Trekking Poles

13th Mar 2014

Since their gradual appearance onto the UK scene almost 2 decades ago, trekking poles have now become a standard item of equipment for many outdoor activists.  These simple tubes of alloy (or carbon fibre) have loads of uses.  Here’s my top five reasons (in no particular order) for taking them into the outdoors….
1. Poles reduce the impact on your legs (particularly your knees, ankles and feet).  A 1999 study reckoned they could reduce compressive force on your knees by up to a quarter.
2. 2 extra points of contact help improve stability and traction on awkward or slippery terrain.
3. Using 2 poles helps you develop an efficient rhythm (especially on less technical terrain).
4. Poles can help propel you forwards which makes your movements more energy efficient and can speed up your walking rate.
5. Trekking poles can act as a probe to give you information such as how deep is that stream or how hard is that snowpack you are about to step onto?
This list is by no means exhaustive and there are loads of other reasons poles can be useful.  From being a potential leg splint for a fracture right through to fighting off that attacking animal – they soon become your trail best friend.
But, of course, poles can be a pain at times too.  If you strap them onto the outside of your rucksack you have two antennae which are likely to catch on every tree or that rope you are fighting to manage efficiently.  Many models also have fiddly adjustment mechanisms that are prone to becoming stuck or failing at crucial times.
So, the simple solution is to use poles that don’t rely on awkward closures and that fold up short enough to be stored inside your rucksack when not needed.  For years my closure method of choice has been Black Diamond’s Flicklock system (which has now been copied by various other brands).  Then, a few years ago, a few manufacturers started making poles that operated like an avalanche probe.  This meant the sections aren’t stored inside each other (so they are slightly bulkier) but stay connected by a cable that runs inside the pole.  To fit the poles together you simply pull on the handle and the poles draw together and a pin mechanism locks them in place.  It works brilliantly and, as well as the simplicity, the system makes each pole length much shorter so it is very easy to store them inside the main body of your rucksack.
Since then I have used this system exclusively and it is, in my opinion, so much better than anything that existed before.  I am still a big fan of the Black Diamond offerings and currently use 2 models from their range.  The first is the super light carbon fibre Ultra Distance poles and the second is the robust Compactor Ski Pole.  Here is my low down on each model.
Black Diamond Ultra Distance Trekking Poles
The Black Diamond Ultra Distance poles are a 3 section, full carbon fibre design which weigh ... (drum roll) only 270 grams per pair! (for the 120 cm model). That is, by any standards, very light. Everything about these poles is stripped down. They come in fixed lengths so there's no adjustment (there's a handy sizing chart on the Black Diamond website to help you choose). They have lightweight wrist straps, handles, baskets and just about everything is as minimal as possible.
But how does all this super lightness work? Infact they work great – providing you accept their limitations. 3 sections of carbon fibre joined by a lightweight internal cable is never going to be as durable as a beefier aluminium pole and you can't expect it to be. Carry these with a heavy sack, clatter them through boulder fields or start trying to cross deep snow in them (Black Diamond only categorise them as 3 season anyway) and they won't last long at all. Use them as an ultra light aid to walking and you won't find much better.
The poles have a cable that runs up the inside and to set them up you simply slide the poles together and a small pin pops out to lock them into place. That's it! To fold them up you just pop in the pin and pull them apart like the avalanche probe designs that inspired them. They fold up really small and can easily be slid down the back panel of your rucksack. You won't notice you are carrying them until you want that bit of support on the descent.
At about £115 you will have to be sure these are suitable for what you want them to do. But, if you are sure then you'll love them. Suddenly the decision about whether to pack poles is a no brainer and you have all the benefits without the weight penalty. They even come in a neat little mesh bag!

Black Diamond Compactor Ski Poles
The Compactor’s are a solid and durable pole suitable for all season use.  They are marketed as a ski pole but I have found them perfect as a trekking pole too.  These poles have handled some serious abuse over this deep snow winter and yet they feel like they will last long enough for me to hand them down to my grandchildren!
The 3 section design is the same as the Ultra Distance, but on the Compactor a Flicklock adjustable section gives a useful 20cms of length adjustment.  This is great for altering the length when descending or for when you lend the poles to your taller friend! The Compactor has a solid, insulative hand grip and they come fitted with comfortable wrist straps and a ladder lock type closure.  The paint used on the poles is rather grippy which is really helpful when holding the pole lower down as I often do when, for example, I am traversing a steep slope.  They come as standard with 4 inch powder baskets but these can be swapped with other types if you prefer smaller ones.
The weight of the compactor, at 640grams per pair, is fairly hefty.  But, with weight comes strength so it’s a price you need to live with.  The poles are adjustable from 115 to 135 cms and they fold up to give pole sections of around 40cms (easily short enough to store inside your rucksack. The Black Diamond Compactor retails for around £100 per pair.
Posted by Paul