To Pole or Not to Pole
… that is often the question. A question I shall not answer in this review, as I believe that it is a very personal thing that cannot necessarily be answered by reading about the pros and cons in an article.
If you haven’t answered that question for yourself yet, I suggest some research on the Internet. Millions of contradicting articles are waiting for you to be discovered. The best advice I can give, is to read up on the reasons why you might want to use poles for hiking, and also learn how to use them properly (there’s a surprising number of people out there, who don’t). Then go and try some out for yourself. Not just for five minutes in your local hiking store, but rather on at least a day hike, or better even a weekender. Get some altitude in there as well. Using poles on flat terrain alone only tells half the story.
As a disclaimer, I have to say, that I have done all the research and have tried poles on weekends and some longer hikes and have come to the conclusion that they are not for me. I totally get why people use them and am totally aware that I actually should be using them (I’ve got a wonky knee), but I can’t help it: I don’t like them.
Well, this is where ZPacks’ carbon fibre staff comes in. Not only does it make me look like Terminator Gandalf, it also works a little different to traditional hiking poles. Why? Well, first of all, because you only have one, rather than two poles. The staff is rather tall (152 cm), yet very thick (2.1 cm) and rigid, and very light (212 g). It’s a pretty stable platform, even for a big guy like myself (189 cm, 98 kg). The biggest advantage, I find, is that it is a lot less restrictive to use. To me, the following points are mostly advantages. However, I am aware that the same points can as well be seen as disadvantages. It just depends on how you use your poles and how you look at it.
The Ikea Side of Things
First off, this is how the staff arrives to you from ZPacks. It’s actually four separate pieces (and not three, like the photo would suggest) that are held together by a single piece of dyneema cord that is fed through the cores of the pieces.
It all comes together when you combine the pieces. All you then have to do is tighten the dyneema cord and try to get a simple knot that is tied into it, to hook into a little notch or groove that’s been carved into the top piece. Finally, you simply feed a rubber stopper over the end to hold it all together and to make for a more pleasant tactile experience, should you grab the staff from the top.
The grip is not actually an individual grip, like you might expect from a traditional hiking pole, it’s more like a grip area. That means you can change the height of your poles on the fly. That is, whilst you’re bringing the staff up or down, you can let it slip through your hand to adjust for changing terrain immediately in front of you. Perfect for rugged, undulating terrain, where you might walk down a slope for a few meters, only to then have to climb up again over a few rocky boulders, etc. Although normal hiking poles can often be height adjusted, you usually have to decide whether you’re mostly walking uphill or mostly walking downhill,and then stick with that setting for a while.
The disadvantage of the non existing grip on the ZPacks staff is that it is less comfortable holding it for prolonged times, because the grip is not pronounced and not exactly ergonomic.
The problem of discomfort is compounded by the only real gripe I have with the grip. The sweat grip. It’s basically just a piece of fabric (which has a great feel to it. Brownie points for that), which is sewn together to create a hose that is simply slidden over the staff and held in place by the single piece of dyneema cord that also holds the staff pieces together.
The concept creates two problems. Firstly, one has to keep a fairly firm grip the entire time to keep the fabric from sliding up and down the pole. Personally I always like to slacken my grip on the forward motion to give my fingers a brief moment of respite before I tighten my grip again when the staff hits the ground. The way the grip works at the moment, doesn’t work. It’s not only annoying, but also tiring.
The other problem is that the sweat grip is only kept in place by the before mentioned dyneema cord. This is fed through a simple LineLoc 3 to stop movement. Great in theory, not so great in reality. What actually happens is that when I use the staff to pull myself up a slope or rock, I apply slow and steady force that the line lock cannot hold. As a result the sweat grip keeps creeping further and further down the pole so that I have to re-tighten the cord every few minutes. On my way home from the test outing I actually took the fabric off and used the staff without it. Gripping the bare carbon fibre wasn’t the bee’s knees either, but it actually worked slightly better. I think I will see if I can find a good grip tape (maybe for tennis rackets?) and wrap that around the staff. I’ll update on this later.
