March 2008 Essentials Review: Trekking Poles

Best Buy

Life-Link Guide Ultra Light

Our tester logged 450 miles with these ultralight, ultra-durable poles in the last two years. The strength comes from their two-section hybrid construction. The lower shaft is made of a thicker-than-average hollow carbon fiber, which makes them more durable in scree fields, where we've seen other carbon-fiber poles snap like toothpicks. The upper half is aluminum–a better material for long-lasting lateral strength–topped with a foam-rubber grip. The halves twist-lock into place, and stayed locked mile after mile. These poles convert into an avalanche probe and come with 3.5-inch baskets for better snow flotation. Off-trail hikers should switch to a lower-profile basket, like Life Link's Snag Proof Trekking Baskets ($4/pair). $100; 1 lb.;


MSR Denali III

Let it snow. Or not. These bargain poles are designed for powder but our testers found that they'll get the job done on dirt, rock, and sand, too. The three-piece aluminum shafts securely twist-lock in place and never budged on hikes in Colorado's Front Range and Sangre de Cristo Mountains. Ribbed cutouts on the rubber handles provide extra grip for sweaty palms. Testers reported that the replaceable steel tips grip firmly on mossy rocks and slippery logs. Length scales from 26 to 57 inches. Gripe: One tester reported chafing on his hand from the unpadded nylon wrist strap. $80; 1 lb. 5 oz.;

Black Diamond Contour Carbon Flicklock

These hybrids have the natural flex of a carbon-fiber pole, the support of a heavier aluminum stick, and the swing weight of an ultralight. (Swing weight refers to the ease and speed of moving the pole from plant to plant.) The middle and lower sections are aluminum, and the upper is carbon fiber; each section is oval-shaped for stronger lateral support on tricky descents. After logging nearly 100 miles with them in the Rockies, our tester said these poles offer superb stability and purchase on a variety of terrain. A flick-lock mechanism clamps each length in place, and full extension is 55 inches–tall enough to pitch most tarps. Other nifty features: ergonomic foam grips, carbide tips, and wicking wrist straps. $150; 1 lb. 3 oz.;

Black Diamond Contour Shock

Flicklock Compact

These poles eliminate the pogo stick feel of many antishock models. Instead of a metal spring embedded inside the shaft, Black Diamond inserts a elastomer-based damper between the handle and upper aluminum section. Our testers said the mechanism delivered a smooth (no jolts after each pole plant) and quiet (no squeaky springs) ride on trips from the Wind Rivers to Greenland. The super-strong elliptical shafts withstood 250 pounds of hiker and gear without a bend, and the concave tips added extra bite during low-angle push-offs. The Compact version packs down to 24 inches and extends to 49 inches (good for hikers shorter than 6'1"). $130; 1 lb. 6 oz.;

Leki Super Makalu COR-TEC PA SAS-L

We gave the stout Makalu series an Editors' Choice Gold Award in 2004 for its time-tested performance. Recent upgrades make these three-section poles even better. A smaller, improved, and lighter weight antishock mechanism (a combo of steel springs and elastomers) has moved from the top to the bottom shaft, placing it closer to the impact zone. "The shock rides so smooth on the trail, I barely noticed it," said one tester. The shaft enters the cork-composite grip at a 10-degree angle for a more natural hand position. Bonus: This pole's twist-locks can loosen 540 degrees from their locking point and still not collapse. $140; 1 lb. 5 oz.;

Petzl Charlet Compact Plus

From slippery rainforest trails to rocky slopes and snowy passes, these aluminum-alloy sticks sailed through 135 miles on Nepal's Annapurna Circuit last fall. The clamp-locks adjusted fast even when our tester was hypoxic and wearing gloves. More importantly, our guy said these three-section poles slipped only twice. And maintenance–rarely required–is fast and simple. If the locking mechanism loosens, a few turns with a flathead screwdriver will fix them (no special plugs or pins needed). The extra-long foam grip extends 7 inches below the handle for choking up on steep climbs. The neoprene wrist straps adjust quicker than other wrist loops we've used, thanks to a sliding plastic wedge that uses friction to control the strap's length. $120; 1 lb. 2 oz.;

REI Carbon Bamboo Staff

Good news: REI wrapped a sweet carbon-fiber pole with an even sweeter veneer of bamboo. The natural finish doesn't make the pole stronger or lighter, just cooler. Bad news: The bamboo is plastered with logos and text, diminishing the style boost. In all other respects, this is a fine pole; it has a secure twist-lock, sharp carbide tip, and comfortable foam grip. In the rarified realm of high-tech trekking poles masquerading as old-school sticks, this is our pick. $89 (one pole); 7 oz.;