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How to Choose Your Trekking, Mountain and Trail Running Poles

Choosing trekking poles is not easy. There are many types: telescopic, folding, two-section, three-section, aluminium, carbon fibre, trail running... we will help you choose yours.

Walking poles have become an essential item for outdoor activities.

In recent times, the number of mountaineers, Alpinists, hikers, trekkers and mountain runners who regularly use poles during their activities has multiplied, to the point where they are considered a basic and universal piece of equipment.

There are two reasons for this:

  • The increased knowledge of the majority of practitioners of the advantages offered by their use (in most cases).
  • Great advances in design and materials have made them a very light and foldable item that we can carry with us at all times without a problem.

A long time ago, their use was very limited because the poles at that time were heavy, single-section ski poles that were very uncomfortable to carry.

This was until the 1970s when Leki invented the first lightweight, collapsible trekking pole, the legendary Makalu model; its success was immediate, and just two years later, in 1978, Reinhold Messner used them on the first ever ascent of Everest without artificial oxygen, which he achieved together with Peter Habeler.

It is true that there was still a long way to go to reach today's lightness, technicality and widespread use. But, at that time, ski poles, until then restricted to skiing, were entering the world of mountaineering in a big way.

Advantages and Disadvantages of Using Poles

Advantages

  • The use of poles distributes the load between the upper and lower body. Studies indicate that 15 to 20 per cent of the effort is released from the lower body and distributed to the upper body, which limits fatigue and the risk of injury.
  • Weight is taken off the joints (especially the knees) during descent.
  • We gain in safety by having more points of support. And not only during descents: walking in very chaotic areas, crossing a rocky river... are situations in which poles are essential.
  • They can come in handy to defend us from animals.

A Disadvantage

  • Prolonged use, especially if not used with the correct technique, can affect our sense of balance./li>

How can we avoid this issue?

It is recommended that you sometimes move through complex areas without them, and above all, learn how to use them correctly:

  • The optimal technique is when we walk, ascend and descend with them in the same way as if we were not carrying them. Once our body is balanced on its own, we will use a light support with the poles to help us.
  • If instead of balancing our body on its own, and then using the poles to help us, we use the poles as a fundamental point of support, unbalancing ourselves, we can end up having the aforementioned balance problems. They are very useful for avoiding falls when we become unbalanced, by leaning on them as a fundamental point until we balance ourselves again, but this technique should only be used in those moments of stumbling, occasional imbalance, etc., not as a rule.
  • Trekking Poles—Sizes, Parts, Types and Materials

    Before looking at the parts of a pole and, most importantly, the different types of poles to know which one is the right one for you, let's talk about something very important: the size of the poles.

    We will end the article explaining the differences, advantages and disadvantages of aluminium and carbon fibre poles, and giving some general advice for the choice according to the use we are going to give them.

    Adjusting the length of a telescopic pole

    What is my pole size?

    With the strong growth in the use of non-adjustable folding poles (more on these later), the importance of size choice has increased.

    Although it is a question of taste, a good starting point is to choose a pole length that allows us, while standing upright with the poles resting vertically on the ground, to have our elbow at a 90° angle, with the forearm parallel to the ground.

    When going uphill, the ideal (although everything related to the length of the poles is something quite individual), and in the case of adjustable poles (we will see later), is to shorten them by 5-10 centimetres, depending on the slope, and when going downhill, to lengthen them by 5-10 centimetres. In many poles the grip is double, so that, without the need for adjustment, you can hold the pole higher or lower.

    How do I know my size for non-adjustable poles?

    As a general rule:

    • Less than 155cm: 100 cm
    • Between 155cm and 172cm: 110 cm
    • Between 173cm and 182cm: 120 cm
    • Above 182cm: 130 cm

    These are reference figures, which everyone will have to adapt to their own use. In some cases there are intermediate sizes (115, 125), for those who are close to the extremes, or prefer a pole that is more oriented towards ascent or descent.

    Parts of a Pole

    Grip

    This is essential. They are quite ergonomic, and are different from ski poles, which would not allow hand and wrist movement when walking.

    They can be made of various materials. Plastic ones should be avoided.

