Trekking poles have been a staple of European mountain races since the 1980s, but it took about 30 more years for them to become commonplace in the United States. In that time, the technology of pole construction evolved at a remarkable rate—from heavy aluminum poles with no adjustability, to ultra-lightweight carbon fiber contraptions of variable length that can pack down small enough to fit in your hydration vest.
As the audience for trekking poles has expanded, product development has become more focused on the specific needs of trail runners. Features like shaft geometry and diameter, optimal weight distribution, strap convenience, and speed of collapsing and extending the poles became performance contributors in much the same way that runners consider shoe grip and jacket breathability.
We’ve spent the summer testing four high-performance pole options in mountain running environments and big vert days on our home trails. Each of these are made with 100% carbon fiber shafts, providing the best strength-to-weight ratio of any pole material on the market. Any of them are more than adequate to get you through a tough mountain ultra, but there are subtle distinctions between them that might make you more inclined to reach for one over the others.
LEKI MCT 12 Vario ($250)
The most distinctive product in this grouping is definitely the MCT12, partially because it is the only adjustable length model we picked, but primarily because it uses a unique grip and strap system. LEKI’s Trigger Shark mesh strap is worn on your hand like a very short and thin palm glove. This year’s Trigger Shark mesh is significantly thinner, lighter, and better moisture-wicking than the previous version, but it still rides hotter in warm conditions than traditional straps. Fortunately, it is machine-washable, so you avoid the “strap funk” that some poles get after long-term use. Cork grips are also distinctive in this category, and we found them very effective at absorbing moisture from your hand and maintaining grip strength.
Using the Trigger Shark takes some getting used to and has some clear advantages, but also some drawbacks. Instead of unstrapping from the glove to free your hand, you press on the top of the pole to activate a quick-release mechanism and disconnect from the pole. Disconnecting is slightly trickier than pulling your wrist out from standard straps, but reattachment is remarkably simple by pressing your strap loop into the pole attachment. Functionally, the Trigger Shark equalizes the downward pressure across the entire wrist, as opposed to traditional straps that can sometimes cause irritation or chafing at specific hotspots. One key downside to note is that it’s difficult to press on the top of the poles for propulsion as some runners like to do.
The MCT 12 folds down to the shortest length of our test group, and locks into extension with a simple tug. Length markings on the shaft are large and clear to ensure quick and uniform adjustment to your preferred height. The primary risk of adjustable poles is that they can sacrifice some rigidity with downward loading, but the Speed Lock 2 mechanism feels rock solid when applying strong pressure. This mechanism is a standout feature, which LEKI modified and improved in 2020 to make smaller and lighter than the previous version, with 20% greater holding force. The result is that lockdown on the MCT 12 is as tight as we’ve used on any adjustable pole.
Ultimate Direction FK Ultra ($190)
Ultimate Direction is a relative newcomer to the pole category, and the FK Ultra is the first collapsible model in their lineup. At first touch they feel like they have significant girth, and indeed, their diameter is the widest in this test group. But there is a functional aspect to this design method. The shaft tapers from 20mm across just below the handle to 10mm across at the base, creating a geometry that is dramatic by trekking pole standards. By comparison, the other poles here only vary by a couple of millimeters from top to bottom. This tapering positions more of the average weight of the pole closer to your hands, which helps the bottom ends swing more quickly – in this regard, the biomechanics mimic the anatomic movements of your arms and legs. The tapering also increases shaft rigidity at the joints, similar to stacking inverted plastic cones inside one another.
The FK Ultra poles extend rather effortlessly, and the handle locks into place after full extension through a half-circle notch cut into the metal collar at the base of the grip. As with the shaft, the EVA foam grips of these poles have the largest circumference in our test group, but they do not feel cumbersome. Shallow ridges in the foam help with grip, but can still become slightly slick when damp with sweat. Another unique design aspect of the FK Ultra is positioning of the straps, which are anchored on top of the pole instead of just below the top surface like other poles. We really enjoyed this design, as it directs all of the downward pressure from your straps through the top of the pole – and it’s ideally positioned if you’re one who likes pushing directly on top of the pole.
Black Diamond Distance Carbon Z ($170)
Black Diamond has a well-established reputation for creating the lightest trekking poles on the market, and the Distance Carbon Z is their lightest folding pole. The carbon fiber shafts have a thin diameter of 13mm at the handles and 12mm at the base. The obvious concern with thin poles is durability, so Black Diamond reinforced the joint support and stability in this model, and we haven’t experienced any deficits in our extensive testing this summer. In regards to storage and deployment, the Distance Carbon Z is the easiest folding pole we’ve used. You can collapse it in a matter of seconds, and extension is very smooth with a quick pull on the shaft below the handle.
We love Black Diamond’s handle configuration, utilizing firm EVA foam with deep laser-cut ribs that allow a small amount of airflow beneath the palm of your hand; these ribs also help maintain your grip even in wet conditions. The straps anchor just below the top of the pole, and are designated with left and right sides, but we were able to use the poles interchangeably on either side without noticing a difference. One issue to be aware of with BD poles is that they come installed with rubber tech tips, which we find effective only for pure rocky environments in high mountains. For use in dirt or mixed terrain, we prefer the carbide tip, which is included with the package, but requires a pliers to install. Once the carbide tips are installed, you don’t have a protective storage tip for them (they are sold separately for ($7), so you need to be a bit careful when storing your poles on a wooden floor or other scratchable surfaces.
Black Diamond Distance Carbon ($150)
Here’s the deal with non-collapsible poles: if you can manage the inconvenience when you’re not using them – the inability to pack them in a suitcase for travel or stash them in a vest on the trail – the advantages of actually using them are significant. Eliminating folding joints in a carbon shaft allows a manufacturer to maintain the same strength and durability at a significantly decreased weight. Case in point is Black Diamond’s Distance Carbon pole, which is essentially the same model as the Distance Carbon Z, but without the collapsibility. It weighs in a full 25% lighter than the Distance Carbon Z, and the difference in weight is definitely noticeable; it feels like you’re barely swinging any weight at all when using these poles, and their weight isn’t burdensome in the least when you’re carrying them. A simple but cool design aspect we appreciate is the narrow plastic mid-shaft ring that identifies the balance point for horizontal carrying and also gives your fingers a nice grip point on the otherwise smooth shaft.
Compared to the Z-pole version, the Distance Carbon poles have a slightly thinner handle, but handle construction is otherwise identical, with deep ribs cut into firm contoured EVA, and moisture-wicking straps anchored just below the top. One other distinction for these Black Diamond poles compared to the Z-pole version is that they are available in smaller, 5cm length increments, as opposed to 10cm increments on the Distance Carbon Z. However, the size range is different, as the non-collapsing version only goes down to 110cm as opposed to 100 for the Z-pole. As with the Distance Carbon Z, these Distance Carbon poles come with rubber tech tips installed, and carbide tips included.
|LEKI MCT 12 Vario||Ultimate Direction |
|Black Diamond Distance Carbon Z||Black Diamond Distance Carbon|
(single pole, for 130cm length)
|Grip and Strap||Cork grip with Trigger Shark mesh strap||EVA foam grip with nylon strap||EVA foam grip with nylon strap||EVA foam grip with nylon strap|
|Size range||110-130cm||105 to 135cm, in 5cm increments||100 to 130cm, in 10cm increments||110 to 130cm, in 5cm increments|
|Folded length||42cm||44cm||43cm (for 130cm size)||N/A|
|Protective caps||Included||Included||Sold separately ($7)||Sold separately ($7)|