This past winter we had more Vertex poles out than ever before, doing things we never dreamed that they would do, including various snow sports. From skiing to hiking, cross-country to snow-shoeing, our poles were there and working hard - sometimes too hard for what they are designed to do.
What came from so much winter activity were many questions about whether one should use carbon fiber poles or aluminum poles for winter activities. The short answer is pretty simple: for very cold conditions and high stress activities, it is better to go with aluminum. Here is the full explanation as to why:
Composite vs Alloy
To understand the basic differences between carbon fiber (CF) and aluminum, you need to understand that they are made in completely different way: aluminum is completely a chemical process while CF also has a mechanical component.
Aluminum is a natural metal - the most common metal in the world. It also has a low density (aka is light) and is noncorrosive (aka rust resistant). This combination of features makes aluminum good for use in making a variety of things, but is best used as an alloy with a few other minerals.
The aluminum that is usually used for trekking poles (and planes, cars, weapons, RC planes and cars, etc, etc....) is 7075 and is strong, light, has a high fatigue point and it is pretty easy to work with.
The important point here is that aluminum is an alloy that is chemically bonded. Aluminum 7075 specifically has very high fatigue point meaning that you need to really bend it very hard to actually break it. Aluminum is also not influenced by the temperatures that humans exist in.
CF is made from a carbonized fiber (usually polyacrylonitrile) which means the material is essentially burned to the point that nothing but carbon atoms remain in the fiber. The carbonized fibers are then made into ultra thin woven sheets.
When it come to trekking poles, the woven sheets of carbonized fibers are rolled one on top of another with a special epoxy sandwich between the layers. This process is what makes CF a composite.The epoxy and CF sheets are what make the CF shafts used in trekking poles.
The actual carbon fibers are very light, very strong and as resistant to anything as they come. What makes the carbon fiber vulnerable is the mechanical aspect of making the composite and the epoxy. Even the best designed CF shaft will not be strong enough without the right epoxy, and epoxy is very sensitive to low temperatures.
The bottom line is, the main reason that CF struggles in cold conditions is that the epoxy hardens, making the CF composite more brittle and easier to break.
Carbon Fiber Ski Poles
Despite all the above, there are many ski poles that use CF shafts. They address the brittle problem in a couple of ways:
- Less "engineered" shafts, meaning longer and more continuous and therefore fewer weak spots
- Better, more expensive, epoxy to help the poles to deal with cold weather
If you are ok with having your poles not collapse and being more expensive than traditional trekking poles, go for CF skiing poles, they will be much lighter!
Why CF, Then?
The two main reasons to go for CF are the fact that it is lighter than aluminum and it doesn't vibrate when hitting hard surfaces. When it comes to winter sports, both of those issues are less of a problem (unless ski-touring), so I suggest sticking with aluminum if you want collapsible poles. For anything but sub-freezing conditions and lots of snow, carbon fiber is really great.
If you are still adamant to have the lightest, strongest poles around, check out our Telescopic Trekking poles that are made from full 4 season carbon fiber. In fact, the carbon fiber in our poles is so temperature resistant that NASA will be using it on Mars.