Sunday, 22 July 2012

Black Diamond Ultra Distance Trekking Z-Poles

I like hiking poles and find them useful on all but perfectly smooth trail. They offer much, they provide additional balance which can increase confidence over rough terrain, they reduce shock and load on the lower body, you can fend off aggressive animals, test the depth of that man-eating bog or stream, hold back stinging or spiky undergrowth and much more. Even on good trail they help pacing after a long tiring hike. As a further bonus, with the right shelter, they can be used as the supports. Hiking poles are the perfect example of multi-use gear and I rarely travel without them.

There are many types of hiking poles but most are 3 section, height adjustable, and made from aluminium. These  can last a lifetime and are relatively cheap but perhaps a little heavy at 4-600g/pr. Some hiking poles have springs to reduce shocks but I see no need for them. Over the last few years lighter poles made from carbon fibre have become more common and these can weigh as little as 200g/pr, but they will not be suitable for all.

Not sure? Take my quick quiz and answer honestly, yes or no.
  1. Are you normally tough on gear?
  2. Do you slip, fall or stumble a lot when hiking?
  3. Have you bent heavier aluminium hiking poles?
  4. Do you use pole extenders to pitch your shelters?
  5. Are you overweight, or carrying a particularly heavy load?

If you answered yes to any of these questions then the lightest carbon fibre poles might not be for you. Of course they will be weaker then sets weighing 5 times as much and they need to be treated with care. If you choose to ignore this then you have been warned and I've met many people that have gone back to heavier poles after a bad experience! Personally, I've exclusively used lightweight carbon poles since 2006 and so far have never broken one.

Gossamer Gear make some wonderfully light carbon fibre poles, these are available in one-piece (LT3) or a two-piece (LT4) versions. I've used the fixed length one-piece since 2006 (mine are the older LT1 or 2 model) and they are very good and still going strong but being one-piece using public transport or flying is a problem. I've also had the adjustable two-piece since 2009 but have found these to be a little unreliable, they will often jam in the open position and both poles have had the whole bug assembly, that locks the poles at the chosen height, come off from the shafts during hikes. The only other person I know in the UK that has a set has had similar problems so it doesn't appear to be a one off. I want the reliability of a one-piece  fixed pole but the packability of a two-piece design, when I found the Black Diamond Ultra Distance Trekking Z-Poles in early 2011 I hoped all my wishes had been granted.

As with all my reviews I paid for these poles myself and they have not been supplied for test. I have used them in the rocky high mountains of Colorado as well as back home in Scotland. I estimate they have covered a minimum of 1500km and they look like they should last a longtime yet. Having used Gossamer Gear poles for a number of years I will make comparisons to them throughout the review.

The Black Diamond Ultra Distance Trekking Z-Poles are a 3-peice folding carbon fibre pole with replaceable carbide tips and adjustable wrist straps. Small fixed baskets and a long ribbed EVA foam handle complete the features. They are supplied with a storage bag and alternative rubber tips which I have not used. Folding poles are quite rare but actually make real sense. Conventional adjustable poles can work loose and collapse when loaded (under your weight!), the rubber locking bungs can also jam or wear out. Folding poles cannot do that and should the mechanism that holds them together fail then taping the joints together would keep you going. The only problem with folding poles is that, like one-piece poles, choosing the right size is critical. One size will not fit all.

The carbon shafts are held locked together by a nylon covered cord, the cord is tensioned by sliding the foam handle up the carbon shaft until a pin locks into a hole with a reassuring click. They are very quick to assemble, pick up the pole by the handle and let gravity pull it straight, grip the shaft below the handle and pull the foam covered handle upwards with the other hand until you feel the pin lock into the shaft. To fold simply push the pin and slide the handle down the shaft, you can then fold the pole into its 3 sections. Very quick, easy and so far, reliable.

The tension of the cord is adjustable to allow for any stretch, this is altered by rotating a plastic in-line adjuster between the lower and middle sections. My poles both arrived slack and it was possible to pull the pole joints pulled apart a few mm, continuous movement of the joints will lead to wear over time so check yours are adjusted correctly from new. My poles are 130cm but they are available in lengths from 100-130cm in 10cm increments. Wrist straps are included but were quickly removed as I don't like, or need, straps with such light poles. However, they looked comfortable and as good as any other but straps are just not for me. My poles, with straps removed, weigh-in at 260g. This is 73g more then my one-piece Gossamer Gear (LT1 or 2) poles and 60g more than my 2-piece LT4's. The extra weight is noticeable on the trail but still much lighter than most other poles. The packed size is a tiny 43cm.

