Poles used to be for elderly hillwalkers or those with failing knees, but now that association is well and truly gone. Since the surge of interest in ultra-marathon distance running over the last decade, ‘cheating sticks’ (as they running poles sometimes called in the traditional fell running community), have become massively popular with longer distance and multi-day ultra runners.
And quite rightly so; the best running poles today are light and compact enough for runners to carry for miles and miles across the mountainside, helping them power up hills, balance on technical terrain and speed along on smooth, wide trails. They’re even easy to unfold on the move and most running backpacks have dedicated external bungee cords to stow them away quickly when you need to use both hands on rocky scrambling sections or steep, technical downhills. Check out our trail running with poles explainer to see how they can improve your speed and endurance on the trails.
The only issue now is which of the best running poles to buy. There are so many different types – do you need a variable or fixed-length running pole and how light should you go without compromising strength and durability? Perhaps you’d fare best with a unique glove-like hand-to-pole attachment for effortless running like the Leki Micro Trail Vario, or maybe you’re counting every gram and need the ultralight carbon fibre Mountain King Carbon Skyrunner at under half the weight of the heaviest. Or, maybe you’re a newcomer to running poles or on a tight budget and need a great value option like the Harrier Helvellyn Carbon Z-Poles.
Whatever your needs – this guide to the best running poles available right now will help you choose.
How we test the best running poles
Our selection of the best running poles has been tested on a wide range of wild running outings – ranging from training runs to races – across a huge variety of terrain in all sorts of conditions.
The best lightweight running poles
Ultra lightweight, fixed-length carbon running poles for going fast and light through the mountains
RRP: £130 (UK) | Weight (120cm pair): 224g/7.9oz | Colors: Black | Material: Carbon | Variable length: No | Sizes: 110cm–130cm/43–51in | Folded length: 30cm/11.8in | Compatibility: Fantastic for fast and light ultra runners watching every gram
This incredibly low-weight Skyrunner is by far the lightest fixed-length collapsible running pole on the market right now at 224g/7.9oz per 120cm pair. They are very easy to put together and dismantle, however you are in charge of the connecting cord, with Mountain King’s ‘pull the cord out and hook the knot in the handle slot’ design. It’s very easy, and then you poke the end of the cord into the top of the handle to stop the excess cord dangling around. This slim, lightweight cord is unprotected within the pole so be careful with it. The handle strap is not adjustable, so you can’t fine-tune the fit, but the material is soft and the loop size will cater for most hand-sizes without a problem. However, the mesh handle material is quite harsh and isn’t very comfortable after a long, wet day, or during multi-day use with bare hands (it would be nice if it were made of a softer, brushed material, but wearing gloves solves this). They are the most compact pair of poles in the test, folding down into four sections (making it an M-pole) rather than the usual three (Z-pole). If you’re looking to count every gram, these are definitely for you.
Alpkit Nanolite Twin Poles
These four-piece feather-light sticks are among the best running poles for fast-moving trail runners
RRP: £65 | Weight (120cm pair): 292g/10.3oz | Colors: Black | Material: Carbon | Variable length: No | Sizes: 110cm / 120cm / 130cm | Folded length: 35cm | Compatibility: Ultra running and lightweight fastpacking adventures
A four-piece, M-design, folding carbon pole, Alpkit’s Nanolite Twins are designed by trail runners for trail runners. They are super light, and have four sections, fold down nice and small for easy stashing on a running pack or race vest when not required. Although you can’t adjust the length, they are available in three sizes, which go up in 10cm increments from 110cm – so you do need to ensure you get the best size for you. Assembly is easy and quick – you just yank the Kevlar-reinforced cord umbilicus that runs through the sections, pulling them all together, and then slip the knot in the cord through a purpose-built notch in the handle. The connection is actually a lot more robust and secure than we initially expected, given the fairly basic nature of that set up, but we wonder whether the cord might stretch slightly with use, which could impact that (no sign of that happening so far, it has to be said). The wrist strap and handgrip are robust and functional, but without any fanciness that would add ounces. There’s no lower grip, which can make running along off-camber trails or tackling steep ascents tricky. They come with a removable rubber cover and basket, and have a carbide tip.
