The legs will keep you upright in most conditions. But in the slippery, uneven backcountry, it’s good to have something extra to lean on.
The first time I hiked down into Arizona’s Grand Canyon was almost my last. a super-heavy pack, naivete about my physical capabilities, and a resulting bum knee left me crumpled beside the Colorado River. Back home, I drove straight to my local camping store to buy trekking poles. Now I always carry a pair and have hiked the canyon many times since with nary an aching knee.
So it made sense to head back to the Grand Canyon when we decided to test trekking poles. With rugged, knee-straining trails that gain and lose 5,000 feet in elevation in less than 10 miles, the canyon Is the perfect pole proving ground.
Our test crow Included two editors and three instructors from the Grand Canyon Field Institute who lead weeklong backpacking trips in the national park. Testing took place in the canyon and on the Appalachian Trail, in Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountains, and o the boggy tundra and steep talus in Canada’s Yukon Territory. The crew hiked roughly 1,200 total miles during testing, logging a minimum of 100 miles per model.
For this review, we focused on three-section, telescoping aluminum poles with built-in shock absorbers (with one exception) and Interchangeable baskets. The reviews follow in order of overall performance.
Alpina Masters Adventure
Highly reliable, all-purpose poles that are comfortable, easy to use, and affordable.
Everyone, from small-handed Melanie to big-pawed Jon, raved about the Adventures’ rubber, positive-angle grips. “I could lock down on the handles and get good, consistent plants while boulder hopping,” noted Jon. Melanie said that the climbing-shoe-sticky rubber grips never slipped from her sweaty palms.
The Adventures may be the most durable and stable poles we tested. “The strong support and stopping power kept me from tumbling down a 20-foot pour-off,” confessed Jack. Mike B. accidentally “dropped one pole down a 50-foot cliff. It cartwheeled over a nasty boulder field and came to rest unscathed.”
We applauded the affordable $70 price and several unique features. For instance, the “on-off” shock absorber at the base of the handle (rather than at midshaft, like others with this feature) allowed us to adjust the length of the pole without accidentally switching off the shock. And the pole’s rotating clip system made switching baskets easier than usual.
Gripes were minimal. Some testers experienced chafing from the thin nylon wrist straps, and Mike F. likened the noise of the tips on slickrock to the “clinking of Grandma’s walker.”
A sturdy, no-frills pair of poles that hold steady on slippery slopes.
The Supremes proved to be the Volvos of the poles we tested; they aren’t showy, but they’ll get you where you need to go. Top honors for “sticking power” went to these poles for their longer-than-usual carbide tips that held steady while crossing swift streams, on talus slopes, and on dicey Grand Canyon trails. “I was nearly cutting an edge on some ice-covered South Rim switchbacks,” recalled Mike B., “but between my instep crampons and these poles, I never felt out of control.”
We all liked the wrist-coddling straps made of soft, sweat-absorbing neoprene that’s wide enough to disperse pressure. However, the two big-handed Mikes both found the cork grips on the Supremes too small. Another concern was the shock’s on-off mechanism. To activate the shock-absorbing function, you twist the shaft – the same motion used for adjusting length. So, with almost every length adjustment, the shock switches on or off, making the feature less convenient.
Komperdell Contour Grip Foam Antishock
A good choice for winter warriors and hikers who don’t like making constant pole-length adjustments.
Made of cushy EVA foam that extends down the shafts an extra 8 Inches, the grips on the Contours are extremely accommodating. In the rain, sleet, and snow, the foam felt better in our hands than other grip materials did. The elongated grips also helped us choke up when climbing, so we didn’t have to pause to shorten the poles. Broad, padded neoprene straps add more comfort, though Melanie found the grips too big for her hands. The foam-covered shafts – warmer to the touch than metal – and the Contours’ excellent sticking power In snow and slush make these poles stellar winter performers.
Each lightweight Contour collapses to a tidy 29 Inches for easy lashing onto a pack, but that lightness comes at a price. The shaft bent slightly under heavy duress on two occasions, and one of the plastic caps between the shaft sections came off.
Mountain Safety Research Overland 1
These are the poles for no-frills fast packers who value quiet over the cushion.
