Why? Is it just part of the “look”? Maybe a bit. But walking poles have many practical benefits. They add balance on all surfaces, take strain away from your legs and knees, make going up and down hills much easier, and improve momentum by helping to swing you forwards. Some hikers even use them to prop up tarpaulins to create makeshift tents.
Here, we've picked out the best six walking poles you can buy now, highlighting factors such as lightness, durability and adjustability. Before we reveal who's in pole position, we’ve got a quick guide to buying the right poles for your next trek.
Walking poles are designed to be used two by two, with one in each hand to support the weight of each leg as you walk. The idea is to swing each pole in time with the opposite foot moving forwards: right foot, left pole.
However, many walkers prefer to use just one. That way, you've got a free hand when you need it. But you don't have as much stability as you would with two poles, so if you're off to scramble up a fell, you'll definitely be wanting two poles.
Adjustable length: Size really matters. You should be able to hold your elbow at a 90-degree angle when holding the pole by its hand grip. Either make sure you choose the right length for your height (specialist retailer Alpinetrek has an interactive guide to help you) or buy a fully adjustable pole. Not only can you adjust it to suit your height, but also for different needs – for example, downhill stretches need a longer pole than uphill treks.
Light weight (within reason): The lighter the pole, the less weight you'll have to carry on your travels – and in your hands while walking. But don't get too hung up on “ultralight” walking poles. Carbon fibre poles are the lightest, while aluminium is slightly heavier but also cheaper and much more durable. The lightest ultralight walking poles may save a few grammes of weight, but they tend to be fixed and unfoldable, so you can't pack them in a bag.
Small packed size: Most trekking poles can be folded or collapsed down to 30-60cm to fit in your backpack. Foldable poles have separate sections connected by a Kevlar cord, a bit like tent poles, and can be packed very small. They can't normally be adjusted in length, though. Collapsible poles collapse like telescopes and can usually be adjusted to any length within a range, using a locking mechanism. Flick locks (such as those on camera tripods) are more secure than screw locks.
Interchangeable baskets and tips: The “basket” is the ski-shoe type attachment above the pole's tip. Baskets stop your pole from sinking into the ground, and they come in different types and sizes for different terrains such as soft mud and snow. Tips come in different types, too: single-point carbide tips are basically a spike and good for trails; rubber tips are better for hard surfaces; and chiselled tips boost traction on slippery surfaces.
Cork or rubber grips: It's vital that you feel comfortable holding hands with your walking poles. Typically, the grip is made from cork, which moulds to your hand over time and wicks moisture well (good for sweaty hands). Many grips are made from EVA foam or rubber, which is good for comfort but can get soggy when it rains. The best pole in our rundown has cork and EVA grips.
Well-fitting strap: Look for a strap that fits comfortably around your hand, preventing you from losing the pole. That said, if you're on rocky or slippery terrain, it's best not to use the strap because your pole could go flying and take you with it.
Shock absorption: Some trekking poles have an internal spring to reduce the impact on hands and elbows. These poles are usually slightly heavier and pricier, but may be worth the extra cash if you do a lot of walking on hard surfaces and want to help protect your joints.
Nordic walking poles: Poles designed specially for Nordic walking tend to be fixed length without folding mechanisms, and combine extreme lightness with super-strength to support your weight. Specialist walking pole maker Leki has a great guide to Nordic walking.
These carbon classics from trekking specialists Black Diamond strike a great balance between weight and durability. They're the best all-rounders to get you through river deep and mountain high for years to come.
You won't have to worry about choosing the right size for your height because these poles are fully adjustable to any length you want, from 61cm (as in the photo above) to 130cm. The flick locks are quick and easy to use and much more secure than twist locks, so once you've locked the poles in place, you'll feel confident that they won't loosen as you're scrambling down a hill.
The ergonomic grips are made from cork, but there's also a rubberised “extension” for added grip on steep terrain, so you get the best of both worlds. The padded wrist strap feels really secure, too. The poles come with two basket sets (including one for deep snow) and interchangeable carbide and rubber tips for when the going is soft and hard.
