I remember the first time I saw photographs of mountaineers in the Himalaya using ski sticks to aid walking. Jump forward 30 odd years and we now see them being used to aid walking along the streets in Lake District towns. They have become an almost essential ingredient in the ‘fashionable walking holiday wardrobe’.
I was ‘anti poles’ initially and still believe that to some extent we are better to manage our own balance when on difficult terrain. I first began to take note however when older mountaineers expressed the view that the use of walking poles reduced the stress on their knees and hips when descending. As we age and our leg joints wear and this seemed a reasonable response. One might extend the knee support argument further and postulate that perhaps the use of poles might also reduce the wear and tear in joints if used before they become ‘needed’. The research carried out certainly suggests that this is the case.
Views and perspectives change over time and from being anti poles, I am now a frequent user and especially so in the case of photography in the mountains.
I’m much more likely to use poles when photographing as my pack weight is likely to be substantially greater than any normal day sack weight. I also find them to be enormously helpful when wading out into flowing water (even if less deep than the height of my wellies) for that perfect spot from which to photograph. Finally given the value of the contents of a photo backpack, I find them a reassuring support when crossing fast flowing water by wading or stepping from rock to rock.
There is a bewildering choice of poles out there at a huge range of prices and including esoteric materials such as carbon fibre. After trying and using a number of options from familiar brands, I settled on the subject of this review, the Alpkit Compact Ultra II folding poles. The route to this choice was relatively straightforward although it took some years to navigate. There are essentially only a few choices to make:
- Budget – This ranges from about £5 per pole to well over £100 per pair.
- Twist lock or snap lock
- Sliding (telescopic) or folding
- Material / weight – usually ranging from alloy to carbon fibre.
- Shock absorption – some poles have an internal spring section to reduce impact shock.
- Grip style these vary from a simple foam cylinder grip to carefully moulded anatomical grips.
My own reasoning was as follows. I don’t like things sticking up over the top of a rucksack so the two/three section sliding poles are usually too tall even when stowed. This is particularly relevant when negotiating woodland with poles strapped on to your pack. Anything that reaches above the bag can and will get caught on branches.
I find that twist lock poles become much harder to tighten and loosen when they and hands are wet and (from the samples I’ve tried) are prone to being jammed completely by ice in winter. I find the folding snap lock system quicker and easier.
I’ll pay the cost to obtain the performance I want but don’t choose to ‘over cook’ the specification. The weight saving from alloy to carbon fibre doesn’t seem worthwhile to me (unlike with tripods for instance).
I also have a leaning towards new agile small companies trying to do things right and in a good way. Alpkit have a very sound ethical approach and I believe such ethics should be supported.
Combining all the above I bought a pair of Alpkit Compact Ultra II poles and have never looked back.
The poles, sold individually or as a pair, weigh in at a quoted 275g each. My pair weighed 500g.The only change to the quoted spec is that I don’t carry the point protectors. These are too easily lost in my opinion and best left at home. When stowed they are delightfully compact and measure no more than 38cm. To save having to readjust for working length each time they
are used, I leave mine ready set at my normal length while stowed and this results in a slightly longer packed size of 51cm. When packed at minimum size, not only will they stow neatly on the outside of a rucksack, they will fit inside even some very small 10L day sacks.
This model represents an improved version of the original on which the hand loops were a little undersized. On these, the loops are sufficient for all users. There are poles with better adjusters and those with worse, these are about the middle in terms of smoothness or difficulty of adjustment. The grips are lightly contoured foam and are both comfortable and offer good grip in use. I was a little suspicious of the locking mechanism for the bottom section when I bought the poles. This is a spring loaded ball which pushes through a hole in the leg. Despite my concern the mechanism might clog with dirt, has been flawless for the year that I’ve owned the set.
If you walk the hills and tracks, I’d recommend that you consider a set of walking poles. If you are a photographer, carrying a heavy photo backpack and working in wild terrain, I’d recommend the investigation still further. In my case not only is stability increased and knee/hip pain reduced but I feel less tired after a long day on the hill than without them. If you decide that poles are for you, I’d recommend these Alpkit poles without the slightest reservation.