Trekking Poles
By Darren Scruggs

Trekking poles are an enigma to the hiking world in the same way that sushi is to fine dining either you love them or hate them. There is no in between.

When I first started hiking, I was skeptical to the usefulness of trekking poles. Were they another gadget for the consummate gearhead or would they make the hiking experience more enjoyable? During my first attempt, I noticed that the poles would occasionally get entangled in branches along the trail. Also, not having instant use of my hands for pulling myself up over the occasional obstacle proved to be a minor inconvenience.

However, perhaps like sushi, trekking poles are an acquired taste. Over months of regular use, my trekking poles have become a must for either short or extended hikes.

First, I have noticed that they increase my balance when hiking over uneven terrain. Secondly, and perhaps the most important advantage of trekking poles is the decrease in knee strain. Uphill, I use my poles to help decrease the weight placed on the leg that is supporting my weight. For steep grades, I plant the pole adjacent to the supporting leg. When planting the poles in this manner, I notice that my leg joints and lower back feel less strained.

Downhill slopes tend to cause the most strain on knees due to the heavy impact of ones body on the leading knee. This is especially the case when the hiker ports a heavy pack. When hiking downhill, I plant the pole adjacent to my lead leg before my foot touches the ground, lessening the impact of my body weight on my knee.

Unlike sushi, trekking poles undoubtedly have a significant health benefit: helping to prevent stress injuries. Using the old adage that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, trekking poles are definitely worth the money spent on them.

Our group tested a variety of poles and evaluated them according to the following features: Adjustability, adjustment range, packed length, lateral strength, handgrip composition, handgrip angle, baskets, tip composition, tip flexibility, and antishock system. The poles evaluated ranged in price (MSRP) from $90 to $130 per pair.

We reviewed the following trekking poles:
Life-Link Variant 3 Antishock
Life-Link Variant Approach
Tracks Trekr 3
Gabel Quota Anti-Impact Corrective Angle Grip
Leki Super Makalu CorTec Antishock PA

Life-Link Variant 3 Antishock
Adjustment range: 42-58
Packed length: 26
Retail Price: $119/pair

Life-Link Variant 3 AntishockThe Variant 3 Antishock is a sturdy telescoping pole. Its aluminum alloy shaft is tri-sectional and features an antishock system. The antishock system can be disabled by a quick turn of the top section. This is a plus for those who want a more rigid, static pole. The hassle-free length adjustment is accomplished by twisting the two lower sections loose and adjusting them to the desired length.

A 42-58 length range covers a broad spectrum of hiker sizes. At 63 tall, I normally adjust my pole to a length of 50 for moderately uphill terrain. Downhill slopes require an adjustment to a longer pole length in order to transfer weight from the legs and lower back effectively. I noticed that the pole was noticeably less stable at the longer lengths.

The packing size of 26 is one of the smaller lengths of the poles that were evaluated. This is desirable when stowing between hikes or at the campsite.

The handle is constructed of cork, which tends to breath and maintain a reliable grip in even the sweatiest conditions. The handle strap is easily adjustable. Its inner webbing is lined with a plush material that adds comfort to the wrists during the hike.

The grip has a 6-degree positive angle. A positive angle (handle that leans forward) improves the handling of the pole. It provides more comfort allowing the wrist to remain in a neutral position throughout the entire motion of planting the pole.

The Variant 3 Antishock features a flexible, tapered tip made of tungsten carbide. The tungsten carbide provides grip and durability while the upper portion of the tip provides lateral flexibility to prevent the tip from breaking. A small basket comes with each pole, but can be switched with other sizes.

Summary: The Variant 3 Antishock features an antishock system that is easy to disable, hassle-free length adjustment, plush handle strap liner, and a flexible tungsten carbide tip. The Variant 3 Antishock has all of the ingredients of a solid trekking pole.

Contact Life-Link at 800-443-8620 or www.life-link.com

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Life-Link Variant Approach
Adjustment range: 30-49 (75 with Probe Extension accessory)
Packed length: 30
Retail Price: $115/pair

Life-Link Variant ApproachIn addition to its use as a trekking pole, the Variant Approach is designed to be used as a probing pole for backcountry avalanches. It features a two-section adjustable shaft that extends up to 49 in length. The narrow construction of the pole lends itself well to its probing capabilities, but also makes it less sturdy than the other poles that were evaluated.

The length is adequate for small to average sized individuals. Tall outdoor adventurers would most likely favor a longer pole. The pole length can be increased to 75 for probing by attaching the Probe Extension accessory available separately from Life-Link.

The handgrip has a 6-degree positive angle and is constructed of molded rubber. The rubber grip is ideal for use in cold weather using gloves. The handle strap is attached to a quick release clip, which is accessible and easy to adjust with gloved hands.

The tip is made of long lasting carbide and comes with two pairs of baskets: a 2.5 disk basket and a 3.5 snowflake basket. The upper portion of the tip is simply an extension of the lower pole section. It is not flexible as are those that are designed for use in rocky terrain.

Summary: The Variant Approach is designed for outdoor snow adventures in the backcountry. Its simple design makes it easy to use and adjust with gloves on. Its narrow construction makes it ideal for use as a probing pole (especially with the Probe Extension accessory). Though it boasts some unique features, for heavy duty, all weather trekking, I would choose another pole such as the Variant 3 Antishock.

