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How to choose trekking poles

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Trekking poles – what are they and where do they come from?

What are they for and can you do without them? Quite a bit of history.

An overview of the main designs, a short analysis of the advantages and disadvantages. Materials for poles, handles, tips. The knot. Antishock. Two or one?

What else is there to know? Options for use.

Features and selection criteria for trekking poles

From afar. Since ancient times, people have traveled a lot. Also, in the early of the lack of Uber, lowcost and streetcars, you had to walk a lot. The classic image of the wanderer is a bearded man in a cloak and with a staff, wandering toward his only known goal. That is to say, to hold in his hand a kind of stick to make it easier to march is quite organic for homo sapiens, we can even call it a historical trend. Going through a long evolution, hiking to the ends of the earth has evolved (or degenerated) to trekking, and the staff, in turn, to a trekking stick. Let’s try to define such a popular piece of equipment for the modern trekker-climbing hiker.

Definition. Nowadays, a trekking pole is a folding (usually telescopic) ski pole similar to a ski pole, capable of changing its length in most designs, with a sharp tip made of steel or carbide, a comfortable handle, equipped with an adjustable knob and limiting rings of various diameters, often with the possibility to change.

A little history. Back in the middle of the last century, trekking poles in their modern form had not been invented. Climbers were mostly content with ice axes, replacing wooden, metal-padded poles with them, and hikers with ordinary wooden or ski poles. With the popularization of hiking and mountain climbing, it became clear that an ice axe on technically simple sections was inconvenient, as well as ski poles and ordinary (wooden) poles for hikers. There was a demand for a pole which would provide a compact size when folded for transportation, would be adjustable in length, have a reliable design and low weight.

Back in 1974, the company Leki brought the first model of trekking poles to the market. They consisted of three sections, screwed inner locks and had a telescopic design, with the possibility of adjusting the length and folding. The design became a classic and with some modifications is still produced today. Since then, the market for trekking poles has increased dozens of times, they have become the hiker’s “default” equipment. The sight of people walking with these poles, even without snow or skis, has long ceased to shock locals. Let’s look at the validity of the use of this equipment. It is no secret that even now a significant number of tourists consider the poles a surplus and do without them. For greater convenience, let’s divide the conditions of use into two groups.

  1. Using poles on simple terrain. This refers to simple trails, easy and not steep ascents and descents. This is the most controversial (debatable) area of use for trekking poles. The main task of using them on simple terrain is to relieve knees and hip joints, the spine, to give additional load to shoulder girdle muscles and to reduce the load on leg muscles.
    Arguments FOR: research (primarily by American scientists) proved a significant reduction in the load on knees and hips as a result of using trekking sticks – a total of up to 34 tons per hour on the ascent and up to 29 tons per hour on the descent. Significantly easier to carry a heavy backpack.
    Arguments against: unloading knee and hip joints, poles significantly increase the load on the wrist and elbow, shoulder joints. They contribute to the deterioration of blood flow due to compression by the straps of the raised arms.

    If you hike frequently, the use of hiking sticks can be considered a prevention of knee and hip joint disease. However, there may be some risk of joint disease in the wrists and elbows, as yet scientifically unproven. Using sticks with “anti-shock” can reduce the risk to a minimum (about that below). Arm drifting can be prevented by properly adjusting the length of the poles and transferring most of the weight of the backpack from the shoulder straps to the waist belt (backpack adjustment). Whether or not to use trekking poles on simple hikes is your own choice.
  2. Using poles on difficult terrain. More than once I have seen that in difficult hikes, after crossing sections with highly rugged terrain, fords, sharp rises and falls, slippery surfaces, even zealous opponents of walking with poles have reconsidered their attitude toward them. And the heavier a tourist’s backpack, the more important is the use of poles on “heavy” terrain.
    Arguments FOR: except listed on the first item – maintaining balance and insurance (not alpinist, of course) in difficult conditions, prevention of falls, injuries.
    Arguments AGAINST: practically absent, except for those listed in the first point. But they in the conditions described above obviously turn into secondary ones. Sometimes they say that constant use of trekking sticks worsens the sense of balance of a tourist and he becomes completely helpless without the poles. This statement is true only to a small extent, the practice disproves such fears
    If you are going to hike on a difficult terrain, serious mountains, fords, slippery surfaces – strongly recommended to complete their equipment set trekking poles, and choose them to help this article
    Keep in mind that they will often be a MUST-have item of equipment, and without them the instructor/guide may refuse you to participate in the event.