One of the best features of the Z-Poles is the long ribbed handle which allows for multiple hand positions and can be very useful when transversing a steep slope. With adjustable poles you could lengthen the downhill pole and shorten the uphill, which obviously you can't with a fixed or folding pole, but do you ever actually stop to adjust your poles? I never could be bothered! Compared to the smaller LT4 handles the Z-Poles are more useful but I do prefer the EVA foam "kork-o-lon" material that Gossamer Gear use finding it more comfortable with hot sweaty hands. The kork also appears to wear better, my Z-Pole handles are looking a bit battered but my Gossamer Gear still look like new. I should also note the the LT4 handles are replaceable which is not an option with the Z-Poles. The Z-Poles carbide tips show little wear but are user replaceable and simply screw on the end of the shafts which is an excellent feature. They cannot come loose because of interlocking plastic teeth, all poles should have this feature but most, including my Gossamer Gear, do not.

Stiffness of the Z-Poles is impressive for such a light pole and the joints, once the tension is adjusted, are solid and with no play. When assembled they feel like a one-piece pole but with the advantage of folding when needed. This stiffness and strength is great when used as shelter supports but these poles won't work with all shelters, the Trailstar for example needs an adjustable pole that covers 100-120cm and my Z-Poles at 130cm are just too tall. They do work well with conventional tarps but tall shelters like the DuoMid are also a problem. I wouldn't recommend using pole extenders with ANY of these lightweight poles, the increased stresses in a storm on an extended lightweight pole could prove to be too much. There is a simple way round this that will be my next post.

There are a couple of things I don't like about the Z-Poles. The baskets are tiny, and fixed, so cannot be swapped. The whole plastic end (including baskets) are available as a spare so could be replaced when worn but how easy it would be to replace a bonded part I don't know. On firm ground these small baskets are fine but if crossing a bog, or even worse, a snowfield then the shafts will sink deep and a shaft that sinks deep is much more likely to snap if you don't react quickly. This is one reason I don't like wrist straps, if I feel any resistance then I can release my grip immediately and save the pole, but if I'm attached to the pole and moving at speed when it jams then.... In defence of the Z-Poles they are marketed as a 3 season pole but Scotland has deep bogs year-round and Colorado has snowfields.

The poles are showing some wear to the EVA foam handles and this foam has also slipped down the shaft over time and covered the release pins. Sand and grit can get under the handle making it harder to fold or assemble the poles. This grit is also very abrasive on the carbon shafts but washing the poles regularly helps (a dunk in a stream is sufficient).

Disappointingly the stainless(?) steel locking pins have corroded which again makes it harder to fold the poles. Should the tensioned cord that holds everything together fail then I doubt it could be replaced by the user on a hike.

Overall I really like these poles. They are stiff, and for the weight, very tough. Reliability has so far been  excellent and should the worst happen on the trail, and something failed, then I'm confident they could be made useable with some tape. They pack quickly and really small and  fit inside most packs for transportation. The carbide tips are easily replaced but unfortunately not the baskets. Perhaps they are a bit heavy when compared to the Gossamer Gear poles and the fixed length LT's are still my first choice if I don't need a folding pole. For everything else though these are my poles of choice and come highly recommended.


The poles have now covered 3000km and are holding up very well. The foam handle on one pole has come unstuck and can be removed with some force. I'm not going to stick it back on as it grips well enough in use and now allows full access to the cord mechanism should that ever fail. Corrosion of the locking pins continues and I feel that when these poles finally fail it could well be these pins that give way first. I always dry the poles before storage but on the trail they are just left to get on with it and I really wouldn't expect to find corrosion like this on a quality product. Its bad enough now that I often need to use a rock, or other object, to operate the pins to allow folding. The baskets continue to annoy me beyond belief being so small to be useless for my normal hiking conditions. It's easy to force them through any ground level undergrowth when you put any weight on them but they then require a good tug to be released - after a while this gets really annoying! More challenging conditions like snow, mud, bogs and they just sink... I HATE the baskets! Other than that I'm still very happy with the poles and I expect to get many more km out of them yet.