    • Rubber: They insulate against the cold in winter, and dampen vibrations in all seasons. In summer, in the heat, they can cause blisters on sensitive hands.
    • Cork: Very lightweight. They do not change their characteristics due to sweat. Excellent for hot weather.
    • Foam: Soft to the touch, sweat wicking.

    Black Diamond Trail Ergo Cork Women Poles, with cork grips

    With today's advances, almost any material works well. The choice is more a matter of personal taste than anything else.

    As mentioned before, many poles have a second grip under the main grip. It is like a foam "lining" over the last section of the pole. It is useful to be able to hold the pole comfortably when it would be uncomfortable to do it from the grip, for example, the upper arm pole crossing a slope, and to avoid having to adjust them all the time: if we adjust them long for descent, when walking or ascending we hold it lower.

    Foam grip with a second grip on the upper section of the pole
    Ultralight poles, when used in trail running, have the centre of gravity in the grip, because when giving momentum, similar to cross-country skiing, the pole may end up behind the runner in a fairly horizontal position, which would cause fatigue if the centre of gravity were in the pole.

    Basket

    Their task is to stop the pole from being driven into the ground. There are two types:

    • Small diameter: for summer.
    • Large diameter: for winter, they keep the pole being driven into the snow.

    They are interchangeable, and many poles come with a basket of each type, so that we can use the one we need at any given moment.

    Otomilla Hike Trek, comes with two baskets

    Strap

    It is a much more important element than most people think. Not only does it prevent us from losing the pole, but it also helps us when it comes to impulsion and frees the hand from some of the effort (we can have it half-open and still propel ourselves forward .... as long as we put them on correctly).

    The most technical ones imitate cross-country skiing. The strap, in these cases, is a small harness that allows us not to have to hold the pole tightly, as we hang partly on it. There is a kind of hinge at the junction between the strap and the pole, which allows for a turning movement, so that when the pole is set back, we separate our hand from the grip (thus not forcing the wrist) without losing the pole, and when we return to the support position, the grip returns to the hand.

    Locking Mechanisms

    The oldest locking mechanism is the internal locking mechanism, which is tightened by turning one section against the other like a thread. This twist expands an inner piece, which locks the pole.

    It is still used, but less and less. It has several problems, such as locking in cold situations and increased weight.

    Nowadays the most commonly used system is the external locking system. For those who are not familiar with it, it is the same as a wheel or seat post quick release on a bicycle.

    We will also find the push-button system. In many modern folding systems, a single button unlocks all the sections.

    Left: Black Diamond Quick Lock; Middle: screw lock Gabel; Right: Leki Push Button

    Tips

    They are the part of the pole that is in contact with the ground. They must grip on the different surfaces: earth, rock, etc.

    Although the good ones, made of tungsten/carbide, are very resistant to wear, it is obvious that this is the point that suffers the most from the pole. For this reason, they are usually interchangeable, so that they can be replaced when necessary.

    Black Diamond interchangeable tip

    Shock Absorber

    A couple of decades ago the shock absorber system for walking poles became fashionable, but nowadays it is not widely used, as it means an increase in weight with limited benefits.

    The poles of this type have a spring damping system inside, so that every time we absorbs when we lean on it. While this is great when going downhill, when going uphill, as it gives way, it wastes a tiny amount of strength with each step.

    It is up to the individual to weigh up the benefits and disadvantages. They can be useful for people with back problems, etc., in combination with appropriate footwear.

    TYPES OF POLES

    1. Poles with Sections

    For use in mountaineering, trekking and running, it is essential that the poles are telescopic or foldable.

    It is not advisable - except for the exception discussed below - to use one-piece, alpine ski poles for two reasons:

    • They are a real nuisance to carry.
    • As they are not designed for mountaineering-mountaineering-hiking, they are heavier.

    Basically, what we mean by this is that it is not a good idea to use our alpine ski poles for hiking or mountaineering. Because carrying them when we are not using them is a real nuisance, because their handle is not prepared for hand and wrist movement when walking, and because, as they are not designed for walking with them, the manufacturers are less careful with their weight, and we will get much more tired.

    Poles with sections can be of various types, depending on the number of sections and the way they are folded.

    1.1 Telescopic Poles

    These are those in which a tube slides inside the upper tube when it is collapsed. Telescopic poles can be perfectly adjusted to our height and preference, and they can also be easily adjusted on the move:

    • Shorter in ascents.
    • Medium length for flat.
    • Longer for descents.