Contact Life-Link at 800-443-8620 or www.life-link.com

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Tracks Trekr 3
Adjustment range: 44-55
Packed length: 25

Tracks Trekr 3The Trekr 3 is a solid tri-section pole designed with a unique push-button length adjustment system. Ten holes are evenly spaced along an 11-inch span of the top section of the shaft. A spring-loaded button attached to the middle section is designed to pop-up through one of the holes in the top section. The length is adjusted by pressing the button through the hole then sliding the lower section in or out until the button pops through an adjacent hole.

The system makes adjustments easy with the exception that occasionally; I would turn the middle section slightly laterally instead of vertically and lose the button. It was obviously still there, but I had to keep twisting the middle section in a spiral pattern until the button found a hole to pop up through.

The grip is contoured and fits well into the hand. However, its rubber construction makes it more likely to cause sweaty palms on warm weather hikes and difficult to maintain a strong grip. The handle strap is made of nylon and is attached to a quick release clip, which make it easy to adjust with gloved hands. The handle appears to have a slight positive angle built in but is not as obvious as others that were evaluated.

The combination of a flexible upper tip and a hardened carbide lower tip make it durable, grip well and yet gives lateral flexibility in instances where the tip may become caught between rocks. The tip is snow basket compatible. A rubber foot is included that attaches to the tip for hikes on pavement. This feature alone made the Trekr 3 my wifes favorite trekking pole.

The length ranging up to 55 is sufficient for tall hikers. However, extending the pole to the limit reduces its stability. The packing size of 25 is the smallest of the poles we evaluated making it convenient to stow.

There is no shock absorption mechanism built into the pole shaft. The rubber foot adds some shock absorption, however using the foot on rocky trails is not recommended, as it would soon wear out.

Summary: The Trekr 3 is a solid pole and a good value for the price. It should meet the needs of many hikers and definitely satisfy those that are more novice. The Trekr 3 features a unique adjustment system which simplifies the selecting a length. The rubber feet are also a plus for those who like to hit the pavement.

Contact Cascade Designs at 206-505-9500 or www.cascadedesigns.com

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Gabel Quota Anti-Impact Corrective Angle Grip
Adjustment range: 29-59"
Packed length: 29"

The first thing that one of our reviewers noticed was that the shock absorption system was much stiffer than other antishock poles that we reviewed. This is because Mountain Safety Research uses a rubber bumper rather than a spring system. The difference was noticeable, but made no evident difference in performance.

The positive angle handgrip is constructed of a cork-like, rubber material, but did not breath as well as other cork handles that we evaluated. The rubber started to break off where the hikers thumb would rub on the handle. The handle strap features a quick release clip, which makes it a snap to adjust.

The pole features a flexible carbide tip, which provides effective gripping over rocky and icy surfaces.

The tri-section pole easily adjusts by twisting each segment to loosen, then adjusting the length before tightening.

Summary: Overall, the Gabel is a good pole. One of our reviewers prefers it to other poles that were evaluated.

Contact Mountain Safety Research at 206-624-8573 or www.msrcorp.com

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Leki Super Makalu CorTec Antishock PA
Adjustment range: 32-56
Packed length: 32

Leki Super Makalu CorTec Antishock PAThe Leki Super Makalu was a favorite among some members of the group for all-around features. However, the Super Makalu is the one of the more expensive of the poles that we evaluated.

The Super Makalu features a tri-section aluminum alloy shaft that is adjustable from 32-56. This satisfies the demands of taller hikers. However, all the poles we evaluated (including the Super Makalu), lost stability when extending length to the upper ranges.

With the Super Makalu, Leki introduced their triple spring antishock system. It features a spring system that can be set individually in three stages. This is accomplished by compressing the middle section into the upper section and twisting the mid section 60 degrees to the right to increase tension (thus decreasing shock absorption). To decrease tension, the hiker reverses the process. The different stages are full antishock, 50% antishock, and no antishock. A definite plus for adjusting for different weights and preferences.

The handle is a positive angle, cork grip that breathes well under warm, sweaty conditions. The forward angle of the handle is 15 degrees, which is more than the other poles we evaluated. The positive angle provided comfortable motion, allowing the wrist to rest in a more natural, neutral position.

The handle also features a Turbo Disk Grip that affords the hiker to quick and easy customization of the release tension for the handle strap. I discovered that Turbo Disk Grip mechanism didnt seem to work any easier than the quick release clip found on other less expensive poles.

Leki states that the flexible synthetic tip can flex up to 30 degrees without damaging the pole shaft. The end of the flexible tip consists of a carbide tip that works well on rocky surfaces. The tip also permits attachment of various sizes of baskets.

Summary: The Super Makalu CorTec Antishock PA was the favorite among group members, but it was relatively expensive. The 15-degree positive angle was a big plus for group members. It evaluated well against the criteria that were determined when performing the evaluations. However, novice trekkers may find satisfaction with quality poles that are less expensive.

Contact Leki at 716-683-1022 or www.leki.com.

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Darren is a Contibuting Editor for GearReview.com, the leading independent source for online gear reviews at www.gearreview.com.

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