Don’t Hike Empty-Handed
Hiking season is here. Got trekking poles? If not, buy them now. They’ll help ensure you cover more ground—more efficiently and comfortably—every precious day you spend hiking this summer. And they’ll add years to your hiking life by significantly reducing impact to your joints.
In 1994, when Kath and I began working on Don’t Waste Your Time in the North Cascades, The Opinionated Hiking Guide (now titled Hiking From Here to WOW: North Cascades), we hiked without poles every day for a month. We both developed knee pain. The next summer we used Leki trekking poles every day for three months and our knees were never strained. We felt like four-legged animals. We were more sure-footed. Our speed and endurance increased. Since then, we’ve considered trekking poles required equipment—nearly as important as our boots and packs.
The Benefits of Trekking Poles
Studies show that during a typical 8-hour hike you’ll transfer more than 250 tons of pressure to a pair of trekking poles. When going downhill, poles significantly reduce stress to your knees, as well as your lower back, heel and forefoot. They alleviate knee strain when you’re going uphill too, because you’re climbing with your arms and shoulders, not just your legs. Poles also improve your posture. They keep you more upright, which gives you greater lung capacity and allows more efficient breathing.
The heavier your pack, the more you’ll appreciate the support of trekking poles. You’ll find them especially helpful for crossing unbridged streams, traversing steep slopes, and negotiating snowfields or muddy, rooty, rough stretches of trail. Poles prevent ankle sprains—a common hiking injury. By making you more stable, they actually help you relax, boosting your sense of security and confidence.
Don’t carry one of those big, heavy, gnarled, wooden staffs, unless you’re going to a costume party dressed as Gandalf. They’re more burden than benefit. If you can’t afford trekking poles, make do with a pair of old ski poles. They’re not as effective or comfortable as poles designed specifically for trekking, but they’re better than hiking empty handed. If possible, invest in a pair of true trekking poles.
Even the best trekking poles are not expensive: under $140 per pair. The leading brands are Komperdell, Black Diamond, and Leki. We’ve never found Komperdell poles appealing, so we haven’t used them and cannot comment on them. But we know Leki trekking poles intimately. And we’ve tested Black Diamond’s newest trekking poles.
Black Diamond vs. Leki
Leki trekking poles (various models) have been our constant companions for 17 years. We can recommend them without hesitation. Their durability has been astonishing. And their Aergon grips are by far the most comfortable available. In particular, we suggest the Leki Thermolite Aergon Antishock for men, and the Leki Thermolite Shiva Aergon Antishock for women.
Our only complaint about Leki poles is that the twist-lock mechanisms require too much effort. To lengthen or shorten the poles in response to varying terrain, you must unlock, adjust, then re-lock the poles. It’s just difficult enough that we often don’t do it. We just continue hiking with the poles at a less-than-optimal length: either slightly too long or short.
All trekking poles made by Black Diamond have flick locks instead of twist locks. Leki, too, has begun offering flick-lock trekking poles. Many people prefer flick locks, because they’re very easy to operate, and they lock more securely. We don’t like flick locks because they give poles a heavier swing weight, making them more awkward and cumbersome. And flick locks are bulky. Most flick-lock trekking poles have two flick locks per pole, which makes them look like orthopedic devices.
We prefer the streamlined twist locks, even if they’re not as easy to operate. You swing your poles with every stride. You adjust your poles only occasionally. So it’s logical that “quick” trekking poles with an optimal swing weight would be preferable to poles that feel heavy and slow but are easy to adjust.
You now have another option, however: Black Diamond’s “Z Poles.” One model of Z Pole is the “Distance FL.” It has no locking mechanisms on the two lower sections of each pole. Instead, there’s just one flick lock located high on the shaft, just below the grip, where it has no effect on swing weight. The lower sections of the Distance FL engage and disengage much the same way as tent poles.
These new BD poles seemed like a significant improvement, so we purchased a pair for each of us. We’ve been testing them recently. Here are our conclusions:
• The BD poles feel as reliably sturdy as our Leki poles.
