Black Diamond’s Distance Carbon Z Poles stand out for their ultralight weight, small stashed size, and all-day comfort. They’re a popular choice among fast-and-light hikers and runners, but their fixed-length carbon fiber shafts won’t be perfect for everyone.
I bought my Distance Carbon Z poles in 2017 and used them on some of my most exciting adventures: overseas hikes, high-alpine scrambles, and a mountainous mid-distance thru hike, to name a few. This in-depth review shares what I love about these ultralight hiking poles, why I no longer use them, and my thoughts on who will find them worth the tradeoffs.
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Black Diamond Distance Carbon Z Poles
Weight: 9.2 – 10.4 oz
Shaft: carbon fiber
Grip: EVA foam
Sizes: 110, 115, 120, 125, and 130cm
Packed length: 13 – 17 inches depending on size
Best uses: ultralight backpacking, fastpacking, peak bagging, trail running, travel
My rating: 4.3 / 5 stars, love them for certain uses but they have limitations
My conclusion: Black Diamond’s Distance Carbon Z is a premium z-fold hiking pole specialized for ultralight adventures. If your poles spend significant time in / on your ultralight pack, the featherlight weight and compact collapsed size are likely worth the tradeoffs. For “traditional” hikers the fixed length, fragile shafts, and high cost may be reasons to avoid these poles.
Reasons to buy:
- Among the very lightest hiking poles on the market
- Compact Z-fold design easily stows in pack, running vest, or travel luggage
- Comfortable and supportive straps take pressure off hands and wrists
- Shorter hikers enjoy the biggest savings in weight and packed length relative to a telescoping pole
- Carbon fiber shaft helps absorb impact for comfort on long days
Reasons not to buy:
- No length adjustment
- Not the most convenient design for some trekking pole supported shelters, and not compatible at all with others
- Carbon fiber shafts can snap under sideways or torsional stress
- Sold as pairs (a negative for the minority of folks who only use a single pole)
Explaining the Model Name
Black Diamond’s naming conventions are a little confusing, so let’s start by clarifying which poles this review is actually about.
“Distance Z” refers to Black Diamond’s fixed-length z-fold poles, available with either carbon fiber or aluminum shaft. They’re the pinnacle of lightweight and packable design but the usable length is not adjustable. You choose your size when you buy them (available in 5cm increments) and that’s the size they stay, except of course when they’re folded.
“Distance FLZ” (with the added “FL”) poles start from the z-fold design and add a telescoping mechanism on the top segment, so they can adjust over a small length range. As with the fixed-length Distance Z, these are also available with either carbon fiber or aluminum shafts. I’ve also used the Carbon FLZ poles for many miles and prefer them slightly over the Distance Carbon Z for backpacking – read more in my Distance Carbon FLZ review.
This review is about the Distance Carbon Z poles: fixed length z-fold poles with carbon fiber shaft. To read my thoughts on how they compare to other options in the Distance family, continue below.
Side note: I find this naming really confusing. Shouldn’t “FLZ” stand for “fixed length Z”? And yet, the FLZ is adjustable while the Z is fixed-length. To keep the names straight I imagine FLZ stands for “flexible length Z,” though I have no idea if that’s what Black Diamond intended.
My Experience With the Black Diamond Carbon Distance Z Poles
I bought my Distance Carbon Z poles in 2017 with dreams of adventures involving international travel, off-trail terrain, or both. I was a recovering ultrarunner with knee problems looking for lower-impact ways to move fast and light in wild places.
I found their unobtrusive packed size perfect for hikes at the other end of an airplane journey, whether flying across the country for the Presidential Traverse or across the world to climb Kilimanjaro. Their diminutive profile was ideal for forays into alpine climbing and scrambling, including seven California 14ers, where poles regularly got stashed to free up hands. I also used them for a number of “regular” backpacking trips, the Colorado Trail being the most notable. My husband, who joined me on most of these adventures, also used Distance Carbon Z poles for many of them.
