Serious hikers have known the great benefits of trekking poles for decades. Aside from providing stability while hauling a heavy load or moving over technical terrain, trekking poles have distinct advantages even on easy trails. They’re great for setting a rhythm when covering long distances and significantly reduce load and impact on hips, knees, and ankles when going downhill. As with most hiking and backpacking gear, balancing weight and durability is the most common consideration. Recent design breakthroughs, like the folding trekking pole, have pushed the total weight of some models to well under a pound, but these streamlined options are not for everybody. For more information, see our comparison table and buying advice. Below are our top trekking pole picks of 2020.
 

Best Overall Trekking Pole

1. Black Diamond Trail Ergo Cork ($130)

Black Diamond Trail Ergo Cork trekking polesWeight per pair: 18 oz.
Type: Telescoping (lever lock)
Shaft material: Aluminum
Grip: Cork
What we like: Solid construction, comfortable feel, and good price.
What we don’t: A little heavy and long collapsed length.

The carbon fiber and folding designs that get all the attention in the trekking pole market are impressive innovations, but for hikers that just want a pair of trustworthy sticks at a good price, we recommend the Black Diamond Trail Ergo Cork. At $130, they’re a solid value and come with very few compromises. In fact, the all-aluminum construction is only an ounce heavier than the premium Leki Micro Vario below but is still plenty sturdy for most dirt, rock, and snow travel. The Trail also has Black Diamond's comfortable, ergonomically shaped cork grips and reliable FlickLock length adjusters.

What are the downsides of the Trail Ergo? For travelers, climbers, or those that prioritize collapsibility, the 27-inch minimum length may be an issue. It shouldn’t get in the way when strapped to the outside of a pack, but it is a couple inches longer than many other three-section designs (and it can’t come close to a true collapsible pole). As downsides go, that’s pretty insignificant for most folks, and the Trail Ergo Cork stands out as our favorite all-around trekking pole.
See the Black Diamond Trail Ergo Cork  See the Women's Black Diamond Trail Ergo Cork

 

Best Budget Trekking Pole

2. Montem Ultra Strong ($60)

Montem Ultra Strong trekking polesWeight per pair: 19.2 oz.
Type: Telescoping (lever lock)
Shaft material: Aluminum
Grip: Foam
What we like: A great price, making them a nice option for casual use.
What we don’t: Lacking in toughness and long-term durability.

Montem is a relatively young outdoor gear company based in New York City, but they're rapidly making waves in the trekking pole market due to the surprisingly low prices. Their leading model is the Ultra Strong, which has an aluminum build, lever locks, and comfortable foam grips. At 19.2 ounces, the poles are a little heavier than the premium options on this list but should be plenty light for most day hikers and backpackers. Further, the poles have a short 24-inch minimum length, which is great for travel. But what sets the Ultra Strong apart is price: at only $60, they compete with poles that cost twice as much from Black Diamond, Leki, and REI.

What do you sacrifice at this price? Sturdiness, for one. We took the Ultra Strong poles on a remarkably steep hike on Vancouver Island and were surprised by the level of vibration and worrisome clicking throughout the descent. For heavy use and difficult terrain, these poles pale in comparison to the build of a more rugged model like the aluminum REI Traverse. Montem did, however, nail important details like choke-up extensions on the grips, in-field adjustments for the locking mechanism, and easily adjustable straps. At just $60, they’re fine for light use and easy-to-moderate day hikes, but we didn’t find them confidence-inspiring enough for tough terrain.
See the Montem Ultra Strong

 

Best Collapsible Trekking Pole

3. Black Diamond Distance Carbon Z ($170)

Black Diamond Distance Carbon Z (2018) trekking polesWeight per pair: 10 oz.
Type: Folding 
Shaft material: Carbon
Grip: Foam
What we like: Incredibly lightweight and folds down small.
What we don’t: Pricey and carbon is more brittle than aluminum. 

At around 10 ounces per pair depending on the size, the Distance Carbon Z is Black Diamond’s lightest trekking pole and great for minimalists and thru-hikers (they are so light and packable that they’ve even become popular with long-distance trail runners). We love the Z-Pole technology: a sleeve on the top portion moves down from the grip, the sections slide together and connect, and a small button pops everything into place. From compacted to deployed is a two-second affair, and when collapsed, the poles are about 10 inches shorter than most telescoping designs. This can make a substantial difference for everyone from travelers and hikers wanting to store them in their bag to ultra-distance runners that carry their poles for extended stretches.

