The walking stick has been around since…well, since tree branches fell to the ground. With time the basic walking stick was evolved into manufactured trekking poles. These trekking poles became an essential piece of gear for hikers. As trail running has become more popular, we have seen a big shift in the design, weight and style of trekking poles for the creation of a trail running pole. Nowadays it is hard to find photos from a trail race that doesn’t include at least a few pairs of trail running poles. There are a few reasons for this, so before we jump into the review for trail running poles, let’s talk about why you may want a pair in your arsenal.
Why should you consider using trekking/trail running poles?
- Maintain Pace — My high school cross country coach told us to focus on moving our arms faster and our legs would follow. I still use this advice, nearly 20 years later. While I’m rarely sprinting along the trails I do depend upon the rhythm of poles to keep me moving forward with purpose. This helps on uphills that aren’t quite runnable and on flatter stretches I just can’t convince my legs to run…the poles keep me moving at a decent pace since my arms are constantly in motion.
- Climb Efficiently — When you’re headed uphill without poles all the work falls to your legs and your quads/hamstrings take a beating. When you add poles into this equation you suddenly have the strength of your upper body helping you. Rather than depending upon your lower legs to push you upward you can use your arms/shoulders to help pull yourself upward.
- Navigate Technical Descents — The easiest way to keep yourself upright is to add another point of contact between you and the trail. Just look at how easily dogs navigate technical terrain with four legs to balance between! Poles can do this for you! If you have poles with you when you’re going down a rocky route you can use them to lean upon as your feet find solid ground. This technique is also useful when crossing rivers or balancing on logs.
What are some downfalls of trekking/trail running poles?
- Training Required — Yes, the concept of using poles seems pretty straight forward but they do take some getting used to. If you want to have a positive experience with poles you’ll want to train with them before you decide to depend on them — don’t show up on race day with new poles and no experience, that’s the recipe for a bad time! Work your way into using them with shorter runs and don’t be afraid to use them in training even if you don’t really *need* them. This will help build up strength and muscle memory for race day. Also, there is a right and a wrong way to use a pole and it is all in how you wrap your wrist into the strap. The purpose of the strap is to allow you to rest your arm into it and control the pole with your full arm rather than depending upon the death grip of your hand. Check out the photos in the review below for close up shots of the proper way to use the straps to ensure you get the most efficiency out of your poles!
- Extra Gear — It is unlikely you’ll be needing your poles for 100% of the trail race or adventure you’re headed out on. This means you’ll need a place and way to stash them when they’re not in use. Many trail running poles are collapsible or telescoping so you’ll be able to make them smaller before you tuck them into/onto your pack. However, that takes time and energy. Sometimes it is easier to simply put both poles in one hand and run with them at your side. Just remember to keep an eye on your surroundings and other trail users when you do this!
- Race Restrictions + Complications — If you’re hoping to race with your poles be sure to check with the race regulations before you commit to a race day strategy. Some races do not allow any poles while others allow them, but require that you carry them start to finish [no picking up/dropping off with drop bags or crew]. These regulations are usually laid out quite clearly, just read up and plan ahead. If you are using your poles in a race be sure to pay attention to the runners around you, especially if the majority of runners have poles. It is extremely easy to get poles criss-crossed, to trip another runner or to get stabbed with a wild pole.
Personally, I always have poles available when taking on big adventures. They usually start out strapped to my pack, where they live until I need them. I will put them to use when I start a steep ascent or when I feel my legs slowing down. It has taken me awhile to get onto the trail running pole bandwagon, but now that I’m here I am pretty committed. So, without any more chatter, let’s jump into the review for some of the best trail running poles on the market today!
The Distance Carbon Z-Pole is Black Diamond’s lightest trail running pole. It is designed to be light and fast. The Distance Carbon Z-Pole is created with a lightweight carbon material and folds down into about ⅓ of its full length for easy stashing when not in use. The folding design also allows for easy deployment when you’re on the move — simply pull the poles to their full length as you’re running. The grips are made of EVA foam, designed to be both non-slip and wicking. The most rigorous testing on these poles was an off-trail adventure that led to eight hours of using these poles to push and pull us over talus and boulder fields. They got scuffed, but not a single dent was found at the end of the day!
What We Loved: The Distance Carbon Z-Pole is intuitive to use, easy to stash in your pack and comfortable to use. Also, there is a notch in the pole baskets to secure the collapsed pole pieces when it is collapsed into a “z.”
- Fit + Feel + Function: The grips fit with comfort and the wrist straps do not cut into your arms. The poles are easy to whip out into rigid poles but also are simple to collapsible [a single button to secure/push].
- Style + Weight + Length: This is a folding pole, using Black Diamond’s Z-Pole technology to collapse. The 120cm poles weigh 10.5oz per pair and fold down into 40cm when collapsed.
- What We Would Change: We didn’t have any issues with this pole while doing this review, but have heard of others breaking their poles without much effort. With the carbon fiber material this is not unheard of, but is worth considering.
