BLACK DIAMOND DISTANCE FL TREKKING POLES
TEST SERIES BY EDWARD RIPLEY-DUGGAN
INITIAL REPORT: June 3, 2011
FIELD REPORT: August 20, 2011
LONG TERM REPORT: October 8, 2011
||Catskills, New York
||6' 0" (1.85 m)|
||220 lb (97.50 kg)
I enjoy walking in all its forms, from
a simple stroll in the woods to multi-day backpack excursions. Though by no
means an extreme ultra-light enthusiast, from spring to fall my preference is to
carry a pack weight (before food and water) of 12 lb (5.5 kg), more or less. In
recent years, I've rapidly moved to a philosophy of "lighter is better," within
the constraints of budget and common sense.
PRODUCT INFORMATION & SPECIFICATIONS
Manufacturer: Black Diamond
Year of manufacture: 2011
Manufacturer's Web site: www.blackdiamondequipment.com
Color: Aspen Gold (the only color available)
Length (stated): 47-55 in (120-140 cm) I received the largest of three sizes available
Other sizes: 37-43 in (95-110 cm); 41-49 in [105-125 cm]
Measured length, fully extended: 55 inches (140 cm), tip to top of handle
Length folded: 15 3/4 inches (39 cm) [N.B. Website erroneously states 16 1/2 inches]
Listed weight: 16 oz (460 g)
Measured weight: 16 oz (460 g); in provided storage sack with both sets of points in interior pocket 17 oz (480 cm)
N.B. The weight of the tips and bag individually is less than the tolerance of my scale
Country of origin: US
Shaft material: Aluminum
Grip: EVA (i.e. ethylene-vinyl acetate)
Wrist strap: Of adjustable length (with hook and loop fastener), left and right marked respectively
Available pole tips: rubber, carbide (interchangeable, both supplied)
Basket: small trekking basket (the poles are described as three season, so no winter basket is available)
Stuff sack: Grey nylon and mesh, with hook and loop closure and inner pocket for spare tips
Black Diamond Distance FL Trekking pole, folded
The poles were received in excellent condition in the manufacturer's sales packaging: a cardboard sleeve with printed specs, a printed card graphically showing the method of deployment and folding, an instruction brochure in six languages etc. The pole design, although it makes use of similar locking mechanisms to those found in other Black Diamond poles, seems highly innovative; all parts are connected with a single cord encased in molded plastic. There are a total of four pole sections plus the handle to which a fifth section is attached (although when folded, the handle and upper two sections form one single length of a total of three). [see image above]
This is the first pole I have seen that collapses by folding, rather than telescoping. The advantage of this is that the collapsed length is minimized; at 15 1/2 inches (39 cm) the poles will fit in most daypacks and all backpacks I own. The graphic design of the pole sections is quite attractive, with graduations of length clearly marked in two inch (5 cm) increments. The overall impression is that much thought and innovation went into the equipment's construction.
The poles have a limited one-year warranty to the original owner. The informational brochure is extremely detailed and covers all aspects of use
Pair of folded trekking poles in stuff sack
Design and materials
The Black Diamond Distance FL trekking poles are of adjustable length, though they have only an 8 inch (20 cm) range, small in comparison to many "one size fits all" poles. Practically speaking, that seems to me a sufficient range for ascent and descent (generally, I use a shorter pole length for ascent, a longer one for descent). Length adjustment is made by sliding the pole handle so that the locking mechanism is aligned with the desired length marking. Black Diamond uses its patented FlickLock system as the lock for this portion of the pole. This is a friction device that is unlocked and locked by raising or lowering the lever on a small plastic mechanism wrapped around a pole section. The "grippiness" of the FlickLock may be controlled by tightening a screw on one side, although (in my experience) this is an adjustment needed only rarely.
This is pretty much where the resemblance to standard trekking poles ends. To start from the very end, the tip and basket are a cast plastic fitting mounted over the lower end of the pole. There are two tips offered (as noted above, both are included). The poles arrived with a rubber tip, which locks into place with a notched rim. As I prefer the grip offered by carbide steel, I unscrewed these (a small pair of pliers is handy for this; I used those on a multitool I often carry), and swapped in my preferred carbide tips. This was a fast and easy operation. Each of the baskets has a cutout so that it can be latched against one of the opposing pole sections when folded, to save space. Both the spare tips and the entire basket assembly are offered inexpensively by Black Diamond, so (though I have not yet attempted it) the basket must detach from the pole. I found no winter basket option offered; these are stated as being three season poles on the packaging, so this will likely not change.
Carbide tip and basket on bottom pole section.
