17 Aug How to Pick A Pair of Trekking Poles
By LA gear manager, Will Heaps
After two weeks of hiking the rugged routes of Camino de Santiago in the northern part of Spain, my buddy Will’s knees ached almost visibly. By that point, he’d been watching me and my wife tackle the same terrain with much less agony, courtesy of the aid from the trekking poles we purchased for the trip. As his growing knee pain reached a new level of discomfort, he started to wonder if we were onto something.
“Do trekking poles really help?” he inquired.
With all the experience I’ve had using LEKI trekking poles in my work for Lasting Adventures, I learned the answer to his question years ago.
“I wouldn’t be hiking here without a pair,” I responded. “That said, I wish I had packed the poles I use for work. The rubber handles on these off-brand poles are killing me, and the straps are ripping up my wrists.”
Trekking poles are the magic pill for my bum knee when backpacking. Needless to say, as a backpacking guide by trade, they save me a lot of pain.
How did I discover the merits of trekking poles? The hard way. Back in May of 2015, on my first overnight trip as a guide I decided it would be a great idea to take out a large collection of special gadgets—a “too big” solar panel, a book, a camp chair, and a ton of extra clothes. For a five-day trip, it was overkill.
We hit the trail going uphill towards Cathedral Lakes and my knees almost instantly began to scream at me.
My pack was too heavy but I couldn’t grimace or growl because my clients (a school group) expected a professional. To make matters worse, one of the students began to struggle, so I helped him out by taking some of his weight. I was doomed.
A moment later, my life changed my forever. My co-guide offered to let me use the poles he had brought as a backup, in case some of the kids needed to borrow them.
He demonstrated how to size them correctly and use the straps, and then I was on my way. Instantly my arms kicked into gear, helping to pull me up the hill. My pack weight was the same, but my knee were relieved, and then there was the added bonus that my hands ceased to swell, no longer swinging at my sides.
I haven’t gone without poles on an overnight trip since that day, and I rarely do a day hike without them.
I worked two full summers of backpacking after that. I logged hundreds of miles in that time, and began to take for granted the quality tool that Lasting Adventures provided me with my LEKI poles. I just assumed all poles got the job done. After all, I just needed something straight and stiff to lean on while I walked with a heavy pack, right?
I learned in Spain that not all poles are created equal.
Preparing for that trip, we packed carefully so we didn’t have to check anything, reducing the risk of lost or damaged luggage. I sacrificed my beautiful LEKI Corklite poles, figuring I could just buy a cheap set in Spain and rely on those to get us through.
The only decent poles available to us at the beginning of the trail had a couple of features I just didn’t like. Chief among them:
- Many poles offer an impact reducing feature, where the poles spring a bit to reduce the pressure on the wrist and elbow when you hit the ground with the tip of the pole. The poles we got were so squishy that it ended up stealing some momentum and caused me to waste energy with each strike. To make matters worse, the feature would work some days and not others, so I was constantly having to readjust my poles and the way I moved my arms every day. The good news there was that I enjoyed the days when the feature didn’t work.
- The handles were not ergonomic. They were made of a hard plastic that gave me blisters, and I had to use athletic tape in key places to reduce the friction. My hands are pretty big, so the ridges that were meant to go between my fingers just caused unnecessary pressures on my hand.
- The straps were thick and had sharp melted edges. These also had tape placed on them because using the straps is pretty crucial when it comes to proper use. (More on that later.)
I had assumed wrong and paid the price. I missed the quality I had at home.
So that brings us back to the storyline. Every day after hiking, we tended to make the completely unnecessary choice of walking— adding more steps to my already difficult day—to meander around town and explore. After realizing that the thing he was missing was a good set of trekking poles, my buddy Will wandered into a few outdoor stores in the next big city while we explored. The first couple times he came out empty handed, but at the last store we passed, he hit a gold mine.
He walked out with a gently used pair of green and black LEKI poles. I was shocked, I almost wept.
This was the same man that had ended up with one of the most popular and effective packs because of a great REI employee, and had ended up on the Camino by chance, without years of wait and planning.
My wife and I walked up to him and asked him what he found. He gestured to the poles in his hand and said that he had found some poles that were super comfortable. The exchange was kind of hilarious. He had never heard of the brand and so his reaction to his discovery was pretty mellow. Will didn’t have a clue that the chances of finding a gently used pair of those poles were almost zero along the Camino. The big shocker came when he told us what he paid. My friend, my beautiful and naive friend, walked out of that store having paid a mere thirty dollars for these poles.
Buying quality poles is a multi-year investment. It’s something you buy at a premium price because in the end, they will save your joints and potentially your life for many years to come.
