In memory of our
brave spirited friend, may the long winding trails continue for you.
BLACK DIAMOND TRAIL
BY YI-JIEN HWA
March 13, 2008
1" (1.85 m)
lb (72.60 kg)
I backpacked a few times
in high school and college, but only got "into it" (ok, I'm a little
obsessed) last year. I'm a busy seminary student, but whenever we can,
my wife and I hike in Kentucky's Red River Gorge. Thus far, we've hiked
Isle Royale, Hawaii's Big Island and Smokey Mountains. Being relatively
new, we're still figuring out all the ropes and trying to cut weight,
but right now I normally pack between 40-55 lbs (18-24 kg).
Year of Manufacture: 2007
Manufacturer's Website: Black Diamond
MSRP: US$ 79.95
Listed Weight: N/A
Measured Weight: 1 lb 2 oz (501 g)
Minimum Length: 25"/63 cm
Maximum Length: 55"/140 cm.
Having considered many
different poles on the market, there are three things that really
attracted me to these poles: their competitive price, extended foam
grips and locking system. They have basic, ergonomic foam grips on the
top of the poles, but as can be seen in the pictures, they also have
another 6" (15 cm) of extended foam padding. The advantage is that in
theory at least, one would need to adjust the poles less on changing
terrain. The other really neat thing about the BD poles is that in lieu
of the traditional twist-lock, BD has their own FlickLock mechanism. As
the name suggests, adjusting the poles is as simple as flicking and
relocking a lever--which is far less mechanical effort than twisting and
As it is stated in the production information, the poles contract down
to a manageable 25"/63 cm and extend up to 55"/140 cm. I'm 6' 1"/184 cm
and I use my poles at 49"/125 cm. When descending continually, I extend
them a little, maybe to 53"/135 cm on steep slopes. The poles also come
with an adjustable handgrip, what BD calls "our new 360-degree padded
webbing for all day comfort." (In practice, it is not quite 360 degree
when the webbing is fully-extended, but that's a minor detail). The
poles also come standard with a 1.5"/4 cm in diameter trekking basket.
While BD's website says that the pole "features... both a low-profile,
non-snagging trekking basket and a winter-specific powder basket," it
was shipped to me with only a trekking basket. I can only conclude that
what they meant by "features" was that it could in fact feature both, if
one is willing to cough up the additional USD$4.95 for a powder basket.
I'm not sure why they call the tips of the poles "Flex" Tips because I
have never been able to make them flex, but they are indeed long (3" or
7.5 cm) and made of carbide (the hardest kind of tip available). Black
Diamond also makes a shorter version of these poles called the "Compact"
which extends up to 49" or 125 cm, and has smaller grips for smaller
My first backpacking trip
with my wife was to Isle Royale on a weeklong loop. What a trip it was.
Maybe it was sitting at that dock at McCargoe Cove, watching the morning
mist gently float over the waters, and hoping in vain for what sounded
like a moose in the brush to produce a live moose. Maybe it was walking
along the majestic Greenstone Ridge, or chilling out in the 50 degree F
(10 C) waters of Merritt Lane. Maybe it was eating dinner over Tobin
Harbor bathed in gold by the setting sun. Whatever it was, a new passion
was birthed at Isle Royale in August of '07.
However, there were some ergonomic and economic issues with this new
passion. I started with 55lbs (25 kg) that trip; and by the end of the
2nd day, my knees felt like a pair of rusty hinges from grandpa's shed.
At the ripe old age of 26, I limped the last few miles of our second day
(a good 12 miles/19 km), feet, knees and shoulders burning. That
evening, I cut a sapling as a walking stick; and while the sapling (to
which I am eternally grateful) didn't make it through the rest of the
trip, my knees did. Many conversations later, we decided that what our
new passion needed was some legs, well, at least two more apiece. After
a lot of shopping and research, we decided that Black Diamond's
(henceforth BD) Trail poles best fit our needs and our budget.
Since we got them, I've
trekked 85 miles (136 km) through a foot and a half (half a meter) of
snow on top of the Appalachian Trail in December, and across lava
fields, tropical forests, and black sand beaches in Hawaii Volcanoes
National Park and the Muliwai trail in the Big Island. I found almost
immediately that the extended grip is a brilliant idea. It's a matter of
physics: while I could indeed use my poles at their full length while
climbing up steps or steep slopes, using the lower grip reduces the
pivot required--often to none--and saves energy. Instead of having to
exert strength in straightening the poles from an angle while ascending,
you can just dig them in vertically, and use them like a convenient
stair railing. When I descend or ascend a big slope, I find it still
worthwhile to extend or contract the poles a little, but on more
undulating terrain, the extension of the grips were great. Case in point
was the 10 miles (16 km) of the Appalachian Trail and the main section
of the Muliwai we walked. These trails made me intensely grateful for
BD's extended grips.
My one grouse about the grips is that I often found myself wanting to
use the section in between the hand hold and the extended grip. The
supports for the bottom of the hand are not that bad for this purpose,
but they could be a bit more comfortable. I wonder whether it would have
been possible for BD to design the lower part of the hand grip (where it
meets the extension) to be equally comfortable as a rest for one's
forefinger. (Or perhaps BD might consider eliminating it altogether. I
for one never found the lower part of the hand grip particularly
necessary). This would give me that much more flexibility when choosing
which part of the grip I should use for a particular slope.
|Extended foam grips
Perhaps the defining moment for these poles was on my first trip with
them. Noticing an ice puddle in front of me, for some reason, I inanely
decided to step on it rather than around it. I promptly did a little
jiggle worthy of the Cartoon Network and almost landed on my butt save
for the one trekking pole that got a decent hold. Under about 210 lbs
(95 kg) of me and my pack, the pole flexed as I slid--it really hardly
winced considering what I was putting on it--and I managed to somehow
clamber back my balance. Not being particularly worried about the poles
at that moment, I can't say for sure, but I think they bent about 20-30
degrees. I'm no Hulk Hogan, but at their greatest extension I can only
get a 5-10 degree flex from these poles with my bare hands. At the
length I normally use them at, 49"/125 cm, they don't bend to my hands
at all. These things are really solid. Essentially, they are big, thick
cousins of tent poles.
