As detailed in a previous post, I’m a bit of an ambassador for the use of trekking poles. For any hike, for any hiker, and for any load, they help assure sound footing while absorbing a portion of the impact on your hard-working knees and hips. I’ve used them since I was young and strong. As a middle-aged hiker, I appreciate them all the more. I don’t hike without them. When it comes to choosing hiking poles, the news is good: All the major brands are excellent. Cruise by REI, for example, and you’ll find a great selection. As long as the poles fit you, they’ll serve you well in the field. So what do you get when you’re willing to buy the most expensive poles on the market? That would be Leki’s new Micro Vario Carbon DSS, and it represents pretty much every recent advancement in pole design. I loved these poles. They felt like an organic extension of my body while I was hiking—light, nimble, absorbing the bumps and grinds of the trail. Almost as importantly, they fold easily, down to just about 15 inches. Here are the major features of the Micro Vario Carbon DSS, their advantages, and some disadvantages:
Light weight. Each mostly carbon fiber pole weighs just 8.5 ounces. If you’ve used older, heavier poles, you’ll notice the difference. The advantage? Far less fatigue. You lift each pole thousands of times in the course of a hike. Light is good.
Foldable. The pole segments are shock-corded together like tent poles and collapse instantly to just under 15 inches. Stowing them for travel—or for a trail segment where they’d be a hindrance (say, a boulder scramble up a dry streambed)—is therefore a breeze. Very cool. But there’s a disadvantage to this feature. Read on…
Adjustable. Sort of. While traditional telescoping poles are almost infinitely adjustable, the foldable Leki Micro Vario Carbon DSS is more limited. Once the poles are extended and locked, you can easily make them longer, but you can’t make them shorter. I tested the standard-length pole, which starts at 110 cm (43 inches)—just the right fit for me at 5 feet, 8 inches. But when I encountered steep trail segments, I couldn’t shorten the poles, which meant a lot more arm strain as I powered uphill. The solution points to a marketing faux pas on Leki’s part. Turns out that to get the right fit, I should be using the Lady version of the Micro Vario Carbon DSS. Apparently Leki thinks women are shorter than 5-8, and men are taller. The Lady version starts at 100 cm, which is just right for me when I’m on a steep trail. This Lady-versus-standard delineation is pretty silly, but if you need to adjust poles short, get the Lady or opt for standard telescoping poles, which are more versatile. By the way, lengthening the poles is a breeze using Leki’s Speed Lock 2 system—a simple lever just below the grip that you flip out to adjust, flip back to secure. To me, this is quicker and much more intuitive than the twist-lock system on most telescoping poles.
Shock absorbing. The “DSS” in the clumsy model name for these poles stands for Dynamic Suspension System, which boils down to a tiny elastomer shock absorber near the tip of the pole. Leki claims that it reduces impact by about 40%. I’m skeptical. Poles by their very nature absorb trail shock by transferring a percentage of impact to the arms and upper body. Plus, carbon fiber dampens vibration by its very nature. I’ve used both antishock and standard poles for years. To me, the difference is negligible. But if you want that extra assurance that the shock-absorbing system provides, why not? There’s no downside other than cost. It adds about $20 to the cost of the poles versus the non-DSS version.
Grip and strap. The Micro Vario Carbon DSS uses a firm foam grip that I prefer to cork grips found on many other poles. This grip strikes a just-right balance between firmness and comfort, and didn’t turn slimy (from sweat) as cork grips tend to. I suspect that cork grips are sturdier in the long run, but that would be a very long run. As for the straps, they’re soft nylon, a big improvement over chafe-inducing webbing found on many poles, and readily adjustable—just yank up on the strap to disengage the lock; adjust, and then snap the lock back down.
Durability. A quick note about durability: If you are quite heavy and/or extremely hard on trekking poles, you might be better off with aluminum poles. Imparting extreme torque on aluminum poles might make them bend, but they will probably remain usable, at least for the rest of your hike. Do the same with carbon fiber poles and they might break. That said, I’ve used both materials for many years and have never had a problem.
Bottom line. Is the Micro Vario Carbon DSS worth the eye-popping $220? If you want a pair of superb poles with full bells and whistles that will probably last you the rest of your life, absolutely. Trundle over to REI and get yourself a pair. If you’re a casual hiker, you’ll do just fine with less expensive poles.
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