Black Diamond Distance poles review

Last flight of the Zpole.

Trekking poles are a matter of, if not controversy, at least healthy debate amongst hikers. In the past 15 years they’ve gone from rare to ubiquitous, with a saturated market (not just Leki). Purists scoff that crutches are for cripples, the enlightened enjoy the added stability in rough terrain and stream crossings, casual hikers enjoy another fun accessory, and all the while the rocky trails in the ‘Dacks no doubt continue to look like they’ve been sprayed by automatic small-arms fire. Part of the problem is that most trekking poles remain far too heavy (16-8 oz a pair should be considered the absolute max), and when not in use all but some three section poles are a true pain to pack and deal with.

The BD Zpole line was a genuinely innovative answer to the second question, and introduced those who don’t think about gear as critically as they should (ultrarunners!) to non-overbuilt trekking poles. The following text assumes a basic familiarity with their function and design. If you don’t have that, at least look at this first.

I found a pair of the 130cm Distance poles on sale early last summer, and bought them because they’d be great for air travel and packrafting, which they have been.  Being able to stow the poles easily inside your pack is fantastic not just for packrafting, but along with the lightish weight (my 130s are, sans straps and with an aftermarket Leki tip and trekking basket, 6.4 oz each) this feature encourages bringing poles along when you might not otherwise.  Rather than going sans pole, and using a separate and dedicated center pole for your mid, bring a Zpole and enjoy the occasional use of said pole with little weight gained over even high end carbon shelter poles.  Bring both for certain stretches, and use one or none for others.  Single poling is a good way to have most of the rough-terrain benefits of trekking poles with fewer of the hassles and biomechanical restrictions being tied into such contraptions can engender.  As Dial wrote after the Arctic 1000, “I found that a pole was indispensable in the tussocks, great for the tundra and cobbles, a hassle in the brush, and a liability on talus.”  Having more freedom to truly stow a pole(s) away during those last two will have you bringing it/them more often.

Unfortunately, as great as the design is the Zpoles are not without substantial flaws.  The replaceable tips, with carbide and rubber options both being stock, is a neat idea (rubber is great for slickrock and the like, if not very durable), but the micro stock basket is pretty useless.  A moderate size basket (2-2.5″ in diameter) saves energy over any sort of rough terrain by keeping the pole from getting stuck in wet ground and making it far less likely to dive into and get trapped in talus.  Eventually and predictably I found this flaw intolerable and after some fairly aggressive boiling, softened the stock glue enough to get the tips off.  I replaced them with Leki tips, which take modular baskets, including powder basket which would make the Zpoles a fine option for snowshoeing.  BD should make this change immediately.

The stiffness of the Distance poles also leaves a lot to be desired.  I never found it non-functional, or even off-putting during actual use, but the flex and deflection does make them less efficient for certain uses, such as vaulting down rock steps and bracing during swift stream crossings.  With aluminum this is probably a fairly straightforward weight v. stiffness design choice.  In use I’ve not had durability problems with the poles, light though they are, but a lot of that has to do with not using straps.  The majority of pole failures seem to be from the leveraging which happens when a wrist strap is combined with a wedged pole and a fall.  Gear gorillas might find these less durable.

The issue I did have, which led to pole failure, my selling the extra pole, and this review (testing to natural failure always seems better) is of the uppermost section getting stuck inside the handle and refusing to extend.  One pole, on getting back from Alaska, has refused to extend, or even rotate, in spite of all my efforts.  Emails to BD have thus far gone unanswered.  On a few previous occasions grit got into this part of the poles and made them a bit difficult to use, but this one appears to be locked up for good.  It might have taken a blow in my checked luggage.  In any case, either a design flaw or merely an inherent limitation of the poles as they exist today.

I should mention that, aside from the weight and general concept, I’m also quite fond of the grips.  They’re smallish in diameter, made of a tacky but durable foam which feels good even when wet or sweaty, and the extended portion below the main grip provides for numerous options depending on pace and terrain.  (This is a good argument for fixed length poles and no straps, as adjusting pole length for ups and downs is faster, just change your hold.)  I still like the shape of the Gossamer Gear grips better, but would add an extended lower section with bike bar tape.

On every trip I’ve taken this summer since the snow melted, and on which I’ve brought trekking poles, I end up carrying them for the majority of the time.  So I’m rethinking my strategy, and putting together a MYOGish option for a single, adjustable (via flicklock), long, and very stiff pole.  Watch this space for update.

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8 thoughts on “Black Diamond Distance poles review

  1. I was just thinking of writing a review on these poles myself. I’ve had similar experiences – breaking poles when I take a fall in the redwall of Grand Canyon. Snapped the aluminum joint, not the carbon. BD promptly replaced the broken pole, free of charge.

    So I’m surprised that BD has been hard to get in touch with and resolve your issue. Perhaps a phone call would do the trick?

    Overall though, I’m a huge fan of the Zpole. Especially for the center pole in the SL3, when there’s two of us and the dogs. I dare say they are almost perfect for my needs, but I hear ya on the baskets. Only problem with modifying the baskets like you’ve done, is I’m afraid I’d have to rethink my slick little pole connecting system for the center pole.

    Handle with care, and they rock. Interesting comparing notes with your review.

  2. Interesting comments David, some of which are echoed by Colin at Tramplite (dot) com. Having just purchased a pair I see them as ideal for my mid, but the small baskets will be a problem in the soft ground over here and I think I will remove the wrist straps as both you and Colin indicated. I will be interested to hear if BD responds to your concerns re the top section. Overall I appreciate your succinct an detailed review. Just one question, do you think the aluminium poles would be better? There is a weight increase and the baskets are still an issue but they may address the stiffness issue.

  3. I have the alu ones, and have messed with a friends carbon poles (ultra distance). My quick impression was that the Ultras were more rigid. I actually intend to acquire a pair of the 120cm Ultras. I’ll save them for light duty uses, the weight will be good, and that length is one M and I can both use.

    To be clear, I’m not excoriating BD for bad customer service. I’ll try them again next week, but it’s not high on my priority list. Especially as I’m rather confident I’ve done everything I can to unstick them.

  4. Why in the hell wouldn’t you hike with poles for anything more than five or six miles? Is this debate really still taking place?

  5. I’d be curious to hear why you think ultrarunners don’t think about gear as critically as they should — I’ve thought similarly, but individual approaches to the sport vary widely.

    1. In this particular context it seems that many ultrarunners were unaware of non-club like trekking poles before the Zpoles came about. To say nothing of the many who don’t use poles at all. At C2M in 2008 I was the only person in the whole field to use them, this in a race which had plenty of stuff that even Meltzer was hiking.

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