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Why & when: Removal of trekking pole straps & baskets

I keep the straps and baskets on my ski poles (top), but remove them on the models I use for backpacking in 3-season conditions.

Trekking poles like the Black Diamond Alpine Carbon Cork (long-term review) and Cascade Mountain Tech Quick Lock Poles (long-term review) come stock with nylon hand straps and plastic trekking baskets. But on 3-season backpacking trips, I leave the trailhead with both features removed.

Purpose

The hand straps are rooted in Nordic skiing. By looping one’s hands through the straps in such a way that the strap runs between the thumb and index finger, it eliminates the need to tightly hold the grip, which is difficult to do with gloves and which can strain the wrist. Instead, the strap transfers energy from the lower arm and allows for powerful push-off, which is a vital technique when skiing.

By using the strap like this, you reduce the stress on your wrist and need not hold the grip tightly.

Trekking baskets are the warm-weather offshoot of snow baskets, which give the pole floatation in winter snowpack. Without snow baskets, the narrow shaft would sink deeply into unconsolidated snow and create no firm backstop against which to push off. I’m less certain about the purpose of trekking baskets, but suppose they might prevent the poles from sinking into soft 3-season surfaces or jamming deeply into a small crack between two rocks.

Left to right: Trekking or mud baskets, snow baskets, powder snow baskets

The case for removing straps

When using Nordic skis or skinning with my alpine touring skis, I prefer that my poles have straps, for the aforementioned reasons. For all 3-season backpacking trips, however, I remove them. Specifically, I cut them off with scissors, or I remove the metal pin with a finishing nail and hammer. Why:

1. Not useful as intended.

Snow-covered terrain is a relatively flat surface, and is more conducive to exactly repetitive movements. In contrast, snow-free ground is littered with rocks, roots, overgrowth, log steps, blowdowns, and minor slope undulations.

My pole swing and tip placements reflect this variability. While I try to keep them behind me so that I can push off on them, I regularly must plant them directly to my right or left, or in front of me; I also must steer them around obstacles and keep them out of vegetation. Finally, while descending I often keep the poles in front of me, to assist with breaking. When planting poles in these alternative locations, my push-off ability is compromised and therefore the straps are much less useful.

Steve and Landon grind steeply towards Paiute Pass on the Pfiffner Traverse. Notice how both have choked up on their grips, and how Sam is leaning on his poles in front of him. In instances like this, straps simply get in the way.

2. Agility and futz

Even on well groomed trails, I regularly take my hands off the pole grips. For example, to:

  • Take a photo,
  • Retrieve my water bottle,
  • Open a food wrapper or storage bag,
  • Look at my map,
  • Operate a compass or GPS, and
  • Urinate.

On more challenging trails, or when off-trail, I take my hands off the grips even more often. For example:

  • While climbing or traversing steep slopes, I move one or both hands to the lower extension grips;
  • On talus, I carry both poles in one hand, so that I can grab rocks for balance or more quickly put a hand down if I fall; and,
  • While bushwhacking, I hold the poles near their middle and use them as brush guards.

Without straps, I am a more agile hiker, and I avoid the minor futz involved in pulling my hands out of the straps or inserting my hands back into them multiple times each hour

Alan bushwhacks through Alaskan alder, holding both poles in one hand.

3. Torque trap

I have broken several poles, both carbon fiber and aluminum models. In every case, the pole was subjected to excessive lateral force. For example, as I was slipping and falling down a creek embankment, the pole tip became wedged in an exposed root and was then levered until it broke; or, I stumbled on talus and landed on the pole.

Removing the straps is not a surefire way to prevent pole breakage. But without straps, you can more quickly let go of the pole if it gets caught.

The case for removing baskets

I use snow baskets in the wintertime on ungroomed and untracked surfaces. Usually, Colorado’s snowpack calls for wider powder baskets. But for 3-season backpacking I remove the baskets. Why:

1. Entanglement

In wet environments, on low-traffic trails, and when off-trail, trailside vegetation can be thick, especially late in the season after growing all summer. Baskets cause the poles to become more ensnared in the brush, limiting their usability.

Typical trailside vegetation in Glacier National Park. Baskets cause more pole entanglement and limit their usability.

2. Surface testing

In early-season conditions, poles can be used to test the depth and strength of snow bridges. Without a basket, the pole can more easily punch through the consolidated snow, allowing for good evaluation.