What are the downsides of these poles? Carbon is lighter than aluminum but also more expensive and brittle (we’ve never broken carbon poles but have seen other people’s snap when caught between rocks). In addition, the Carbon Z comes in four length options but is not adjustable. Changing up your trekking pole length on the uphill or downhill is a nice feature, and the fixed length makes them less versatile in terms of letting other people use them. If you do value adjustability, Black Diamond makes the Carbon FLZ that has one FlickLock at the top for $20 more and with a small weight penalty. And for a cheaper aluminum version, see the Distance Z below.
See the Black Diamond Distance Carbon Z

 

Best Ultralight Trekking Pole for Thru-Hiking

4. Gossamer Gear LT5 ($195)

Gossamer Gear LT5 trekking polesWeight per pair: 10.6 oz.
Type: Telescoping (twist lock)
Shaft material: Carbon
Grip: Foam
What we like: Incredibly lightweight, well-made.
What we don’t: Not too durable; expensive.

Taking the lightweight crown is the thru-hike-ready Gossamer Gear LT5. These carbon fiber sticks are listed at an incredibly low 10.6 ounces for the pair (you can save even more weight by ditching the straps), which keeps arm fatigue to an absolute minimum. Combine the feathery weight with a simple, reliable build and comfy foam grips, and you get the ideal trekking poles for long adventures where every ounce matters. They’re also adjustable, although the twist lock system isn’t our favorite (we prefer the added security of a lever lock).

Naturally, there are a few compromises in making the LT5 so light. To start, relative to the rest of the market, these poles aren’t super durable—it’s best to stick to established trails and avoid too much snow. Further, they’re a pricey investment at $195 considering their relatively simple feature set (the similarly expensive Leki Micro Vario below, for example, can be folded into a much smaller length). But if you take good care of them and don’t need them for travel, they’re about as good as it gets for an ultralight build. It’s worth noting that Gossamer Gear offers replacement sections of their poles should you damage one, which is a rarity in the market. 
See the Gossamer Gear LT5

 

Best of the Rest

5. Leki Micro Vario Carbon ($200)

Leki Micro Vario Carbon trekking polesWeight per pair: 16.9 oz.
Type: Folding (lever lock)
Shaft material: Carbon
Grip: Foam
What we like: Well-rounded lightweight and packable design.
What we don’t: Very pricey.

Leki’s Micro Vario Carbon poles are a no-compromise option for the lightweight crowd. Weighing just over 1 pound for the pair, they manage to squeeze a full set of high-quality features into their compact and foldable construction. Unlike many competitors, you get nearly 8 inches of adjustment with a Leki’s Speed Lock 2 system, and we’ve found the poles to be among the most user-friendly for both folding down and setting up (we can do both without having to take a break while hiking).

On the trail, the Micro Vario’s weight savings is noticeable, particularly over a long day. You do sacrifice a little in terms of durability, but the carbon shafts have been sturdy enough for crossing glaciers, leaning on during steep descents, and as the structure of a trekking pole-supported shelter. We do prefer cork grips to foam, but these are the nicest and most comfortable foam grips we’ve used, and the choke-up extensions are great for extended climbs. Leki also offers the Micro Vario Carbon in an even pricier $230 AS version, which includes a low-profile shock system for added trail comfort.
See the Leki Micro Vario Carbon

 

6. REI Co-op Flash Carbon ($139)

REI Co-op Flash Carbon trekking poles (2017)Weight per pair: 14.8 oz.
Type: Telescoping (lever lock)
Shaft material: Carbon/aluminum
Grip: Foam
What we like: Excellent value for the specs and quality.
What we don’t: Not as tough as our top picks.

For backpackers looking to keep weight to a minimum, the REI Co-op Flash Carbon poles are a great option, undercutting other high-end competition by $20 or more. At under a pound and with a carbon composite build, the poles are light in the hands and feature soft foam grips. We still give the overall edge in comfort to cork, but foam does absorb and dissipate moisture well when it’s hot and humid outside. The exterior aluminum Power Lock mechanism is a nice step up in quality from the previous plastic version (and what you still get with the REI Co-op Traverse below).

Unlike the Black Diamond above, however, we wouldn’t consider the Flash Carbon poles a go-to option for winter treks. With the available snow baskets, they’re great for casual snowshoeing but a little too ultralight for serious 4-season use. This shouldn’t faze most hikers and backpackers however, and with REI’s excellent return policy to back them up, the Flash Carbon poles are a very solid carbon trekking pole option.
See the REI Co-op Flash Carbon  See the Women's REI Co-op Flash Carbon

 

7. Black Diamond Trail Back ($80)

Black Diamond Trail Back trekking polesWeight per pair: 20 oz.
Type: Telescoping (lever lock)
Shaft material: Aluminum
Grip: Rubber
What we like: Proven toughness, good all-around abilities.
What we don’t: Rubber grips aren’t the most comfortable.

As a market leader, Black Diamond has a fairly extensive trekking pole line-up. A consistent favorite is their budget-oriented Trail Back, which in many ways is a trimmed-down version of the Trail Ergo Cork above. You lose the ergonomic shape and cork grips, but the two trusty FlickLocks remain, as well as the sturdy aluminum construction. Further, among the options at under $100, the Trail Backs have a longer track record of durability than the Montem above (but do cost $20 more).