    It is recommended that the lengths of the sections be adjusted so that only the uppermost section needs to be changed during the excursion.

    Telescopic poles have two major advantages:

    • The possibility to adjust the length
    • Hard wearing: the adjustment systems and the overlapping poles make the joints between the sections practically unbreakable.

    This type of pole could be considered as universal, all-terrain poles, and are the most classic. We see them used by hikers, mountaineers, trekkers, mountaineers, ski touring skiers...

    You will find poles with 2 and more commonly, 3 sections.

    • Two-section poles are stiffer, but aren't as easy to transport. As they are stiffer, they are often seen among back country skiers and Nordic walkers.
    • Most trekking poles are three-section poles. They take up very little space when folded, and have a perfect balance between performance, stiffness and ease of transport.

    1.2 Foldable Poles

    They are very fashionable, especially among runners and lovers of minimalism.

    Instead of telescopically contracting or expanding on themselves, the ultralight poles fold up and disassemble into sections that are held together by different systems, the main one being an internal rope made of different materials.

    They are considerably lighter than telescopic systems, as they avoid the material of the fasteners and the material that remains inside the other tubes. For example: in a telescopic pole set at 120cm, it is very likely that the sum of its three sections will measure 150cm, or more, because you have to add to the length of the pole the areas of the pole that are hidden inside the next section. A folding baton eliminates this material.

    Two Major Advantages

    • They fold much more than the telescopic ones, occupying little more than 40 centimetres (and sometimes not even that), which is essential for runners to carry them in their hip packs and special backpacks in the sections where their use is not necessary.
    • They fold and unfold very quickly and comfortably, almost semi-automatically. It is very useful for runners, but no less useful for mountaineers in complicated situations.

    Their disadvantages?

    • The height cannot be adjusted (although there are hybrid models that can, as we shall see).
    • The more minimalist models can break more easily at the joint between sections, if used roughly. As many of these models are designed with weight in mind, they are good for trail running, trail hiking, etc, but not so good for rough terrain, mountaineering, etc.

    There are some very interesting Grivel poles that join the sections by means of a small hinge, which is then covered with a protector. They are somewhat heavier than the folding models, but have the advantage that the protector gives the system great rigidity, almost similar to that of a single-section pole.

    This resistance and its manufacture in aluminium increase the weight somewhat over the ultralight models, but they can be used with total confidence not only in races but also in hiking, mountaineering, etc, like a telescopic pole, but folded they are only 43 centimetres, and are lighter than telescopic poles. They are manufactured in 1, 2 and 3 sections. Although they are very versatile, they are beginning to be seen a lot among ski touring skiers.

    1.3 Hybrid Foldable Poles

    There are exceptions to the inability to adjust folding poles. These are light poles with a hybrid system: the sections are collapsible, except for the first one, which is telescopic. In this way, lightness is balanced by the possibility of a certain amount of height adjustment.

    Their construction tends to be more focused on versatility, and to tell the truth, they are an increasingly popular choice for trekking and mountaineering. They sacrifice some of the lightness of ultralight models, and some of the strength of the 3-section telescopic poles, but they are a very good compromise between the two worlds.

    1.4 Ultralight one section polesBastones ultraligeros de 1 solo tramo

    > Some brands have launched ultra-light, single-section poles for mountain runners and those for who saving weight is the primary goal.

    They are not very versatile, due to their difficulty to be carried, and they are mainly used in vertical kilometres, where we know that we are going to use them during the whole activity; if at some point we are not going to use them, we will have a transport problem.

    We will see the pros use them. They have a support team, who give them the poles on terrain where they need them, and keep them where they do not. If you don't have a support team on your mountain outings, this type of poles are not the most suitable.

    Nordic Walking Poles

    The poles used for this sport have some differences.
    Komperdell Spirit Vario, Nordic Walking two Section Poles
    • As it is an eminently urban sport that takes place from home to home, or from car to car, they are not going to be ported, so most of them are of two section, the best ones being of one section.
    • The grip is designed for fast, forward-angled walking, very similar to cross-country skiing
    • And the toe has a kind of curved rubber sole, which allows a perfect use on tarmac and urban paths.

