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Review: Ultimate Direction FK Trekking Poles || Dreamy performance but inherent limitations

It had to be the poles. Buzz Burrell of Ultimate Direction guides a group of men half his age towards Boulder-Grand Pass in Rocky Mountain National Park.

For two weeks last summer I used the Ultimate Direction FK Trekking Poles while guiding trips on the Pfiffner Traverse in Rocky Mountain National Park. The FK Poles were new for spring 2018 and are part of an adventure-oriented collection that also includes the FK Tarp, FK Bivy, and FK Gaiters. FK is short for “fastest known,” as in “fastest known time,” which is suggestive of the design ethos — an emphasis on performance and weight, not necessarily comfort or convenience.

The pre-production poles were given to me by Ultimate Direction, which was not expecting (but which will be thankful for) a review. As a longtime friend of the UD brand manager, Buzz Burrell, I end up with a lot of UD products, only some of which gets mentioned here.

Review: Ultimate Direction FK Trekking Poles

The Ultimate Direction FK Trekking Poles feature a single-piece shaft, foam grips (with extensions), woven nylon wrist straps, and carbide tips. Their length cannot be adjusted, and they do not collapse.

The FK Poles are stronger and stiffer than any trekking or ski pole that I have ever used, while also being among the lightest — just 3.7 oz (105 g) in my size 115 cm without straps or baskets. They are an absolute joy to use.

However, because they cannot be adjusted or collapsed, the FK Poles have limitations. They are best for local trips without extensive scrambling, because they don’t fly or stow away well; and they are not compatible with many trekking pole-supported shelters without additional pole jacks.

I found just one flaw with my FK Poles, which was reportedly addressed before full production. The tips quickly wore out and will require premature replacement.

Product specs

  • 4.0 oz (per pole, 115 cm)
  • Single-piece fixed-length carbon fiber shaft
  • Lower shaft wrapped in aramid (generic Kevlar) for abrasion-resistance
  • EVA foam grip with extensions
  • Woven nylon wrist strap
  • Available in lengths 110 cm through 135 cm, in 5-cm increments
  • $150
  • More information

The FK Poles weigh a dreamy 3.7 oz (in size 115 cm without straps or baskets). The lower shaft is wrapped with amamid for abrasion-resistance.

Strength and stiffness

All things being equal:

  • Carbon fiber shafts are stronger and stiffer than aluminum shafts; and,
  • One-piece shafts are stronger and stiffer than multi-piece shafts.

So in terms of strength and stiffness, the FK Poles already have two things going for them: they’re made of carbon fiber, and they’re one-piece.

But with the FK Poles, there’s a third ingredient at play, too: the shafts are over-sized. The maximum diameter of the FK Poles (at the top of the shaft) is 20 mm, which is an:

By increasing the shaft diameter, pole strength and stiffness both increase exponentially. If you’re a physicist or engineer, please chime in on the accuracy of UD’s claim: “Increasing the diameter doesn’t just increase the strength proportionally, it squares the strength, and cubes the increase in stiffness!”

The FK Pole is so strong and stiff that it almost feels like another material. I’ve been using carbon fiber poles for 15 years, and these feel utterly different.

The maximum diameter of the FK Poles is 20 mm. Most poles are 18 mm, and some just 13.5 mm.

Competition

If you build it, will they come? In the case of one-piece fixed-length poles, few manufacturers have been willing to find out. There are only a few other models in this space:

Inherent limitations

Adjustable poles out-sell fixed-length poles by multiples. If you buy the FK Poles, you’ll learn why. They:

  • Don’t travel well (or for free, unless you’re on Southwest or have baggage perks);
  • Stick about two feet above the backpack when stowed, making them unwieldy when scrambling or bushwhacking;
  • Are incompatible with many many trekking pole-supported shelters;
  • Break catastrophically, with no opportunity to repair them completely by simply replacing a broken segment; and,
  • Cannot be adjusted for different terrain types (e.g. extended steep downhills), outdoor activities (e.g. trekking and alpine touring), or users (e.g. you and your SO).

Only one of these issues can be easily addressed. If your shelter has a fixed height (e.g. if it’s not at 125 cm, it’s floppy), you can bring pole jacks/extensions made of aluminum or carbon fiber tubing.

Room for improvement

I found only one flaw with the FK Poles: its carbide tips. UD tells me that these tips were improved between my sample pole and the product models.

The specific problems were:

  • The carbide pieces unscrewed with use, putting them at risk of falling out completely. My solution was to super-glue them in place permanently.
  • The tips wore down quickly, requiring premature replacement.

The FK Pole tips are cheap and will need be replaced prematurely. This wear is only from two weeks of use.

For instructions on how to replace trekking pole tips, refer to this tutorial. Use the Leki Universal Carbide Flextip because they will have little effect on the height of the FK Poles. Normally I recommend the Black Diamond Flex Tips because they are less expensive and because the resulting change in pole height can be negated with an adjustable-length pole.

Questions about the FK Poles, or have an experience with them? Leave a comment.

Buy now: Ultimate Direction FK Trekking Poles

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5 Responses to Review: Ultimate Direction FK Trekking Poles || Dreamy performance but inherent limitations

  1. Ben October 22, 2018 at 5:41 pm #

    Hey Andrew,

    Could you explain what you mean by carbon fiber poles being stronger than aluminum ones? (It’s always been my understanding that carbon fiber poles are more prone to breaking than aluminum poles. Is this wrong, or do you mean something different by ‘stronger’?)

    Thanks!

    • Andrew Skurka October 22, 2018 at 7:50 pm #

      Per weight, CF is stronger than aluminum. So if you have two poles of equal strength, the CF pole will be lighter. Or, if you have two poles of equal weight, the CF pole will be stronger.

      I’ve seen CF and aluminum poles break, and have broken both myself (although it’s been a while). In all cases, the pole — regardless of its material — would have snapped or bent beyond usability.

  2. Nate K October 22, 2018 at 11:33 pm #

    From an engineering perspective, a given material will yield/fracture when the stress (force/area) exceeds a certain level. Area is proportional to radius squared, so the strength claim seems accurate at face value.

    The claim on stiffness is a bit less clear but seems conservative. If we consider the pole as a cantilevered beam, the stiffness of the pole is 3E*I/L^3 where “I” is the moment of inertia. For a circular beam, I is proportional to radius^4, rather than cubed as UD claims. So doubling the radius would increase stiffness by 16x.

    I’ve made what I think are logical assumptions above but it’s entirely possible that UD modeled it differently in either case. So I’d rate their claims as reasonable, particularly since one is spot on and the other is more conservative than my admittedly quick assessments.

    For those interested, there are lots of online references for beam bending, but Wikipedia is plenty good: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Deflection_(engineering)#Cantilever_beams

  3. Jeroen October 23, 2018 at 1:14 am #

    I like CF for its strength and stiffness, but it’s prone to abrasion from rocks, especially the lower part of the pole. Aluminium takes wear much better. My solution: I made my own hybrid poles, upper two segments in CF, lower segments were reused from an aluminium Leki Sherpa XL. They weigh 226gr. each (8 oz) which isn’t UL but light enough, and they’re stronger than the original Lekis – plenty strong enough to hold a HMG Ultamid 4 in 45mph winds.

    • Sven November 7, 2018 at 6:52 am #

      @Jeroen

      Good idea! Which poles did you use for the upper 2 segments? Also Leki or does it work wit h any manufacturer?
      Thanks!

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