Trekking poles and hiking sticks come in five basic types, serving different needs:
Two kinds of fit are important in selecting trekking poles -- the size of the grip and the length adjustment. Manufacturers measure the minimum and maximum lengths of adjustable trekking poles from the tip to the top of the grip. It's better to err in the direction of longer adjustment than you think you might need, because trekking poles adjusted to their maximum length lose some stiffness and strength. Also, using trekking poles as a tarp or tent pole usually requires a longer length.
The trekking-pole experts at AdventureBuddies.net recommend starting with a base length (for fairly level terrain) that just reaches the top of your hipbone. (For a hiker 5 feet 6 inches tall, this means a starting trekking-pole length of about 39 inches.) From this base length, you'll want to be able to shorten the poles a few inches to help push up slopes, and lengthen them a foot or more for steep descents. Many brands now offer their poles in two sizes.
Two brands of adjustable poles are recommended more than others: Leki and Black Diamond. Each brand offers a unique feature. Leki's claim to fame is a shock-absorption system, while Black Diamond is known for its quick and easy adjustment feature called FlickLocks. While the jury is out on the importance of anti-shock, users seem to universally agree the FlickLock is an outstanding feature. The FlickLock uses little handles that easily flip up with the flick of a hand -- even while wearing gloves. Since you don't have to twist the shaft to loosen the lock, this system is also much more convenient if you plan to make your trekking poles double as tarp or tent poles. Some Black Diamond trekking poles use FlickLocks only for the top adjustment, relying on a "binary adjustment" mechanism for the lower adjustment. The lower section is either completely extended or completely closed, so the total length range is quite small, making it possible to perform mid-stride adjustments. If you're in the market for an adjustable pole, the locking system is one of the most important features to consider.
Black Diamond's Spire Elliptic trekking poles (*Est. $125 per pair) are named a "Killer Value" in Outside magazine's 2007 Buyer's Guide. They also earn praise from three reviewers who perform in-depth road testing and report their findings on BackpackGearTest.org. It also receives high ratings by users on BackCountry.com and Trailspace.com. The Spire trekking poles are made of aluminum and have an elliptical shape to help increase stiffness, along with a 15-degree tilt designed to keep the wrist in a comfortable position. The top of the grip is dual-density foam. The rest of the grip is non-slip foam with a lower extension for help on steeper ground. Users report that the grip is comfortable and doesn't lead to excessive hand sweating, as poles with rubber grips can. Users say the Spire trekking poles never slip and perform well in a variety of conditions; they weigh 20 ounces per pair. A smaller model of the Spire called the Spire Elliptic Compact (*Est. $125) is shorter and has a reduced grip size for those with smaller hands. The Spire's length ranges from 41 to 55 inches and measures 27 inches when fully collapsed, while the Spire Compact goes from 37 to 49 inches and measures 25 inches collapsed.
Black Diamond has other models or trekking poles that incorporate FlickLocks with other features. The Contour Elliptic Carbon (*Est. $150) has carbon fiber in the upper section for durability and slightly lighter weight (19 ounces per pair). Two users at Backpack Gear Test report that the shaft just below the handle has a rough texture similar to emery paper. This helps improve one's hold on the pole, but is very rough on bare hands. Black Diamond says its Contour Elliptic Shock (*Est. $130) uses technology to absorb strikes without the "pogo-ing rebound of inferior shock systems." These weigh in at 1 pound 8 ounces per pair and also come in a compact size, called the Contour Elliptic Shock Compact (*Est. $130) .
Though Leki makes trekking poles in many models and price ranges, the top-of-the-line models have ergonomic features praised in reviews for extra comfort and safety. Positive-angle grips, indicated by "PA" (15-degree angle) or "ergometric" (10-degree angle) in the model name, keep wrists in a neutral position at a slight angle. Leki is known for its anti-shock mechanisms ("A/S" in the model names), said to minimize the vibration that travels up into hands and arms. Reviews also like the way the tips flex a bit, to adapt to stress instead of breaking. Tips and baskets (these are the disks that stop the pole from sinking too far into the ground or snow) screw on securely, but are easy to replace without tools. Straps adjust easily and are soft and lined to minimize chafing. A few models have durable, breathable cork handles, while most use durable foam. Grips are "handed" -- one designed for the left hand, the other for the right hand; users confirm that this makes a difference in comfort.
The Leki Super Makalu series is a longstanding favorite in reviews of trekking poles. It's been a few years, but it's still worth noting that in 2004, Backpacker magazine gave these trekking poles its Editor's Choice Gold Award. In 2008, Backpacker magazine notes that the latest version is even better. The Leki Super Makalu Cor-Tec PA Anti-Shock 2048-08 (*Est. $130) has a cork handle set at a 15-degree positive angle. While some think cork handles are ideal for trekking poles because they mold to your hand over time and don't become as slippery as foam or rubber in the rain, others say they are more apt to crumble over time.