It’s a similar story in areas where I may encounter deep mud or quicksand. A basket limits my ability to probe the surface tension and depth.

3. Weight

A trekking pole is like a pendulum, and more energy is required to move weight at its tip than the same amount of weight at its grip or in another static spot like inside your backpack.

A 0.5-oz basket at the tip of each pole is probably equivalent to adding a few ounces of weight elsewhere, in terms of energy expenditure. More significantly, the extra weight slows swing speed.

4. Drag

During creek fords, baskets add drag, making the pole more difficult to control and plant exactly where you want.

5. Unnecessary

I’ve never missed having baskets on my poles in 3-season conditions, making me question their entire purpose. It’s as if they solve a “problem” that does not exist. Without baskets, I’ve never become annoyed at how deeply my tip sinks into the ground, and it’s extremely rare that the tip becomes caught in a small crack between rocks. What am I missing?

Your turn: Do you remove the straps and baskets from your trekking poles, or leave them on? Why?

32 Responses to Why & when: Removal of trekking pole straps & baskets

  1. Bill Brokob May 31, 2017 at 8:11 am #

    I can take or leave baskets. I do not find that they are a real positive or a negative. They may help a little in mud but you are still hiking in mud. I do use the straps and find that it allows me to drag my poles along if I am doing something with my hands. This allows me to NOT have to hold them both in one hand or under an arm. This is not a trick you should try in truly difficult terrain

    • Stephen May 31, 2017 at 8:50 am #

      Same here. Without straps, what do you do with the poles when you need your hands for something else?

      • Andrew Skurka May 31, 2017 at 9:00 am #

        I took them under an arm. They’re fairly secure there, and overall I prefer much it over having 4-foot long sticks tethered to my wrists while handling a camera or my pants zipper.

        • Bill Brokob May 31, 2017 at 9:02 am #

          I can see the potential for epic failure of the Backcountry Bidet as well

          • Andrew Skurka May 31, 2017 at 9:05 am #

            🙂

        • Stephen June 1, 2017 at 7:52 am #

          Thanks! I think I’ll give it a try.

  2. Robert May 31, 2017 at 8:25 am #

    I like to use straps by putting my hand in from the top down. This way they loop around the bottom of my wrists and form a V between my thumb and index finger. I don’t think this is the proper way to use them but I do this because I can lift the poles up without actually gripping the handles tightly allowing my hands to rest a bit.

    • Jonathan June 7, 2017 at 8:57 am #

      Robert: Be aware that, from my understanding, using straps in this manner increases the risk of fractures in the event of a fall. Your natural instinct when falling is to open you hand to catch yourself. With the standard “bottom up” grip, the strap falls loose when you open you hand (when the tip is not in contact with the ground) and has some freedom of movement. With a “top down” insertion, the loop remains tight as gravity pulls it down and can in fact tighten further if you’re falling forward due to leverage. This keeps the pole grip locked in your palm, where it can dislocate or fracture bones in your hands and wrist if you catch yourself on the uneven surface.

  3. David Longley May 31, 2017 at 8:29 am #

    Having, inadvertently, left behind my $2 trekking poles as trail magic in Grayson Highlands a few years back, I began to use a set of ski poles someone gave to me. Just this Saturday I was telling my wife that I really didn’t miss the ability to collapse my poles. Less than an hour later I found myself on the Cabin Trail in Linville Gorge…eating my words. 1,000 vertical feet of descent/ ascent in 3/4″ of a mile with borderline rock climbing and I was ready to leave my ski poles behind as trail magic. Since I love the Gorge and nearly all of the trails are along the same technical level…I suppose I’ll start looking for a set of collapsible poles. Of course, this has nothing to do with straps and baskets but I thought I’d share. Thanks for the post!

  4. Susan S May 31, 2017 at 8:32 am #

    I’ve not needed baskets unless mountaineering with the poles, but that qualifies as winter conditions.

    An argument for straps is for people with RSI where it is easier on the hands to transfer some of your weight to your wrists in the straps than gripping more tightly on the poles. It is nice to not have to climb down over scree when a pole is lost.

    I’ve not removed my wrist straps for these reasons, but I am moving more and more in that direction as I’ve heard many stories where a strapped wrist has been injured or broken in a fall where they could not free it from the strap.

