Hiking for seniors is gaining in popularity as baby boomers retire. But, what we once could do in our younger days is now a challenge on the trail. To help combat the ruggedness of a trail is one piece of equipment that older hikers simply can not do without – hiking poles.
But, it seems these days all the big-box retailers and internet stores sell hiking poles. So, how do you decide what hiking poles to get?
What hiking poles you ultimately end up selecting must match your budget, abilities, and trail itineraries. Hiking seniors require gear to have some specific features. Let’s look at what you need to know about each element of hiking poles.
And, the 7 critical questions you need to ask yourself before you buy.
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Hiking For Seniors: The 7 Things To Consider Before Buying Trekking Poles
You need to consider several factors when deciding which poles to buy.
- Have you hiked with trekking poles before?
- Are you using hiking poles for day hikes or for backpacking?
- How many consecutive days will you be on the trail?
- Will you be driving or flying to your hiking destination?
- Is your body weight within a normal range for your height?
- Do your knees or hips give you trouble?
- Does setting up your backpacking tent or shelter require hiking poles?
- What are the best hiking poles?
The Must-Have Features for Any Trekking Pole
Old geezers don’t want to pay an arm and a leg for backpacking equipment. But as an older hiker, your cheap garden store variety from Walmart or Big 5 Sporting Goods will just never do.
Trekking Poles Need These Basic Features
- Each pole should weigh no more than 9 ounces
- Trekking poles must have tungsten-carbide tips (preferably replaceable tips)
- Cork or EVA hand grips are required to wick away sweat from your hands
- Pole shafts made from aircraft quality 7075-T6 aluminum or reinforced 3k carbon-fiber
- Twist lock or adjustable lever non-slip height adjustment locking mechanism
- The locking mechanism must hold full body weight without collapsing
- One year warranty against all defects
- Three-month return policy for any reason if not fully satisfied
What Do You Look For When Buying Hiking Poles
Below, is an extensive list of the must-have features for any trekking pole and especially for hiking seniors.
- Hiking poles use carbon-fiber or aluminum for the shafts. The type of aluminum used and the carbon-fiber fabrication method affect the quality.
- Aluminum shafts come in different diameters and thicknesses.
- Hiking poles have either cork or EVA foam handgrips. In addition, some poles have ergonomic handgrips angled to minimize wrist stress.
- Hiking pole tips are either steel or tungsten-carbide. Some poles have replaceable tips.
- Hiking poles are either fixed in length or the length is adjustable. For instance, many hiking poles are telescoping. That is, one shaft section slides into another section. But, some trekking poles are not adjustable. Some non-adjustable hiking poles break apart into three or more sections to save space in your backpack.
- In addition some foldable hiking poles height adjustments within a limited range.
Trekking Pole Weight – Aluminum vs Carbon
When it comes to a hiking pole’s weight, you need to look no further than its shaft.
A hiking pole’s weight is largely determined by the material used for the shaft. Modern hiking poles are generally made from either aluminum or carbon-fiber. Each has its own set of advantages and disadvantages.
Aluminum hiking poles are the most durable and economical of the two. They typically cost half of what the same quality carbon fiber pole will cost. Normally aluminum poles are two to five ounces heavier than carbon fiber poles. Made from high-quality aircraft strength aluminum, they weigh between 9 and 11 ½ ounces per pole.
Aluminum has a distinct advantage that the pole will generally only bend when it reaches its maximum stress limit rather than breaking. However, the tradeoff comes with weight.
Carbon fiber poles have composite shafts that are either entirely or partially made from carbon. They are generally much lighter than aluminum poles, weighing between 7 and 8 ounces each. Higher-end carbon fiber poles utilize manufacturing processes that strengthen the shaft, albeit with a cost differential that reflects the higher quality.
Unlike aluminum poles, carbon fiber poles are prone to break when stress limits are reached. This is a distinct disadvantage if you are hiking in remote areas or rugged terrain.
My hiking buddy, Patrick, broke one of his poles in the Grand Canyon last year. Thankfully he is not an old geezer like me and has to be concerned with all the hiking senior nuances. He was able to make it out of the canyon with one pole. But, for us older hikers, a bent aluminum pole can still be used. A carbon fiber pole that is broken in half is useless and dangerous for us older adults.
Tungsten-Carbide Tips Are Absolutely The Best
Hiking seniors don’t be fooled by the price! Cheap hiking poles sold at discount stores, like Walmart, don’t usually mention anything about the type of metal used for the pole tips. Steel tips wear out quickly.