The best running poles for value
Incredible value, variable-length carbon running poles fantastic for beginners and those on a budget
RRP: $77 (US) / £70 (UK) | Weight: 418g/14.7oz & 446g/15.7oz | Colors: Black | Material: Carbon | Variable length: Yes | Sizes: 105–120cm/41–47in and 120–135cm/47–53in | Folded length: 36cm/14.2in & 37cm/14.6in | Compatibility: Great value for beginner long distance ultra runners over muddy ground
The Harrier Helvellyn Carbon Zs are available for a very reasonable price (especially for carbon poles). They’re the cheapest of the best running poles here, which is fantastic news for anyone on a budget, and beginners. They are very simple to assemble – the lock clicks into place well, and you can adjust the height with the quick-lock easily. Take care not to over-extend your pole beyond the stop line though, as it will come apart. It’s easy enough to slide it back on again, but you just don’t want to go butter fingers and drop a section of pole while running. The handle is super soft yet grippy, extending some way down the shaft so you can use it with both hands for crossing rivers or snow patches. It’s easy to collapse the pole with a press of the lock button, and inside, the poles are held together with a strong metal cable rather than a rope cord like the others here, which is then protected with a plastic cover, making them very durable. Folded, these are a compact 36cm long. They have all the features you need at a fraction of the price making them a very attractive option.
The most innovative running poles
Top quality, super strong adjustable-length running poles with a unique, efficient hand-to-pole connection for effortless running
RRP: $250 (US)/£195 (UK) | Weight: 390g/13.8oz & 404g/14.3oz | Colors: Grey & Red/Grey & Yellow/Black & Red | Material: Carbon | Variable length: Yes | Sizes: 100–120cm/39–47in & 110–130cm/43–51in | Folded length: 39cm/15.3in and 42cm/16.5in | Compatibility: Super durable and comfortable for long distance training runs and ultras
Let’s not beat about the bush here – these are the most expensive poles you can buy, but what are you paying for? In short, extreme comfort, exquisite quality and durability, plus a unique and efficient hand-pole attachment. They’re very easy and quick to assemble and re-fold, and the inner cord is protected with durable plastic. They also extend without you being able to pull the sections apart like budget poles tend to do.
And then there’s the unique hand-to-pole attachment, the Trigger Shark 2.0 System: this is essentially a very comfortable Velcro glove (available in sizes XS–XL) that you hook onto the handle of the pole which allows you to use them with a different technique to all other poles. You don’t have to worry about always gripping the poles – you can let them swing out in front of you with momentum and plant them on the swing back down, saving you energy. However, being so securely attached, it is more difficult to extricate yourself from the pole quickly – if, say, you take a fall. And, if you were to lose one of your unique Leki gloves during a run or race, the pole would simply turn into a top-quality walking stick.
Light, fixed-length and durable carbon running poles for long days out and mountain adventures
RRP: £135 (UK)/$190 (USA) | Weight (120cm pair): 330g/11.6oz | Colors: Black | Material: Carbon | Variable length: No | Sizes: 105cm-135cm/41-53in | Folded length: 42cm/16.5in | Compatibility: Strong and durable for long distance and multi-day ultras
The Ultimate Direction FK Ultra has a unique tensioning system within each pole and it claims to be one of the strongest carbon fiber poles on the market due to its tapered design. There are also an excellent number of lengths available – seven sizes from 105–135cm/41–53inches in 5cm/2inch increments. Collapsed into three sections, they are one of the longest here at 42cm/16.5in long, so take that into account and make sure it’s workable with the way you want to attach your poles to your running pack or waist belt (if you want to have them horizontally across the back of your pack, they can be a little on the wide side).
The handle is dreamily smooth, with slight grip grooves that don’t grate against your bare hands. It’s also long so you can use it with both hands for river and snow patch crossings. The strap doesn’t have a hugely long piece of velcro at the wrist loop for adjustment, but should fit most hands fine and the material is also wonderfully smooth. They come with an extra large mud basket, and there is also a pair of replacement carbide tips, which is a nice touch for longevity.
