give a triathlete pause, then you know the benefits of a four-paw drive. Trekking poles provide us ungainly bipeds with many of the same capabilities, allowing hikers and backpackers to confidently and quickly move uphill and downhill through boulder-strewn crags and slippery river fords.

In this article, we’ll show you how to select the best trekking poles to upgrade your hike.  Let’s get started.

Best Overall

REI’s in-house brand of products continue to gain respect within the outdoor community, and its Traverse series of aluminum trekking poles is no exception to this trend. Similar in almost every way to the mid-tier offerings from name-brand competitors like Black Diamond and Leki, REI’s Traverse trekking poles feature aluminum shafts, ergonomic cork grips, and durable lever locks at an affordable price point and competitive weight. We recommend REI Traverse trekking poles as our best overall trekking poles for hiking and backpacking.

Product Specs
  • Length: 25 to 55 inches (standard) / 22 to 47 inches (short)
  • Shaft material: Aluminum
  • Grip material: Cork
  • Weight: 19.5 ounces (standard) / 18.5 ounces (short)
  • Locking mechanism: Lever-lock
Why It Made The Cut
  • With quality construction and a comfortable grip, REI’s in-house brand of aluminum trekking poles is every bit as good as name-brand offerings at a fraction of the price.
PROS

Solid construction

Comfortable grip

Affordable

CONS

Slightly heavier than name-brand alternatives

Despite all of the advanced alloys and materials, it’s worthwhile to remember that a trekking pole is still basically just a stick. How much should you pay for a stick? TrailBuddy trekking poles are available at a rock-bottom price of just $30 per pair but can still stand toe-to-toe with other brands. Made from the same aircraft-grade 7075 aluminum alloy as the competition with comfortable, long-lasting cork grips and durable lever locks, TrailBuddy is an excellent choice for the casual hiker or weekend backpacker. TrailBuddy trekking poles are certainly not the lightest option, but for the price point, you can’t go wrong. For these reasons, TrailBuddy is our pick for best budget in trekking poles.

Product Specs
  • Length: 24.5 to 54 inches
  • Shaft material: Aluminum
  • Grip material: Cork
  • Weight: 19.4 ounces
  • Locking mechanism: Lever-lock
Why It Made The Cut
  • The TrailBuddy trekking poles are very capable and cost less than the entrance fee to most national parks, which makes them an excellent value buy for the casual hiker.
PROS

Lowest price

Great features

CONS

Lowest price

Best Ultralight

When your ultralight backpacking game switches from weighing gear in ounces to grams, it’s time to upgrade to the Gossamer Gear LT5 series trekking poles. At 10.8 ounces for the pair, the LT5 is a premium product for elite thru-hikers looking to cover 30 miles or more per day. In stark contrast to some of the technical concerns discussed below, Gossamer gear uses EVA foam grips and a twist-lock mechanism in its carbon fiber poles. However, we expect that buyers of the LT5 will be carrying considerably less weight than other backpackers, and are also fully aware of the care that must be taken when using such featherweight equipment deep in the backcountry.

Although the most expensive option in our lineup, the Gossamer Gear LT5 achieves the minimum weight possible for trekking poles without compromising durability. For these reasons, the LT5 is our pick for best ultralight trekking poles.

Product Specs
  • Length: 23.5 to 51 inches
  • Shaft material: Carbon fiber
  • Grip material: EVA foam
  • Weight: 10.8 ounces (pair)
  • Locking mechanism: Twist-lock
Why It Made The Cut
  • The Gossamer Gear LT5 trekking poles are light, fast, and durable. If you want the best, look no further, but you should be prepared to pay the price.
PROS

Ultralight

Solid construction

CONS

Expensive

Most trekking poles are unisex designs and it’s arguable whether there’s any difference between a stick marketed to men versus women. With that said, Black Diamond reduced the overall length of its women’s Trail Cork series from 55 to 49 inches, saving one ounce of weight per pair. This reduction makes sense given the shorter average height of women versus men. However, it could cause some problems when using trekking poles for shelter supports.

In all other aspects, the Black Diamond Trail Cork series of trekking poles are identical to its unisex offerings with rugged 7075 aluminum alloy shafts, cork grips, carbide tips, and durable lever locks. For these reasons, Black Diamond Trail Cork trekking poles are our pick for best trekking poles for women.