Take it from the Geez, you want tungsten-carbide tips on your poles.
Tungsten-carbide is the same metal used for studded snow tires. It is noted for its hardness and wearability. The older you get the more you rely on hiking poles to maintain your balance on steep and rugged terrain. The last thing in the world the Geez wants is to have his hiking pole slip off a granite boulder when he is relying on that pole for balance.
Which Trekking Pole Hand Grips Are Best
The two most popular materials used for hand grips on hiking poles are cork and EVA foam. Personal preference has a lot to do with your decision on which to buy. I tend to shy away from the cork grips because they look dirty after many miles on the trail. I know that’s not a valid reason to reject the cork grips, but old geezers have to look their best at all times (lol).
Cork hand grips resist moisture from sweaty hands and it is the best material for conforming to the shape of your hand. Cork naturally acts as a shock absorber between your hand and the shaft of the pole, reducing vibration.
A good rule-of-thumb is that if you hike a lot in hot weather the cork hand grips are your best bet.
EVA foam hand grips absorb moisture from your hands so your hands don’t slip when hiking. Foam is also the softest to the touch. Therefore I find it to be the most comfortable.
One additional thing to consider when looking at hiking pole hand grips is the orientation of the grip to the pole shaft. Some poles and staffs include ergonomic grips that have a 15-degree corrective angle to keep your wrists in a neutral and comfortable position.
How Are Carbon Fiber Shafts Made
Their incredible strength and lightweight makes carbon fiber tubes the first choice for all sorts of performance applications. Trekking poles now use this technology to greatly reduce their weight.
Two different processes are used to produce carbon fiber shafts.
Pultruded carbon fiber tubes are made using a continuous process of manufacturing composite materials. This process creates tube sections with unidirectional alignment of the fibers.
Finished shafts have excellent longitudinal strength but poor crush and twist strength. The hiking poles are generally cheaper as a result of this type of manufacturing process.
Roll-wrapped carbon fiber shafts are more expensive to make but provide additional benefits not available in the pultrusion process.
The hiking pole shafts have multi-directional fiber alignment making for excellent uniform strength in all directions. Twist strength and crush strength are enhanced as a result.
Hiking poles designated 3k carbon fiber are the newest and best ones, easily recognized by their glossy woven mat appearance.
What are The Height Adjustment Locking echanisms On Hiking Poles
Hiking poles have two types of height adjustments.
One is an internal twist-lock mechanism that locks the pole sections at the desired height and the other is an external lever type mechanism. Both types of height adjustment locking mechanisms work equally well if you buy quality poles.
I tend to prefer the external pole locking mechanism because it can be used with one hand if need be and it has a screw-nut that can be tightened to prevent the pole from collapsing.
Whichever type of height adjustment you consider, make sure to test your poles under full body weight to make sure the locking mechanism holds without collapsing.
What Is The Return Policy For Your Hiking Poles
One of my pet peeves about buying products online is that you can’t touch or feel the product before you buy it. I took a detour the other day to REI to look at hiking poles since I am doing my research before buying new trekking poles.
The one thing I noticed was that the handgrips on the different poles fit my hand differently. I have big hands and some of the grips were small in diameter and would probably be uncomfortable after several hours of hiking.
The other consideration to think about as a senior hiker is the fact that our hands can no longer make as tight of a fist that they use to. Therefore the diameter of a handgrip can make a big difference in your hiking.
This is definitely something to consider when looking at the product return policy.
The other major thing to consider is how long the company gives you to return a product if it doesn’t meet your expectations.
Hiking poles are one of the hiking items that must be field-tested to find any flaws with the poles.
If you descend down a steep mountainside and the poles collapse on you after you have exhausted all efforts to tighten the locking mechanism, you need to be able to return the poles for a full refund within a reasonable amount of time.
My rule-of-thumb is most products need to be field-tested at least two or three times within a 90 day period before you have full confidence in the product.
Don’t hesitate to inquire about the return policy before plunking down your hard-earned cash. You will be glad you listened to the Geez on this one!
RELATED ARTICLE: 21 Simple Survival Tips For Hikers Over 50
Hiking Seniors: Have You Hiked With Hiking Poles Before
Are you a beginner or experienced hiker who has never used trekking poles before? The learning curve for using hiking poles is short. For instance, you generally get accustomed to using them in one or two-day hikes.
It doesn’t make any sense to buy the top-of-the-line poles until you have used hiking poles a few times.