Examples of such hikes are climbing Mount Elbrus and climbing Kazbek.

Read all the articles about equipment:

TREKKING POLES DESIGN

According to the method of folding

The vast majority of modern trekking poles are sectional, that is, they consist of several sections for easy folding and adjustment.

Telescopic design. Is the most common with most manufacturers. The design is based on the fact that each subsequent section is thinner than the previous one, and when folded, it retracts into its middle. The number of sections from 2 to 4. The optimal balance of features to suit the majority of users is the design of three sections. This is an excellent compromise between compactness when folded, ease of adjustment, usability, durability and technology. It is easy to choose such poles, as they occupy the lion’s share of the market.

Breakable,” folding design. The stick unfolds into separate sections connected by a strong cord, similar to a stylus for the blind or a tent frame. Such a design is distinguished by its light weight and exceptional compactness when folded. Therefore they are most popular among the “bikers” and Skyrunners. Disadvantages of this design is less strength and reliability, the inability to adjust the length. For this reason, as a rule, each model is produced with several length variants and you have to choose the size that suits you when buying.

Combination Design. It is a symbiosis of a “breaking” pole with one telescopic knee. Thus, such a stick, possessing compactness, can also be adjusted in length, though within rather small limits (usually about 15-20 cm). Being a compromise, this design has not only the advantages, but also the disadvantages of the previous two options. In terms of weight it is close to telescopic poles, has a slightly lower strength and reliability of “breaking”. In addition, such a variant, as a rule, is very expensive.

By the locking mechanism in the unfolded position

The functionality of a trekking pole primarily depends on the reliability and convenience of the locking mechanism used in a given model. Although today only two market leading designs have reached the greatest popularity, manufacturers are constantly striving to improve them by patenting their additions that increase the functionality of the lock.

Basic criteria of user evaluation of fixation mechanisms

Ease of use, reliability . The mechanism should allow you to change the length of the stick in all weather conditions, despite the high humidity, frost, heat. It should be easy for any user to manipulate with the lock (open, close, adjust, disassemble/assemble). Possibility of the basic manipulation with one hand, wearing protective gloves is very desirable.

The strength and security of the lock. The lock should fix the stick as securely as possible in the unfolded state, prevent the folding of the stick under vertical load. The safety of the user may depend on it. The lock should have the simplest and most reliable design and be protected from mechanical influences (bumps, falls).

Currently, the following locking mechanisms are most common:

Collet (internal, screw) clamp. The locking mechanism is located inside the stick, locking and unlocking are done by twisting and unscrewing the sections relative to each other. This mechanism is the most protected from damage and is quite reliable. It also practically does not increase the size of the stick and looks as laconic as possible. Nevertheless, this design is rapidly losing its once monopolistic position on the market because of significant drawbacks. For example, the strength of the fixation of such a design directly depends on the force with which the stick is “twisted”.  Often spontaneous folding of such poles under load is observed. It should be noted that a properly adjusted pole of a good manufacturer with an internal clamp wins over lever locks in terms of fixation reliability. Why, then, are such clamps gradually being eliminated from the market? First, they are more labor-intensive (expensive) to make. Secondly, they lose considerably in ergonomics, that is, usability. It is very difficult to unscrew the tightened stick. It is also inconvenient to manipulate it with gloves. If moisture got into the middle of the stick, it can freeze in the cold and the lock will temporarily become unusable.