  5. Ioanna May 31, 2017 at 8:46 am #

    I see the reasons to get rid of straps but I find the benefits outweight them. I will remove the baskets, though. It will also help with storage and transport.

  6. Garrett j Workman May 31, 2017 at 9:22 am #

    I come from a skiing background and prefer straps. You’re relying on your skeletal structure rather than hand muscles when you use straps. I’ve found a couple great hand positions for desending and ascending that allow me to put weight in the straps which is much less tiring.

    I have broken a couple poles due to attached straps. straps are also hot and cause sweating.Newer ski models have addressed this issue with mesh straps so I’m sure that technology will trickle down

  7. DouchePacker May 31, 2017 at 9:34 am #

    I tell ya, on my Costco poles one of the straps just came off on its own. I never missed it. For a year I had one pole with a strap, one without. I cut off the remaining strap today, I just can see how it helps. I always have kept the small 3 season baskets on, but I’ve removed them for this week’s hike to see what its like. Saved me a few ounces that’s for sure.

  8. Rob May 31, 2017 at 9:34 am #

    I have found my trekking poles are easier to use with the straps. I can place more weight/pressure onto the poles (especially on downhills) by simply being able to load the straps instead of actually gripping the poles. They also let me simply let the poles dangle from the wrist if I need to use my hands for something else. As for the baskets, the only thing that I have really seen them fairly useful for is keeping excessive buildup of leaves from accumulating on the poles. Even when the leaves are only stuck up to the basket, it’s surprising how much they weigh until you remove them! I will admit that I mainly stick to trails like the AT, so back-country experience could certainly be different.

  9. JP May 31, 2017 at 10:55 am #

    In one of your pole breaking examples, it sounds as if a trekking/mud basket may have helped you avoid the pole tip getting wedged in the first place. But it’s impractical to travel back in time and see how it would have gone with a basket. So with the basket, you’re trading some perceived protection for some extra effort the rest of the time.

    Re: straps, I find they are helpful (as others have said) to avoid hand fatigue. I haven’t run into as much of the annoyances as you have, but you spend far more time off trail.

    Sounds like you’ve found the right solution for you, and I’ll experiment with removing baskets. The straps aren’t a factor with my current poles since those are Pacer Poles (replacing the strap mechanic with a molded handle).

  10. Trey May 31, 2017 at 10:56 am #

    I haven’t considered removing my baskets until now, but with most of my hiking in the New England area, I’m concerned that after a mile of hiking without baskets my poles will be dressed with leaves.

  11. Jeremy May 31, 2017 at 11:16 am #

    I made a point of giving straps a fair shot before I removed them, and I vastly prefer them gone. While I think they’re absolutely necessary for skiing, I find they add little to the experience when hiking.

    Haven’t thought about removing baskets though. I’ll have to give that some thought.

    • Carolinahiker June 5, 2017 at 5:01 pm #

      I also tried poles with straps for a few hikes before cutting them off. I don’t miss them at all, and I need more than that to justify the extra weight.

  12. Dieter Hansen May 31, 2017 at 11:21 am #

    “I’ve never missed having baskets on my poles in 3-season conditions, making me question their entire purpose. It’s as if they solve a “problem” that does not exist.”

    I find trekking baskets almost mandatory on the boggy turf covered soil in places like Scotland, Ireland and some spots in Iceland and Scandinavia. Because turf is so dense and ‘sticky’, without baskets, you’d need to pull your trekking poles out on every step. Especially when you’re going uphill and putting a lot of weight on the poles. Turf also has pockets of air and water coursing through it, which can cause your trekking poles to suddenly plunge down much deeper than expected. Very tricky on steep and slippery terrain.
    During winter, autumn and early spring, the tall grass on top of the turf layer is dry and lies flat and tangled against the ground, sometimes causing the baskets to snag. But that’s a compromise I’m willing to make.

    Baskets are also useful when traversing sand dunes in coastal areas, tidal flats, or wet glacial sediment, which is like walking on freshly poured concrete.

    • Andrew Skurka May 31, 2017 at 11:28 am #

      Best explanation I have heard, thanks. I almost mentioned in the post that I’ve debated baskets for Alaska’s “sponga” tundra, but it’s such a niche experience. Plus, it’s not a pure win in that instance: the baskets get snagged in the ankle-biting brush.