For example, entry-level hiking poles such as Cascade Mountain Tech 3K Carbon Fiber Ultralight Trekking Poles are among the best of the inexpensive hiking poles. You can see my recommendation for the best budget hiking poles in this post.
In addition to being a low-cost alternative, the Cascade poles have a 2×2 twill weaved carbon fiber and tungsten-carbide tips. This is normally strong enough to handle pressure from all angles and keep you from slipping.
This old geezer used these poles for a year and a half until I slipped on wet granite hiking up Yosemite’s Vernal Falls. The poles tungsten-carbide tips did not slip but my feet did from right under me.
I fell on the poles and broke the handgrip and lower shaft section. I don’t think they were designed for the full weight of one’s butt falling on them. Thankfully this was just a day hike on a well-defined trail.
Are You Using Hiking Poles For Day Hikes Or For Backpacking
Day hikes are generally less strenuous than backpacking. Fewer miles are hiked and less weight is carried. Even a good budget hiking pole will do.
However, backpacking is a different story. Backpackers generally carry an additional 35 to 50 pounds in their backpack. Consequently, balance and sure-footedness are mandatory.
Trips into the backcountry, even for an extended weekend, can be 30 miles or more. Hikers rely on their poles to assist in hiking steep grades, to navigate over boulders, and for stream crossings.
Trekking poles become necessities, not luxuries. Especially for senior hiking adventures. The prospect of breaking a pole or having one collapse on you hiking down a steep canyon cannot be tolerated.
High-quality poles are a must. Hence, they are much more expensive.
Hiking poles from LEKI and Black Diamond have stood the test of time. The Geez bought his first set of LEKI hiking poles in 1995 just prior to hiking Mt. Whitney. These poles are as good today as the day I bought them.
Further, even the tungsten-carbide tips show no sign of wear. However, it’s too bad they weigh 10.5 ounces apiece. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have to get new trekking poles.
How Many Consecutive Days Will You Be On The Trail
This seems like a silly question. But how many days will you be out on the trail? Can you afford to have one of your poles break? Are you an old geezer like me?
If you rely on your poles for balance, assistance ascending and descending steep trails, or stream crossings, you cannot afford to have a pole malfunction.
I can not stress the fact enough if you are a hiking senior – trekking poles are a mandatory piece of safety gear for the older hiker.
As an example, it would not be good if you broke a pole two days out on a six-day hiking adventure. Turning around and heading back to the trailhead is an option, although not a great one.
When I hiked the Royal Arch Loop trail in Grand Canyon last year, the thought of losing a pole was worrisome. We hiked trails literally inches from 500-foot cliffs.
And the Geez could not afford a misstep. Old geezers just don’t have the balance of a twenty-year-old, even when they hike every week.
Will You Be Driving Or Flying To Your Hiking Destination
If you are driving to your hiking destination, you are only limited in size to your vehicle’s cargo storage area. The length of your hiking poles doesn’t matter.
However, transporting hiking poles in your luggage on an airplane can be a problem. Collapsible hiking poles using internal twist-lock or external lever lock mechanisms only collapse down to 27 inches or so.
You must check your luggage to see if they will fit. If not, look at the three-section hiking poles. They can be taken apart and are only 14 or 15 inches in length.
Read my post about flying with your backpack as a carry-on, it will give you all the info about flying with gear.
Is Your Body Weight Within A Normal Range For Your Height
Don’t get mad. I’m only the messenger. The Geez has lost over twenty pounds since I started hiking in earnest three and a half years ago. So I know from personal experience. But what about you?
Weight affects hiking. Balance is more difficult to maintain. Strap on a heavy backpack and your entire center of gravity changes. The added weight makes it more difficult to maintain equilibrium, especially hiking steep terrain.
Added weight also affects your feet. Hiking boots are designed to absorb the shock of stepping on rocks along the trail. However, even the added cushioning of the boot may not be enough to prevent stone bruises.
I got a massive stone bruise while hiking to Hamilton Lake in Sequoia National Park recently from a rock I stepped on crossing a creek. I thought I had fractured one of the bones in my foot because I could not walk on it for two weeks. Thankfully it was only a stone bruise.
In addition, ankle stability suffers from being overweight. For instance, when traversing uneven trails or stepping over rocks you are more likely to twist an ankle.
Hiking poles help. However, maintaining the proper weight is just as important. That is one of the side benefits of hiking.
