Accessories

The Best Poles For Trail Running

Our gear reviewer put six poles to the test. Here's what he found, and why you should consider poles.

For longer or steep adventures and races, trail runners are increasingly turning toward poles for better traction, stability and speed. No matter what your adventure entails, here’s how to pick the poles that are the best for you.

How to Run and Power Hike With Poles

For sizing, most websites offer a chart, but, generally, while holding the pole with your arm at your side and elbow at a 90-degree angle, your forearm should parallel the ground.

As you would a ski pole, insert your hand through the wrist strap from underneath, so that you are pushing down on the loop with the web of
your hand. Leki’s poles all use a unique harness system that lets you get more power out of your plant, but more on that later.

Ditch the rubber/plastic tips in favor of the grippier carbide tips.

On uphills, most people employ the single-pole technique, where you alternate poling every step, similar to classic Nordic-skiing technique, using your normal running stride. To gain more power and propulsion, try a rhythmic double-pole plant, similar to that employed by Nordic skate skiers.

For downhills, poles are not effective at adding propulsion but can help you keep your balance on steep and rugged terrain. Avoid stabbing yourself with a pole in the mid-section on steep downhills should you slip or lose your balance; for this reason, consider taking your hand out of the wrist strap, choking down slightly on the grip and “tick ticking” the poles at your sides for balance, rather than firmly planting and resting weight on them.

On mellow downhills and flats, either run with the poles while holding them in the middle, or break them down and stow them in your hydration pack.

Fixed-Length, Non-Collapsible Poles

Leki Vertical K Poles

Specs: available from 120-140cm, each pole weighs 140g at 120cm with attached glove

Price: $160/pair

Pros: very light, unique Trigger Shark 2.0 “gloves” allow for “superior power transfer,” and offer a wide but adjustable mesh fit. These seem very durable and are well crafted.  The bright red basket catches the eye when moving and makes it easier to place poles with confidence.  The sharp tip digs right into hard dirt.  The gloves attach quickly and securely to the poles and move well with the natural movement of the hand/wrist, yet can be quickly disengaged if the gloves become annoying/unnecessary.  

Cons: the Trigger Shark gloves require some getting used to and make it awkward to use hands for accessing other items while moving, and they can’t be folded for easy hydration vest/fastpack storage. 

The Dirty Verdict: these babies eat up hard dirt and help you to move fast on the trail.  They feel stout for their lightweight and are easy to engage and use your wrists while moving uphill without gripping the handle hard with your hand—which can lead to hand fatigue over long miles.  

Black Diamond Distance Carbon Running Poles

Specs: available from 110-130cm, each pole weighs 95g at 120cm with strap

Price: $150/pair

Pros: exceptionally light (lightest running pole ever made by Black Diamond and “purpose-built for running”), comfortable wicking strap, middle knob accommodates lower uphill grip, replaceable carbide tips.

Cons: Not easy to remove straps, baskets not ideal for talus and snow, can’t be folded for easy hydration vest/fastpack storage. 

The Dirty Verdict: these poles are beautifully crafted for what they’re intended for—moving fast up and down mountains.  There’s nothing extra, and nothing to get in the way.  If you’re after the lightest fixed pole out there that you can also depend on, look no further.

 

Fixed- and Adjustable-Length, Collapsible Poles

Gossamer Gear LT5 Carbon Trekking Poles

Specs: twisting lock system allows poles to extend from 60cm closed to 130cm, each pole weighs 145g with strap but without (the included) baskets

Price: $195/pair

Pros: Very light among folding and adjustable poles, easy to use, durable, middle knob accommodates uphill grip, come with moderately wide baskets that help with negotiating talus and crusty snow.

Cons: the EVA foam can feel wet in hand after a steady rain, and they’re still a bit long (actually, they’re considerably longer when collapsed than any of the other options reviewed here) after telescoped down to fit on some hydration vests.

The Dirty Verdict: I loved the EVA foam grips that look like cork but are softer in hand.  The padded straps are perfectly crafted to cushion the bottom of the hand when pressing down during uphill movement—an outstanding feature.  It’s easy to untwist and remove each of the three sections after returning home and then clean and dry them before reassembling.  I used these as tarp and tent poles on a few trips and the twisting mechanism never budged.  

Leki Micro Trail Pro Poles

 

Specs: available in 110-135cm, each pole weighs 195g at 120cm, non-adjustable push-button set-up

Price: $200/pair 

Pros: Trigger Shark 2.0 gloves allow for “superior power transfer,” have a wide but adjustable mesh fit. Push-button operation allows for poles to be easily locked or disengaged.  They seem very durable and are well crafted, the bright yellow basket catches the eye when moving and makes it easier to place poles with confidence.  The gloves attach quickly and securely to the poles, they move well with the natural movement of the hand/wrist yet can be quickly disengaged if the gloves become annoying/unnecessary.  

Cons: the ‘Trigger Shark’ gloves require some getting used to and make it awkward to use hands for accessing other items while moving.  They’re not the lightest option for folding poles.

The Dirty Verdict: these poles pose a formidable challenge to the omnipresent Black Diamond Z Poles.  While they are heavier, they seem a bit stouter and provide a specialized glove to provide greater power transfer without having to squeeze the grip as hard.  They fold down easily (about the same length as the Z Poles) and I like the mesh bag that Leki provides as a carrying feature.  

 

Leki Micro Trail Vario Poles

Specs: lever lock system allows poles to extend from 42cm folded to 110-130cm, each pole weighs 205g 

Price: $250/pair

Pros: Trigger Shark 2.0 gloves allow for “superior power transfer”, has a wide but adjustable mesh fit.  Locking device operation allows for poles to extend to a runner’s necessary height.  They seem very durable and are clearly well crafted, and the bright yellow basket catches the eye when moving and makes it easier to place poles with confidence.  The gloves attach quickly and securely to the poles, they move well with the natural movement of the hand/wrist yet can be quickly disengaged if the gloves become annoying/unnecessary.  

Cons:  Though a bit heavier than the competition, the ‘Trigger Shark’ gloves require some getting used to and make it awkward to use hands for accessing other items while moving, not the lightest option for folding poles

The Dirty Verdict: I enjoyed the versatility these poles afforded.  They allowed me to change the pole height easier than any of the other poles I tested—a feature I really appreciated when using them to pitch different shelter systems after fastpacking all day.  They fold down easily (though they are still a couple of inches longer when folded than the Z Poles) and I like the mesh bag that Leki provides as a carrying feature.  

 

Black Diamond Distance Carbon Z  Poles

Specs: available from 110-130cm, BD says they’re “now stronger with improved joint support and durability.” Each pole weighs 150g at 120cm with a strap.  They have an EVA foam grip with a moisture-wicking strap.

Price: $170/pair

Pros: A middle knob accommodates uphill grip, there are replaceable carbide tips, they’re compatible with Z-Pole snow baskets and feature comfortable wicking straps, a middle knob to accommodate a lower uphill grip.

Cons: not as light as the fixed Distance Carbon poles, not easy to remove straps, baskets not ideal for talus and snow.

The Dirty Verdict: the Distance Carbon Z poles are a trail-running classic and the recent design tweaks only make them better.  I love the slightly wider wicking straps and the fact that so many trail running hydration vests seem to be designed for carrying these specific poles.