Poles Apart – Alpkit Carbonlite Trekking Poles.

If you’re a day hiker put off poles because they seem heavy and awkward, give these skinny things a try. I found them insufficiently robust for multi-week trekking with a full pack on rough trails but, considering their weight (136g each) and price (£49 a pair, February 2017) that shouldn’t really have been a surprise. If you’re hiking 10-15 days annually with a light pack these poles should last you at least a year and I think you’d enjoy using them, as I did before I destroyed them.

pennine way yorkshire trig point trail path long distance england moorland

Pinhaw Beacon

The main things I look for in trekking poles are light weight, minimal simplicity, reliable locking and a feeling of robustness. Buying online, the only option with Alpkit, I could judge the first two but not the last. I couldn’t find reviews that gave me a sense of the durability of these elegantly conceived, attractive and very light poles. I hope the following helps.

I’ve never been a great one for rubber tips, but when these poles arrived with optional push-on silencers I thought I’d give them a try. They split and fell off. As soon as I pushed any weight down onto the pole the rubber opened out axially along obvious fault lines in the material. Not a promising start. I emailed Alpkit a photo of the split tips and with no quibbling they sent free replacements. These split too. Great. Alpkit say “there was a batch last year which had issues with the rubber feet so we sent out replacements to anyone that was affected – including yourself. I am very sorry that the replacement feet also failed”. To be fair I wasn’t ever going to use the silly rubber feet anyway, I just lose them. Into the bin they went, originals and replacements.pennine-way-alpkit-trekking-pole7

I’ve never been a great one for silly baskets, but at least these poles come with sensible small ‘trekking baskets’, as opposed to the vast snow baskets other manufacturers supply by default to walkers whose poles lean safely in the cupboard between November and March. I duly gave these baskets a try along The Way and found they caught constantly and infuriatingly in vegetation. Not only that, when my legs got tired I started to trip over them, risking pole breakage.

People say ‘ but if I don’t have baskets my poles will sink into bogs’ Erm, actually that’s a major benefit of poles in bogs, to be able to probe the depth of the mud immediately ahead. How can you probe the depth of the bog if you’ve got a basket on your pole that stops the pole going into the bog? Ridiculous. Cunningly though, with these poles you’re supposed to be able to screw the baskets on and off according to when you need them.

Unfortunately after a couple of weeks on the Pennine Way the threads were so worn that screwing the baskets on became impossible. And of course everyone loves having filthy muddy baskets and filthy muddy rubber tips knocking around in the depths of their pack, or the pocket of their soaking wet shell jacket. Yeah, right. Pish and fie to the silly baskets, I say. If you’re a desperate basket case mine went into the bin at Alston petrol station, although admittedly that was last October.

The next problem I found with these poles was that the stitching on the straps had been hot-melted to prevent fraying. This is a good idea in principle and showed attention to detail. Unfortunately heat-sealing the fabric edges had created rough and quite sharp ridges of solid plastic at the tops of the padding where the straps narrowed. These pressed into my hands. I had to abrade the straps on rocks to smooth off the sharp ridges of melted fabric.

pennine-way-alpkit-trekking-pole6

I’ve smoothed these strap edges by rubbing them on rocks but as supplied they were surprisingly sharp.

On morning four of my second Pennine Way I felt a stinging sensation in the palm of my right hand when I picked up the newer of my two poles, whose strap I’d forgotten thus to abrade, distracted by other pains. The sharp edge of the strap had actually cut a small but open and quite sore wound into my soft little hand – ouch! I should have anticipated this earlier and it was easily fixed, but really…

So, after initial niggles, what were the Alpkit Carbonlite Ultra poles like to walk with? They were a total delight. Featherlight at just 140-odd grams each they were nicely balanced, swung freely and could be placed with fingertips. For their weight and within reason they felt secure and rugged. I’m a clumsy walker and over six weeks of trekking I arrested numerous minor balance issues on steep gradients with these poles. At no time did I feel vulnerable, although I certainly wouldn’t want to take a direct horizontal fall onto one of these skinny things, carbon poles being strong in compression but less so, I suspect, in shear.

The straps adjusted freely but locked off securely. The handles were comfortable and didn’t seem to gather dirt, get slippery or acquire an odd smell, unlike me. Like me, though, their tops wore a little bald; you could feel and even start to see the tubing after a couple of weeks. I know you’re not supposed to press down on the tops, but when you’re tired on a long descent sometimes you need that change of hand position.pennine-way-alpkit-trekking-pole5 I routinely adjust pole lengths according to whether I’m ascending or descending; I found the twist-lock system was easy, reliable and didn’t jam.

