Traveler's Gear Box: Trekking Poles

Trekking poles these days are getting lighter and more compact for traveling. Kurt Repanshek photo.

A set of hiking sticks (aka trekking poles) is a handy thing to have when you're hiking in the National Park System. They take some of the load off your knees, can offer you greater stability, and, in a pinch, can help you pitch your tent or "encourage" a snake to get off the trail.

Poles also can help you vault small streams or particularly muddy sections of trails, and by involving your arm strength can make you a more powerful hiker when you need it -- ascending steep stretches of trail, for instance.

But trying to decide which set of trekking poles is right for you can be tricky, in part because there are quite a few brands out there, and most have very similar qualities.

One thing to take into consideration when you're thinking of dropping $100 or more on a pair of sticks is the kind of hiker you are. Are you simply a day hiker a few times a month, or a long-distance trail warrior who heads out for dozens, or hundreds, of miles at a stretch and are interested in the lighthest gear possible. In that case, you'd want to consider carbon fiber poles, as opposed to aluminum models, and when you start looking in that direction the cost goes up rapidly.

In the end, you need to look at the subtle nuances and differences of the options out there and, if all things are relatively similar, go with the brand you're most familiar with.

Over the past couple of months I have had the opportunity to compare aluminum trekking poles from three leading brands -- Easton Mountain Products, Leki, and MSR. I was looking for a compact set of poles, one that could easily be packed, both in your luggage for cross-country flights, and in your pack when not needed. Of course, weight was important, as was the manner in which the poles extended.

The Easton and MSR poles employ three sections, Leki four. All had carbide tips that provided a bite when planted on rock or ice. Grips varied in composition, from rubber to hard plastic. Each company had its preferred system for extending its poles. All poles can be fitted with wider baskets for winter trekking, something that comes in handy if you like to snowshoe.

Easton Aluminum

The ATR 80 (MSRP $100) is the company's latest trekking pole. The primary shaft material is 7075 aerospace aluminum, the poles measure 64.1 centimeters (22.25 inches) when collapsed, extend to 140 centimeters (55.12 inches), and weigh 21 ounces per set.

To lock the shafts in place at your desired length, the company uses proprietary Rock-Lock™ Clamps. These employ a buckle that rides on a screw; you rotate the buckle to extend, or shorten, its reach and thus tighten or loosen its grip on the shaft, and then flip the buckle closed to lock the length in place.

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Easton's buckles; the left one broke during testing.

The poles also rely on what Easton calls its Vi-Brake grips, which effectively dampen vibrations created by planting the pole.

Finally, the grips are EVA foam and feature a sweat-absorbing strap.

The demo poles didn't start out well, with one of the Rock-Lock Clamps failing me. After adjusting the length and closing the buckle, I set off up the trail about 20 feet only to have the bottom shaft sink back up into the middle shaft.

A quick analysis seemed to indicate that the screw on which the lock's buckle rides was stripped. To continue the testing, I paired the remaining pole with one of the other company's poles. The results were favorable. The Vi-Brake grip did indeed deaden vibrations compared to the other pole, and the grip fit comfortably in my hand.

However, near the hike's end I discovered that the top Rock-Lock Clamp wasn't tightened down enough, as the pole's overall length was shrinking.

Easton does warranty the poles for their life, as long as you're the original owner and retained the sales receipt. And while the buckles can be tightened to prevent slippage, how much is too much, and is stripping of the screws likely to occur regularly, or was my experience an anomaly?

Leki

The Tundra XS Antishock (MSRP $159.95) is not Leki's lightest trekking pole, but it's not far off. It is the only one in the company's "Micro Series" line with an anti-shock system that revolves around an internal shock absorber that provides a small measure of give when you push down on the pole. The shaft material is aircraft-grade aluminum.

The poles collapse to 21.26 inches (54 cms), extend to 49.21 inches (125 cms), and weigh 19 ounces a pair. Leki long has relied on its "Super Lock" system for adjusting pole length, although some of its poles utilize a "Speedlock" similar in approach to Easton's Rock-Lock Clamp in that external compression is used to hold the shaft in place.

The Tundra XS poles rely on the Super Lock system, in which twisting a collar on the shaft engages an internal plastic expander that locks the pole to your desired length. I've found this system highly reliable over the 10+ years that I've been using Leki poles.

You do, however, need to be careful when extending the shafts as you can pull them apart. That won't damage the poles, but it will slow your hike as you'll have to put the shafts back together.

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Leki's tightening collars are slim.

Adjusting the poles for your height takes minutes, and tightening the collar is simple -- you twist it until it won't twist any more.

On the trail the poles met the challenge, their carbide tips gripping rocks securely, and the shock absorber handling any off-balance movement I made. The molded grips have three holes in them where your palm meets the grip to help address, but not solve, sweating. The shock absorbers worked well; I weigh ~185 pounds and the compression while hiking was bearly noticeable.

The lightest, most compact, quietest on the trail, and most stream-lined of the three sets I tried, the Tundra XS would be a good choice if you're traveling a lot to your hiking destination. One thing to keep in mind, though: These poles extend only to 125 centimeters, and if you stand 6-foot or more, they'll likely be a tad too short for you.

MSR

The Surelock TR-3 (MSRP $149.95) weighs just less than 20 ounces (19.8 ounces), collapses to 57 centimeters (22 inches) and extends to 130 cms (51 inches) in the standard set, 61 centimeters (23 inches) and 140 centimeters (55 inches) in the long version. These poles, too, are made from aircraft-grade aluminium.

The poles were the easiest to extend of the three sets I tried. Under the grip is a trigger you pull up to release the shafts. Then you either grasp the basket with your other hand and pull to extend, or place the basket under your foot and pull up.

The mid-shaft (on the regular set) extends to 130 centimeters; along the way it catches at 105 cms, 110 cms, and 120 cms. The lower shaft pulls out and locks with a ball bearing. To collapse the pole, depress the ball bearing, push the bottom shaft into the mid-shaft, and then pull the trigger and push the mid-shaft into the top shaft.

You cannot fine-tune the length of the TR-3 as much as the Easton or Leki models, but that didn't prove a problem for me.

MSR says the lack of external hardware on the shafts to lock them in place puts the poles' center of balance high and so they produce "an easy, efficient swing." That may be so, but it wasn't noticeable.

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MSR's grip has a lip on it that you can use to raise heel lifts on snowshoes or AT bindings.

The grips, while not quite as comfortable as those on the Easton or Leki poles, feature an extended catch on the top of the pole that you can use to raise heel lifts on snowshoes, or those on AT bindings.

Though they didn't sound quite as solid as the other two brands on the trail, and even rattled a bit, the TR-3 poles showed no shortcomings.