What are you giving up with a mid-range pole like the Trail Back? To start, they are rather heavy at 20 ounces for the pair and therefore not a top choice for long-distance backpackers or thru-hikers. Also, the rubber grips are a definite step down in comfort from foam or cork, which do a better job absorbing sweat and preventing chafing while on the trail. But the Trail Back’s strong, no-nonsense construction makes a lot of sense for those looking to keep cost in check while not sacrificing much in terms of quality.
See the Black Diamond Trail Back

 

8. REI Co-op Traverse Power Lock Cork ($100)

REI Co-op Traverse Power Lock Cork trekking pole (2017)Weight per pair: 20 oz.
Type: Telescoping (lever lock)
Shaft material: Aluminum
Grip: Cork
What we like: Cork and lever locks at a great price.
What we don’t: A little heavy, lacks grip extensions for uphill travel.

The three-section REI Traverse Power Lock is a midweight trekking pole at a good price. Most impressively, you’re getting a cork grip and lever locks for $100. The external locking mechanism is used across a variety of models from Komperdell and REI, isn’t prone to slipping when hiking, and is easy to operate while wearing gloves or mittens in the winter. While it’s not as nice as the upgraded metal Power Lock found on the Flash Carbon above, the plastic design still works fine.

It’s all about reliable performance here, and the quality aluminum shaft is strong enough for anything from quick day hikes and snowshoeing to multi-day trips. These poles can take a beating and are much sturdier-feeling than the Montems above (aluminum poles of roughly equal weight). Tungsten carbide tips are both durable and provide nice bite on all types of terrain. And although 27 inches collapsed is a little long, they could potentially be stuffed into a checked bag on an overseas trip. The poles also lack a grip extension for choking up on long climbs, but outside of those nitpicks, your only other sacrifice at this price is the extra ounces in weight.
See the REI Traverse Power Lock Cork  See the Women's REI Traverse Power Lock Cork

 

9. MSR DynaLock Ascent Carbon ($150)

MSR DynaLock Ascent Carbon trekking polesWeight per pair: 16 oz.
Type: Folding (lever lock)
Shaft material: Carbon
Grip: Foam
What we like: Tough and 4-season-ready yet lightweight.
What we don’t: Overkill for summer use and not the most comfortable grips.

Most of the poles on this list are intended for summer and light shoulder-season work, but if you’re anticipating significant snow travel, it’s worth getting a sturdier design. MSR’s DynaLock Ascent Carbon is just that: its Kevlar-reinforced carbon fiber build is very tough, and you get wider winter baskets to keep the poles afloat in powder. The rest of the Ascent resembles a standard trekking pole, including a collapsible construction that packs down small, 8 inches of adjustability, and a reasonable overall weight of 16 ounces. 

Priced at $150, the MSR offers a fair amount of bang for your buck, but it’s overkill for summer use. You can go significantly lighter with something like the BD Distance Carbon Z above, and the winter baskets are unnecessary for anything but deep snow (more compact trekking discs are included). In addition, we found the foam grips of the MSR aren’t as comfortable as a traditional hiking model, especially in the area at the top that has a lot of exposed plastic. Complaints aside, if you want a pole that can truly be used year-round for anything from snowshoeing to ambitious high routes, the DynaLock Ascent Carbon deserves a look.
See the MSR DynaLock Ascent Carbon

 

10. Leki Micro Vario Ti Cor-Tec ($140)

Leki Micro Vario Ti Cor-TecWeight per pair: 20.4 oz. 
Type: Folding (lever lock)
Shaft material: Aluminum
Grip: Cork/Rubber
What we like: Collapsible to 15.5 inches.
What we don’t: Heavy for a folding model.

With a folding-style design, Leki’s well-loved and ergonomic cork grips, and a competitive price of $140, the Micro Vario Ti Cor-Tec is one of our favorite poles in this category. This aluminum model folds down to a mere 15.5 inches, which is among the smallest on our list. And we love Leki’s Speed Lock 2 locking system—it can be tightened with a small dial, no extra tools needed. The ability to easily keep the locks tight adds to the already durable nature of these poles.

As expected, there are tradeoffs to this design. As with other folding trekking poles, the Micro Vario Ti Cor-Tec is compact, but it's quite heavy at over 20 ounces for the pair (the sacrifice of the more affordable price tag and alloy build). Additionally, folding poles in general are less sturdy than their telescoping counterparts, making these some of the least weight-bearing aluminum poles on this list. That said, they’ll surely take a beating better than the carbon fiber Leki Micro Vario Carbon and the BD Distance Carbon Z above.
See the Leki Micro Vario Ti Cor-Tec  See the Women's Leki Micro Vario Ti Cor-Tec

 

11. Black Diamond Distance Z ($100)

Black Diamond Distance Z trekking polesWeight per pair: 12.5 oz.
Type: Folding
Shaft material: Aluminum
Grip: Foam
What we like: Light, packable, and more durable than carbon. 
What we don’t: Not adjustable, although the pricier FLZ version is. 

