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Published Aug. 18, 2021

When I was younger, if ever I had passed a fellow hiker stabbing at the ground with hiking poles, it made me curious, as if they’d lost their skis and the slopes and the snow. But as I grew wiser to the sport, it became clear that trekking poles were hiking essentials. The best trekking poles help to cushion shock to your knees and ankles, and reduce the amount of weight supported by your back. Not only do trekking poles hiking offer extra support — more so than a single hiking staff — but also provide stability on precarious terrain, preventing injuries. Along with the basics, like hiking backpacks and water, trekking poles are a must. Here’s how to find the best trekking poles to add to your hiking gear list.

Not All Trekking Poles Are Made the Same

Trekking poles differ in weight, material, construction, locks, and grips, and all those factors affect performance. Even straps matter. And there are trade-offs involved. How much weight can be cut before durability is sacrificed? Does the material from a more comfortable grip break down more quickly? All those factors enter into your decision-making process.

Purpose matters most. If you’re walking flat terrain with a light daypack, a single hiking stick might be your best bet. But for navigating more serious trails while carrying gear, you’ll want trekking poles (also referred to as hiking poles). Even still, there’s quite a difference between what an ultra-light hiker on a weeklong journey requires compared to the needs of a day hiker carrying just water and snacks.

For instance, a day-hiker might be fine using heavier aluminum poles, which are sturdier and more affordable, whereas someone on a long trek or hilly trail run demands a lighter swing from their poles, and would benefit from lighter carbon construction.

Even weather needs to be considered when selecting appropriate poles. Rubber grips might be best for a winter excursion, as hands are likely gloved and the material is impervious to moisture. Sans gloves, though, rubber is less comfortable and could cause fingers and palms to blister. Outside of winter, cork and foam grips are best. While the latter is widely considered most comfortable, foam can sometimes absorb sweat and moisture, causing them to break down faster.

Other factors matter too. Do you want a trekking pole made of a single construction (for sturdiness and lightness), or one that adjusts like a telescope (to have options as the terrain changes), or one that folds like a tent pole (for packability and lightness)? Do you want external lever locks, twist locks, or push-button locks?

Do You Want All-Around Trekking Poles?

Some hikers want poles that can be used across various terrains, from trails to boulder fields to ice. If that’s the case, consider a pair that’s sturdy and adjustable, with quality tips.

Best All-Around Trekking Poles: MSR DynaLock Ascent Carbon

All-Around Good Feel

A versatile pair for all-around use. MSR

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The Kevlar-reinforced carbon shafts are both strong and lightweight, and the EVA foam grips are a good fit for most hikers. The Dynalock Ascent has a lighter swing weight, 20 cm of adjustability, and a lower grip section that allows you to choke up on steep inclines. The carbide steel tips will stand up to heavy use. Weight is a hair over one pound for the pair.

Should You Go for a Lightweight Set of Hiking Poles?

Whenever the weight gets cut from a trekking pole, the price typically goes up. So it’s important to strike the right balance between the two. While you might not feel the extra few ounces testing a set of poles in the store, tens of thousands of poles swings on a long distance hike certainly add up and lead to fatigue. If you’ll be taking the poles on extended hikes, lightweight trekking poles may be your best bet. 

Best Lightweight Carbon Fiber Hiking Poles: Black Diamond Carbon Z

Sturdy Ultralight Poles

Weighing from 9.3 to 10.4 ounces per pair, these are ideal for all-day treks. REI

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These lightweight hiking poles are a good fit for trail runners and long-distance hikers. The light carbon shafts feature an upgraded design that makes them 30 percent stiffer than their predecessors. The EVA foam grips are comfortable, and the poles fold down into three sections to make them easy to pack.

Best Lightweight Aluminum Trekking Poles: Black Diamond Distance Z 

Lightweight and Durable

This lightweight option can handle the trails, pack small, and sits at a nice mid-point price. REI

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While carbon is lighter than aluminum, the latter is more durable and costs less. The aluminum Black Diamond Distance Z poles are about three ounces heavier than their carbon counterparts above, but cost nearly half the price. At 12 to 14 ounces per pair depending on height, the Distance Zs still offer light weight along with strength.

Do you want to splurge on a set of poles?

If you’re a serious hiker, it might be time to invest in a serious set of poles. The higher price results in poles that cut ounces, pack as small as possible, and use technologies and designs that make locking, adjustability, and durability supreme.

Best Foldable Trekking Poles: Leki Micro Vario Carbon

Strong Locks, Easily Packable

Packs smaller than most trekking sticks and uses a lock system that’s smaller, lighter, and handles more force. REI

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Though pricey, these carbon trekking poles have excellent locking and adjustability, as well as a soft and silky wrist strap. It folds down smaller than most poles, making it excellent for those with limited bag space. The shafts are strong and the grips comfortable, with choke-up extensions for longer hikes.

Budget Hiking Gear: What you get for less than $40

Knowing which trekking poles are best for you might require several hikes with a set. If that’s the case with you, it might be wise to begin with a budget option. For about $40 there are a number of poles that do the trick. After getting a few hikes (or a season) out of the set, you can determine what you liked or didn’t like about the grip or locking system or construction, and move on from there.

Best Cheap Trekking Poles: Trekology Trek-Z

Affordable Without Shortcuts

If you don’t mind a few extra ounces, this pole offers durability, comfort, and attractive packing size. TREKOLOGY

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Both foldable and adjustable, these aluminum Leki trekking poles offer great performance at a low price. The Trek-Z has a comfortable cork or foam grip, and a silky wrist strap. They come with a selection of tips and baskets for varying terrain.

FAQs

All you need to know about picking the best trekking poles for you.

Q: What is the correct length for a trekking pole?

When the pole is planted on the ground, your forearm and bicep should form a right angle at your elbow. Most adjustable trekking poles are suitable for anyone under six feet tall. Those who top six feet should look for poles that have a minimum height of 130 centimeters.

Q: Can trekking poles serve other functions?

Some lightweight tents actually require trekking poles in their set-up. If you’re considering this route, make sure there’s compatibility between the tent and the trekking poles. Other outdoor enthusiasts might want to use poles for mountain runs, snowshoeing, or backcountry skiing. If that’s you, consider multiple sets of poles or just a more all-around option. Sometimes it might be as simple as finding a pole that has tips and baskets for multiple seasons.

Q: Do you ever need to adjust trekking poles while hiking?

When ascending long, steep sections, shortening the poles by 5 to 10 centimeters can improve leverage and allow hikers to plant their poles more securely. Extending the poles 5 to 10 centimeters on long, downhill sections will improve balance and keep you from hunching over from that excess pack weight.

A Final Tip on Trekking Poles: Remember the Weight

Trekking poles are designed to help you navigate various terrain types. Remember, though, that they also require minor but repetitive exertion when you’re using them. That’s why hiking poles must be lightweight. Quality lightweight trekking poles won’t add to your burden — they’ll help instead.

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