The Super Makalu Cor-Tec PA Anti-Shock gets good overall user reviews on BackpackGearTest.org, but a tester comments that the poles were at times difficult to adjust. Leki uses a twisting system for pole adjustment. Users report no major problems with this method, but don't seem as impressed by it as they are by Black Diamond's FlickLock system. Another reviewer at the same site praises Leki's carbide "flex tip," which he reports saved him from several falls on wet, moss-covered rocks. Leki poles have a good reputation for durability, and the company wins praise for strong customer service.
Experts are mixed on whether anti-shock mechanisms are important or even desirable. Some users prefer the stiffer impact of trekking poles without it. Some reviews and scientific studies conclude that it probably makes no difference either way
The Leki Ultralite Ti Ergometric Soft Anti-Shock System 2137-07 (*Est. $140) trekking poles are recommended for most hikers, especially for those with small hands. The shafts are made of heat-treated high-grade 7075 aluminum alloy, with a lifetime guarantee against breakage. A pair of these Leki trekking poles weighs 17.4 ounces -- on the heavy side -- but Backpacking Light's review finds that the weight is well balanced. This model comes also in a long model, Leki Ultralite Ti Ergometric Long AS 2148 (*est. $150), to accommodate tall hikers or those with larger hands. The Leki Ultralite Ti Ergometric series can collapse down to 27 inches. Maximum length is 53 inches.
Life-Link Guide Ultra-Light (*Est. $100) trekking poles also get a fair amount of good press. These poles are named a 2008 Best Buy by Backpacker magazine. They also performed well in tests at Backpacking Light, where they scored highly for stability, durability and vibration absorption. Reviews praise the way part of the shaft is textured to make adjustments easier, especially when wearing gloves, and editors at Backpacking Light judge the length-locking mechanism the best of all 12 models tested. The main drawback to the Life-Link Guide Ultra-Light trekking poles is their short maximum length of only 49 inches. Another drawback is that the tip requires hot water and pliers to replace. There's no anti-shock mechanism, either, and the positive-angle on the grip is only 6 degrees.
Most reviews say it's better to pay for top-quality trekking poles for their extra comfort. Even when reviews recommend a budget model, they often mention a significant drawback. Outside magazine's Gear Guy recommends the 20-ounce 7075 aluminum alloy REI Summit (*est. $60 per pair) as a budget buy, saying that although they lack positive-angle grips and anti-shock, they're good basic trekking poles. They get mostly positive reviews in the Backpacker Magazine Community Forum, but users note that the grips get slippery and can chafe hands, and one user says the lower section jammed after a short time of use.
Despite the advantages of adjustable trekking poles, some ultralight hikers prefer fixed-length poles, mainly because they weigh much less than adjustable poles. Some experienced hikers who started with adjustable poles found they didn't need to adjust them, so they switched to fixed-length to save on weight. Another advantage of this type of pole is the carbon fiber shafts to minimize vibration. One caveat is that you need to be sure of the length you need before you buy.
For two years in a row, Backpacking Light has recommended the Gossamer Gear Lightrek trekking poles. The latest model, the Gossamer Gear Lightrek 3 (*est. $130) is said to be stronger and weigh even less - about 5 ounces per pair - making them the lightest poles on the market. You can order these poles in fixed lengths from 110 to 135 cm (43.3 to 53 inches), in 0.5-cm increments. Backpacking Light says that Gossamer Gear Lightrek poles are a great value. They have thicker shafts than other poles, which makes them more durable and helps them absorb shock well. They also have multi-position grips that the magazine says are a huge improvement over older models.
The in-depth reviews on BackpackGearTest.org favor Lightrek trekking poles for their weight and design. One reviewer on the site described them as being "pared down to just the essential features." He said they work great for a variety of pursuits - hiking, snowshoeing and walking. Another reviewer who broke one while crossing a river still gave Lightreks a thumbs-up. Gossamer Gear warns that their trekking poles are prone to breakage in certain circumstances, such as when the pole tips get lodged in a rock, but this is typical of fixed-length poles in general.
Experts say the carbon fiber in these poles provides all the vibration dampening needed, and their lightweight design eliminates any need for straps. The closed-foam cork-like grips are shaped ergonomically but lack a positive angle; a review at Backpacker magazine says they're very comfortable.
Another fixed-length pole that is mentioned in articles, but for which we could find no reviews, is the Life-Link Alpine Extreme Carbon Fiber (*est. $130), which weighs 18 ounces per pair. They are available in 44", 52" and 54" versions, and can be fastened together to form an avalanche probe. They lose out to Gossamer Gear Lightreks because of their weight. It should be noted, though, that part of the weight on the Life-Links comes from straps, which the Gossamer Gear poles do not have. Users agree you don't need them.
Nordic walking evolved in Finland from skiers who walked around with poles in the summer months to practice their sport. Nordic walking has been popular in Scandinavia since the late 1990s and is catching on in other parts of the world. Reebok now sells shoes designed for Nordic walking, L.L.Bean in 2006 featured the sport on the cover of its catalogue and Nordic walking clubs are popping up across the country.
Nordic walking poles basically act as extensions of the arms; they swing from front to back as you walk, remaining tilted toward the back to allow for the sweeping motion. Unlike trekking poles that are held solely by grips, fitness poles are held also by wrist straps, which allow them to swing freely. Although the hands do grip onto fitness poles, they are released when the pole is in the farthest backward position (the backstroke), which is why you need hand straps to keep them from falling off.