The Black Diamond Carbon Z above are the lightest trekking poles on this list, but the aluminum version is a very attractive alternative. The weight stays reasonable as the Distance Z is approximately 2 to 3 ounces heavier per pair. Second, aluminum is more durable than carbon and has more give, meaning you’re less likely to snap them on the trail or have issues with delicate components. And perhaps most importantly, the Distance Z costs $100, or a significant $70 cheaper than the carbon version. If you aren’t counting every ounce but still want to go ultralight and packable, give the Distance Z a serious look. 

Similar to the Carbon version, the Black Diamond Distance is made in an FLZ version for $140. The jump in price is significant, but the adjustability matters for some, and you get one FlickLock up top that provides 6 to 8 inches of range depending on the size. That said, in practice, we’ve had no issues with non-adjustable poles (especially when they have extended handles like on the Z models) and appreciate the $40 cost savings, not to mention you shed some weight in the process. But both Distance Z models are excellent, lightweight trekking poles. 
See the Black Diamond Distance Z

 

12. Leki Makalu Lite Cor-Tec ($120)

Leki Makalu Lite Cor-Tec trekking polesWeight per pair: 17.1 oz.
Type: Telescoping (lever lock)
Shaft material: Aluminum
Grip: Cork with rubber
What we like: Comfortable grip. 
What we don’t: Very similar to the REI Traverse for $20 more. 

Leki has built a reputation around its super comfortable cork grips and their ergonomic shape. With a slight forward tilt, they have a very natural feel in the hands, and the build quality of the grips is second to none. Their Makalu Lite carries on this tradition while including modern features like lever locks and a minimalist strap design at a reasonable weight of 17 ounces per pair. You do miss out on Leki’s top-end Speed Lock 2 at this price point, but their simplified Speed Lock + remains a solid partner. Expect consistently strong holds, and as a bonus, you can adjust the locking mechanism without a screwdriver.

It’s worth noting that Leki also makes the Makalu Lite Cor-Tec AS pole, which includes a low-profile shock-absorption system at the bottom. In practice, we haven’t been overwhelmed with this type of functionality and don’t think it’s worth spending the extra $20 per pair, plus it’s another piece that can potentially break. And when evaluating either Leki model against the competition, REI Co-op’s Traverse Power Lock Cork above is a very similar pole for less money, albeit for a few ounces more.
See the Leki Makalu Lite Cor-Tec

 

13. REI Co-op Trailbreak ($60)

REI Trailbreak trekking polesWeight per pair: 17 oz.
Type: Telescoping (lever lock)
Shaft material: Aluminum
Grip: Rubber
What we like: Cheap yet functional. 
What we don’t: No-frills design isn’t ideal for serious hikers or tough terrain.

REI Co-op’s Traverse and Flash above compete with other mid-range and high-end trekking pole models, but the Trailbreak aims squarely at budget seekers. Here is the good news: this pole offers just about everything that beginning and occasional hikers need and nothing they don’t. You get an aluminum build, a telescoping design with lever locks, and a rubber grip. Nothing is premium here—no carbon, no cork grip, no padded wrist strap, and the locks are about as minimal as they get. In addition, the Trailbreak is only made in one size, although it is adjustable from 41 to 55 inches. But at $60, it’s tough to beat the low price.

The reason we have the REI Trailbreak here is that it goes head-to-head with our top budget pick, the Montem Ultra Strong above. Both are priced at $60, but the Montem comes with foam grips instead of rubber, choke-up extensions below, and beefier lever locks. Neither model can take a pounding on rough terrain like the pricier poles on this list, but they work fine on established trails and for providing basic balance and support.
See the REI Co-op Trailbreak

 

14. Cascade Mountain Tech Carbon Fiber Quick Lock ($45)

Cascade Mountain Tech Carbon Fiber trekking polesWeight per pair: 16 oz.
Type: Telescoping (lever lock)
Shaft material: Carbon
Grip: Foam or Cork
What we like: Cheap and very light.
What we don’t: Not built to last.

Carbon fiber typically is associated with high-end builds and premium prices, but Cascade Mountain Tech offers a pair of carbon poles for under $50. On paper, the poles stack up really well with a 16-ounce weight, simple lever locks, and foam grip extensions. Impressively, Cascade Mountain Tech didn’t skimp on accessories either, with rubber tips and two sets of baskets for mud and snow. The Carbon Fiber poles are available with either a foam or cork grip, and while we typically prefer cork, we lean towards foam in this case as a cheap cork grip will break down over time.