Lever clamp (external, eccentric). The lever clamp is becoming more and more widespread, gradually replacing the screw clamp. The extremely simple design with easy adjustment has increased reliability and in most cases perfectly keeps the unfolded stick from arbitrary folding under vertical load. Some leading manufacturers develop their own variants of this lock, additionally increasing its reliability and convenience of use (Black Diamond – flick lock, Leki – speed lock). Eccentric lock is convenient to use when wearing gloves, it is not afraid of freezing. The main disadvantage of this design is a great vulnerability to external influences (bumps, falls), possibility of uncontrolled opening of the lock by contact with hard objects. However, in the models of top brands this problem is almost completely eliminated. Also, while the strength of fixing the external clip is inferior to the internal one. Nevertheless, now in most models it is quite satisfactory, in others it is excellent.

Combination designs. Some companies, such as the Italian company Gable, duplicate locks on their poles for greater security. There is a screw clamp on the inside of the tube and an eccentric on the outside. It is possible to use both or either of them. This reinsurance can be justified in some cases.

The American company MSR – a well-known player in the outdoor market, decided to save a trekkalka from one of its main drawbacks – the inconvenience of adjusting, and invented a revolutionary mechanism for adjusting the length of the stick “without letting the handle. That is, you can adjust the stick directly in the process of movement without letting go of the handle. The mechanism is commercially available on the company’s models and is patented under the name positive-locking. Despite the correction of the shortcomings in the next generations, the design has not yet become very widespread.

In the budget segment, in particular by quechua, there are several models of poles with fixed length adjustment by means of spring-loaded buttons, falling into the appropriate slots on the stick. Such poles seriously lose in functionality to the above-mentioned constructions, and with time sometimes get a serious backlash, so they are also not widespread. Previously, a similar method of fixing poles, but with one available position – to the maximum length, was often used for the lower knee. The length adjustment of the poles was done only in the upper connection. Over time, this design was abandoned.

By the materials used

Aluminum. The most common, reliable and inexpensive material. Sticks made of it are strong, lightweight, malleable, and repairable. But, as they say, aluminum is not the same as aluminum. The top brand of aluminum for poles is 7005, known to cyclists as a good material for frames. Not all manufacturers use this grade of metal. As a rule, it is used to make the top models of the line with a fairly high price. The rest of the sticks are made from more “simple” grades, accordingly losing in weight and strength. There are practically no disadvantages of quality aluminum. For a reliable trekking pole used in serious conditions (mountains, difficult routes, heavy backpacks and “weighty” users) this is probably the best option. In terms of weight and specific strength, it is only slightly inferior to more expensive materials.

Light alloys. First of all, titanal. It is an alloy of titanium and aluminum. Even lighter and stronger than aluminum, but only slightly. At the same time significantly more expensive. The number of models made of this material is very limited.

Carbon (carbon plastic). Unprecedented strength material is used on the most expensive models of trekking and ski poles of some well-known manufacturers. Allows you to significantly reduce the weight of the product, but greatly increases its cost. Has a number of significant disadvantages. Requires a very careful attitude, intolerant to sharp shock loads and impact interaction with hard, sharp surfaces. In contrast to aluminum, it does not deform under heavy loads but breaks down immediately. Therefore, poles made of this material are not recommended for use in difficult and extreme conditions, as well as for people with a large body weight and carrying very heavy backpacks.

Important parts of trekking poles

Antishock. In fact, it is a spring (less often elastomeric) shock absorber located inside one of the stick sections (usually the upper one). The antishock is designed to reduce the shock load of walking with poles on the joints of the hands. The need for an antishock is still a controversial topic, as neither the destructive effect of using sticks on these joints nor, therefore, the prevention of this effect with this design has been fully proven. What is known for sure is that antishock increases the weight and increases the complexity and cost of the construction. Also, not everyone likes the feeling when using it. This is one of the reasons why it is often made switchable. Personally for me the justification of anti-shock use by a healthy tourist is doubtful. On the other hand, it can be useful for people with overweight and joint diseases.

Design and materials of trekking poles handles

The second most important part of the stick that characterizes its convenience/uncomfortability is, of course, the handle. It would seem that there is nothing special about a handle. Nevertheless, manufacturers have managed to create many variations of such, at first glance, uncomplicated object. What should a beginner look for?