Product Specs
  • Length: 39 to 49 inches
  • Shaft material: Aluminum
  • Grip material: Cork
  • Weight: 17 ounces
  • Locking mechanism: Lever-lock
Why It Made The Cut
  • If you have a smaller frame, you can save both weight and space on the trail by selecting Black Diamond Trail Cork trekking poles.
PROS

Shorter overall length reduces weight

Comfortable ergonomic grip

Durable construction

Reasonably priced

CONS

Heavy

Lacks versatility

est for Backpacking

For many decades now, ultralight backpackers have turned to cottage suppliers for high-performance gear suitable for thru-hiking North America’s great long-distance trails (the Applachian, Pacific Crest, and Continental Divide). Zpacks is one of those premier suppliers that has a deep understanding of an ultralight backpacker’s needs and budget.

Zpacks Ultralight Carbon Fiber trekking poles weigh only 14.4 ounces per pair but are available for the staggeringly low price of just $120. Built from structural carbon fiber and sporting comfortable cork grips (EVA foam grips are also an option), these trekking poles are a fan favorite among elite thru-hikers looking to cut weight without breaking the bank. For these reasons, Zpacks Ultralight Carbon Fiber trekking poles are our pick for best trekking poles for backpacking.

Product Specs
  • Length: 24.5 to 54 inches
  • Shaft material: Carbon fiber
  • Grip material: Cork
  • Weight: 14.4 ounces (pair)
  • Locking mechanism: Lever-lock
Why It Made The Cut
  • Zpacks offers these carbon fiber trekking poles for less than many other manufacturers’ aluminum designs, saving you both money and weight on the trail.
PROS

Lightweight

Comfortable grip

Affordable price point

CONS

Rubber components pop off

Climbing Yosemite’s Half-Dome? Planning a multi-day trek on the John Muir Trail? Chances are you’ll see more than a few hikers and backpackers carrying Black Diamond Trail Ergo Cork trekking poles along the way. Renowned for quality gear, Black Diamond offers several types of trekking poles, but the Trail Ergo Cork series is the Toyota Hilux of the backcountry thanks to a proven blend of price, weight, durability, and comfort.

Made from 7075 aluminum alloy with cork grips and durable lever locks, the Trail Ergo Cork series also features an extended EVA foam grip that allows you to compensate for brief uphill ascents by grasping the pole further down on the shaft. The cork grips are also canted forward 15 degrees to improve ergonomics and reduce lower forearm fatigue after a long day on the trail. The Black Diamond Trail Ergo Cork series are our pick for best trekking poles for hiking.

Product Specs
  • Length: 27 to 55 inches
  • Shaft material: Aluminum
  • Grip material: Cork
  • Weight: 18 ounces (pair)
  • Locking mechanism: Lever-lock
  • Price: $$$
PROS

Comfortable ergonomic grip

Durable construction

Reasonably priced

CONS

Heavy

Lacks versatility

Things to consider before buying trekking poles

Weight

While nothing can trump the nostalgia of grandfather’s hiking staff that he bought on holiday in Zurich, the trekking poles of today are ultralight tools designed to provide maximum support with minimum weight. A set of adjustable aluminum trekking poles is between 18 and 22 ounces per pair, while a set of carbon fiber poles weighs about half of that, usually around 10 to 15 ounces. At the risk of over-stating the obvious, trekking poles are carried in the hand versus in your pack (at least most of the time), so a 10-ounce difference can be incredibly significant when multiplied by the 40,000 steps a hiker may take in a 20-mile day.

Material

The choice of aluminum versus carbon fiber comes down to a trade-off between cost, durability, and weight. Aluminum trekking poles are low-cost, durable performers, but are undeniably heavier than their carbon fiber equivalents. Carbon fiber poles can be fragile and extremely vulnerable to side-loading (i.e., don’t step or sit on them) but provide an extremely light option, albeit for a price — typically north of $150 per pair.

Another material consideration is the handle grip. Higher-end trekking poles will typically use cork for the grip which provides excellent retention, comfort, and moisture management.  Mid-tier poles will use a rubber grip which is rugged and ideal for winter conditions but can cause blisters in the summer season (unless you wear UV sun gloves). Some manufacturers have started using EVA foam grips which are very comfortable but may wear faster than other materials with normal use.