Do Your Knees Or Hips Give You Trouble
Everyone thinks hiking downhill is much easier than hiking uphill. However, that isn’t necessarily the case.
Hiking down a steep incline puts additional stress on your joints. The Geez know this firsthand. My right knee gave out just as we reached the Colorado River at the bottom of the Grand Canyon.
The search and rescue team airlifted me out. This happened even though I used hiking poles on the descent. Last year seemed to be the year of injuries for this senior hiker!
Hiking poles help to relieve some of the stress. Therefore, by placing a pole ahead of each downward step, some of the additional stress placed on your joints is transferred to your arms.
Hence, by placing the palm of your hand on the top of the handgrip you are able to somewhat break your body’s forward motion. This means your knees and hips don’t have to work as hard controlling your speed.
Some hiking poles even have an internal spring mechanism just above the tip. This acts as a shock absorber.
My old LEKI poles have this function built into them. I find, however, that lighter weight poles outweigh the added functionality. My arms do an adequate job of absorbing the shock.
Does Setting Up Your Backpacking Shelter Or Tent Require Hiking Poles
Many ultralight single person tents on the market require hiking poles instead of tent poles to set up. If you use one of these tents, make sure your hiking poles extend to the proper length to set up your tent.
Because you do not use the correctly sized hiking poles, a sagging tent will be prone to leak if it rains. In addition, you don’t want to spend a wet and miserable night in a leaky tent.
Hiking Seniors: What Are The Best Hiking Poles
What are the best hiking poles? Asking a loaded question like that is like asking which flavor of ice cream is best. We all know it’s vanilla! But, everyone’s individual tastes are different.
In addition, you might notice that the Geez is extremely picky as you re-read the points covered in this post. I demand that hiking poles touch on all of the points covered in my blog.
In addition, I am concerned with value. I want the best poles for my hard-earned money. They don’t have to be the most expensive. But they have to be the best for me.
After breaking my budget carbon fiber hiking poles, I thoroughly researched and ended up buying a pair of Black Diamond Distance FLZ poles. They are neither the most expensive nor the lightest poles on the market. The shafts are aluminum and each pole weighs 7.9 ounces. However, they perfectly suit my old geezer age status and hiking trek agendas.
For example, my upcoming hiking itinerary includes the Camino de Santiago in Spain. I need foldable hiking poles that will fit in my luggage for air travel to Spain. In addition, I require the peace of mind that aluminum shafts bring. I don’t want a broken carbon-fiber pole midway into a three-week hike.
Unlike the traditional three-section telescoping poles that collapse one section inside another, the FLZ foldable poles break apart into three sections.
This is similar to how tent pole sections come apart, yet hold together by an elastic band. Although hiking poles are different from tent pole sections, the FLZ pole sections are held together by high strength Kevlar® cords.
This makes the 3 sections almost impossible to become separated from one another. The sections remain together when broken down into their 15-inch storage length and easily fit in my backpack for air travel.
I recently completed the Rae Lakes Loop, a 45-mile trek in Kings Canyon National Park with 8,000 feet elevation gain and multiple stream crossings. I put the poles through the paces over a six-day hike.
The Distance FLZ poles performed flawlessly. Thankfully the Geez didn’t pay much attention to the negative comments online. I generally weigh them against the positive ones before making a decision to buy a particular product.
Also, I noticed most of the negative comments were not current. It appears Black Diamond addressed the complaints of the first generation FLZ poles. For example, the section locking mechanism has been redesigned. Also Black Diamond improved the joint support and stiffness issue by a whopping 30%.
Unlike telescoping hiking poles, the Distance FLZ poles adjust up and down 20 millimeters or about 8 inches. This allows your poles to shorten or extend based on the hiking terrain. Although telescoping hiking poles have a much wider range of adjustment, I did not find this hindered my trek on inclines, slopes, or stream crossings.
One tradeoff with the Distance FLZ poles is the handgrips. They are slightly smaller than I prefer. However, after hiking with them for a week-long backpacking trip, I found them comfortable enough for extended periods of hiking.
This was especially true when I wore my UV fingerless hiking gloves. The gloves absorbed sweat and provided a layer of cushioning between my hands the trekking pole grips.
The Geez now owns a set of these ultralight high-quality aluminum hiking poles. And most importantly these trekking poles fill all of my must-have requirements.
Above all, they have replaceable tungsten-carbide tips, weigh under 8 ounces apiece each, are foldable, and are backed by REI’s return policy.
As a hiking senior life on the trail doesn’t get much better than this!