It could be the silver color or the wrist-friendly angled grips, but something about the OverLands gave me a need for speed. The easy-to-hold, gel-like rubber grips and the lightweight aluminum shafts combined to make me feel I could hike quickly and effortlessly over the established mountain and canyon trails. The OverLands’ handles were the best fits in the test for Melanie but were too small for big-handed Jon when he donned gloves.
We all appreciated the twist-lock adjustments that never collapsed under our weight, even on pounding canyon descents. The stiff nylon straps that adjust with a plastic buckle did rub some of us the wrong way, though. There also were concerns about the OverLands’ limited shock-absorbing capability. The spring in these poles provides little bounce for the buck. That wasn’t considered a shortcoming by everyone, though. There’s less rebound action from the shocks. And Mike F. rated the OverLands his favorite poles because, among other things, they had the quietest bounce of any shock absorber.
REI Haute Route II
Good for big-handed hikers who want a pair of sturdy poles at an affordable price.
Testers praised the sturdy construction and support offered by what Jon dubbed “stout sticks that didn’t wobble for an instant when I crossed the wide, rocky, thigh-deep Klondike River in the Yukon.” We also liked the soft, neoprene-padded straps, the rubber midshaft grips, and the length markings on both the mid- and bottom shafts for precision adjusting.
The crew found the foam-covered handles too thick for any but extra-large hands; the awkward fit raised blisters between my thumbs and index fingers during a Grand Canyon rim-to-river hike. The twist-lock adjustments frustrated some because they tended to collapse unless tightened with a death grip. As the last in line to test the Haute Route II pair, Jon witnessed what the unforgiving igneous rock of the Yukon’s Tombstone Mountains could do to the poles’ well-used carbide tips. “A week of hard use flattened what was left of the serration. The tips then slipped off rocks like high heels on a hockey rink.”
A fine choice for rugged cross-country treks where you need support, but no extra weight.
The stout but lightweight Leki-Sports received top marks for support and stability. “These tubes felt as strong as any I’ve used,” reported Jon, who took the Leki-Sports snowshoeing in Colorado’s Indian Peaks Wilderness. “They’re so light,” he said, “but didn’t wobble, even when I leaned my full weight against them.” Of three different brands that 190-pound Mike F. used while backcountry skiing in the Sawtooths, only these didn’t bend.
We also liked the Leki-Sports’ smooth and springy shock absorption on rugged terrain; they cushioned our footfalls onto rock ledges but didn’t rebound so fast that we felt like we were going to bounce off the cliff.
Unfortunately, some durability issues arose. After 100 miles of hard hiking, the expander on one of the Leki-Sports’ twist-locks started to fail and became difficult to tighten. The cork grip on one handle also started to break off.
Leki USA Super Makalu Cor-Tec PA
A pair of quality poles for high-mileage hiking on established trails, if you don’t mind the straps.
The Super Makalus are the pogo sticks of the poles we tested. On long stretches of even trail, we appreciated the extra bounce the springy shock absorbers put in our step. On dicey terrain, though, that bounce was sometimes problematic. “Getting great push-off helped propel me across the long, flat stretches of the Grand Canyon’s Tonto Trail,” said Mike B. However, Jon noted that the Makalus were “too bouncy. When I was moving fast downhill and planted hard and quickly, the rebound jarred my shoulders.”
The Makalus proved to be sturdy poles for their weight, although Mike F. managed to bend a tip while backcountry skiing. We liked the positive-angle cork grips on hot, high-mileage hikes; they absorbed sweat and assisted in fast striding. But, because the Makalus topped the price category at $/29, we expected more from the thin nylon wrist straps (which caused chafing for most) and from the adjustment dials in the handles (the straps loosened on their own for several testers).
Lightweight poles for hikers who can overlook chafing straps and adjustment issues.
We were surprised at the support and stability provided by the super-skinny Aide-de-Camps. The diameters of the middle and lower shafts of these sticks were nearly half those of some of the heavier models. Melanie, who used the Aide-de-Camps on numerous uneventful stream crossings in the Grand Canyon, rated the poles a 5 for support. The big-pawed testers also appreciated the extra-long rubber handles for their mitten-friendly gripping space.
A few points: The long carbide tips bit into dirt and duff like baseball cleats, but the absence of serration made the tips skitter across rock surfaces. The straps rubbed three of us the wrong way, and a worn internal expander made one pole difficult to adjust. (Note: These poles do not have shock absorbers.)