High strength per ounce
Poor luggage factor
High bonking and poking
Something in me rebells against paying for things that ought to be free — like hiking sticks, staffs and air. All that’s needed to create a serviceable trekking pole is minimal awareness of one’s surroundings and a pocket knife, not cash. Having been recently forced to intensely study the new line of hiking tools I do now realize there are certain advantages to them. For example, I’d never consider taking my wooden staff (six feet of red oak) with me on a plane, but a trekking pole could go anywhere. (If hiking in Thailand again I’d get a good bamboo staff locally.)
There is a nostalgia factor where good gear’s involved, and a good trekking pole with scars from years of your favorite hikes could telescope into your carry-on luggage and go with you. With collapsible trekking poles and hiking staffs, transport isn’t a problem. That makes them price-competitive with the wooden staff if you do order them over the internet. Wooden poles might start off a lot cheaper, but the longer versions cost so much to ship that you could get an equivalent hi-tech trekking pole for nearly the same cost. I do believe there are times when the extra cost is justified, because collapsible poles are not martial arts poles. Wooden staffs created from the best straight-grained hardwood aren’t common. You probably wouldn’t find a tree which could yield one if you spend two weeks in an average American forest. Paying the shipping probably is kinder to the environment than cutting down a bunch of trees looking for the perfect stave. I’ve done that, and I did get a good staff that way, but I think buying one from a kung fu weapons supplier caused less havoc. If you’re only looking for a staff that will hold up a tarp in a pinch and give you extra footing and stability on the trail, you can save ounces and money by buying a good trekking or hiking pole.
Until recently, unless you were a high alpine traveler you probably didn’t use a hiking staff; and if you were, you carried an ice axe. In this country most people thought of the hiking staff as unnecessary. I still get strange looks from people for carrying my oak staff on the trail, and I probably always will. I’ve felt much the same way about people walking the trails with a pair of carbon fiber trekking poles in hand, but now I have to admit that for some, those are the better idea.
Trekking poles, either single or double, fit the person who’s concerned about weight. A carbon fiber trekking pole might only weight six or eight ounces and it has more than enough strength to put you right again if you make a mis-step on a hairpin turn and your backpack tries to send you over the cliff. That’s not an exaggeration. Backpacks ride high on the human body, and that higher center of gravity is only stable in a very narrow vertical plane. Lean in any direction just a little too far, and a butterfly could tip you over. A tiny push on the trekking pole sets you upright again. If balance and safety are the prime concern, the trekking pole fits.
Hiking with trekking poles relieves stress on the back and allows travelers to move in a more upright position. You see more of the countryside around you, and you suffer less. When you get tired and reach that clumsy stumbling stage, you have two extra feet on the trail. That’s where you’ll find most of the value of trekking poles — on the long hauls, not the short scrambles over boulders or across swollen creeks. Adventures in the back country are rare, but hazards are always lurking in the form of roots and rocks and ankles too tired to stay upright.
My favorites of the modern trekking poles include the Black Diamond Alpine Carbon Cork Trekking Poles — available either as a pair or a solo trekking pole. These don’t feature shock absorbing joints and therefore require less maintenance and should present fewer failures. A non-compressing stick also has a faster response time. Once it’s set, you can depend on it. Black Diamond experiments with more expensive oval cross-section poles, but the more complex things get the more likely you are to see problems. Round poles present fewer construction issues. Black Diamond poles lock together with joints that test stronger than a plain section of pole stock, so why mess with it any more than that?
I have a personal doubt about the wisdom of hiking with two poles, since for the past fifty and more years I’ve functioned just fine with only one. Carrying one cuts the weight in half and leaves one hand free for wiping the sweat out of your eyes, looking for the trail food bar, or whatever else you need to do. Use one arm for awhile, shift the pole to the other, and rest the other arm — it’s a very simple and time-tested traveling method. The best single trekking pole I’ve found is the Leki Sierra SAS (Soft Anti-Shock) Trekking Pole, which accepts convenient attachments and doubles as much more than a simple staff. Use it as a camera stand, spotting scope platform, or a shooting rest if you like. The Leki does include anti-shock technology, but most people will like that. John Wayne will roll over in his grave about it, but we may just have to accept higher levels of comfort.
Paying the highest price isn’t always the right way to find good gear. The Kaito Electronics Hammers HP9 Anti-shock Hiking Pole gets consistently high ratings from owners and offers shock-absorbing technology and a cheap crap compass and thermometer. This isn’t a comfort stick and you don’t really get much besides stick. There’s a snow disc for extra support in powder, but I wouldn’t expect it to have a long lifetime. The thermometer’s useless, since all you really need to know is whether you’re comfortable or not. Throw the thermometer away to save a half ounce of weight. But keep the compass — even a cheap bubble compass can tell you where you went wrong. If you want a stout stick for less bucks, go HP9 — and don’t complain about the little stuff.
I wouldn’t recommend trying to adjust any trekking pole while in the field. I doubt that anyone would try that more than once. It’s so easy to just grab a lower section of the pole if you’re working your way upslope; while extending the pole’s sections to go downslope — well, to most of us it’s silly. We can all agree with John Wayne on that one, as being totally unnecessary. If you do decide to mess with things, use a hanky to clean the pole first. Any dirt that gets into the fittings will cause them to either bind up completely or slip under load. Save the adjusting process for the living room.
Personally, I really like some of these trekking poles, but I’m using the wooden staff. I actually have three — one that I bought, one that I made from a long pick handle now in short supply, and one that I killed eight good cedar trees to find. I wouldn’t trade any one of them for a hi-tech trekking pole. Try to wrap one of those around a tree trunk with a horizontal smash and you’ll see why. Try either kind if you want; the wooden staff stills works afterwards.
For another look at the old and the new approach to hiking staffs and trekking poles, visit Jimmy’s Backpacking Page (my main website) where I have articles about weapons for the trail including trail spears, sapling staffs and survival staffs. At the survival staff section in the Staff Market page you’ll find information about some independently manufactured modern hiking staffs with practical survival options like spears, knives and blowguns built in. As yet you won’t find them on Amazon.