Some hikers can’t do without trekking poles and others couldn’t care less for them. This guide outlines the pros and cons of trekking poles to help you decide whether or not you want to use them during your next hike. I’ll also outline some of the different types of trekking poles available and what to look for when buying.
What are Trekking Poles?
A trekking pole, also known as a hiking pole, is simply a pole with a handle on one end and some kind of spike or grip on the other. They are used to help the hiker with stability and traction over rough terrain. They also assist in establishing a rhythm while walking. Most hikers use two trekking poles, one in each hand. Some hikers use one pole. A single pole is called a hiking staff or hiking stick. Modern trekking poles are made of aluminum or carbon fiber. Trekking poles are an optional hiking accessory.
Benefits of Trekking Poles
- Trekking poles reduce strain on your knees while descending- This is probably one of the biggest benefits of trekking poles. Walking downhill with a heavy pack puts a lot of stress on your knees. Many hikers develop knee pain. Trekking poles can significantly reduce stress to your knees by transferring impact energy from your legs to your upper body. According to a 1999 study from the Journal of Sports Sciences, trekking poles reduce can reduce the force to your knees by 12-25% on a 25 degree downhill grade. For people with knee problems, this is significant.
- Increase stability on technical terrain and during water crossings- When using trekking poles, you have four points of contact with the ground rather than two. This improves your balance and allows you to and more safely and easily tackle rough terrain like lose ground, narrow ridges, fast-moving water, or crossing a log over a stream. You can hike over these obstacles faster and more confidently as well.
- You can use your trekking poles as tent poles to save weight- These days, everyone is going ultralight. By choosing multi-use gear, you can cut a significant amount of weight from your pack. You can cut around a pound of weight by ditching your tent poles and using trekking poles to support your shelter instead. Of course, in order to do this, you need to choose a shelter that is compatible. Consider switching from a tent to a tarp or look for a lightweight trekking pole tent. You can reduce your shelter weight to well under one pound this way.
- You maintain your pace and hike faster- When using trekking poles, you tend to develop a hiking rhythm. It goes something like step, pole, step, pole… You kind of have to do this to efficiently use trekking poles. If you don’t, you’ll end up tripping over them or dragging them most of the time. A side effect of this rhythm is that you tend to keep you pace the same. Changing pace breaks your rhythm so you naturally avoid it. I find that I hike slightly faster when using trekking poles.
- They can help you move branches, debris, and poisonous plants out of your way- When you encounter brush or a tree limb overhanging the trail, you can use your trekking pole to push it out of the way. This helps you keep a healthier posture and step more safely. You don’t have to hunch over to walk under a low hanging limb. When you see poison ivy or poison oak, or any other type of dangerous plant, you can simply push it out of your way. Of course, you’re not damaging the foliage this way either. You’re just moving it out of your way.
- You can use the pole as a probe to the test waters before you walk- It can be hard to judge how deep a water crossing is. Particularly if the water is muddy or moving quickly. You can stick your trekking pole in a stream to test the depth before you cross or as you’re crossing. If you’re hiking during the winter you can use your trekking pole to test the strength of ice or the depth of snow. If you’re hiking on a rocky surface that is unstable, you can use your trekking pole to test the stability of rocks before stepping.
- Increase traction- On wet or slippery surfaces like rocks, logs, roots, ice, or loose rocks, trekking poles can give you additional traction. They give you two extra points of contact with the ground which you can dig in to help prevent your boots from slipping. This inspires confidence on slippery or unstable surfaces and allows you to cross these obstacles more safely. Trekking poles come in particularly handy when hiking in the rain. Wet weather makes the terrain very slippery.
- They help with defense against wild animals- If you hike long enough, you’ll have some type of wild animal encounter sooner or later. This could be a bear, mountain lion, wild boar, wolf, coyote, or even a moose. Most encounters end peacefully with you and the animal walking in separate directions. On rare occasions, your trekking poles can come in handy. For example, maybe you got a little too close to a bear and it’s acting aggressively. You can raise your trekking poles in the air to make yourself appear larger than you actually are. You can also bang them together to make a metallic noise, which scares bears. In a worst-case scenario, you can use your trekking poles to try to physically defend yourself. Check out my guide on bear safety for more info.
- They make you look like a hiker– This point is really only important if you’re through-hiking because you might have to hitchhike into town at times. If you’re carrying trekking poles, it makes it clear to drivers that you’re a hiker and not a homeless person. After you’ve been on the trail for a week or so without a shower, the line between hiker and homeless is pretty thin. There are plenty of drivers who will give a hiker a ride into town. If they think you’re homeless, you’re much less likely to get a ride.
