What are the advantages and disadvantages of carbon fiber vs. aluminium when buying trekking poles? Are carbon fiber really lighter, do they break easier if jammed wrong, etc.?
CHOOSING BETWEEN CARBON AND ALUMINIUM WALKING POLES
As with most decisions about lightweight equipment there are tradeoffs, and your best choice will depend on your budget, your height and weight, and the way you use your poles.
Characteristics of carbon poles
As you probably know, carbon poles are a matrix of fibres set in resin. Not all composites are the same: materials and construction vary widely, with the best being more expensive than aluminium.
Good carbon poles are very strong for forces aligned with the lay of the fibres (top to bottom), but not so strong for forces across the fibres (side to side). They can be weakened if the fibres are cut by abrasion or if the resin becomes fatigued through regular heavy flexing. They also become more brittle in the cold. When carbons fail it can be sudden, with a total and jagged break. If you check out the forums, reports of breakage are frequent, particularly with the ultra-light models. I have also seen reports of carbon poles breaking in high winds when used as tent supports, with the jagged ends damaging the fabric.
Characteristics of aluminium poles
Good aluminium poles should be made with an aircraft-grade 7075 (or other 7-series) alloy. Avoid anything made with cheaper 6-series alloys. The 7075 is a very strong and resilient material that should put up with much more abuse than carbon. Despite being more common, there are fewer reports of failure. Any failure will generally be less dramatic and it would normally be possible to bend the pole back into shape to complete your trip. But reliability comes at a cost, as aluminium is a little heavier.
Weight is not the only factor in pole choice.
Perhaps even more important is the efficiency of the design in transmitting force from your arms to the ground. The traditional straight handle was adopted from the ski-pole and is, in my personal opinion, an ergonomic nonsense in the context of walking. To use it efficiently you have to lock your wrist into an inconvenient and uncomfortable strap, which is an unstable and energy-wasting platform to push against. A more ergonomic design such as the comfortable shaped handle of the PacerPole transmits your push more directly to the ground, saving energy and reducing fatigue.
You also need to consider the locks. In general flick-locks are more reliable and easier to use than twist locks. But there's not that much in it, so this should only be secondary consideration.
Choosing the best poles for your particular usage
Body weight and height: if you are tall, large or carry heavy loads you should probably favour the reliability of aluminium. If you are small and travel light, you are less likely to break carbons.
Ground conditions: if you always walk on well-groomed trails you should probably favour carbons. If you abuse your poles by boulder-hopping, vaulting bogs or leaning on them heavily during rough descents and stream crossings, aluminium will be a better bet. One blogger reports that on the rugged TGO cross-Scotland walk, his companions broke carbon poles on three successive years.
In your hand vs in your pack: if your poles spend a lot of time in your pack this is an argument for carbons. If they are mostly in your hand, ergonomics and reliability trump weight.
Tarping: if you also use your poles to support your shelter you may prefer the added security of the aluminiums, as a pole breakage would have more serious consequences.
Budget: the quality composites used on high-end poles are more expensive than aluminium. Cheap generic carbons are a bit of a lottery - you won't know how they are constructed and they will probably not perform as well. On the other hand the 7075 aluminium alloy is an international standard and will always be high quality. If your budget is tight, I would go for a 7075 aluminium pole rather than take a gamble on a low-end composite.
So pole choice is a very personal matter. I hope you find this helpful!
When comparing shafts made in the same thickness with the same level of finish and quality of production, carbon will be lighter and stronger compared to aluminium. That said, it is rarely the case and it depends on the company making the poles and the quality of product.
The case for aluminium
Aluminium is a metal that, when used for walking poles, is casted into shafts that are then glued with a welding agent to form the parts of the poles (in most cases). This results in a very strong bond and shaft that has a high tolerance for lateral pressure.
Aluminium needs to be relatively thick in order to produce a structurally sound shaft and it is the reason those poles are slightly heavier than a comparable carbon pole with the exact features.
Aluminium's two most useful features are:
- Aluminium is a metal that can bend and still retain some structural integrity though it is still more susceptible to break once it is bent
- Aluminium is a relatively cheap material, especially compared to carbon, and so aluminium walking poles are much cheaper
Aluminium's two biggest drawbacks:
- Aluminium poles tend to be heavier due to thicker shafts and design that is less lightweight focused, companies just assume that aluminium poles are "entry level" products
- Aluminium vibrates due to the simple fact that it is a metal and is not stiff (like carbon), a fact that can be very annoying in poles without shock absorbers
The most common aluminium types offered in the market for walking poles are 7075 and 6061, with the 7075 is much less brittle and lighter than 6061.
The case for Carbon Fibre
Carbon fibre is a composite which means it is artificially made using carbon fibre grid sheets and resin making it a very variable material that really depends on the quality of manufacturing and handling. As a composite is can be as thin or as thick as preferred and can be made with a variety of resins. The right resin in the hands of a good manufacturer can result in a very strong, thin walled shaft that will make extremely lightweight and robust walking poles. In the wrong hands carbon fibre is brittle, fragile to lateral forces and cutting and is quit heavy.
Carbon's two most useful features:
- Highly customizable to allow for a very high end (and expensive) shaft that is both light and strong
- Carbon fibre is stiff and walking poles made of it have no vibrations and offer a very solid feel in the hand when in use
Carbon's two biggest problems:
- Too easily it can be made badly resulting in a weak shaft that is too brittle and fragile
- The process of making carbon fibre and handling it is expensive which results in expensive walking poles
Carbon walking poles tend to be more highly designed compared to aluminium walking poles and will offer lighter features to support the materials lightweight feature.
How to choose
No answer here, sorry.
Good carbon fibre poles are amazing but poorly made carbon fibre poles will just break too easily.
Well made aluminium poles that are really featured with lightweight finishes are amazing too but tend to climb to the carbon fibre price point.
All the above is based on my own process of making walking poles and I have with me identical walking poles made from aluminium and carbon fibre from various qualities