Carbon Fiber Trekking Poles: A Buyer’s Guide
Like most other types of outdoor gear, trekking poles have benefitted from the technological advances that have occurred since their invention. Whereas the trekking poles produced a decade or two ago were quite nice at the time, they couldn’t possibly compete with the current iterations, which feature more advanced materials, design concepts and features.
Some of the most important technological advances used in the construction of trekking poles relate to the materials used to build them. Historically, aluminum was the go-to choice for trekking poles, and you can still see plenty of aluminum poles being used on modern-day tracks and trails. However, aluminum poles are a bit heavy, which can present problems for weight-conscious walkers and hikers.
But relatively recently, a few manufacturers began using a more advanced material to make trekking poles – namely, carbon fiber. Carbon fiber rods outperform their aluminum counterparts in several ways, and they’ve become the preferred option for serious adventurers.
Below, we’ll discuss a few of the things to consider when comparing various brands and models and picking out your new carbon fiber trekking poles. But first, we’ll start by explaining some of the most important reasons you’ll want to add trekking poles to your gear collection.
Why Use Trekking Poles?
Trekking poles provide a number of benefits, but the following are among the most appreciated by hikers:
- Trekking poles take some of the wear and tear off your knees. Every time you plant one of the poles, it will absorb some of the shocks that would otherwise be borne by your knees (and, to a lesser extent, your ankles, hips and back). This effect is especially pronounced when walking down hills.
- Trekking poles help encourage a proper walking stride. Many hikers and campers fall into bad habits while hiking (particularly when carrying a heavy pack). This can lead to muscle soreness and reduce your effective range. But by using trekking poles, you’ll often find that you naturally adopt a proper walking stride.
- Trekking poles provide circulatory benefits. Some hikers may notice that their hands swell during lengthy hikes – particularly in hot weather. This often occurs because blood accumulates in the hands as they’re held down by the sides. But, by using trekking poles (which will cause you to swing your arms back and forth), you’ll encourage good circulation and likely notice less swelling.
- Trekking poles improve your balance. Even if you only travel on relatively flat and easily walked trails, you’ll occasionally find it necessary to traverse a slope or tip-toe around obstacles. Trekking poles will provide two additional contact points, which will help you maintain your balance. And, if you find it necessary to cross very difficult terrain – such as a river or stream – hiking poles can make all the difference in the world.
- Trekking poles help you burn more calories and enjoy a full-body workout. If you hike or walk as your primary form of exercise, you’ll surely appreciate the increased intensity level they cause.
Trekking Pole Materials
There are two basic types of material used to make trekking poles: aluminum and carbon fiber. Each material offers different benefits and drawbacks and is best suited for different circumstances.
Aluminum poles are often the most affordable option, as aluminum is a relatively inexpensive material. Some aluminum poles are more durable than carbon fiber poles, but this is typically only true of the most expensive options (which eliminates the cost savings aluminum poles sometimes provide). However, aluminum poles are susceptible to bending when placed under heavy loads, while carbon fiber poles will not bend. Additionally, if left in the sun, aluminum poles can become very hot to the touch.
Carbon fiber poles vary quite a bit based on the amount of carbon included in their design, but most are very lightweight (the heaviest carbon fiber poles often weigh about the same thing as the lightest aluminum poles). Carbon poles also tend to reduce the amount of vibration that is transmitted up the shaft to the hiker’s hands. Indeed, the only significant drawback to carbon fiber poles is often their price, which is typically higher than that associated with aluminum poles.
Accordingly, carbon fiber poles are generally the preferred choice for serious hikers and walkers.
Who Benefits Most from Carbon Fiber Trekking Poles?
Most hikers will enjoy using carbon fiber poles, given their lighter weight and the other benefits they provide, but some hikers and walkers will appreciate them more than others. Some of the individuals who will benefit most from carbon fiber poles include:
- Hikers who are keen to carry as little weight as possible
- Hikers who do not want trekking poles that will bend
- Hikers and walkers who want a high-end trekking pole that delivers the best possible performance
- Hikers who often grow weary of the vibration aluminum poles can transmit from the ground
- Hikers and walkers traveling through deserts and other hot environments
Trekking Pole Sizing Guidelines
It is very important to select trekking poles that are the proper size for your body. This is the only way to derive the maximum physical benefits they can provide and to avoid discomfort or injury. Many trekking poles are adjustable, but you’ll still need to find the right size range for your height.
As a rule of thumb, you want your elbows to make a 90-degree angle when your hands are on the grips of your trekking poles (some trekking authorities recommend shooting for belt-high grips, which is a bit lower than the height of your hands when your arms are bent at a 90-degree angle).
This means that hikers that are about 61 inches tall will usually want 39-inch-long trekking poles. Hikers up to about 67 inches in height will be better served by 43-inch-long poles. Hikers between 68 and 71 inches in height will usually be well-served by 47-inch-long poles, and those taller than this will want poles measuring at least 51 to 52 inches in length.
Telescoping or Fixed Length?
While some carbon fiber trekking poles are designed to “telescope,” or collapse into themselves, others are rigid, fixed-length poles, which can’t be lengthened or shortened. Feel free to choose whichever style suits your needs best but try to make your choice early in the selection process.
