When you’re shopping hiking and trekking poles, you’ll have to confront various materials, technologies and features. Do you know what’s the difference between aluminum and carbon? And what drawback has a rubber grip respect to one in foam? Here is a brief guide to help you understand what makes a good trekking pole.

MATERIAL

All trekking poles are made of aluminum or carbon. Each one of these materials have its own advantages and drawbacks.

Aluminum: aluminum is thicker and more durable than carbon and is less likely to break with intense use. It’s also cheaper and is recommended for first time users. However, an aluminum pole has its own downsides: it’s heavier than carbon, if it gets stuck in between rocks it tends to bend and transmits much more vibrations to the arms. You can choose among many types of aluminum alloy: alu 5083 is the most flexible, softest and cheapest; alu 7075 is the thickest, strongest and most expensive; alu 6061 is a midway between the two.

Carbon: Carbon fiber is significantly lighter and stiffer than aluminum and also reduces vibrations. But it’s more expensive and requires more care so it’s recommended for expert users. If subject to very high stress carbon is also prone to cracking, splintering, shattering and snapping. Carbon fibers are usually mixed with fiberglass. The higher the carbon percentage used, the lighter and stronger the pole and the higher the price.

MAXIMUM AXIAL LOAD

Some of the most important things to consider when you choose your trekking poles, is your weight and your height. This is because the maximum axial load trekking poles can withstand, varies from model to model. A general rule of thumb is that the more the pole is extended, the less weight is able to sustain before it bends or breaks. For example, short single-sized poles can support heavier loads than telescopic multi-section ones while foldable poles can carry even less weight. 

Straps

Wrist straps are essential to maintain grip on the pole. They are most commonly made of synthetic fabric and can have a number of different features.

Padded: straps filled with a soft material to improve comfort.

Adjustable: straps that can be regulated to your hands’ size.

Removable: straps that can be detached from the grip through a click system to quickly release the hand from the pole.

Washable: straps tend to get dirty and smell after a long or intense period of use. Washable straps ignore this problem: they are detachable and can be easily cleaned to come back as new.

Transpirant: these kinds of straps are made of a lighter fabric to allow the sweat to dissipate and the skin to breathe more easily.

Anti-bacterial: special straps treated with an antibacterial formula to last longer and resist intense use.

GRIP 

The trekking pole’s handles can be of three different materials, each with its advantages and drawbacks.

Cork: cork grips resist moisture and sweat, gradually mold to the shape of your hand and reduce vibrations. Cork also avoids the risk of blisters and ages better than other materials. These grips are the best choice if you are going to trek in hot weather. But keep in mind that cork handles might develop a smell over time and might crack.

Foam: foam grips are the softest and lightest, absorb more sweat than cork and maintain the hand warm. Therefore these grips are the right fit for mountaineers and climbers. On the downsides, a foam grip is less durable, can get easily nicked or scraped and if it absorbs too much water might become slimy or freeze at high altitudes.

Rubber: rubber grips insulate the hand from shocks and vibrations and are the best choice for cold weather activities. On the other hand rubber is less comfortable in case of sweaty hands, chafes the skin and leads to blisters, and is the heaviest material of all three.

ADJUSTABILITY

Trekking poles are divided into three different constructions: two section telescopic, three section telescopic, and foldable versions. Each style offers distinct advantages and disadvantages.

Two section telescopic: these poles are generally stronger and stiffer and are best choice for the users who put hard pressure on their poles. However, two section poles are generally heavier, shrink down the least and don’t carry on a backpack very well even when shrunk down.

Three section telescopic: significantly more compact and lighter, three section poles can be easily packed. These models are good for trekking, backpacking and mountaineering. However they are less strong than two-section poles and are not able to cope with extreme stress.

Foldable: these poles are the most compact and the easiest to be strapped on a backpack or carried inside it, but they aren’t nearly as durable as most two or three section telescopic poles. Fixed size foldable poles are lighter but can’t be adjusted in length, whereas hybrid poles (i.e. both telescopic and foldable) allow for a great combination of packability and adjustability but are heavier. All foldable poles are recommended for approaching, climbing, fast hiking and backpacking trips on trails. 

BASKETS

Baskets are an important part of the pole: they prevent the pole from sinking into the ground and improve the overall balancing and aerodynamics. Trekking poles come with multiple interchangeable baskets the size of which depends on what activity you plan to do. 

Large: excellent when walking over mud or snow but tend to get hung up on roots and bushes when travelling through woods.

Small: ideal for trekking, hiking and trail running.

ANTI-SHOCK SYSTEM

Some poles come with an internal spring or an elastic cushion that help absorb the impacts with the ground when you walk downhill. In some models this feature can be turned off when not needed, for example when you’re travelling uphill. Shock absorption is particularly recommended if you have problems with arm joints such as shoulders, wrists and elbows. An anti-shock system however has some downsides: it makes uphill excursions harder, the pole heavier, has more moving parts that can break and are not that useful on rocky paths and off-trail terrains when you mostly use the pole to balance.

Spring: can cause prolonged vibration problems as it reacts like a bouncy ball. For this reason these anti-shock systems are being progressively abandoned by most pole brands.

Cushion: they can be external or internal and can be made of elastic materials like rubber or micro-cellular polymers. They softly and quickly absorb the impact vibrations.

LOCKING SYSTEMS

All trekking poles have locking mechanisms to keep the poles from slipping in length while in use. These mechanisms let you adjust the length of the two or three interlocking sections and lets you adapt the poles to your height and the terrain. Most poles use different types of locking mechanisms.

Fast Lock: an external lever that is quick and easy to adjust even with gloves. Fast locks resists low temperatures and are very durable and don’t require a lot of maintenance.

Internal expanders: an expanding cushion that holds in place the sections of the pole. They are activated by twisting one section of the pole inside another. Stronger than fast locks, the expanders are though more difficult to use and require to be cleaned from dust or dirt from time to time.

Internal cables: these high-strength steel wires are covered in a protective soft rubber tube and connect all the pole’s sections to each other. This mechanism is present in foldable poles and is activated with the pressure of a simple button on the shaft.

Twist locks: this system relies on a special cartridge located inside the pole. The Twist Lock connects the two foldable sections of the pole with a rubber band and is activated by unlocking and rotating the shafts.

TIPS

The tip is the part of the pole that wears down the most over time or with intense use. Therefore, it’s important to choose the right material according to the activity you intend to practice.

Tungsten carbide: this material is resistant and durable and doesn’t consume like steel or aluminum. Carbide tips also provide more traction on ice, slippery surfaces and rocks.

Steel: a cheaper solution with properties mid-way between tungsten and aluminum.

Aluminum: the lighter and cheapest option for a pole tip but wears down quickly.
Walking pads: rubber tip protectors especially useful when walking on asphalt or hard surfaces.