The main downside in choosing the Cascade Mountain Tech poles is durability. The carbon shaft does a great job keeping weight low but is more likely to get a crack or snap under a load than another budget pole like the aluminum Montem above. Moreover, the overall construction is rather cheap, and the cost-cutting in the plastic adjustment system doesn’t inspire confidence in its longevity. But if you take good care, going with Cascade Mountain Tech gets you a pair of lightweight poles for about 1/3 of what you’d pay for carbon from a company like Black Diamond.
See the Cascade Mountain Tech Carbon Fiber Quick Lock

 

15. Black Diamond Trail Pro Shock ($150)

Black Diamond Trail Pro Shock trekking polesWeight per pair: 20.3 oz. 
Type: Telescoping (lever lock)
Shaft material: Aluminum
Grip: Foam
What we like: Proven shock-absorbing system.
What we don’t: Extra weight and price.

We typically don’t recommend trekking poles with serious shock-absorbing technology—they generally are heavier, more complex, and shock absorption isn't necessary for many hikers. But if the extra give is a must-have feature for you, the Black Diamond Trail Pro Shock is worth a look. Impressive damping and rebound control built into the pole’s handle helps avoid a common pitfall of anti-shock poles: bottoming out and an unpredictable rebound. The system works quite seamlessly and reacts well to both light and hard impacts. The rest of the set-up is classic Black Diamond, with quality materials and components like their metal FlickLock Pro.

Cons are the expected sacrifices for the Trail Pro Shock's additional tech. Weight goes up relative to non-shock-absorbing options at over 20 ounces, and you pay a bit of a price premium as well. At $150, we’d prefer cork grips, but the foam handles with choke-up extensions still are fine performers. All told, the Trail Pro isn't for everyone, but its 4-season-ready construction and functional shock absorption earn it a spot on our list.
See the Black Diamond Trail Pro Shock  See the Women's Black Diamond Trail Pro Shock

 

16. Kelty Upslope 2.0 ($40)

Kelty Upslope 2.0 trekking polesWeight per pair: 18.5 oz. 
Type: Telescoping (twist lock)
Shaft material: Aluminum
Grip: Foam
What we like: Simple and cheap.
What we don’t: Cheap locking mechanism, not as comfortable.

The most important thing to know about the Kelty Upslope 2.0 is its price: $40 for a pair of decent aluminum trekking poles is an absolute steal. Kelty even includes rubber tips for pavement walking and extended foam grips should you need to choke up for uphill travel. For the casual user or someone interested in trying out trekking poles for the first time, the Upslope 2.0 is a fine option. 

What are you giving up for the Upslope’s discounted price? The main compromise is the locking mechanism. In contrast to the strong lever-locking systems above—even the $60 Montem’s is an upgrade—the Upslope uses a twist lock. For easy trails, these should provide sufficient holding power, but under a lot of strain and over time, they are more likely to start slipping. Part of the reason is user error: it is relatively easy to over-tighten or loosen the locking pieces to a point where they start to fail. But there’s a reason lever-lock systems dominate the market in 2020.
See the Kelty Upslope 2.0

 

17. BAFX Products Anti-Shock Poles ($21)

BAFX Products Anti-Shock trekking polesWeight per pair: 24 oz.
Type: Telescoping (twist lock)
Shaft material: Aluminum
Grip: Plastic
What we like: Cheap.
What we don’t: Too basic and flimsy for a lot of uses.

The BAFX Products Anti-Shock poles are a cheap but suitable option for light use on non-technical trails. These simple hiking sticks have a feature set that reflects their $21 price tag: you get finicky twist locks that are prone to slipping, basic grips, and a heavy 24-ounce weight. On the upside, the shaft is made of aluminum that should hold up decently well over time, and BAFX Products includes mud baskets and two sets of rubber tip covers. In addition, the built-in springs help to alleviate some of the vibration that you often get with cheap trekking poles.

If you have plans of logging significant miles or need to rely on your poles over serious terrain, we highly recommend opting for one of the models above. These poles are just not built well enough to trust on anything more than easy trails. They can be suitable for the right person and circumstances, but we think it’s worth spending up for the Montem, Cascade Mountain Tech, or Kelty budget options above.
See the BAFX Products Anti-Shock Poles

 