Telescoping poles provide rather obvious benefits. For starters, you can adjust the length of the poles to attain the perfect fit for your body. Additionally, telescoping poles are easier to transport and store and prevent you from having to lug around a full-size set of poles, through potentially tight quarters.
However, there are a few nice things about fixed-length poles too. For example, they’re usually a bit cheaper than comparable telescoping models, which may be very important for cost-conscious consumers. They also offer a bit more strength, given their one-piece construction, but this difference is relatively slight when comparing high-quality telescoping poles with modern locking mechanisms.
Also, because the moving parts of any tool are more likely to fail than the non-moving parts, telescoping poles are probably more likely to experience problems over time. However, in practice, the components used in premium telescoping poles are usually of very high quality and unlikely to stop working during normal use.
Features to Seek in Carbon Fiber Trekking Poles
Most high-quality trekking poles come equipped with a few key features that’ll make them easier and more fun to use. Some of the most important such features include:
Unless you want your hands covered in blisters by the end of your second mile, you’ll want to select trekking poles that have comfortable grips. Most grips are either made from cork, foam or rubber. Cork and foam are the best choices for warm-weather hikers, but rubber grips are generally the better choice for those hiking in cold temperatures. All three options typically absorb vibration pretty well, but many trekking pole users find that foam grips are the best choice in this regard.
Included Tip Covers and Baskets
You’ll want to adjust your pole tips to match the terrain your crossing, so it is wise to select poles that come with tip covers and baskets. If, for example, you’re traveling across typical trail dirt, you’ll want sharp tips, which will dig into the surface and provide the traction you need. On the other hand, those traveling across concrete, asphalt or similar surfaces will usually want to apply rubber tip covers, which will stand up better on hard surfaces. You’ll also want to be able to use baskets when trying to cross loose sand, scree or snow, as the baskets will increase the surface area of the tip and provide better traction.
Telescoping and collapsible trekking poles typically come with one of two types of locking mechanism: twist-lock or flip-lock. While the choice is largely a matter of personal preference, most experienced trekking pole users prefer flip-locks, as they’re easier to engage or disengage and they are often more reliable – you certainly don’t want your poles to collapse when you put your weight on them.
Strong Wrist Straps
While you’ll use the grips on the “downstroke” of each step, you’ll actually place most of your body weight on the wrist straps, when they’re worn properly. Additionally, most hikers and walkers using trekking poles will release their grip slightly (not completely) and allow the pole to swing from the strap during the “upstroke.” This means that sturdy and comfortable wrist straps are imperative to prevent you from losing your poles.
Trekking Pole Tips and Tricks
Once you’ve picked out the best pair of carbon fiber trekking poles for your needs, you’ll want to be sure you get the most value out of them that you can. And while you needn’t have a degree in rocket science to use trekking poles, there are a few ways to make using them more helpful and fun. For example, you’ll want to:
- Adjust the pole length on hills. You’ll find that slightly longer poles make it easier to walk down hills and slightly shorter poles make it easier to walk up hills. And while it isn’t always necessary to make adjustments for each and every hill you encounter, it definitely makes sense to do so for lengthy slopes.
- Use the top section of the pole for on-the-fly adjustments. If you are using adjustable poles and you’re traveling through areas with numerous slopes, try to keep the lower portions of the poles completely extended, but situate the top sections at the half-way points. This way, you can make quick height adjustments by altering the length of the upper sections.
- Try to utilize a natural, arm-swinging walk. Swing your arms in a complementary way, so that your left arm is extended in front of you while you are stepping forward with your right foot (and vice versa). With a bit of practice, you’ll find that trekking poles make this very easy to accomplish, and it’ll help keep your center of gravity stable. It can be helpful to use other arm-and-leg patterns in specific circumstances, but you can learn to employ these strategies over time, once you’ve mastered the basic walking techniques.
- Whenever possible and prudent, store your poles with the locks opened. Although you’ll need to keep the locks engaged whenever carrying collapsed poles on the outside of your pack, you should leave the locks in the open position whenever storing the poles over the long term or packing them inside your pack or a container. Doing so will help reduce the stress on the locks and prevent premature failure.
- Keep your poles out of poison ivy and other toxic plants. Poison ivy, poison oak and poison sumac contain a yellowish oil called urushiol. If you come into contact with urushiol, you could break out in an itchy rash. Urushiol is remarkably potent, and it only takes a microscopic quantity to cause problems, so you’ll want to prevent your poles from becoming contaminated with this insidious and irritating substance. If you inadvertently stick your sticks in a thicket of poison ivy, make sure that you avoid contact with the potentially coated section and wash it off with soap and water as soon as possible.
Modern hikers and walkers are fortunate to have carbon fiber rods at their disposal, and most who try them become instant devotees. Their low weight and resistance to bending make them the ideal choice for a variety of circumstances, and they’ll usually only cost you a bit more than a comparable set of aluminum poles will.
Just take your time while making your selection and be sure to select a pole that provides the features and characteristics you require. Do so and you’ll soon find yourself tearing across the terrain more effectively and confidently than ever before.