    Aluminium Alloy or Carbon Fibre?

    Virtually all poles used in any mountaineering activity are made of some form of aluminium alloy or carbon fibre.

    Aluminium

  • Heavier than carbon, (altough the best alloy combinations can be very light)
  • They can bend and lose their shape (after more or less 3 to 9 per cent flexing). This makes them very resistant to breakage. Subsequently, and correctly, they can be straightened.
  • Their lower stiffness makes them transmit more vibrations to our body.
  • The type of alloy and thickness will affect the weight. The best are made of aeronautical aluminium series 7 (7045, etc.), which makes them very rigid, with properties close to carbon, but with greater resistance to breakage. Their density-strength ratio is high (i.e. they are not very dense), which means that they can be used to make light and strong poles.
  • Very good value for money: cheaper than carbon.
  • They are all-purpose and resistant. If we are looking for all-round, all-weather poles that will never let us down, aeronautical aluminium will be our choice.

Carbon fibre

  • They are ultra light
  • Highly rigid, minimises vibration transmission
  • Highly resistant if the force is exerted in longitudinal direction (from top to bottom, the logic of leaning on them).
  • However, they can break if a lot of force is exerted in a transverse direction (stumble, fall on them, support in bad conditions, etc.). They can leave us stranded on traverses, etc., although it is not easy: in most modern models the compound is very resistant.
  • Each manufacturer makes the combination of fibres, resins, etc, in a different way, and not the same for all models. Therefore, there are stiffer, stronger and thicker carbon fibres, etc, depending on the type of pole. Carbon mountaineering poles are stronger than carbon trail running poles, for example.
  • Their density-to-strength ratio is very high (i.e. they are very low density), higher than that of aluminium. Hence their extreme lightness-to-strength ratio.
  • If weight is the most important thing, carbon fibre will be our choice: trail running, very fast mountaineers, etc.
  • More expensive than aluminium

Which to Choose?

In reality, most poles can be used for any purpose. The differences between the different types do not lie in their morphology, but in the issues we have already seen (folding, lightness, resistance, type of handle, rosettes, dragonets, etc.).

If you only want one pole that is multi-purpose

Without a doubt, a three-section telescopic one. It will do everything, perform well and will be hard wearing.

It doesn't matter whether you are walking along a path around your house or crossing a high mountain rock field, this type of poles will work perfectly.

The aluminium ones weigh a little more, and are less stiff, but they are reliable. The new carbon models have almost reached the same strength, are stiffer (they transmit less vibration), and usually weigh less.

You can also use one of the Grivel folding poles we've featured. They are the best of both worlds.

If you are looking for performance

Folding poles were created for trail running, with a focus on lightness, maximum foldability, and also the easiest possible folding and unfolding. Nowadays there are models with good resistance that are also used in more alpine situations and, in fact, those who are only going to use them in easy terrain (for example, a hiker who does not go off-trail), will also find them very attractive.

As we have said, the more resistant models are popular with fast mountaineers, and their folding allows them to fit into backpacks, bags, etc., when checking in for a flight.

If we know that we are going to the poles all the time, the single-section poles for running or Nordic walking are very good. But their portability is very bad if we stop using them. They are very specific; if you are not sure, choose others.

Versatility

If we buy stiff mountaineering boots and use them for long walks on the walking trails of our city, we are going to suffer a lot. In the same way, we can't tackle a four-thousander in trekking shoes. This is not the case with walking poles.

And if there is one thing that characterises them, it is their versatility. Once unfolded, they all do their job. So the choice will depend on factors such as lightness, the folding we need according to our activity, their rigidity, solidity, etc. For example, a runner will choose folding systems that, in addition to saving weight over telescopic poles, allow him to insert and remove them from the transport systems that backpacks and hip packs for mountain races incorporate for this type of poles without stopping running. But they can also be chosen by a hiker or a fast mountaineer with good results.

Hybrid systems are gaining a lot of ground, and can be a good recommendation for mountaineers nowadays.

The choice is up to you. If in doubt, don't take any risks and choose what you know for sure will work for your activity! And if you have any more questions, our colleagues at the Call Centre, or at any of the Barrabes shops, will be happy to answer them for you.

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