Walking / Trekking Poles

The bits you hold, most of the time. These come in a variety of materials but usually they will be made from either plastic, rubber or cork or a combination of these. Plastic is cheap but not very comfortable, rubber is more comfortable, while a cork handle is without doubt the most comfortable. There are a variety of grades of all these materials, so try them out yourself.

The most comfortable handles for mountain activities are near vertical extensions of the pole, shaped to fit the hand when walking, and possibly slightly curved like a banana. Poles with horizontal hand grips do not permit a wrist strap and are not so easy to use on rough terrain, so they are not ideal for mountain activities. These types of handles are fine for conventional walking sticks that are only intended to be used on the flat.

Wrist strap
The wrist strap allows you to put more weight and more force onto the pole without losing a grip. Needs to be easily adjusted to suit the size of your hands, with or without gloves. 

The shafts of trekking poles are usually (if not always) hollow and they are made from extruded aluminium alloy. Cheaper poles may have thinner walls which will flex more easily, and possibly snap or bend. Poles with thicker walled tubing are heavier, more expensive and less flexible. There's a happy medium between these two extremes.

Pole length
Even though there are no set rules for the ideal pole length, if you are tall then you'll need a longer pole, but if you want to stow the pole on your rucksack, you'll want one that's as short as possible.

Shaft grip
When trekking over rough terrain, between boulders, it is not always possible to plant the tip on the ground and maintain a grip on the handle unless you have really long arms! It is therefore necessary to 
hold the shaft of the trekking pole instead of the handle. To make this firmer, warmer and generally more comfortable, manufacturers are now starting to apply rubber grips to the shafts.

Think how easily a stiletto heel sinks into the ground (or your back), compared with a walking boot. The basket on a trekking pole increases the size of its footprint, to help prevent the pole sinking into soft mud, snow or earth.
Most poles come with standard mud baskets, which are of medium size. In winter a larger basket is better for soft snow. But if you use one of these in summer, it'll no doubt jam in every crack and snag on undergrowth. The ultimate is an interchangeable set of baskets for different terrains. Occasionally, a removable basket will  remove itself when you are trekking, so either carry spares or make sure spares are readily available. 

The pointed end which provides the grip on the ground. Most are made from hard wearing tungsten carbide for durability, and these can sometimes be replaced once they have worn down. Lesser poles have plain steel tips that cannot be replaced as easily.

Anti-Shock Device
When walking on rocky terrain, a considerable amount of jarring can occur to the pole and arm each time the pole strikes the ground. This is uncomfortable over long periods, so some poles are supplied with 
anti-shock devices. These usually take the form of a spring inside the pole. Different poles have different degrees of shock absorption, and the positive effects of these are not always obvious.

Locking mechanism
The best poles are telescopic, so that they can be shortened when not in use, and stowed on your rucksack with ease. All of the poles included in the TrailWalk tests use an internal expansion bolt design to lock the poles into position. To operate the device, you twist the shaft. As you will be doing this often, hard wearing components are essential, so look out for durable well made designs.

Two are better than one
When traversing rough terrain with a heavy load, two trekking poles are definitely better than one, as you are able to maintain three points of contact even when you are moving. Two poles also allow you to create an even rhythm, maintain better balance and apply greater forward momentum.

By contrast, using only one pole means that you can only have two points of contact while walking. Also your body movement is not even, as there's only a pole on one side which puts your whole body out of balance. With one pole you can't exert as much force and forward momentum as you can with two.

With no poles ... well you can't reap any of the benefits that a pole can offer! But there are times when poles are either not required or would be more of a hindrance than an advantage, such as when scrambling for example.