One thing I found rather curious is that, when I removed the sweat grip, I found out that the staff has actually four pieces, rather than three (I had always wondered how ZPacks had come up with their litany of “Some Possible Folded Lengths”, quoted on their website (see link at the bottom)). The top third of the staff is actually two separate pieces. The second (hidden) piece also has the cut-in groove for the dyneema cord to hook into so that the staff could be used in a shorter configuration. Personally I can’t quite see any reason for me to do that, which is why I am slightly baffled by that fourth piece, but it’s quite probable that others have found it necessary and that is why it’s there. If there is anyone who could enlighten me …
Anyway, the ZPacks staff is not there to be used all day anyway (like probably most traditional poles), but rather when you need it. Some might argue that you would be better off just using a branch when you need the support. However, that is forgetting that not everywhere are trees, and not everwhere are sticks lying around of the right length, thickness, and lightness.
In my case, the staff also doubles as tent pole and it would be nigh to impossible to find the right kind of branch for that purpose every night.
UPDATE 26/04/2017: Finally got around to update the staff grip. I got myself some tennis racquet grip tape and wrapped it along the length of the first third of the staff (I used two bands of tape to cover the length). Has it worked? Why, yes. It has. It’s brilliant! Tennis grip tape was definitely the right decision. Very grippy, even with sweaty palms; easily replaceable if used up, cheap, and hopefully relatively easy to buy in many parts of the world.
Can’t Strap It Down
This brings us to one of those things that you will see either as an advantage or disadvantage. The lack of straps. Straps on traditional poles serve multiple purposes and do a great job if you use them correctly (in case you don’t know: come in from below, not from above (YouTube is your friend)). One of the big things about straps is that they basically tether the poles to your hand. This means that in case you suddenly have to grab hold of something to steady yourself or to stop yourself falling, you can let go of the poles without losing them (yes, in a fast flowing river crossings, that would be a problem). The ZPacks staff doesn’t have straps. Ergo: if you let go, it lets go.
Personally I loathe straps around my wrists (for all the wrong reasons), and I couldn’t be happier that the staff doesn’t have them. I guess, as long as you’re aware of the implications, it shouldn’t be a problem even if you’re a strappy kind of person.
The Bitter End …
Well, the bottom part of the staff is also quite different to what most would expect from a traditional hiking pole. It’s not pointy and has no provision to attach a snow basket to it. Compared to a “normal” pole it looks more like an elephant’s foot. Big, round, and cumbersome.
Of course, the thick diameter doesn’t make it cumbersome at all. However, the comparison to an elephant’s foot is less of an insult than you might think. It makes you sure footed. The bottom bit is made of 6 millimeter thick, solid titanium, which will probably outlast the sun, and it feels quite grippy, due to the large surface area touching the ground. It also worked surprisingly well on wet rocks, without sudden and uncontrolled slippage.
Naturally, the staff is not designed for alpine adventures and would probably disappear deep into a snow drift or crevasse if you were to take it there.
Admittedly, the ZPacks staff is not the lightest hiking pole on the market (e.g. Gossamer Gear’s LT4 is almost half the weight). However, I would be willing to place a bet that probably none are quite as sturdy as this one. The carbon fibre is thick and solid and seems less prone to splintering and breakage than some of the other carbon fibre offerings out there.
This quality enables it also to be used with both hands. Not only is there enough grip area along the staff, but the feel is so solid that I had no hesitation to play old man on the track and pull myself up a boulder, with both hands, lifting most of my body weight (plus pack). Apparently the staff is so sturdy that it can (but shouldn’t) be used for pole jumping over small creeks (see video ).
It packs away small enough. No no no. I said “small enough”, not “small”. But it should fit inside most packs though.
… And the Bottom Line
Would I recommend this staff?
Bearing in mind that I have only used it for a short weekend trip so far, I would say: unquestionably.
Not for everybody and not for every situation, but as long as you’re aware of what you’re gaining and what you’re losing over traditional hiking poles (or no poles, for that matter), I think this could be one of the most tremendous pieces of equipment you’re buying this year.
Where can you buy it? Here! (Yes, they ship to Australia at reasonable rates. Just make sure you pay the little extra for express post or you’ll wait months for your package to arrive.)