Walking poles are a great addition to your kit. Taking some of the strain off your knees, particularly when heading downhill, becomes more important as those fragile joints age, and heading uphill using poles spreads the work onto your upper body. Avoiding slips and stumbles on loose or wet ground is also important, as is the stability of having an extra couple of “legs” for crossing rivers and testing the depth of ominous looking bogs. They can also be used as tent poles for some tarp-type tents as well as a camera tripod with the addition of a metal converter and that’s before you need them to authoratively point at and name distant peaks, or fend off agressive dogs.
Poles come in two main designs, a shock-corded “z” construction that usually folds into 3 sections to be fastened together when not in use, or a telescopic design where the sections slide into each other – these tend to be a little longer when packed down. Folding corded construction has the advantage of more security as the sections cannot slip into each other.
The main component is either aluminium or carbon; the latter is more expensive, usually lighter, less prone to being bent but more to snapping. Most are adjustable by height and have different locking mechanisms as well as multiple wrist strap, basket, tip and handle designs. The twist lock mechanism is usually lighter, can often be tightened while wearing gloves but tends to be less secure, needing tightening on long walks. On older designs of poles the mechanism could become completely undone sometimes with the loss of a bottom section of pole before you notice.
Lever lock mechanisms tend to be longer lasting, usually easier and quicker to use, and less likely to become loose. Although most poles have long-lasting tungsten tips, these will eventually wear out especially if used on a lot of rocky ground or tarmac. Most can be replaced, with many manufacturers selling spares and there are also generic ones, though fitting them can be a fiddly and difficult job, particularly removing the old worn tip.
Poles should generally be adjusted so your arms are at 90 at the elbow when walking on flat ground. For long ascents and descents it’s often worth shortening and lengthening them – some designs have a long handle which allows you to change hand position on the pole without adjusting the length. Poles should always be used with the bottom section fully extended. Poles work best when used in pairs – if only using one pole regularly change hands to prevent an injury or strain. Having tested what’s on the market now over the last few months here’s what we found (lengths and weights from our own measurements so may vary slightly from manufacturers’):
Leki Cressida FX Carbon Lady
RRP: £195 pair
Weight per pole: 235g
Packed length: 40.5cm
Length range: 100 – 120cm
With a narrower handle and extending only to 120cm these premium 4 section poles have been designed with women in mind but would equally be useful for smaller males. Lightweight and easy to adjust, the poles have two lower corded segments and one telescopic segment which slides into the top section to create a length range of 100 – 120cm. The top segment pulls into place and locks automatically creating a very rigid and stable lower section. This is simple to undo by pressing on the lever, but the design ensures it can’t easily be done by mistake. The adjustable sliding segment is secured by a lever which can be tightened by hand if it gets loose. Both mechanisms are easy to use including with gloves.
I found the cork handle to be very comfortable, gripping well with sweaty hands; the rubber top is also easy to hold when heading steeply downhill. The cork extends down a long way beyond the handle which is useful if wanting to grip the upper part of the pole for heading uphill for short sections when it isn’t worth adjusting the length. The strap has a soft, silky feel and adjusts and locks easily. The basket is small and clips to the 2nd pole for storage. Weight and packed size are both excellent good. The poles are supplied with storage bag.
These are expensive poles but have stood up well to rugged conditions and been excellent in use; with good durability, they are worth the price.
Komperdell Carbon Approach FXP
RRP: £169.99 pair
Weight per pole: 245g
Packed length: 41.5cm
Length range: 117 – 135cm
These 4 section poles from well-established Austrian ski and trekking pole maker Komperdell are both comfortable to use and quick to assemble. The fixed length lower 2 sections use button locks, with a tight cord linking them. They simply lock into place with a quick flick of your wrist after unfolding. The upper adjustable section locks using a standard lever mechanism which is easy to use and hasn’t loosened over time; it would need a screwdriver to tighten if need be.
Length range is 117 – 135cm and packed length is an impressively small 41.5cm. The lower sections rotate even when fixed in place; I didn’t find this noticeable or a problem unless the tip gets stuck between rocks and even then it’s a very minor quibble. The plain design of the extended soft foam grip handle is comfortable with the foam extending over the well-shaped head which adds comfort if pressing on it on descents, but may not last quite as well as poles with harder materials here. The strap is soft and comfortable and adjusts easily. The poles come with a velcro belt to fasten them together when packed and these are the only poles where the belt has remained in place over time. They use Komperdell’s interchangeable vario baskets which may be a little too easy to remove and change – I lost one on a walk so it’s worth checking they are well attached.