We both loved these poles, yet neither one of us is still using them. What happened? My husband snapped his during an unfortunate postholing incident in the high Sierra — a risk for any lightweight carbon fiber pole. My carbide tip fell off somewhere on the Colorado Trail. By the time I noticed, the plastic was so worn that the pole was an inch shorter and couldn’t take a new tip.
We liked our Distance Carbon Z poles enough to replace them, but while looking at options we discovered the partially adjustable Distance Carbon FLZ version. We both switched to those and have been using them ever since; see my Distance Carbon FLZ review to learn more.
I’ve used both the FLZ and Z poles extensively, so I’ll speak to their relative strengths and weaknesses throughout this review. Though I bought my Z poles in 2017, not much has changed. Black Diamond made the latest version even lighter and changed some cosmetic details, but the features, design, and value proposition are the same.
The biggest limitation of the Distance Carbon Z poles: they are NOT adjustable. They’re sold in 5 cm increments and you buy the length best suited to your height. I’m 5′ 5″ tall and use the 110 cm length. My husband is 5′ 7″ and uses the 120 cm length. If you’re between sizes it’s best to go slightly longer since the grip includes a lower section for climbing.
The big advantage of fixed length: lightness and small folded size. With no extra material and no adjustment mechanism, these poles are super light and very compact. For folks who move with a quick cadence or often stash their poles in a minimalist pack – ultrarunners, endurance peakbaggers, fastpackers – this is especially key. It’s also a bigger benefit for shorter people. Why lug around a pole with enough adjustable length for a 6-foot tall person when you’re only 5 feet tall?
Another advantage: simplicity. When moving fast and light in the mountains, possibly while tired and sleep deprived, the less gear to futz with the better. When your poles can only be one length, it’s dead-simple to unfold them and go.
Fixed length also comes with some drawbacks, especially for backpacking. You can’t adjust pole length for long climbs or descents, which I found particularly noticeable on the mountainous Colorado Trail. The Distance Carbon Z grip does have a lower section for choking up on the poles while climbing, but it doesn’t play well with the straps and requires more grip strength. I didn’t find it comfortable for long periods.
Fixed length poles are less convenient for trekking pole supported shelters. In the worst case scenario, such as pitching a small tarp close to the ground, they don’t work at all. In the best case they fit your shelter but all adjustment needs to be done at the guy lines. With adjustable poles it’s much easier to fine tune your pitch by adjusting the pole. This is why, on the Colorado Trail, we used my husband’s Distance Carbon FLZ poles instead of my Z poles for pitching our Six Moon Designs Haven Tarp.
In summary, fixed length poles make the most sense if your poles spend significant time in / on your pack, not just in your hands. Otherwise the drawbacks of a fixed-length pole may not be worth the benefits. (If you’re on the fence, see the Distance Carbon FLZ for a partially adjustable alternative that might be the best of both worlds.)
The Black Diamond Distance Carbon Z poles are currently the lightest hiking poles on the market, at least in the smallest size. A pair weighs between 9.2 – 10.4 ounces.
This is roughly 2 ounces lighter than both the semi-adjustable Black Diamond Distance Carbon FLZ and the aluminum Distance Carbon Z. It’s a full 4 – 5 ounces lighter than fully adjustable lightweight carbon poles like the Zpacks Carbon Fiber Pole and the REI Flash Carbon. And it’s a whopping 9+ ounces less than Black Diamond’s simple and affordable Trail Explorer 3.
We all know weight is important for the stuff on our backs, but why does it matter for hiking poles? If your poles spend time in your pack (scrambling, road walking, traveling), if you move with a fast cadence (running, fastpacking), or prefer long days of constant forward motion (thru hiking, endurance adventures) then heavier poles can be noticeably less comfortable.
Folded Size and Packability
The Distance Carbon Z Poles are extremely light, but there are a few other lightweight carbon fiber poles on the market. The Gossamer Gear LT5, for example, is a telescoping pole that weighs only 9.8 ounces. What really sets the Distance Carbon Z apart is its combination of light weight and compact foldable design.
Instead of the telescoping mechanism used in traditional trekking poles, the Distance Z poles separate into three segments that fold in a “Z” shape. The segments are joined by a flexible inner cord-like mechanism that Black Diamond calls a “speed cone.” It’s similar to the shock cord connecting tent pole segments, but more durable and with a shaped outer surface that guides the segments into place when tension is applied.