The LEKI Micro Trail Pro pole was designed specifically for trail runners, from the ground up [no converting a trekking pole into a trail running pole!]. This completely new design has allowed LEKI to create an incredibly lightweight and comfortable pole for trail runners…from the pole to the grip to the strap. They have designed a Trigger Shark System which is a new take on attaching you to your pole. Rather than slipping your hand through a velcro strap, the Trigger Shark System has a mesh half-glove that fits securely around the palm of your hand. Between your thumb and index finger is a small loop that clips into the top of the Micro Trail Pro handle…then removed with the push of a trigger button with your thumb. This sounds complicated, but it is an amazing feature — check out the photos to get a better understanding. The Trigger Shark System also offers different styles of gloves you can use for variable seasons. We took these LEKI Micro Trail Pro poles along for the epic off-trail adventure mentioned above and they faired just as well! There were no dents after eight hours of slamming into rocks and the Trigger Shark half-glove worked great when we swapped poles for hands-on-rocks scrambling.
What We Loved: The Trigger Shark System is a genius way to blend together gloves and pole straps. I definitely fell in love when I realized the half-glove works great as an extra layer of protection when scrambling!
- Fit + Feel + Function: The Micro Trail Pro is an extremely lightweight pole that is quick to set up, easy to stash and comfortable to use. The Trigger Shark System did take a few tries to get used to [I kept pushing the trigger the wrong direction] but once you have used the trigger a few times it becomes easy. The half-glove may not snuggly fit narrower hands. While this may feel wrong, a snug fit isn’t really necessary to keep you in control of your trail running pole.
- Style + Weight + Length: This is a folding pole that uses Push Button technology to secure/release the pole. The 120cm poles weigh 6.9oz per pair and fold down into 37cm when collapsed.
- What We Would Change: The only thing that I missed having in this pole was a notch in the basket to secure the three segments of pole when it is collapsed. I found the various parts of the pole to get all twisted up, which got frustrating when on the move.
The Raidlight Compact Carbon Ultra Pole is a lightweight, sturdy pole with a breathable grip and adjustable wrist strap. This set of trail running poles will help you confidently move along technical trails. The poles collapse down into three sections so you can easily stash them in your pack or quickly deploy them when the trail gets technical. The Compact Carbon Ultra Pole is made entirely of carbon fiber with reinforcements where the foldable pieces come together for added durability. The hand grips are made with EVA foam for a comfortable feel while the light, flexible wrist straps adjust easily. They also have a durable tungsten tip at the end of each pole with a solid rubber cover [I actually kept this tip cover on while running a rockier trail because it kept the constant ‘click click’ sound at bay while still providing grip].
What We Loved: The poles feel strong and durable while still being very lightweight. This, combined with the easy to adjust wrist strap, make them a quick go-to pole.
- Fit + Feel + Function: The Raidlight Compact Carbon Ultra Pole is a sturdy pole that feels strong in your hands when you’re taking on technical trail. A quick flick of the wrist will get the pole ready to secure into place, then you’re off! They also are quite easy to fold down when not in use with a notch in the basket to somewhat secure them.
- Style + Weight + Length: This is a folding pole that collapses into three sections. The 123cm poles weigh 11.2oz per pair and fold down to 40cm when collapsed.
- What We Would Change: This may sound very nit-picky, but the shafts of these poles are so slick it’s hard to keep them in place when tucked into a pack. Without a velcro wrist strap to tighten around them they tend to bounce around a lot [in various packing setups].
The FK Trekking Pole is the first trail running pole created by Ultimate Direction, a leader in running hydration vests. They recently jumped right into trekking poles with a new take on the design — a thicker pole. The FK Trekking Pole flaunts a 20mm upper diameter while the standard among other poles is about 13-14mm. This added diameter increased the strength and stiffness of the poles with only a marginal amount of weight added. The pole tapers down to the lower 20cm, which is wrapped in an aramid material designed to protect the carbon fiber pole from rocks and elements on the move. These poles are designed to be durable and take the abuse of technical trails for long periods of time.
What We Loved: The poles are comfortable to carry when not in use as they seem to be nicely weighted when held mid-shaft as you run. The added aramid material (kevlar) near the bottom of the shaft will also prove to be very useful as the poles take on the abuse of technical, rocky trails.
- Fit + Feel + Function: The FK Trekking poles feel sturdy when you’re using them, giving you the confidence to really go for it on the trail. They also come with snow baskets [larger in circumference] so you can also use these when you’re hitting the trail in the winter months.
- Style + Weight + Length: This is a fixed length pole, meaning it is always at 120cm [or whatever length you purchase]. The 120cm poles weigh about 8oz [no length-specific weights listed online].
- What We Would Change: The wrist straps are attached at the top of the handle, which gets in the way when you want to rest your thumb there. The straps are inserted with a plug rather than a loop at the side, which makes them feel less durable. Also, they’re fixed length poles with no adjustments or collapsing…something to consider if you prefer to stash your poles when not in use.