My current set of poles, the LEKI Micro Vario Carbon, have lasted me years of abuse as a guide, long miles on the John Muir Trail, and plenty of day hikes and personal trips alone or with my family. These poles have held up tarps in rain storms and are noise makers in the presence of bears. They have crossed rivers and streams, climbed mountain passes covered in snow, and helped carry me across endless miles of dirt and rock. This year my poles helped me get to the top of both Mount Lyell AND Mount Maclure. You buy quality because in return, you get a worry-free piece of gear that improves your overall experience. Will, without knowing, got the deal of a lifetime and to this day, almost 5 years later, those poles still keep his knees happy when he hikes in the mountains of California.
Sometimes I chuckle at the person that decided they didn’t need these trekking poles anymore and left them at that shop. I smile to think how lucky it is that my friend walked into that shop at that moment and found them. Who knows how long they had been there. Who knows how many people didn’t understand the quality purchase they were seeing and just walked on past. I was so jealous that he got to use those for the rest of the trail while I continued to baby my hands from the plastic grips on my poles, and deal with the ever-changing effectiveness of the dampening features. He was a lucky man and his smile seemed to get bigger each day because he knew it.
You’re probably wondering what made these trekking poles so wonderful.
Aside from not having the issues I mentioned above, there are a few key things to keep in mind when searching for poles. For me LEKI checks all the boxes.
What to look for when buying a pair of trekking poles:
- Weight: The first thing I look for is how much these poles will add to my “worn weight”, the weight carried on your body and not in your pack. Most people don’t take the time to worry about worn weight, but in the end, you’re carrying these in your hands and the lighter the pole, the less you notice it there. Both my LEKI Makalu Lite COR-TEC and Micro Vario poles are very lightweight, but they are very different poles. See the next point for more information.
- Durability: LEKI won the day for me in this category. The Makalu Lite COR-TEC is aluminum and slides into 3 pieces, a pretty standard setup. These are bomber poles. The only breaks I have seen on these is when people trip and the pole saves them from falling. The pole might break as it catches in between two rocks, but the person using them doesn’t end up on the ground! The Micro Vario poles are carbon, which is feather light, but less durable. I wouldn’t suggest it for someone starting out with poles.
- Grips: Your hands are not usually part of the way you interact with the trail. We always talk about feet and making sure they are well cared for, but when you take the chance on poles, you need to keep in mind that they will be feeling each step as you push down on the pole. Find a grip that is soft and durable. Usually this means cork or foam. LEKI poles all come with this setup. If they have rubber grips, they are soft and comfortable on the hands. Although LEKI makes a few different styles of grips, they all function almost identically.
- Straps: The material used here is super soft and comfortable. There are no melted edges and it is thin and pliable, so it doesn’t dig into your hand over time. I have never needed gloves or tape to protect me from these straps.
- Tips: The rubber tips that come on many economy poles are made for hiking quietly in places with lots of pavement or stone. LEKI does sell these rubber tips, but when hiking or backpacking, you should remove them. Leki uses Carbide tips that last for a very long time and let you really dig into whatever you are walking over for a better and safer grip. This is crucial when you are doing any amount of uphill or downhill. These tips keep the poles from sliding so you can lean into the straps and let the poles reduce the impact on your knees and let your arms put in their fair share of work.
- Adjustability: Different poles will come with different systems for adjusting the poles. LEKI has created multiple varieties of their SpeedLock system for adjusting the poles. These are amazingly comfortable to use and, when used correctly, don’t slip as you put weight on the poles. For poles that have 2 adjustment points, like the Makalu Lite COR-TEC, don’t forget to adjust both numbers to the same point. This puts even pressure on each segment of the pole, preventing avoidable breaks.
As you adventure more and you look for new opportunities to lighten your load or improve your gear, you’ll notice that trekking poles are standard for many backpacking enthusiasts. Many pieces of gear are even designed to accommodate or utilize the poles, so don’t write them off as something meant only for people with injuries or age. Tents and rain shelters will reduce their overall weight by using trekking poles for structure instead; packs will provide elastic storage areas for poles when not in use; and there are even special gloves and poles that match together for different kinds of activities.
The end of our trail in Spain took us up and over many hills, through small medieval towns, through rain and sun, and into the walls of Santiago de Compostela. Although that was the end of the trip for Will, it was not the end of his adventures. He went back home to San Diego and went full-force into the sport of hiking. His green and black LEKI poles continue to go with him, faithfully doing their duty to protect his knees and keep him upright.
Whatever the adventure is, wherever you go, and whatever your experience level, what I’m trying to say is:
It is worth giving LEKI a try.
If you want to hear about some other aspects of my adventures in Spain, look no further than some of my past blogs. I discuss the ways we protected our feet during our trip in “5 Tips on Walking Confidently on Your Next Adventure!” and getting the motivation to get started on your own adventures in “What the Camino de Santiago teaches us about the first step.” There are endless good adventures out there and plenty of good and bad advice for each of them. Find what works for you, but make sure to try the options before dismissing them. –Will Heaps