Folding Trekking Poles: A Buyer’s Guide
Although hikers and walkers have probably used walking sticks for as long as humans have been scooting around on two legs, heavy wooden sticks have largely been replaced by trekking poles in the modern world.
Unlike the heavy and unwieldy sticks our ancestors used to scale mountains and cover ground, modern trekking poles are made from light and durable materials, and they come with comfortable grips, handy wrist straps and specialized tips to provide the most traction possible. They’re typically quite enjoyable to use and they offer a number of health benefits too.
But while trekking poles more almost always more desirable than walking sticks, they aren’t always easy to transport or stuff in your pack. Most are about 4 feet long or so, so they can get in the way when trying to negotiate crowded areas and hikers will usually find it necessary to strap them to the outside of their packs.
But fortunately, a few manufacturers make folding trekking poles, which eliminate these types of problems. Good folding poles provide all of the stability and support that traditional trekking poles do, but they are also very convenient to use and easy to pack in a bag or carry. But not all trekking poles are created equal, and some are clearly better than others. We’ll try to help you distinguish between the good and not-so-good models here and explain some of the things to look for when making your choice. But we’ll begin by reviewing the benefits trekking poles provide.
The Benefits Trekking Poles Provide
Taking a step back for a moment, let’s examine the reasons trekking poles – including folding and non-folding varieties – are so valuable to hikers, walkers, and outdoor adventurers. A few of the most important include:
- Trekking poles can improve your range. Because of the support they provide, trekking poles make it easier to cover long distances. And while they probably won’t allow you to travel twice as far as normal during your next hike, they’ll undoubtedly help you venture farther into the wilderness or take an extra lap around the block.
- Trekking poles help you keep your balance. When walking normally, you’ll only have two points of contact with the ground (and you’ll only have one point of contact while taking each step). But trekking poles double this number and help keep you upright and stable while walking on uneven ground and rugged terrain.
- Trekking poles work with your natural walking stride. Unlike hiking sticks, which are usually used singly, trekking poles work in pairs. This allows you to maintain a natural walking stride and swing your arms as you would when you aren’t carrying anything at all.
- Trekking poles can take some of the stress off your body. Trekking poles provide two additional impact points for walkers, which helps to absorb some of the force with your hands and arms. This takes a bit of pressure off your knees, ankles, hips, and back, and helps keep you feeling better for the duration of the hike – and you’ll feel much better the next day too.
- Trekking poles can serve a variety of secondary functions. Simply put, it’s handy to have a pair of durable sticks when hiking through the backcountry. You can use them to knock sticks or vegetation out of your path, reach items you normally couldn’t or test the depth of a creek crossing your path. You can even use trekking poles to support some tents or hold your camera still like a tripod.
Additionally, some hikers and walkers will find that trekking poles benefit them in other, less common ways. They may provide suburban walkers with the confidence to walk in areas patrolled by stray dogs, or make hikers feel safer while traversing steep slopes. They may make it easier to enjoy a winter walk across the frozen ground or make it easier for backpackers to carry more weight in their packs.
The Pros and Cons of Folding Trekking Poles
Now that you understand the value provided by trekking poles, it is time to start picking out the best pair for your needs. The design of the poles – specifically, whether or not they fold up – is one of the first things to consider. Folding trekking poles are often the preferred choice for many hikers, but they aren’t ideal for all situations.
The Pros of Folding Trekking Poles
The primary benefit folding trekking poles, or hiking poles in general, is that they provide is their portability. Because they fold up, they’ll take up less space in your pack. In fact, most non-folding poles are too long to fit in a pack in the first place. Additionally, if you like to reach your camping destination via plane or public transit, you’ll find it easier to pack folding poles and store them in your luggage. They’re also more convenient for city-dwellers to use while walking, as they’ll fold up easily when you want to visit your favorite coffee shop or drop by the grocery store before heading home.
There are a few other situations in which folding poles may provide special value. For example, those who frequently need their hands free may appreciate the ability to stash their folding trekking poles in their pack easily. It may also be safer to use folding poles (which can be packed in your backpack) while floating in inflatable rafts.
The Cons of Folding Trekking Poles
There aren’t many significant downsides to folding trekking poles, but there are a few minor drawbacks, which deserve some discussion. For example, cheap or poorly made folding poles are often weaker than non-folding poles are. However, this is only likely to represent a problem for exceptionally large hikers, or those who are otherwise testing the strength limits of their poles. Additionally, because any moving part is more likely to break than a non-moving part, folding trekking poles are not quite as durable as standard poles are. Finally, the folding mechanism may increase the weight of the poles slightly.
Nevertheless, modern folding poles – particularly well-made folding poles — largely sidestep these issues. They use space-age materials to provide strength and durability, and their additional weight is rarely very significant. Accordingly, folding poles simply make more sense in the vast majority of cases.
How Do Folding Poles Work?
