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