Trekking Pole Comparison Table

Trekking Pole Price Type Lock Weight Shaft Grip Length*
Black Diamond Trail Ergo Cork $130 Telescoping Lever 18 oz.  Aluminum Cork 27 in.
Montem Ultra Strong $60 Telescoping Lever 19.2 oz. Aluminum Foam 24 in.
Black Diamond Distance Carbon Z $170 Folding N/A 10 oz. Carbon Foam  14 in.
Gossamer Gear LT5 $195 Telescoping Twist 10.6 oz. Carbon Foam 23.5 in.
Leki Micro Vario Carbon $200 Folding Lever 16.9 oz. Carbon Foam 15 in.
REI Co-op Flash Carbon $139 Telescoping Lever 14.8 oz. Carbon Foam 27 in.
Black Diamond Trail Back $80 Telescoping Lever 20 oz. Aluminum Rubber 25 in.
REI Co-op Traverse Power Lock $100 Telescoping Lever 20 oz. Aluminum Cork 27 in.
MSR DynaLock Ascent Carbon $150 Folding Lever 16 oz. Carbon Foam 14.25 in.
Leki Micro Vario Ti Cor-Tec $140 Folding Lever 20.4 oz. Aluminum Cork/rubber 15.5 in.
Black Diamond Distance Z $100 Folding N/A 12.5 oz. Aluminum Foam 14 in.
Leki Makalu Lite Cor-Tec $120 Telescoping Lever 17.1 oz. Aluminum Cork/rubber 27 in.
REI Co-op Trailbreak $60 Telescoping Lever 17 oz. Aluminum Rubber 25 in.
Cascade Mountain Tech Carbon $45 Telescoping Lever 16 oz. Carbon Foam 28 in.
Black Diamond Trail Pro Shock $150 Telescoping  Lever 20.3 oz. Aluminum Foam 26 in.
Kelty Upslope 2.0 $40 Telescoping Twist 18.5 oz. Aluminum Foam 25.5 in.
BAFX Products Anti-Shock Poles $21 Telescoping Twist 24 oz. Aluminum Plastic 26.5 in.

*Editor's Note: "Length" is the minimum or collapsed length for the trekking poles.
 

Trekking Pole Buying Advice

Trekking Pole Types: Telescoping, Folding, and Fixed

Telescoping poles made of two or three sections are the most common type on the market, and are known for their durability and ease of use. As such, they’re popular with everyone from day hikers to backpackers and even mountaineers. The different pole sections expand from each joint by a locking system that can be opened for adjustment and secured while on the trail. These points of connection also are their greatest weaknesses, so a quality locking mechanism is highly recommended (we discuss this in more detail below). In this category, we prefer light poles with simple feature sets: secure locking mechanisms, quality aluminum or carbon fiber construction, and comfortable grips.

Trekking (REI Flash poles)
Trekking in Patagonia with the three-section telescoping REI Co-op Flash poles

Black Diamond pioneered the ultralight folding category with their Z-Pole line. Much like the poles that come with a tent, you can separate the pieces and pack them down into a compact size (oftentimes 10 inches shorter than a comparable telescoping pole). More recently, Leki has made a strong push with their Micro Vario series, which includes our top-rated folding pole: the Micro Vario Carbon. Most folding poles have very thin shafts, can bear less weight than their telescoping counterparts, and are either not adjustable or limited in their adjustments lengthwise. Favored by fast hikers, trail runners, climbers, and travelers, these poles will cause the least amount of arm fatigue over long miles

A third category of trekking pole is the straight-shaft, fixed-length design. These are relatively uncommon because it can be difficult to store or transport such a long item (especially when fastened to your pack or in a suitcase), and they can’t be adjusted for up and downhill travel. As such, no fixed-length poles made our list. If you’re in the market, however, we recommend checking out the Ultimate Direction FK. They are among the lightest trekking poles made at 8 ounces for a pair.

Leki Micro Vario (glacier hiking)
Crossing a glacier with the Leki Micro Vario trekking poles

Shaft Materials

Generally, trekking poles are made either from carbon fiber, aluminum, or a combination of the two (a three-section pole may have two carbon upper pieces and an aluminum lower, for example). High-end trekking poles are often made from carbon, which is lighter and stiffer but also more expensive and brittle (and when carbon fiber breaks, it breaks; aluminum may just dent or bend and still be usable). Carbon’s tendency to snap under hard stress can be somewhat offset by a thicker diameter construction, at the penalty of weight.

REI Traverse trekking pole
REI's Traverse poles have a sturdy aluminum construction

Price and overall durability are the main reasons hikers opt for aluminum poles. There's something to be said about a confidence-inspiring design like the Black Diamond Trail Ergo, which is super stable and has virtually no wobble even on steep descents. In the end, the casual hiker or someone that is rough on their gear will probably be happiest with an aluminum or hybrid aluminum/carbon pole. On the other hand, an all-carbon build remains the best option for the weight-focused hiker/backpacker. 
 

Locking Mechanisms

Outside of an ultralight folding trekking pole, chances are you’ll be eying one with some sort of locking mechanism. The classic style used a twist lock: to tighten you twist each section closed to lock the segments into place. These poles are haunted by inconsistent performance, with hikers either over-tightening to the point of seizing, or twisting too loose, resulting in perpetual issues with collapsing. Needless to say, the twist lock has gone out of vogue. And while there are a few models out there that do a good job—such as what you get on Gossamer Gear's LT5—we typically recommend avoiding the twist lock.

Trekking poles locking mechanism
Our preferred lever lock (open) on the right with twist lock on the left

Enter the lever lock. Using an external clamp to either open to adjust or close to lock the pole sections, it’s an easy-to-use system. Better still, the tendency for segments to slip when in the locked position is significantly reduced, giving additional confidence to the user. There are still a few risks of incidentally opening the lock when moving through heavy brush or the need to occasionally tighten the lever with a screwdriver (Leki’s Speed Lock + on the Micro Vario Ti Cor-Tec doesn’t require a tool to adjust), but these are minor nitpicks. The lever lock is the new standard.