The bottom section of the pole attaches to the central pole section by a metal sleeve, and the central section into the upper pole/handle assembly. All the sections are connected by a continuous cord that's covered with a molded plastic sheath. To assemble the pole, the lowest portion of the handle section of the pole is grasped with one hand, and the handle itself in the other, and the two are pulled apart. This pull is transmitted through the entire length of the pole, to all sections, and the conical guides help ensure that the components slide smoothly into position. When fully extended, a spring-loaded button pops out (with an audible snap, providing a positive indication that the pole is locked). Then fine length adjustments can be made, with the assistance of the FlickLock device. Below is an image of the pole with the locking button engaged, and with the FlickLock open so that a length adjustments can be made by sliding the lock down to the required length.
Lock between middle and top section (left), FlickLock mechanism (right)
Both extending and folding the poles are very straightforward procedures, though (because of the unusual mechanism) the first couple of times I tried opening and closing them the method seemed a little awkward to me. I've now found that it becomes second nature with very little practice. To collapse the pole, pretty much the opposite procedure is used to extending it. The spring loaded button is depressed, and the section above it is pulled over it so the latch can't pop out (and so that there is now ample slack in the cord). Then, with a couple of brief and effortless tugs the pole sections are separated, and the pole can be folded. Finally, the Flicklock is disengaged so that the handle can slide down flush with the other pole sections, and it is then locked back in position. Very simple and elegant! Below is Black Diamond's graphic (better than I could ever draw) from an enclosed card, demonstrating how to unfold the pole.
Graphic demonstrating opening pole (Courtesy Black Diamond)
The EVA handle is comfortable, and has an extended section for a choke grip, handy if one wants a momentary shortening of the pole without altering the pole length with the FlickLock. The wrist straps are clearly marked as to which pole is left and right, and are easily adjusted to an appropriate length. The manual discusses how the straps can be replaced (they are held in position by a loop of cord). Additionally, the manual discusses adjusting the tension of the Z-pole cord (which can loosen slightly over time), cleaning the poles (all poles should be periodically cleaned), FlickLock adjustment, warranty etc.
I have used the poles for a preliminary hike, ascending and descending a local peak with fairly significant elevation gain. They performed flawlessly. They have a very slight flex, which serves to dampen pole impact on the wrist, and I found them agreeably light. My only reservations to date are how well they will serve as end supports in my Double Rainbow Tarptent, but I'm pretty confident that even if they are a little short (the poles I am presently using are a tad longer), I will be able to improvise a solution.
I'm very intrigued by the unusual design of these poles, and I'm impressed by the engineering savvy that went into their design. The fact that they can be packed away is a big plus to my mind, as all too often poles that are lengthier when folded down will catch on branches and otherwise misbehave. Kudos to Black Diamond for this innovation. I will be reporting in coming months how the poles work out in the field, as I will want to know if any durability has been sacrificed in this design.
FIELD LOCATIONS AND CONDITIONS
By and large, it has been an unusually wet and stormy summer, with torrential rains on occasion (five inches, 13 cm) in two hours on one memorable afternoon), though with one good break of warm, dry weather. The rain has made for slippery trail conditions, so the poles have had a good workout, though I haven't yet had to rescue myself from a potentially hard fall with them. I've been out seven times (once overnight) over the Field Test period, in the Catskill and Shawangunk Mountains of New York, to elevations of about 3,800 ft (1160 m). Daytime temperatures have generally been in the mid-seventies (low twenties, Celsius) to the upper 80s (mid twenties, Celsius); with the humidity we've had most of the time, I don't find walking in temperatures much over that a lot of fun.
PERFORMANCE IN THE FIELD
I very much like these poles. They stand out for one major reason; these are the first (in many years of pole use) that will fit in a small pack when not in use. This summer, I have been using a Terra Nova Laser 20L pack for dayhikes, tested in late 2009 and early 2010. This is a small, lightweight pack. The poles fit perfectly within. That, for the kind of hiking I do, is a huge advantage. Since I often spend time bushwhacking, conventional poles (which previously I have always had to strap onto the outside of my pack) have a habit of catching on brush and low-hanging branches; at best, this is a nuisance, and at worst, a potential danger. I really need poles, which relieve a great deal of stress from my knees (which as not as sturdy as they might be, these days) on descents, but on steep, scrambling ascents poles can be very much in the way when I want to climb steep terrain unimpeded. Having them safely out of the way in my pack is a real advantage, and they take up very little room, allowing me to carry along all the other necessities. They fold up swiftly and with ease, and while I usually use the stuff-sack they came in, they can be carried loose in the pack with care. In just about any pack, they occupy a pretty insignificant volume.
So far, I have found them slightly more flexible under weight than most poles, but I have not had any issues with bending or breakage, and the stiffness seems more than adequate. As mentioned a couple of paragraphs back, I have not had occasion yet to recover from a major loss of balance, such as a slip; this can put a lot of strain on any pole, and I am obviously curious as to how well they will hold up to such an event, but I have no reason to imagine that they will not be up to the job (indeed, I have broken quite hefty poles in falls before now)!