Fixed vs adjustable

Trekking poles come in just two flavors: fixed or adjustable. Fixed-length trekking poles eliminate the added weight of the locking mechanisms. These poles are sized for each specific user on level ground and thus can be awkward to use in varied terrain or for shelter support. Adjustable trekking poles weigh more, but can more easily accommodate a wider range of use cases. Adjustable trekking poles can typically be collapsed to as short as 24 inches and extended to around 55 inches.  

A hybrid option is a fixed-length pole that folds accordion-style into three or four segments using shock cord connections. The purpose of this capability is to allow the pole to be easily stored; however, in our view, these designs are both weaker than a single-piece, fixed-length trekking pole and provide none of the benefits of adjustable trekking poles.

Locking mechanism

The two primary locking mechanisms used on adjustable-length trekking poles are the twist-lock and the lever-lock. The lever-lock is generally the better choice as it provides greater clamping force. Twist-locks can gradually loosen throughout the day, and an unexpected collapse of a pole segment can definitely complicate a tricky stream crossing.

FAQs about trekking poles

Q: Why do hikers use trekking poles?

A: Trekking poles allow hikers to: (1) use their arms to assist in uphill ascents, (2) transfer weight from their legs to their arms when stationary and at rest, (3) absorb some of the dynamic loads incurred when traveling down a steep grade with a heavy pack to reduce stress on the knees, and (4) gain additional balance when crossing obstacles such as rivers.

As an added bonus, many ultralight backpacking shelters can be set up using trekking poles in lieu of tent poles. You can even use a trekking pole to fend off a grizzly bear, although your mileage may vary in this application.

Q: How long should my trekking poles be?

A: Fixed-length poles should be sized such that when you stand up straight and grasp the grip on level terrain, your elbow is bent at a 90-degree angle. This is called the practical sizing method — there are more sophisticated tables and formulas available on the internet, but trust us, this works just fine.

Adjustable poles should be set up the same way; however, you may opt to change the length of one or both of your trekking poles to adjust for changes in terrain. For example, a long side-hill traverse may best be accomplished with the uphill pole considerably shorter than the downhill pole.

Q: Do carbon trekking poles break?

A: Yes, and unlike aluminum trekking poles, carbon fiber will usually fail catastrophically under excessive load (especially from the side) without showing any pre-failure deformation. Simply put, aluminum will bend while carbon fiber will shatter into splinters.  

Q: Is it better to hike with one trekking pole or two?

A: While a single trekking pole (i.e., walking stick) will provide some of the benefits mentioned above, such as improved balance over challenging terrain, two poles are necessary to achieve the best results.

Q: When shouldn’t you use trekking poles?

A: Just because you have trekking poles with you on your hike doesn’t mean you need to use them all the time. On flat or easy terrain when your pack is lighter and you’re feeling strong, it’s more energy-efficient to lash your poles to your pack or carry them in one hand as you trot down the trail.

Final thoughts

Trekking poles provide a great way to offset some of the weight and stress that we incur when hiking, backpacking, and snow-shoeing. Increasing the number of points of contact between you and terra firma will greatly improve your balance and stability. Given that falls are one of the primary sources of injury in the backcountry, trekking poles are a simple form of travel insurance that’s well worth the investment, regardless of your age or fitness level.   

Methodology

In this article, we recommend the best trekking poles for hiking and backpacking. Our selections are based on personal experience with many different brands over many miles of trails, as well as extensive research of the manufacturer’s specifications, professional publications, product videos, and other sources. 

Our research started with identifying the key characteristics essential to trekking pole performance, namely weight, material, adjustability, and price. These characteristics are discussed above in the section “Things to consider before buying trekking poles.”

We then searched for trekking poles on e-commerce websites including Amazon, REI, Cabela’s, Backcountry, Campmor, and others, with a focus on selecting those products that offer an optimal balance between design characteristics. The most promising trekking poles were then selected for in-depth research via consumer and independent third-party print and video reviews, as well as discussions within the Task & Purpose community.

The final research step leveraged all the data, results, and commentary to develop specific questions for each manufacturer. The answers provided by the manufacturers gave us a better understanding of each trekking pole’s performance and helped us develop our final set of recommendations.

It is of the utmost importance to those of us at Task & Purpose to ensure that you, our readers, know our commitment to fair and open product reviews and recommendations so that you can trust us to provide you with unbiased, balanced information.