Trekking pole locking mechanisms
Leki's Speed Lock 2 (left) and Black Diamond's FlickLock (right)

Trekking Pole Grip Construction

Materials: Cork, Foam, and Rubber
Trekking pole grips come in three main types: cork, foam, and rubber, with cork being our personal favorite. A quality cork handle has an exceptionally comfortable feel in the hand and wicks sweat very well. It also will conform nicely to your hand over time, making it great for long-distance treks and multi-season use. If cork isn’t your thing, the next best bet is foam. EVA foam is soft, provides a measure of shock absorption, and does a decent job at wicking moisture in the summer months (although it will typically retain more moisture than cork). Rubber is the third option and usually found on budget trekking poles. We’ve found these grips to be best for cold weather activities because they shed rain and snow, but they lack the sweat absorption and premium feel of foam and cork.

Trekking poles (descending)
Quality foam and cork handles are great for long-distance backpacking

Ergonomic Handle vs. Standard Handle
Looking beyond the grip materials, another consideration is whether or not to get an ergonomic handle. These types of grips have a slight forward angle, typically around 15 degrees, which is supposed to mimic where your hands would naturally rest. Not surprisingly, what feels “natural” to one person may not to another, and this in the end is a very personal choice. That being said, we’ve enjoyed our fair share of ergonomic grips (Leki is a standout in this area, and we also like Black Diamond’s Ergo models).

Trekking pole grips
Choosing a standard (left) or ergonomic (right) grip is mostly a matter of personal preference

Choke-up Extensions
Many poles will have a second, smaller grip below the main one. This is what we refer to as a choke-up extension, or extended grip. These predominantly foam grips are great for finding a secure hold lower on your poles while climbing steep hills or sidehilling, improving balance and leverage. For those who often travel on steep or technical terrain, extended grips are a must-have feature. For a DIY alternative, you can wrap duct tape around your poles under the large grips for a more secure hold.

Trekking pole (choke-up extensions)
Choke-up extensions are valuable on steep climbs

Wrist Straps
The final piece in the grip construction is the wrist strap. There is an impressive diversity of strap designs, ranging from heavily padded to simple nylon. And some hikers ditch the straps altogether because they’d rather not be connected to their poles should they take a fall or use the system improperly (correct technique is entering from the bottom opening of the strap). In choosing a strap, the biggest consideration is noticing any potential irritants. If a seam is rubbing against the back of your hand on a short walk, that can turn into serious chafing by mile 10. In general, the straps on most quality trekking poles are very comfortable. Even the simple webbing on the Leki Micro Vario Carbon is very smooth.
 

Weight

The weight of the trekking poles is our second biggest consideration (first is comfort), and we wouldn’t blame you for putting it atop your priority list. A light pole will fatigue your arms less quickly, which is a big benefit on long treks. On short trips, you may not notice a 2-ounce difference, but when you think of the number of times your arms swing forward over an extended trip, it’s easy to realize how a little weight savings can go a long way.

Trekking poles (Montem descending)
Descending a steep section of trail with the Montem poles

For moving light and fast, the lighter the better, with a caveat that durability diminishes once you get into the ultralight category (we see it happen right around 1 pound). On the extreme end are poles like the Gossamer Gear LT5 (10.6 ounces for a pair) or Black Diamond Distance Carbon Z (9.3 to 10.4 ounces, depending on length). These are great for ultralight backpackers and thru-hikers, but the shaft materials are too delicate for bushwhacking or 4-season use. Our preference is to go lightweight without having to be constantly worried about snapping the poles, which is why we rank the BD Trail Ergo atop our list.

Trekking poles (Black Diamond Carbon Z)
Trekking in Peru with the ultralight Black Diamond Distance Carbon Z

Packed Size

Packed size or collapsed length isn’t a make-or-break specification for us, but it is a consideration for travelers that need to fit their poles into a suitcase and hikers that strap their poles to their pack. Folding poles take the prize for the smallest packed size, which is as little as 13 inches. Properly protected, they’re even small enough to store inside a daypack.

Folding trekking poles
Folding trekking poles pack down impressively small

Not everyone puts such a high value on a compact size, which is partly why three-section poles remain the most popular style on the market. Their average minimum length is 24 to 27 inches, which is small enough to attach to the outside of a backpacking pack, and also can fit into most luggage. Two-section telescoping designs are where it may become an issue for squeezing into a duffel or suitcase, and you can forget about traveling with a fixed-length pole.
 