The locks seem robust; once I have set the pole length, it stays that way. I have not found the limited range of length (in comparison to conventional poles) to be any disadvantage. Because the poles are slim and lightweight, the handles are slightly smaller in diameter than most. I've not found this an issue on ascents, when I use the wrist loops (which work well), but on descents, on which I always use poles without the loops (as a fall with a pole attached to the wrist can cause serious shoulder injury), a few times I have dropped the poles. The handle is sufficiently small in diameter that I have just let go in a moment of inattention! This is no big deal, now that I am aware of the issue, just part of the learning curve with any new piece of gear. The handles have an extension allowing for the poles to be carried "choked", and I have used that grip quite often, as it enables a slightly shorter pole length without stopping to alter the length (admittedly, not difficult, but a nuisance if it has to be done repeatedly).
The straps are comfortable against my wrist and hand, with no blisters to report. The carbide tips are very "grippy"; I used the rubber tips briefly, but decided they were not appropriate to mountainous hiking terrain. The carbide tips take a multi-tool or pliers to remove, so changing between the different tips is not a quick spur-of-the-moment thing.
I have not yet had to make any adjustments to the internal mechanism of the poles. I can report that folding and unfolding them is straightforward, after the first few times. There is a minor learning curve as the mechanism is atypical of that in most hiking poles.
So far, I can fairly say that I am delighted. These are lightweight and a perfect fit with my needs. Provided that they prove durable, which I will be able to determine over the balance of the test, these seem to me to be a well-nigh perfect three-season pole. I guess my only request might be a handle of slightly larger diameter, but this would add to the weight, and is a very minor cavil.
LONG TERM REPORT
FIELD LOCATIONS AND CONDITIONS
Hurricane Irene in late August put a serious crimp in my hiking and testing plans, to say the least. In the wake of that storm (and two succeeding Tropical Storms) the Catskill region was declared a disaster area, and the Catskill Park itself was ordered closed to the public by the New York Department of Environmental Conservation, as many traiheads were rendered inaccessible by washed-out roads and destroyed bridges. There were serious concerns about the stability and safety of trails, as well as traffic impeding clean-up efforts. That situation is slowly resolving as of this writing, with a gradual return to normalcy. A backpack that I had planned to test the poles with my Double Rainbow tent had to be put on hold because of the storm's aftermath. I will file an appendix to this report regarding that aspect as soon as possible. The Shawangunk Mountains have remained mostly accessible. No overnights are permitted in those preserves, but I was able to put the poles to further use on five day hikes. Daytime temperatures were up to about 80 F (27 C), and after one pre-storm Catskill hike to about 3500 feet (1070 m), the balance of my hiking was under 1200 feet (370 m).
PERFORMANCE IN THE FIELD
The poles have proven very reliable on extremely rough terrain, and have survived so far without any notable damage, other than some anticipated and minimal wear to the nylon baskets. I continue to enjoy the ability to pack them completely out of the way for scrambling, or if I am simply not in a mood to use poles. They have plenty of heft for fast downhills, though I have still not had to use them to recover from a really serious full-weight fall; while I make no claim to extreme nimbleness, I rarely fall. Short of taking a tumble on purpose, I can only report that the poles seem adequately sturdy for most terrain.
I have no complaints as to their durability. They show no bowing or bending, and only light wear is visible, except around the baskets. The wear there is what I would expect, and not any inherent lack of durability. All in all, terrific poles with no major defects that I have yet experienced.
The Black Diamond Distance FL Trekking poles are, in my estimation, a significant innovation in pole design. I really enjoy their light weight and the short length when packed. This enables me to stash them out of the way when not needed, on steep ascents and on some bushwhacks. Conventional folding poles are almost impossible to fit into most packs of any kind, so this is a serious advantage . While they appear at first inspection a little less sturdy than conventional poles, I haven't found in the field that they lack in durability or strength, and in all circumstances in which I have tested them they have had enough strength when under load to keep me out of trouble. In my experience, any pole can break or bend under the right (or rather, wrong) circumstances.
The folding mechanism is really ingenious, and, so far, I have not needed to make and significant adjustments to it, though the directions do indicate that there may be some stretch over time and indicate how to adjust the poles to allow for this. I certainly intend to continue using the poles, and my only regret is that they are not rated for four-season use.
My thanks go to Black Diamond and BackpackGearTest for the opportunity to test the Black Diamond Distance FL trekking poles.This report was partly created with the BackpackGearTest.org Report Writer
Version 1.5. Copyright 2008. All rights reserved.