When folded, the FLZ poles measure 13 to 17 inches depending on the size. This is much shorter than even the most portable 3-segment telescoping poles; for example the Gossamer Gear LT5 doesn’t get shorter than 23.5 inches. If you want to stash your poles in an ultralight backpack or running vest, the shorter folded length of the Distance Z poles is a huge advantage. They’re also perfect for packing in minimalist luggage if your adventures take you to faraway lands.
Advantages for Smaller Hikers
Like all z-fold poles, the Distance Carbon Z offers its biggest benefits to the smallest hikers. Since adjustable telescoping poles only come in one size, shorter hikers are carrying around more material than they need. If you’re short enough to use the smallest size of the Distance Carbon Z, you’ll save 1.2 ounces of weight and (perhaps more significantly) 4 inches of packed length compared to the largest size.
Folding and Unfolding
Like everything else about the Distance Carbon Z poles, the folding and unfolding process is designed for moving fast. Unfolding is definitely the most impressive: simply pull the top segment down from the grip and the bottom segments magically snap into place.
To fold the poles you need to push a metal button inward. It can be a little sticky and I don’t love it when my hands are cold, but it’s extremely secure while the poles are extended.
Folding and Unfolding Videos
I’m not the greatest videographer, but here are quick and simple videos of me folding and unfolding the Black Diamond Distance Carbon Z poles:
Grips and Straps
EVA foam grips help keep the Distance Carbon Z poles light but don’t sacrifice much in the way of comfort. Some folks prefer cork grips for their comfort and the way they mold to your hand over time, but they are heavier. Personally I’m fine with the EVA foam.
I have small hands and my husband has larger hands, but we both find the Distance Carbon Z grips comfy enough. A series of slots in the foam helps with grip and ventilation; I can’t recall noticing a sweaty hands problem with these poles.
The grip extends a couple inches below the primary hand position, so you can choke up on the poles for climbing. I don’t use this feature much, as it requires quite a bit of grip strength to get full power from the pole without the support of the strap. But it’s nice to have the option, and I do use it occasionally for short periods.
The straps are light, breathable, adjustable, and surprisingly supportive for such an ultralight pole. I keep them adjusted snugly to take strain off my wrists, especially on downhills. Each strap has a “R” or “L” to indicate which pole is right and left, but the indicator is only visible if you have the poles in the wrong hand – a clever little detail I’ve always appreciated.
Overall I find the grip and strap system pretty comfortable. With heavy use day after day I get a couple minor hot spots on my hands, but I prefer to do long hikes with sun sleeves anyway so this isn’t usually a problem.
While on the subject of comfort, it’s worth noting that carbon fiber does a good job – better than aluminum – of absorbing shock as the pole tip hits the ground, thus transmitting less of it to your hand. This also contributes to a sense of comfort when using these poles all day long, especially on hard or rocky ground.
Durability is always a concern with carbon hiking poles. Though carbon fiber is impressively strong for its weight, it can snap under sudden strong sideways or torsional forces. If you stumble the wrong way or catch a pole between rocks, it can easily break. I saw this first-hand when my husband’s Distance Carbon Z pole snapped in half during an unfortunate postholing incident in the high Sierra. With practice I’ve learned to immediately stop moving when my pole tip catches on something; these aren’t poles that you can simply yank free as you charge ahead.
My own Distance Carbon Z pole met its demise when the carbide tip fell off somewhere on the Colorado Trail. I didn’t notice, and over weeks of rocky ground the plastic wore down so that one pole is an inch shorter than the other. The fitting for a new tip is completely worn away and the plastic is slippery on rock, so I no longer use these poles. This could have been a fluke accident and partially my fault; I should have checked periodically to make sure the tip was screwed on tightly.
As for the rest of the poles, everything else is quite durable. I expected the “speed cone” system – the flexible part that connects the segments – to wear out first, but it’s still going strong. The shafts are thoroughly scratched but it’s only cosmetic damage. The straps, while dirty and a tad frayed, are still comfortable.