The poles come with a 3 year guarantee. In general these are robust for the lightweight, pack down small and have performed well.
Highlander Isle of Skye
RRP: £39.99 each
Packed length: 67cm
Length range: 96 – 135cm
Sold singly, these lightweight, 3 section poles use the twist lock mechanism for both adjustable lower sections giving an overall length range between 65cm and 135cm. I liked the grippy foam handle which should last well and has a hard but well shaped top and a well-padded adjustable strap. The basket is a useful size and the pole also came with a larger, perforated, snow basket and a rubber ferole for extended road walking. The tungsten tip is smaller than some but has worn very well so far.
The twist lock mechanism employed here was originally used by most pole brands but now is somewhat outdated – it is quite fiddly to adjust, and can be prone to failure as the mechanism is held in place by glue on each lower section. This happened during our testing when one pole adjuster came away due to an inadequate amount of glue – we reattached with superglue and it has subsequently performed very well; it still adjusts fully. The poles have a shock absorber mechanism which I usually dislike as it gives less feeling of security when placing the poles, but the effect is very slight on these so it wasn’t a problem.
These are the lightest poles in this test, which is impressive for the price point. If weight is a key factor and that twist lock mechanism isn’t a concern, they are a strong choice.
Leki Khumbu Lite
RRP: £85 each
Packed length: 67cm
Length range: 100 – 135cm
These aluminium poles are a lighter version of Leki’s classic Khumbu model. Smooth to adjust, the 3 section poles have two lever locks on the adjustable lower sections, both can be tightened by hand. Decent length tungsten tip and comes with a decent-sized trekking basket. The handle uses Leki’s Aergon grip design which is nicely ergonomic, had a good head shape for pressing down on coming downhill – but I did find the material is quite hard which can be wearing on long days compared to the models with softer foam-covered handles. There is no extended grip for lowering hand position uphill. The strap is comfortable and silky and adjusts easily but is shorter than some.
With no slippage or rotation of the sections during use, this pole has always felt strong despite the narrowness of the lower section.
Alpkit Compact Hiker
RRP: £23.99 each or £39.99 for pair
Packed length: 38cm
Length range: 111 – 130cm
Using a combination of button lock on the two, fixed length corded bottom sections and lever lock on the adjustable upper section, these 4 section poles are a strong contender given their low price. Packing down to a very low length it is quick and easy to deploy and the top lever can be tightened by hand.
Made from aluminuim, the pole sections will be stronger than carbon equivalents but the trade off is added weight. We have pulled the top two sections apart by mistake when lengthening the pole so care is needed however performance was not comprimised – just adjust it carefully. The handle is fairly basic but covered in comfortable yet tough-looking foam although smaller hands may not find the design as comfortable as some. The silky-feeling strap does not rub and adjusts easily. Although the bottom sections will swivel once locked in place this has not been an issue and the poles have always felt very reliable and strong. The tungsten tip is small so I wouldn’t expect it to last as long as some models and a rubber ferole is provided to protect it on extended hard surface walking.
If the slightly higher weight is not an issue then these are a brilliant value-for-money option.
Helinox Ridgeline LB135
RRP: £154.95 pair
Weight per pole: 240g
Material: Aluminium alloy
Packed length: 61cm
Length range: 103 – 135cm
Built from Helinox’s own lightweight aluminum alloy, these 3 section poles use a combination of button lock for the fixed bottom section and lever for the adjustable middle section. The button mechanism is easy and quick to use and the two button design should make it stronger than some. The lever itself is vertical rather than wrapping round the pole and although stiff we’ve found it easy to use and it has not loosened over extended use. If it did loosen it would need a small screwdriver to adjust it so should be checked before use.
The use of the lever lock means the pole packs down to a credible 61cm in length which is manageable. We really liked the soft-feel foam grip which extends a long way down the pole allowing a range of holiding positions, the top is also well shaped for pressing directly down on when descending steeply. The robust webbing strap has added cushioning, adjusts well and while stiff at first has become comfortable over time. The basket is small but adequate and the hard tip is long so should last a long time. Whilst not the lightest or shortest when packed, these seem very rigid and tough and are a great all round option.