By far the quickest, easiest and cheapest way to improve the quality of your photographs is to start using a tripod. Camera shake ruins more pictures than any other single factor, and a decent tripod can eliminate it. However, unless you can afford the latest lightweight carbon-fibre technology, tripods tend to be heavy and awkward to carry, especially if you're lugging your camera gear into the great outdoors, so most amateur photographers tend to leave them at home.
If you need to travel light, then a monopod is a good alternative to a tripod. Obviously, it doesn't provide the same free-standing support, but any help is better than no help at all, and a monopod will greatly reduce the incidence of camera shake.
Many serious hikers like to carry walking poles; lightweight walking sticks similar to ski-poles, which help with balance on rough or steep ground. A Colorado-based company called Trek-Tech has spotted the similarity between a walking pole and a monopod, and has rather cunningly combined the two ideas into something it calls the TrekPod. It produces several variations on the design, but today we're looking at the latest model, the TrekPod Go! Pro.
The TrekPod is far from being a simple walking stick. It is a surprisingly complex device, consisting of four main sections that slot together. The top section features Trek-Tech's patented MagMount ball-and-socket head, the middle two sections telescope together to provide a degree of height adjustment, while the bottom section contains the TrekPod's cleverest feature. It consists of three slender 43cm-long legs that splay out to form a tripod, enabling the TrekPod to stand unsupported. When stowed, the legs are secured by a strap of some new high-tech Velcro-like material.
The device comes disassembled in a nylon carry bag, with sleeves for the tube sections and a mesh pocket for the head attachments.
The TrekPod Go! Pro has two extending sections, giving it a maximum height of 163cm as a monopod, or 152cm with the legs splayed, and a minimum height of 11cm or 100cm with the legs splayed. By comparison, a typical four-section monopod might have a maximum height of around 160cm and a minimum folded length of around 55cm.
The main components of the TrekPod are made from aluminium to save weight, but the heaviest component is the tripod leg section, which accounts for over 300g of its 794g total weight. This makes the TrekPod very heavy compared to normal walking poles, which typically weigh around 300-350g, and much heavier than most conventional monopods (or should that be monopodia?); a typical four-section aluminium monopod will weigh in at around 400g.
The overall build quality of the TrekPod is reasonable, but not really up to the standard of some of the better-known tripod brands. The black paint finish on my review sample showed a number of scratches after just a couple of days of very light use. Give it a few days hiking in rough country and it could end up looking decidedly battered.
The twist-lock rings between the telescoping sections need a great deal of pressure to achieve any sort of rigidity, and the threaded aluminium collar that holds the leg section in place feels quite fragile, especially considering that it's a vital component in a vulnerable position. It's also worth noting that aluminium is quite a soft metal. If sand gets into the threads it could quickly cause a lot of wear.
The clever bit of the TrekPod is its ball-and-socket head, which features a magnetic fastening to hold the camera on to the top of the pod. The TrekPod comes with two steel mounting disks, either of which can be attached to your camera's tripod bush. One is a simple round design that can be tightened by finger pressure or with the edge of a coin. The other has toothed crenulations that engage with matching teeth on the tripod head, and are designed to support a heavier camera. This plate is meant to be tightened up with an Allen key wrench, which is supplied.
The top of the head has a powerful neodymium magnet embedded in it, which is strong enough to hold a compact camera in place by itself, but for additional security the head has a locking latch. The ball-and-socket part of the head is of reasonable quality; not up to that of the premium brands but better than most budget monopods.
In the field
In actual use, the TrekPod performs fairly well, in as much as it provides some extra shooting support. As a monopod, the head is strong enough to support a large compact or super-zoom camera, and maybe even a compact system camera (CSC), a video camcorder or compact DSLR if you're careful.
As a tripod, however, it isn't as useful as one might hope. For a start, it can only be used on completely level ground; a slope of only a couple of inches is enough to topple it over. I also wouldn't recommend using it unsupported on a windy day or with anything heavier than a large compact on top. The spread of the legs is only 50cm, less than a third of the maximum height, which doesn't give it much stability.
The TrekPod Go! Pro is currently selling for around £114, which is a bit steep considering a good quality aluminium monopod will usually cost between £40 and £50, and you can pick up a decent carbon-fibre one, which is less than half the weight of the TrekPod, for less than £100. It's also worth noting that many current monopods can also double as hiking poles, with interchangeable feet including spikes and snow-rings.
Although the TrekPod Go! Pro is certainly an interesting gadget, and the unique MagMount head works very well, it's hard to see that it offers any concrete advantage over a conventional monopod, and indeed there are several disadvantages; it's considerably heavier, a lot more expensive and the build quality simply isn't good enough to stand up to regular use in any sort of rough terrain. The paint finish scratches too easily and the aluminium parts simply aren't strong enough to resist sand abrasion or survive being bumped against rocks.