Key specs – Material: carbon shaft, cork grips, EVA (synthetic rubber) extension; Length packed: 61cm; Length extended: 61-130cm; Weight: 234g per pole
Leki's Micro Varios are only a little lighter than Black Diamond's carbon poles, but they fold up much smaller – to just 38cm, which is dinky enough to fit in a daypack or even a waist pouch. This makes them ideal for trail runners and travellers.
Their three break-apart sections lock together easily, even when you've got giant gloves on, and the top section has its own adjustment mechanism to help you find your perfect length.
The foam grips on the Micro Varios are amazingly comfortable and many people prefer them to cork, but they can get a bit sweaty on long, warm treks and aren't as durable as cork. The Kevlar cords may need replacing if you use the poles a lot, and you need to buy additional tips and baskets separately.
Key specs – Material: carbon shaft, EVA grips; Length packed: 38cm; Length extended: 110-130cm; Weight: 229g per pole
These rugged aluminium poles from Black Diamond only weigh a few grammes more than their carbon cousins and cost considerably less cash.
Their folding Z-pole design is similar to Leki's Micro Varios and breaks down to 40cm for easy storage. Then you just grab the sections and fold out to create one pole. The lightweight EVA foam grips come with breathable, moisture-wicking covers to stop your hands getting clammy.
The main downside is that these poles aren't adjustable so you'll need to buy the right length. Wiggle only has these in 120cm and 130cm, which is fine if you're 6ft tall but will otherwise be a bit of a stretch. Wiggle also stocks Black Diamond's adjustable Distance FLZ Poles, which come in sizes from 105cm, but cost £108. Check out Alpinetrek's calculator to choose the right length for your height.
Key specs – Material: aluminium shaft, EVA grips; Length packed: 40cm and 43cm; Length extended: 120cm and 130cm; Weight: 185g per pole (120cm), 201g per pole (130cm)
These fixed-length carbon poles may look like riding crops but they're specially designed for Nordic walking. They're exceptionally strong and lightweight (they weigh the same as a pack of Maltesers) and their mechanism-free construction means they don't vibrate even when you really get into your stride. Their soft cork grips look great and wick sweat well, and the soft wrist strap is far more comfortable than most. They're not adjustable, so you will need to make sure you buy the right size.
Key specs – Material: carbon shaft, cork grips; Length: 7 fixed lengths available, from 105-135cm; Weight: 106g per pole (105cm)
Leki's Cressida trekking pole is made for smaller hands and petite heights, and is fully adjustable. The aluminium shaft feels rugged and stable in all terrains, but without much weight – it's just 221g. The clips are quick and easy to lock and unlock, allowing you to get the right length for you and your needs, while the breathable skin strap helps keep your hands warm on the comfy cork grip.
Key specs – Material: aluminium shaft, cork grip; Length packed: 64cm; Length extended: 90-125cm; Weight: 221g per pole
You do tend to get what you pay for with walking poles. Products from trekking specialists such as Leki and Black Diamond have been perfected over years, and they're worth the investment if you're a keen hiker or traveller.
But if you're not sure a walking pole is for you at all, or you just want some support on a one-off camping trip, these adjustable aluminium poles from Robens are the best pair you'll get for under £50. They adjust down to 66cm and up to 135cm (they're at full length in the photo) using a screw mechanism, and come with a detachable basket and extra rubber tip. And at half a kilo for the pair, they're not much heavier than our other picks. That's a really good deal.
They won't last for years, though. One Cotswold Outdoor buyer said his Keswick T6s fell apart half-way up Ben Nevis. Well, our advice is to spend more if you're heading up a mountain. These are great for their price and, if you lose one or both of these poles on your travels, you won't have to write off £100 or more.
Key specs – Material: aluminium shaft, EVA grips; Length packed: 66cm; Length extended: 66-135cm; Weight: 252g per pole
Leki's rubber-tipped aluminium pole is very light and folds down super-quickly to just 63cm. However, it's also extremely strong and has a big ergonomic handle that you can use as a walking stick, so it's ideal for taking your weight after an injury.
We love how easy the stick is to adjust and lock to precise lengths, although if you're tall you'll wish you could extend it to longer than 120cm.
Key specs – Material: aluminium shaft, vulcanised rubber tip; Length packed: 63cm; Length extended: 63-120cm; Weight: 266g
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