In spring 2011 I purchased the Black Diamond Alpine Carbon Cork Trekking Poles, and used them for about 450 days over the next eight backpacking seasons.
Some of this use was mild (i.e. short days and on-trail) but a considerable portion was not — they probably endured over 1,000 miles of talus and scree, spring snowfields, rough Utah canyons, and Alaskan brush and tussocks.
This review was originally written in June 2015, and it’s been updated to reflect several subsequent years of use, plus one season with an in-stock pair that that was sent to me by Black Diamond.
Review: Black Diamond Alpine Carbon Cork
At $180 MSRP, the Alpine Carbon Corks are among the most expensive poles in the market, and they will not be a trivial expense for most backpackers. But I still recommend them if you:
- Can afford the best,
- Will justify the expense with extended use,
- Hike on extremely rugged trails, or off-trail and on early-season snow,
- Are generally hard on your gear, or
- Will stress these poles with a heavy body and/or pack.
Personally, these poles have won me over with their:
- Comfortable cork grips and functional foam extension grips;
- Shafts that are very steady under load, with minimal vibration or bending; and,
- Locks that do not slip, wiggle, or corrode, and that can be easily operated and adjusted.
If you’re on a budget, don’t backpack often, stay on easy trails, and/or have a petite build and tiny pack, look elsewhere. For most backpackers, I typically recommend the Cascade Mountain Tech Quick Lock Poles (my review), which offer 75 percent of the performance for one-sixth the price; or the niche Ultimate Direction FKT Poles (my review), which are the lightest and stiffest poles I’ve ever used.
From 2011 to 2019, we’ve seen three generations of Alpine Carbon Corks. The colors, locks, and grips have changed each time, but the intended/optimal use has not. I’m uncertain if the pole shafts have ever changed — it doesn’t feel like it, and it’s difficult to discern by looking at them.
My set from 2011 was mostly black, with some white. The lever-action Flicklocks were made of plastic, and the grips were the “trigger” style.
The second-generation is still available from Black Diamond, currently at $153. They’re mostly white, with some black. The redesigned FlickLock Pro was lower profile and made of stainless steel, but many people found them hard to use. The cork grips were straight, save for a bottom flare.
The latest generation was released in spring 2019, and come in a pleasant matte forest green. The grips have remained the same, but thankfully the locks were redesigned, in both material and shape. They’re now made of aluminum and are easier to operate.
Like with footwear, the weight of trekking poles is especially important because they undergo more movement than your pack or most of your body. Heavy poles are difficult to swing quickly and place where desired, and burn up more energy than lighter poles.
The weight of the Carbon Corks is not ideal, but it’s competitive and explainable. The latest generation specs at 17.1 ounces (486 grams), or 15.6 ounces without the straps and baskets, as I like them. This is in line with my 2011 set, which weighed 17.2 ounces (or 16.0 ounces without straps and baskets).
To get a substantially lighter pole, sacrifices would be necessary. For example:
- Thinner shafts would be lighter, but less stiff.
- Fixed-length models will be lighter, but less packable, and will have no adjustment.
- Removing the grip extension saves some weight, but greatly reduces functionality.
$180 retail, ouch. And since they’re not redesigned every year, it’s rare that they get marked down. This makes the Carbon Corks a good candidate for one of the “20 percent off one full-priced item” sales from REI and the other large outdoor online retailers.
I wish I could suggest a less expensive model that has comparable build quality and specs, but it does not exist. If you spend less, you’ll get something less: heavier, more vibration and bending, less reliable locks, less durable tips, no extension grips, etc.
The telescoping shafts collapse to 24 inches (61 cm), which is comparable to other models in this category. Folding sets like the Black Diamond Alpine FLZ ($160, 17 oz) do about 30 percent better in this regard, but they use thinner shafts to keep the weight the same.
Grips & extensions
Plastic grips are uncomfortable and slippery. Rubber grips are abrasive on bare hands. Foam grips are nice, but not very durable. Cork grips are the best: they are soft, durable, and slightly absorbent, and they have sufficient friction.
I regularly choke up on my poles for improved balance and leverage, mostly when hiking steeply uphill or side-hilling. The foam extension grips below the primary cork grip on the Alpine Carbon Cork Poles offers a much more secure grip than a slick and narrow pole shaft. In fact, I would consider this feature a must-have for the type of backpacking I do.
If you like the performance of the Black Diamond Alpine Carbon Corks but can’t or don’t want to spend $180, my recommendation is to buy the Cascade Mountain Tech Quick Lock Poles, which are available from Amazon and possibly at your local Costco in the spring. Every component is inferior, but they cost just $30 to $50 and they’ve survived some of my hardest hikes, notably a yo-yo of the Wind River High Route.
The Ultimate Direction FKT Poles are another recommended option. They’re not collapsible and the carbide tips will need to be replaced, but they’re stiffer than the Carbon Corks and weigh half as much. If all of my backpacking was local, I’d buy the FKT Poles and never look back.
Finally, ultra runners and petite backpackers should consider folding models like the Distance or Distance Carbon, either in the Z (non-adjustable) or FLZ (adjustable) style. They are less durable and steady than the Alpine Carbon Corks, but they’re lighter, more collapsible, and durable enough.
Have questions about the Black Diamond Alpine Carbon Cork, or an experience with them? Leave a comment.
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