Trekking pole supported shelters have become really popular among lightweight backpackers, in part because they save weight by not requiring separate tent poles. If you want to use one of these tents or tarps with your trekking poles, you’ll need to consider compatibility.
A traditional telescoping pole is compatible with the widest range of shelters because it has the biggest length range. Fixed length poles like the Distance Carbon Z are trickiest because they only offer a single length option, which may or may not be compatible with a good pitch of your particular shelter. In some cases it works but you’ll need to adjust guy lines carefully. In other cases – such as needing to get a small tarp pitched close to the ground in stormy weather – a tri-fold pole doesn’t work well at all.
Other Distance Poles from Black Diamond
Black Diamond offers several poles in its Distance line, all with the signature Z-fold design. Here’s how they compare to the Distance Carbon Z.
Distance Carbon Z Versus Distance Z
If you like the tri-fold design but the carbon price tag makes your eyes water, much of this review is equally applicable to the Aluminum Distance Z poles. They’re about 2 ounces heavier per pair and don’t have the shock absorbing properties of carbon fiber, but they cost $50 less and are more durable. They would be a good choice for someone who does a lot of off-trail hiking and scrambling on rugged terrain, where it’s easier to accidentally snap a carbon fiber shaft.
Distance Carbon FLZ Versus Distance Carbon Z
If you like the idea of the Distance Carbon Z but the fixed length gives you pause, Black Diamond offers a clever semi-adjustable version with the Distance Carbon FLZ. They’re 2-3 ounces heavier per pair (depending on size) and each of the three sizes can adjust over a 15 cm range.
I used my Distance Carbon Z poles for many miles before switching to the Distance Carbon FLZ. I never felt limited by my Z poles while using them, but once I had the FLZ I came to prefer them for backpacking. If you backpack with a trekking pole supported shelter, like to adjust your pole length for the terrain, are between sizes of the fixed-length Distance Z, or want to share poles between people of slightly different heights, the partially adjustable Distance Carbon FLZ is the way to go.
For some uses though, the Distance Carbon Z is an ideal choice. If you don’t use a pole-supported shelter, aren’t fussy about precise pole length, and care about weight above all else, you might be happier with the Distance Carbon Z. If I were going to use these poles primarily for trail running or single-day peak bagging missions, I would go with the Distance Carbon Z over the FLZ.
Black Diamond offers women’s versions of the Distance Carbon Z and Distance Carbon FLZ poles, but their website doesn’t explain what makes them women-specific. They’re a different shade of blue and only come in small and medium lengths, otherwise the difference isn’t clear to me.
I love my Distance Carbon Z poles, especially for ultralight missions where my poles spend time in or on my ultralight pack. They are, however, a highly specialized piece of gear and as such they won’t meet everyone’s needs.
If you love almost everything about the Distance Carbon Z but can’t completely give up length adjustability, look into the Distance Carbon FLZ. Its semi-adjustable z-fold design might be the perfect compromise.
If you care about weight but don’t care about short packed length, you might be better off with an ultralight telescoping carbon pole. You’ll get fully adjustable length (and compatibility with any shelter) at a competitive weight, often for less money. Examples:
If you’re still on the fence about the Black Diamond Distance Carbon Z poles, here are my simplified recommendations:
- Get the Distance Carbon Z if: You’re a runner, day hiker, or fastpacker who values light weight above all else and isn’t concerned about shelter compatibility.
- Get the Distance Carbon FLZ if: You’re an ultralight or lightweight backpacker who values weight, packability, and shelter compatibility.
- Get the Distance Z (aluminum) if: You love the Z-fold fixed length concept but need a durable and packable pole that can stand up to really rough off-trail terrain. Or, you love the packability of the Z-fold design but can’t afford carbon fiber.
- Get an ultralight telescoping pole like the REI Co-op Flash Carbon, Gossamer Gear LT5, or Zpacks Carbon Fiber if: You want an ultralight pole and ultimate flexibility for trekking pole supported tarps and shelters, and you don’t need to stash your poles in small spaces.
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