At first glance, the idea of folding trekking poles seems a bit odd. After all, your poles are supposed to support (a portion of) your body weight. How can they do this in a safe and reliable manner if they can fold? The answer lies in their design, which is quite similar to that of folding tent poles. Like most other trekking poles, folding poles are hollow. An elastic shock cord is threaded through the pole, stretching from the grip to the tip. The pole is divided into two or three sections, which can be separated when pulled. Once separated, the internal cord keeps the pieces attached to each other but provides enough slack that you can fold up the pole (picture the letter “Z”).
Essentially, folding poles rely on a common engineering principle: Things can be made strong in one direction while being weak (or collapsible) in another. In this case, the poles provide plenty of structural strength for forces applied down the shaft, yet they’re easy to take apart when the ends are pulled away from each other.
Are Folding Trekking Poles Right for You?
If you are still wondering whether folding trekking poles are the best choice for your needs, ask yourself the following questions:
- Do you prefer to keep everything inside your pack, rather than strapped to it?
- Do you travel through dense areas or tight trails?
- Are you of average height and weight?
- Do you hike through areas rated as “easy” or “moderate”?
- Are you willing to sacrifice a bit of durability for convenience?
- Can you figure out a way to shave an ounce or two from your current pack?
If you answered these questions in the affirmative, folding trekking poles are probably the best option for you.
Folding Trekking Poles: Materials and Design Options
After deciding that folding poles are the best option for you, you’ll need to start examining the various features included with different models, as well as the materials from which they’re made. Some of the most important things to consider include:
Although there are a few exceptions, most trekking poles are either made from aluminum or carbon fiber. Both materials work quite well for trekking poles, but they do present different benefits and drawbacks. For example, aluminum poles are often very affordable and durable, but they can be a bit heavy. Conversely, carbon fiber poles are typically very light, although they’ll cost you a bit more than aluminum poles will.
A good set of hand grips are crucial if you’re to avoid blisters and enjoy using your new poles. Most good trekking poles feature ergonomically designed grips, which are engineered to fit your hand perfectly. However, they can be made of several different materials, including foam, cork and rubber. Rubber grips are typically considered the best option for those walking in cold weather, while cork and foam grips absorb sweat more effectively and serve as the better choice for those walking in hot weather.
Tips and Baskets
Tips and baskets come in a variety of styles that are designed to make it easier to use the poles while traveling across different types of surfaces. For example, hikers crossing soft soil will want tips that dig into the ground and provide traction, while those walking across cement will be better served by rubber-coated tips, which will prevent damage and reduce the amount of vibration transmitted up the poles. Just be sure that you select trekking poles that feature tips that will work well for the types of locations you frequent or pick a pair that has interchangeable tips, so you can switch things up as necessary.
Because they’re made with different materials and designed in slightly different ways, trekking poles vary in weight. And although weight shouldn’t be considered the most important consideration for those shopping for trekking poles, it is clearly something worth considering. Weight is an especially important consideration for ultralight hikers and those trying to cover very long distances.
Good trekking poles should always come equipped with wrist straps. In fact, you’ll often rely on the straps to keep the poles attached to you, as it is often easiest to release your grip while swinging the poles forward. Just be sure that you select poles that feature comfortable wrist straps, that are made from strong and durable materials.
Sizing Your Folding Trekking Poles
Once you’ve narrowed down your choices and picked a good set of poles for your needs, you’ll need to make sure they’ll fit your body properly. It is very important to ensure that you select poles of the correct size, so you enjoy all of the benefits trekking poles provide. Most modern trekking poles are adjustable, so obtaining the right size is pretty straightforward: Just be sure to select a model with a size range that suits your body. The basic target lengths for different body heights are as follows:
- Walkers standing about 5 feet tall will want trekking poles that are about 39 to 40 inches long
- Walkers who are between 5-foot-1-inches and 5-foot-8-inches tall need trekking poles that are about 43 to 44 inches long
- Walkers between 5-foot-8-inches and 6-feet in height will want trekking poles that are about 47 inches long
- Walkers over 6-feet-tall will want poles that are 51 to 52 inches in length
When in doubt, just remember that you’ll want your elbows to form a 90-degree angle when you are standing comfortably with your hands on the grips. If you decide to purchase non-adjusting poles, you’ll need to measure the distance between your hands and the floor to ensure a proper fit. If you are going hiking in the winter don’t forget your puffy blanket and a set of carabiners.
Folding trekking poles may not be the best choice for each and every hiker, but they’ll suit most people perfectly. They offer most of the benefits that traditional poles provide, yet they’re much easier to pack up when you aren’t using them. You’ll often pay a little bit more for a pair of folding poles than you would their non-folding counterparts, but the difference in price is relatively minor, and they’re generally well worth the additional expense. Just make sure that you select poles made from the materials that best suit your needs and equipped with the features you need.