About.com quotes a pair of studies which found that Nordic walking burns 20 percent more calories than regular walking. Other sites, including AdventureBuddies.net, put the figure at 40 percent. A British website, DietAndFitnessResources.co.uk, says Nordic walking provides a better all-body workout because it involves the use of your back, legs, shoulders and chest more extensively.
We didn't find any in-depth, comparative testing of Nordic walking poles but did find helpful guidance from those involved with the sport. Wendy Bumgardner, About.com's Guide to Walking who wrote an extensive piece on Nordic walking for About.com, says her favorite Nordic poles are Leki Travellers (*Est. $130) (*est. $130 per pair). These poles are aluminum and have three sections which telescope from 26 to 52 inches. They come with two tips, one for trails and one for sidewalks. The Travellers' strap has a half-glove and a trigger for easy release. Bumgardner says the poles adjust easily and have marks to help you ascertain the proper length for uphill or downhill treks. She also likes that they come with a storage hanger and a booklet with information on proper use. The Travellers are also a top pick on the AdventureBuddies.net website.
While most Nordic walking poles are telescoping, some aren't. Like trekking poles, fixed-length poles offer the advantage of being lighter in weight. The Nordic Ski Walking VIP Fitness Poles are manufactured in various sizes in Lillehammer, Norway. Bumgardner likes the VIP's demi glove, which helps the pole return to your hand after the release stroke. These gloves, however, don't completely detach from the poles like gloves on other models. Several customers on Amazon.com gave the VIP poles five-star ratings for durability and value.
You could certainly just buy one trekking pole if you prefer to have one hand free, but some models have special features. Some include a mount for a camera, binoculars, and/or a Y-attachment for stabilizing a rifle. These hiking sticks have a wooden knob at the top of the foam grip that unscrews to reveal a universal camera-mounting screw. Some hiking sticks collapse more than trekking poles, so they pack better.
The 11-ounce Leki Sierra A/S (*Est. $80) adjusts in length from 30.7 to 57 inches, using the same twist-lock system used on the Leki trekking poles. A camera mount is built into the top of the handle. Like all hiking sticks that double as monopods, the grip is straight, with no ergonomic positive angle. (This feature loss is inevitable if you need a camera mount.) This hiking stick does have anti-shock, though, and comes with a rubber tip. You can also use it with any of the Leki baskets. The strap adjusts with a buckle -- less comfortable and convenient than the strap adjustment on Leki trekking poles.
For easier packing (especially in standard 24-inch luggage), Dan A. Nelson, reviewing hiking poles for The Seattle Times, recommends the 8.5-ounce REI Four Winds Travel Staff (*est. $80), which adjusts in length from 22.75 to 51 inches. This hiking stick comes with an EVA foam grip with a compass inset, and the top unscrews to reveal a camera mount so it can be used as a monopod. The foam overlays the upper part of the shaft so you can comfortably grip the hiking stick below the handle as needed. A basket and carbide tip are included.
The Tracks Compact Travel staff (*Est. $90) also has a camera mount and collapses down to 19 inches for packing. It comes with a removable rubber tip for use on pavement, plus a camera mount inside the walnut top knob. The usable length adjusts only between 48 and 54 inches. Tracks offers several useful accessories, including a camera-mount extension (*est. $16) to bring a camera up to eye level, and a swivel mount for binoculars (*est. $20). This hiking stick gets positive reviews from users at BackCountry.com, but an in-depth review at BackpackGearTest.org says it wasn't durable. The rubber tip and basket broke off on a descent, and the foam on the handle started breaking down after a year or so. Also, the length is adjusted by a push-button mechanism, which is reliable but takes longer to use than a twist-lock or FlickLock. This staff gets excellent marks from a handful of reviewers at Amazon.com. Some users on the site bought it for hiking; one got it for her aging father to assist him in walking. All said it worked well and liked its packability.
Those looking for a budget option should consider the Swiss Gear Hiking Pole (*Est. $25) . Many reviewers say they found it at Wal-Mart, and Amazon.com buyers have given it a number of favorable reviews. This pole is made of an aluminum alloy and has three telescoping sections. Made by Wenger, one of the official makers of the Swiss Army knife, it's the top-selling hiking pole on Amazon.com, where it scored an average four out of five-star rating in more than 25 reviews. A few complain the tips easily fall off. It's a bit heavier than comparable models at 13.6 ounces and doesn't allow for a camera mount.
Another no-frills poll is the 9.1-ounce Leki Wanderfreund (*Est. $50) , recommended by About.com. The handle is designed so you can grip it from the top like a cane, or from the side like a trekking pole, with a strap that's just a cord. The length adjusts from 29 to 52 inches, using Leki's standard twist-lock mechanism. This hiking stick comes with a rubber tip for use on pavement, but you can take it off to reveal a carbide flex-tip, better for dirt paths and rocky terrain. The Leki Wanderfreund Anti-Shock (*Est. $65) is similar, but with the addition of the SAS-Lite anti-shock system.