The ‘tungsten carbide’ tips wore down with astonishing speed and are not replaceable. Either a Chinese factory database has translated ‘tungsten’ as ‘dung-strength’, or Alpkit inadvertently specified their tungsten from the periodic table of some parallel, squidgier universe. pennine-way-alpkit-trekking-pole3I did my first Pennine Way in 1999 with Italian alloy poles that were each heavy enough to club a sheep; at Kirk Yetholm their tips had looked virtually identical to their initial appearance at Edale. Ah well, tips apart, things were all good on planet Carbonlite. For about two weeks…

Suddenly and apropos nothing, on Day 16 in the middle of Wark Forest, the bottom section dropped out of one of my poles. ‘Goodness me’, I said, or words to that effect. The internal metal shaft had sheared clean off, leaving the pole broken beyond repair other than with circlip pliers and spare parts which, oddly enough, I didn’t seem to have about my person. ‘Bless my soul’, I said, or words to that effect. Squatting disconsolately in a bog, I dashed off a stern e-mail to Alpkit HQ with this very picture attached (below). pennine-way-alpkit-trekking-poleHow did they feel, I enquired, about the fact that thanks to their duff kit I was now faced with traversing The Cheviot massif on a bad knee with only one pole?

A sweet young lady whose only experience of ‘outdoors’ is probably the kerb between cab and club, bless her, replied that they’d be pleased to invoke their warranty procedure, to initiate which would I please print out a free return label and mail them the allegedly defective pole for inspection. I received this instruction late at night in a Northumberland bunk barn, once I’d retrieved the WiFi code from where Swiss Gianni had playfully hidden it under his sleeping bag. You had to be there.

Suppose, I enquired acidly and via one bar of battery in reply, I was pedalling across Patagonia, say, on one of their bikes and the frame cracked beyond repair? I’d have to yomp hundreds of miles with a busted bike on my shoulders, then ship it back to Nottingham so they could look at it and say ‘oh dear, what a pity, how sad’. ‘I’ve cut the handle off my toothbrush to save pack weight’, I pointed out, realising as I did so the eccentricity, albeit truthfulness, of this claim, ‘and you want me to lug 136 grams of irreparably broken trekking pole pointlessly over The Cheviot?’ This exchange was not completed until I arrived at Byrness, the last point to which a replacement could have been sent.

Fair play to Alpkit, it subsequently turned out that they would in fact have been prepared to courier free of charge a replacement pole to Byrness hostel, had I been more forceful initially and not stupidly assumed, submerged in my own adventure, that their young support operative would have heard of the Pennine Way and hence have some idea of my situation. This kind offer was made too late but that was no fault of theirs; the offer was made and I appreciate it. In my experience Alpkit do care about people who are stuck outdoors with dodgy gear and will help you out if you’ve got the sense to communicate clearly that help is needed.

When I got home I found that on the strength of my photo they’d in fact kindly sent me a free replacement pole without my returning the bust one. So a few months later I set off once again along the Pennine Way, armed with one new and one slightly used pole. I was not untroubled about their reliability but apart from the cut hand, noted above, all went well. I’d cautiously conclude that the internal failure was a one-off.

However after a couple of weeks the lower section of one of the poles became very wobbly, due to wear of the carbon shaft. Presumably the older one, although I’d no way of telling as they both looked equally tired by this point. Then, not long after my return to Norfolk, on a routine stroll the lower section of the other pole started to slip, the classic failure mode for internal twist-lock poles.pennine-way-alpkit-trekking-pole4

Finally, I sent all three of the Carbonlite Ultra Trekking Poles I’d managed to ruin in just a few weeks’ use back to Alpkit. There was no charge for this, you just have to print out a returns form and a free postage label from their website. Having examined the sad specimens returned to them, Alpkit kindly offered either yet another free replacement set or a full refund of my original purchase price and with a commendable lack of quibbling. Shamelessly, I took the money, so I’d unintentionally but effectively walked most of two Pennine Ways on free poles. Sorry Alpkit, and thanks for being so decent.

What can we conclude from this tale of woe?

Perhaps surprisingly, I recommend Alpkit Carbonlite Ultra Trekking Poles if bought with open eyes and realistic expectations. Until they fall apart, they’re just so nice to use. I’d recommend them without hesitation for weekend hillwalks on non-technical trails. Even more so if you’re blessed with sufficient income for the reasonable price to mean you can afford to replace them routinely (although that’s not a very green approach to gear buying). I recommend them because Alpkit is run by nice people who stand by their stuff, and their ‘Alpine Bond’ is for real. These poles are supremely light, perfectly designed, elegant in appearance and optimal in feature set. They’re only let down by a slight durability deficit and for the weight and the price perhaps that shouldn’t be such an enormous surprise.

I hope Alpkit consider this a fair review as they’ve been more than fair with me and I’d buy gear from them again with confidence. If you’re hiking for anything up to a couple of weeks these super-skinny trekking poles will quickly become companions as beloved as a pair of whippets. Just bear in mind you’ll be saying goodbye to them sooner than you would to Great Danes.

My own requirement is more demanding and I’m a bit of a hair-shirter when it comes to consumerism; I’d rather buy more durable gear even if it’s slightly less pleasant to use. I’ve upgraded to Black Diamond Trails. These are heavier, more expensive alloy poles with field-adjustable external cam-locks and replaceable carbide tips; so far they’re giving me a bit more confidence. We’ll see. Given my history of gear buying they could be another disaster. Watch this space…

Alpkit Carbonlite Ultra walking poles, three-section, twist-lock, 62.5 – 135 cm, 14 cm foam handle, 136g per pole. Origin: China. www.alpkit.com/products/carbonlite

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