  13. James M May 31, 2017 at 12:59 pm #

    I’ve only used baskets when snowshoeing and they’re invaluable in snow but pretty useless anywhere else. I used to use the rubber tip covers on my poles but haven’t bothered to replace them after they wore out and I don’t miss them. I rarely use the straps but never removed them, just lazy on my part. I need new poles though so I’ll probably remove them on my new set

  14. Kyle May 31, 2017 at 3:04 pm #

    I am used to not using straps due to SAR training on steep snow when you can’t self arrest using your pole if you have straps on can’t quickly slide down to arrest. So I never use them in 3 season either as I move my hands around a lot to different grips for different situations & definitely no baskets.

  15. Tink June 1, 2017 at 8:05 am #

    I’m in AT territory in the SE USA.
    I never even installed the baskets on my poles. The need in my area simply doesn’t exist.

    I’ve yet to make any decision about the straps. Sometimes I love them and sometimes they are a pain in the arse more than anything else. I wish there was as clear of an answer about straps as baskets for this Ga boy. *sigh*

    (First world problems. LOL)

  16. Chris Price June 1, 2017 at 8:08 am #

    While descending White Mtn’s west ridge in Eastern CA I had my pole straps on and as my pole got stuck between rocks and I slipped and fell the strap acted like a tether and I smashed into rocks much worse than I would have without the straps on. Lesson learned, I don’t wear straps while descending anymore!

    My downhill skiing background makes me want to keep my straps on for the advantage of pushing off that Andrew mentioned, but I’m going to remove them and see if it affects my hiking much as I prepare for Hardrock 100. I have a feeling cumbersome straps won’t be missed when I’m through climbing, getting ready for a descent and go to stuff them in my pack or Running Naked waist band.

  17. Tony June 1, 2017 at 11:27 am #

    I keep the straps on but take the baskets off. I really just hate leaning over to pick up my poles, and I knock them down too frequently when resting and not using the straps. I also do hold the straps the way you show above, and I think it does prevent fatigue.

  18. Michael Wood June 1, 2017 at 9:30 pm #

    I totally remove both baskets and straps on most of my poles fir three-season use, for all the reasons you mention, Andy. One exception is a pair of Leki Nordic Walking poles that have specialized straps that provide a very positive connection and have a quick release. But these are not preferred, more occasional. With no straps I do typically carve the handles up a little to permit a comfortable top grip where my thumbs or hand can go over the top giving me a more powerful push-off without putting as much demand on my fingers. This gives me three or four easy positions that can instantly change the effective pole height without any interference from straps.

  19. Norm June 2, 2017 at 9:54 am #

    I leave the baskets on for snow covered trails but remove them otherwise. I always remove the straps. I see no need for them and I like to have the ability to drop the poles immediately if needed.

  20. Drew Holliday June 2, 2017 at 10:38 am #

    I have found that the straps get snagged on all kinds of things. I’ve also had an aggressive dog pull on the poles by the straps too – so I am a fan of removal as well. I do see the advantage to removing the baskets – but to be honest I still haven’t and that is 100% due to laziness. Will remove this weekend;)

  21. kaffedrikker June 2, 2017 at 10:56 am #

    Straps are good on a group tour, when the put-them-under-one-arm trick have a tendency to rip up the nose of the person who have accidentally sneaked in behind you.

  22. fuming June 2, 2017 at 3:55 pm #

    prefer to use them with rubber tips or “tip protectors” specially on steep down slope(turns) with rocks(which metal tips would just slip off or get stuck in the ground)
    straps are useful on such descends

  23. Ryan June 3, 2017 at 10:56 am #

    I find that my palms often get quite sweaty while hiking with poles, and so it’s nice to be able to alternate between gripping the poles with my hands and letting the weight rest in the straps via my wrists. The latter gives my palms (and the cork grips) some added airflow to dry out and prevent chafing etc.

  24. Bill June 3, 2017 at 6:07 pm #

    I haven’t made up my mind on the straps, yet. I’ve hiked with them and without them, but don’t have a real preference. The question on the straps is whether they help reduce Carpal Tunnel with poles. If I can relax my grip while using the poles, it may be a good thing. My baskets fell off after a few miles and I haven’t bothered to replace them.

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