Nevertheless anything will break, and so BD sells replacement parts on
their website at very, very reasonable prices. I do think that BD should
be a little more generous on its warranty--only a year in comparison
with other leading manufacturers who mostly offer a lifetime
warranty--but at those prices, which are scarcely more than buying a new
basket (US$ 6-8) and are less than what most manufacturers charge for a
new carbide tip, I'm not too worried. As I see it, BD's spare parts are
really their version of the lifetime warranty that other manufacturers
provide. Considering that one has to shell out for shipping the poles
back to one's manufacturer and then wait to get back one's poles, BD's
spare parts on order really doesn't seem so bad. The only caveat is that
they do not sell the upper portion of the pole with the grip. This is
understandable, as one would then be able to order all the parts from
them and make one's own pole. Nevertheless, this upper portion of the
pole is the least likely to break, being far from the fulcrum of an
extended pole, so unless the grip or the hand strap goes, there
shouldn't be a problem.
The FlickLocks are great so far. I have not seen any slippage
whatsoever--except for once when I didn't lock them properly, hardly the
pole's fault! Of the two sets of poles that we purchased, one set of
poles had FlickLocks that seemed a bit too tight when we got them from
the retailer. This was fairly easy to fix; and messing around with the
FlickLocks gave me confidence that they should be easily field
maintainable. As with all great devices, the mechanism is simple and
elegant--the only detachable parts are the screw, the lever and the hub.
Although it is true that flick-locking and unlocking the poles is
relatively easier than the standard twist-lock mechanism, the flicks do
require a bit of strength and practice to master. Nevertheless, even
with shell gloves, I have been able to work the FlickLocks just fine. (I
have found BD's advice to unlock the poles with one's thumb commendable.
It works better than using a forefinger, except in certain unusual
|Locked and unlocked
In the photos below, the trekking basket and the long carbide FlexTip
look like they have suffered a year's worth of wear already. The main
culprit was clearly Pele, the Hawaiian goddess who resides in Mauna Loa
and throws the occasional tantrum of running lava down her side. The
whole of Hawaii is formed by Pele's tantrums, and her more recent
outbursts chewed up the body of the FlexTips (and especially the
trekking basket) better than Lassie could. However, as can also be seen
in the pictures, structurally they are still very much sound. Beat up,
but ok otherwise.
The carbide tip itself also shows some wear from all those rocks,
volcanic and otherwise, but nothing out of the norm. While writing this
review, I e-mailed BD to check, and they said that the tips of the poles
are changeable, so I could replace them when worn or swap the Long
FlexTips for short ones if I so desired. However, BD sells their Flex
Tips for almost the same price as the lower shaft, which also comes with
the tip (BD verified this), so for a few cents more one could get a new
shaft and tip. As the pictures below show, the carbide tips are
cylindrical with a hollowed-out center--like a crater. As long as I was
careful, the tips had no trouble clawing on to anything I wanted to use
as a pivot: slippery logs, algae-covered rocks in flowing streams, ice
and even tree roots. As I said at the beginning, "Flex" Tips seems a
misnomer, but flex or not, they have done their job with aplomb.
|You can see the wear here on the carbide
These poles are by no
means fancy: they are not the cheapest poles, but they are close.
However, the only feature that they really lack is shock-absorbency.
Trying out poles with this feature at the store was not convincing to
me, as I was not sure that the pogo-stick effect would really be
beneficial on the trail. Having said that, after using these poles a
little longer, especially straight up and down over a thousand feet of
switchbacks on the Muliwai trail to Waimanu, I do see the benefits of a
shock absorbency system. Using the poles for a long day of backpacking,
especially with a lot of elevation change, hurts my elbows and wrists.
Thus far, however, it is not bad enough a problem that it is anything
more than an irritation. At the price point, especially if it is
possible to get them on sale like I did, the feature set of these poles
is more than satisfying to me.
The most important thing that I have yet to mention about these poles is
that since I started using them, I have not felt a single twinge or
untoward sensation in my knees. My balance with a big pack has improved
dramatically--fording rivers is no longer as iffy an affair. These
trekking poles have saved a huge amount of work for my calves, not to
mention that knee operation a few decades down the line. There are a lot
of other choices in the market out there, including high-end carbon
fiber poles (half the weight or less), fancier versions that BD sells
with elliptical shafts and an even more convenient locking devices; but
these poles are very solid, have beautiful features like the Flick Locks
and the extended grip, fit the budget, and get the job done with grace.
I recommend them highly.
|On the Appalachian Trail
THINGS I LIKE
- Great, solid
- Very strong poles.
- Stellar locking system.
- Extended grips that reduce work on hilly terrain.
- Long-lasting carbide tips provide great grip.
- Cheap spare shafts will keep you in business till the grips go.
THINGS I DON'T LIKE
- Lack of
shock-absorbency (but I got what I paid for).
- Black Diamond's short, one year warranty.
- The bottom of the hand grip could be better designed for more
flexibility in using the extended grips.
Asbury Theological Seminary
March 13, 2008