Material. The most common – rubber/plastic, cork, neoprene on a plastic base. The first option is usually presented on budget models and is suitable, first of all, for warm climates. In cold conditions on such a handle will already your hands will be desperately freezing. It has a significant weight and therefore is not used in lightweight models. Plastic is also slippery, especially when wet or when you are wearing gloves. The noprene, porous handle is most comfortable, especially in cold weather. But it is more “delicate,” easier to get dirty, and harder to clean. Cork is somewhere in the middle according to its functionality. It makes your hands less cold than rubber, it is more durable and easier to clean than neoprene, it is slippery when you have gloves on or when your hands are wet. Choose what works for you.

Design and shape. Some handles have a rounded shape at the top, it is convenient to take them with an upper grip, like a cane. This can be useful on steep descents. If you like low poles, pay attention to models with handles sloping toward the tube itself. That way, your wrist will be in a comfortable position. It is good if the handle has a developed anatomic ledge at the bottom, which prevents the hand from “sliding” down under a heavy load. A certain exoticism is the “cane-like”, T-shaped handles. They are not very common.

A very useful option, in my opinion. It is an extended handle that allows you to grab the stick lower with comfort. This way you “shorten” the stick without changing its setting. This comes in very handy on heavily rugged terrain when you won’t endlessly change the length of the stick with the clamp. We recommend.

Temlek A sling/strap attached to the handle. It has the ability to adjust the length. Not only “insures” the stick from loss on the difficult terrain, but with the right grip and adjustment seriously relieves the muscles of the hand, allowing you to relax the fingers and transfer the load directly to the wrist. It is very convenient for long transitions. It is desirable to choose a stick with a comfortable anatomically shaped handstrap, made of soft material, with a simple and clear adjustment.

Limit Rings. Located in the lower part of the lower link of the trekking pole, directly above the bayonet. There are different diameters, removable and non-removable. Rings act as a limiter, preventing the stick to fall deeply into the snow, fall into deep cracks in the rocks (which can lead to jamming and breakage). If you expect to use the stick in different seasons, it is better to choose a model with removable rings. Then you can use small diameter rings in summer and wide rings in winter, this is convenient. You should not use the stick with the rings removed – this increases the risk of breaking it.

The tip of the stick (tip, bayonet). When buying, make sure that it is not made of steel/aluminum, but of a hard tungsten carbide alloy. This is a matter of principle. The carbide tip will allow the stick to be firmly fixed on hard surfaces – rocks, ice – and will last for many seasons. In most models the worn tips can be replaced with new ones.

Protective caps. Protect poles during transportation. More precisely, they protect people and property from your sticks. There are also rubber tips in the form of a sole or simply with a developed ribbed end, for using the sticks on the asphalt. The protective caps are generally suitable for all models of poles, and are freely available.

What else do you need to know? Options for use

What else besides hiking support can trekking poles be used for?

Tripod. A photographic tripod is an unnecessary burden in a camping trip. Sometimes you can use a trekking pole as a mono tripod for photo and video shooting. Leiki is also known for installing a classic screw socket in the handle on a number of its models of poles for filming equipment. Using adapters, it will be easy to fix there and the jack for the action camera, deprived of its jack for the tripod socket (some models).

Frame for shelter. Trekking poles can be used to stretch a tent, to strengthen a tent frame on a windy night (just do it with some forethought), to make a base for a stretcher in case of emergency. They can be used as a flagpole, an emergency frame element for a kayak or raft. They are also great for fixing (stretching) the tent on the snow. By the way, for this stick can be disassembled into component parts (telescopic) and you will have a lot of snow pegs. And in general, for what do not use trekking poles and their individual parts! It’s just a matter of your ingenuity and ingenuity.

Care of the poles . Don’t be alarmed, it is minimal, but still necessary if you want your poles to serve you long and trouble-free. From time to time check the adjustment of your poles – the locking mechanism should work like clockwork. After your hike take your poles apart, dry them well. Store them for a long time in their disassembled condition in a special case. Or, at least, with the locks loosened.