Durability

For trekking poles, durability and weight almost always go hand in hand. The first places manufacturers look to cut weight are the thickness of the material and the diameter of the pole. A smaller diameter and thinner pole logically will be less durable and flex more under pressure than its wider and thicker counterpart. The other part of the equation is the material itself. As mentioned above, even though aluminum may not be as strong as carbon fiber, it is the better choice in terms of durability because it has a lesser chance of breaking. This is why some manufacturers make a hybrid carbon and aluminum pole with the aluminum section at the bottom. Banging up against trail debris or snagging the pole in between rocks may only dent or bend the aluminum rather than crack or shatter the carbon.

As with any piece of outdoor gear, it’s best to think through your individual needs. Because we like to use our trekking poles year-round and on varied terrain, we’re willing to deal with the extra couple ounces to get a more reliable build like the proven Black Diamond Trail Ergo Cork. But if we were setting off on a thru-hike of the PCT, we’d be willing to compromise a lot more on durability.

Trekking pole shelter
Super light but strong enough to support our shelter: Leki's Micro Vario Carbon

Winter Use

To keep your gear closet from overflowing (and your bank account plentiful), it’s always nice to find a single piece of gear that can be used year-round. A durable trekking pole can be just that: great for simple day hikes or backpacking trips in the summer, but burly enough for snowshoeing or even the occasional ski tour. So what makes a trekking pole suitable for winter? Typically it will come from the telescoping category. The stiffer design and telescoping function is important for uphill and downhill travel, particularly for skiing or mountaineering. That said, there are some robust folding poles like the Black Diamond Alpine FLZ.

Beyond having a strong shaft material, interchangeable baskets are a must for winter use. Many trekking poles come with, or offer as an accessory, powder snow baskets. The wide diameter baskets keep the poles from sinking in deep snow, just like a ski pole. Not all trekking poles have this option, however, so make sure to verify prior to purchasing.

Trekking pole (MSR DynaLock Ascent snow)
Using sturdy, 4-season trekking poles in snow

Shock-Absorbing Poles

Adding shock absorption to trekking poles seems like a no-brainer. They have the built-in give that takes additional stress off of knees as well as your wrists on a long descent. But, a quick scan of the picks above will show only a few poles with shock absorption made our list. What gives? First and most importantly is the extra weight. On longer treks, those additional ounces really count (although the Leki system only adds 1 ounce per pole). Most importantly, simplicity in the outdoors is your friend, and one fewer part to break is a win for us. There are undoubtedly good reasons to get a shock-absorbing pole, but we encourage you to think through the compromises to make sure they’re worth it.

Leki DSS shock-absorbing technology
Leki's low-profile shock absorbers are built into the bottom of the pole

Women’s-Specific Trekking Poles

Trekking poles are billed as a unisex product, but there are a number of models that include a women’s version. What differentiates the women’s trekking pole is a narrower diameter grip, intended for smaller hands, and a shorter maximum length. For reference, the women’s version of the REI Co-op Flash Carbon poles can be extended to 47 inches, while the men’s extend to 55 inches. Realistically, anyone that doesn’t need the extra length and would benefit from the smaller-diameter grips should choose a women’s trekking pole. Another benefit is women’s poles have a shorter minimum length (typically around 4-5 inches shorter in telescoping models), which makes them easier to stow away in a suitcase for traveling.
 

Cheap Trekking Poles

Uncomfortable foam, cork disintegrating into your palms, wrist straps chafing your hands, frail locking mechanisms collapsing. Need we go on? A poorly made cheap trekking pole is just not worth it. Now we’re not saying you have to spend $150 to feel safe and secure; there are a number of poles under $100 that we still highly recommend. Moreover, if you are looking for a trekking pole for stability around town or want to try them without paying through the nose, you can forego some of the fancy lightweight features and get a classic aluminum pole at a reasonable price.

Kelty Upslope trekking poles
Kelty's budget-friendly Upslope 2.0 poles

The Kelty Upslope 2.0 telescoping poles (#16 on our list) are a great deal for around $40, and will do the trick for easy local trails and day hikes. If you plan to use the poles for backpacking, we still recommend sticking with the pricier options above it on the list. As with most items you get for the backcountry, it’s well worth it to get a piece of gear you can rely on.


Hiking with One Trekking Pole

Although the vast majority of hikers use two trekking poles, it’s worth mentioning that a certain contingent prefers one. We’ve found that this is most often thru-hikers who want to carry the least possible weight and gear, and one pole does afford you added balance and support compared to not using any at all. For those using an ultralight shelter with trekking pole support, obviously the design will need to require only one pole. For example, most Hyperlite Mountain Gear shelter models aside from the Echo require one pole, while popular ultralight tents like the Zpacks Duplex require one pole on each end (two total). In the end, the choice comes down to personal preference, and one pole can be a fine option for those who want some of the benefits while keeping a hand free. And in terms of buying, almost all trekking poles are sold in sets, but cottage brands like Gossamer Gear do allow you to order one by including a note to “ship only 1 pole and refund 50%".
Back to Our Top Trekking Pole Picks  Back to Our Trekking Pole Comparison Table

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