• On steep ascents and descents, we don’t hesitate to adjust the length of the BD poles, because the flick lock works quickly, easily and perfectly every time.
• The BD’s single flick lock (located high on the shaft, near the grip) has almost no affect on swing weight. The BDs feel nearly as light and quick as our Leki poles. Not quite, but nearly.
• The BD poles, however, are stiffer than the Leki poles. And the BD shafts do not taper as narrowly near the tip as the Leki shafts do. This means the BD poles transfer more shock and vibration up the shaft to our hands and wrists. With each pole plant, the BDs land with a jarring thud. This is annoying and uncomfortable, especially on sustained, steep descents. The Leki shafts flex slightly, so they absorb shock. Even Leki poles without shock absorbers are more forgiving and comfortable than the BDs.
• The grips on the Distance FL poles are not ergonomic. They’re cylindrical. They’re also very slender. And they’re virtually straight. This makes them far less comfortable than the sculpted, more substantial, positive-angle, Leki Aergon grips. You should rarely hold trekking poles tightly. You should hold them loosely, with your wrists cradled in the straps. Yet the size and shape of the grips significantly influence how comfortable your trekking poles are. Leki poles are supremely comfortable. BD poles are markedly less comfortable.
• The tops of the BD grips are small, about the size of a quarter. The tops of the Leki grips are elongated and bulbous. On extremely steep descents, it’s often helpful to place the palms of your hands on top of the grips. You can do this comfortably with the Leki grips. On the BD grips, it’s awkward and soon hurts.
• The BD straps are nearly as comfortable as the Leki straps. (Nearly, but not quite.) The BD straps, however, are attached to the grip with a small loop of thin nylon cord. To us, this appears to be a weak point in the design. How long will that cord last? We’re skeptical. But we know our Leki straps have never failed us.
• The tips of both the BD and Leki poles are carbide. But the BD tips screw into a plastic receiver. The Leki tips are permanently embedded in a plastic receiver. Carbide tips eventually wear out, but it takes a long time. When a Leki tip wears out, you simply replace the entire receiver/tip. The BD tips are intended to be installed and removed by hand, but you’ll likely need a pair of pliers. Even with pliers, it’s not possible to completely tighten the BD tips. They remain somewhat loose in the receiver. Perhaps that’s okay, but it appears the BD tips could loosen, unscrew, and fall out.
• One advantage of the BD poles is that they come with two pairs of interchangeable tips: one pair of carbide tips, one pair of hard plastic tips. Presumably the plastic tips would be ideal on canyon-country slickrock. Another advantage of the BD poles is that the tips, because they’re separate from the receivers, are less expensive than the Leki tips.
The BD poles are much easier to adjust, and they lock more securely. We like the interchangeable tips for use on different terrain. For traveling, the BD poles are more convenient. When you break a BD pole down into three sections, the sections remain loosely linked together. Assembling the pole is as easy as connecting the bungee-cord-linked sections of a tent pole.
But the BD poles, despite their sophisticated innovations, do not compete with the sophisticated feel of the Leki poles. For us, feel is everything. Our trekking poles are not a mere accessory we use only occasionally. They’re essential equipment that we hold in our hands and use constantly, all day, every day we hike. After marveling at the ingenious design of the BD poles, we were soon frustrated with them on the trail, wishing we had our trusted Leki poles in hand.
The Black Diamond Distance FL “Z” poles are intriguing and impressive. They’re easier to assemble, adjust, and disassemble. They’re more convenient to transport. But the Leki Thermolite Aergon Antishock trekking poles are vastly superior where it counts: while you’re striding along the trail.
We’ll continue recommending Leki trekking poles. Meanwhile, we suspect Leki will introduce new poles with design improvements similar to, perhaps superior to, those now available on the BD poles. So check Leki.com occasionally.
Whichever brand of trekking pole you prefer, buy a pair soon so you’ll have them all summer. At the moment, you’ll find Leki Thermolite Aergon and Leki Luau Aergon trekking poles on sale at www.sierratradingpost.com for $86.37, which is 30% off the regular price of $124.78. These poles don’t have the anti-shock feature, but they’re otherwise excellent.