The best alloy running poles
Black Diamond Distance Z
Good quality, robust aluminium running poles with great features at a very reasonable price
RRP: $130(US)/£100 (UK) | Weight (pair 120cm): 344g/12oz | Colors: Black & Blue | Material: Aluminium | Variable length: No | Sizes available: 100cm / 105cm / 110cm / 115cm / 120cm / 125cm / 130cm (39–51in) | Folded lengths: 33–43cm/(13–17in) | Compatibility: Running long distances in remote mountains
The Black Diamond Distance Zs are sturdy aluminium poles that aren’t adjustable, but come in plenty of different lengths (be sure to purchase the right size). They’re easy to put together and re-folding them is equally simple once you know how (initially it’s a little tricky). Inside, the Distance Zs are held together by a strong cord protected by robust plastic, and a groove in the mud basket clips onto the other pole nice and tidily for easy stowing. The strap material is comfortable over longer distances with a good swing action from the cord connecting it to the top of the handle. There isn’t much room for adjustment with only a short strip of velcro, but the standard sized loop is fine for most hand sizes, male and female. The handle foam is also extended so you can grip one pole with both hands to cross a river or a snow patch. Deep horizontal grooves improve the grip, but do make them slightly less comfortable with bare hands over longer distances than a handle made of smooth foam all the way up. At the sharp end, the carbide tips bite into the ground nicely, and it’s good to have a small mudguard to stop your poles sinking into boggy ground (you can attach a larger Z-Pole Snow Basket, available separately for £7.50/$10).
What to look for when buying the best running poles
There are plenty of poles out there to peruse, and the prices vary wildly. Depending on the type of trail adventures you predominantly do, the best running pole for you might be the lightest one, or the strongest, or the one that packs down the smallest. Before you make your choice, consider the following features and factors.
It’s an obvious advantage to have a lighter weight pole for long distance runs and ultras, but this also comes with (to differing extents) reduced strength and durability so it depends how careful you want to be with them and how much weight you want them to bear. For example if you prefer the poles to take your full weight on river crossings, maybe the lightest version is not for you.
There are three types of running pole – the lightest but least convenient to carry are fixed-length non-collapsible poles; the best of both worlds once you know your size and you don’t wish to ever vary it is the fixed-length collapsible, which folds across either three (Z-poles) or four (M-poles) sections. Finally there are variable-length collapsible poles which are handy should you want to change the length for uphills and downhills, or lend them to friends and family of differing heights.
Poles generally range from 100–135cm/39–53inches in length and you can find the right size for you by standing up straight with your elbow bent at 90 degrees, hand out in front. The distance from your hand to the ground is the running pole length you need.
Most lightweight running poles are made of carbon, and a few from aluminium. Carbon poles are very lightweight and have great strength, but they are not as durable and are more likely to crack or break under stress (and you can’t mend them). Aluminium, although heavier, is highly durable and can withstand a bit more of a battering and even slight bending before it becomes irreparable.
Most commonly, handles on the best running poles are made from EVA foam or perhaps cork, which are both very comfortable depending on what grooves and textures are patterned into them. Deeper grooves seem grippy but are not as comfy as a smoother finish. Look for a pole that has a longer handle area so you can use one with two hands for river or ice-patch crossings.
It’s handy if the handle strap (or glove in the case of the Leki Trigger Shark 2.0 system) has a large range of adjustment to cater for bare hands to thick gloves.
We store a few pre-cut 20–30cm lengths of gaffer tape, wound around the upper shaft of our poles under the handle. This is very handy for all sorts of kit and equipment repairs mid-run in the middle of the wilderness, or at camp on a multi-day adventure.
Writer, editor and enthusiast of anything involving boots, bikes, boats, beers and bruises, Pat has spent 20 years pursuing adventure stories. En route he’s canoed Canada’s Yukon River, climbed Mont Blanc and Kilimanjaro, skied and mountain biked through the Norwegian Alps, run an ultra across the roof of Mauritius, and set short-lived records for trail-running Australia’s highest peaks and New Zealand’s Great Walks. He’s authored walking guides to Devon and Dorset, and once wrote a whole book about Toilets for Lonely Planet. Follow Pat’s escapades here.
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