Peculiarities of use and criteria for choosing trekking poles.

Two or one? Most people use trekking poles in pairs. Walking with one stick is not so comfortable, and in the case of a heavy backpack on difficult terrain, it is not comfortable at all. Using one stick at a time is justified, in my opinion, in the following cases:

It should be noted that most trekking poles are sold in pairs, and you cannot buy just one stick anyway.

Before you make a purchase, make a list of the criteria that are important to you when choosing a trekking pole. Start with the ones that have the highest priority for you.  Type of lock, strength, weight, price, brand, size in folded / unfolded position.

If you are a short, light girl, it obviously makes no sense to buy a stick that unfolds to 145-150 cm, 125 is enough for you. If your weight is about a hundred kilograms, and you are going to hike with a heavy backpack, do not buy a lightweight models of poles with tubes of reduced diameter.

The length of a trekking stick in unfolded position should be at least long enough for your hand, holding it by the handle, to form a right angle at the elbow. But it is desirable to have a small reserve for descents. Remember that you should lengthen your poles on descents and shorten them on ascents. When unfolding the ski pole, pay attention to the STOP sign. It should not be neglected. For your convenience, most trekking poles have “rulers” in centimeters (or inches). With this marking, you can easily adjust your poles to the length you want. Just remember that to unfold the stick to a length of, say, 130 cm, you need to adjust to this size each knee, the markings are on each of the retractable sections.

I do not recommend choosing for yourself poles, the price of which is a significant detriment to the budget. Although a trekking pole can last for many years, first and foremost it is your helper, taking on some of the difficulties of the hike. From a certain point of view, a trekking pole is an expendable material, and the breakage should not make the owner think about suicide. Try to buy a product of a well-known brand in your area if possible – this way it will be easier to deal with accessories and spare parts.

Have a good choice and beautiful roads!

Frequently asked questions about trekking poles

When do you need trekking poles?

For long hikes over difficult terrain (mountain trails, scree, and boulders), on descents, when wading through mountain rivers.

Secondary purpose – mounting a tent or an awning on the trekking pole, photographer as a tripod-monopod, moving the first in a bundle on the glacier.

How to choose trekking poles?

Based on three parameters:
– the nature of hiking (terrain features, duration)
– The maximum total weight of the user (together with a backpack).
– user’s height

Read more

Why are trekking poles needed?

To distribute the load evenly on the muscles and joints: reducing the load on the knees and hips by partially transferring it to the joints and muscles of the shoulder girdle.

To maintain balance when moving on difficult terrain, prevent falls and injuries, increase the speed of movement along the route

Other various other functions (see answer to the question “When do you need trekking poles?”)

How to determine the length of trekking poles?

When standing upright on a flat surface, the angle between the shoulder of the arm and the forearm should be about 90 degrees. At the same time, you should have a length reserve of about 10 cm.

Second method: The handles of the sticks should be 5-8 cm from the armpits.

How to use trekking poles?

When you step forward with your left foot, lean on the right stick, when you step forward with your right foot, lean on the left stick. Keep your elbows close to your body. On a level surface the tip of the stick should not go forward, on descents it is vice versa – lean on the stick put forward. On descents do not place the poles’ tips close to each other.

On traverses of steep slopes and when descending by glider we use track sticks like an alpenstock, folding them together to increase stiffness.

At fords we fold the poles together and use them as an alpenstock, holding them relative to the torso upstream.

It is forbidden to use hand straps on difficult terrain, as there is a chance of damaging your hands and other body parts if you fall.

What is the best design for trekking poles?

Three-section telescopic aluminum alloy poles with an external eccentric clamp (“Lever lock”, “FlickLock”, “SpeedLock”).

Which poles are more reliable?

The simpler, the safer.

What is a trekking pole made of?

Of tubular sections, a handle, a handle, a knob, a tip and locks to adjust the length, snow rings (optional). Some designs of trekking poles have a cord inside the sections, as well as an “anti-shock” mechanism.

The author of the article is Sergei Lakhotsky.

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