- They give you a full-body workout- Hiking is mostly a leg workout. If you hike for fitness, using trekking poles gives you a more well-rounded workout. With trekking poles, you are forced to use your arms, shoulders, and back in addition to your legs. You’ll build up strength in your triceps, lats, back, and shoulder muscles.
- Reduce swelling in the hands- While ascending, some hikers experience swelling in the hands, wrists, and fingers. This can lead to joint pain, numbness, and general discomfort. This swelling occurs when you dangle your arms to the sides of your body. This problem is particularly common for those with poor circulation. Trekking poles force you to move your arms and keep them elevated. The pumping motion promotes circulation and helps to prevent swelling.
- They can be used as splints in emergency situations- One of the worst things that can happen while hiking is falling and breaking a leg. If this happens, you’re suddenly in a life or death situation. You can use trekking poles to make a splint for your leg. Alternatively, you can use your trekking poles like crutches to hike out if you can’t step on one of your legs. Of course, a couple of good sticks could serve the same purpose.
Trekking Pole Cons
- Extra weight to carry- Aluminum trekking poles generally weigh between 18 and 22 ounces (about 510-625 grams) per pair. Carbon fiber poles generally weigh between 12 and 16 ounces (about 340-455 grams) per pair. There are a few ultralight options on the market that weigh in at around 10 ounces. When you’re not using your poles, this is extra weight in your pack. If you’re going ultralight and you want to cut every possible ounce, you might want to skip the trekking poles.
- Trekking poles are inefficient- While using trekking poles, you are constantly pumping your arms and using muscles in your upper body to help support yourself. You burn more energy than you would by hiking without poles. Over the course of a long day of hiking, you may tire out faster and not be able to complete as many miles. If your goal is to hike as far or as fast as possible, trekking poles may slow you down.
- You can’t fly with trekking poles in your carry-on- According to the TSA, trekking poles are only permitted in checked bags. This is kind of annoying if you need to fly to your hiking destination. Checking a bag is also an added expense. Some countries or airlines may allow trekking poles in your carry-on. Be sure to double check the rules before your trip or be prepared to check your bag if you’re asked to.
- They are expensive- Backpacking gear, in general, is expensive. If you’re starting from scratch and buying all new gear, it can be hard to justify the cost of buying gear that is not absolutely necessary. Mid-range trekking poles cost around $50-$60. High-end ultralight trekking poles cost $100-$200. Tip: If you want trekking poles and you’re on a tight budget, look for used ski poles. You can often buy them pretty cheap at second-hand shops.
- They can cause damage to the environment- Trekking poles can damage or kill plants that are growing near the trail. The tips can damage roots if they dig in and the baskets can tear leaves if they get caught up. The hard metal tips can cause chips and scars in some types of rocks. In high traffic muddy areas, trekking poles can leave deep trenches next to the trail. If you really want to leave no trace, you may want to reconsider using trekking poles in some environments. Check out this short article about LNT for some tips to reduce the impact.
- They occupy both of your hands- This can be annoying when you want to take a photo or eat something while walking. It’s also a problem when you need to use a rope assist or do some climbing with your hands. Trekking poles are cumbersome. While not in use, you have to find a place to set them down or stop and attach them to your pack in order to use your hands. Some hiking backpacks, like Osprey Packs, have special loops where you can easily stash your trekking poles without having to remove the pack. This is one of my favorite features of my Osprey Talon 44. Most trekking poles have straps so you can let them dangle on your wrists. This feature helps sometimes.
- They are unnecessary on flat ground- Most hikers only find trekking poles useful for ascending and descending. If you’re hiking a flat trail, they are mostly unnecessary. While hiking flat sections, you may want to attach your trekking poles to your pack. In this case, they’re just dead weight.
Things to Consider When Buying Trekking Poles
From a distance, all trekking poles look about the same. Once you begin shopping for a pair, you realize that there are quite a few different styles and designs to choose from. In general, you want to look for the lightest poles you can find with the most comfortable grip. Durability is an important consideration as well. A few things to look for when buying trekking poles include:
One Pole or Two?
Trekking poles are generally sold in pairs. To maximize stability and grip and to reduce knee stress, two poles are best. Some hikers just like to use one pole. This is often called a hiking staff. These work well for those hiking without a load or walking on flat terrain. They can also be used to support a shelter.
Trekking Pole Material
This is probably the most important consideration. The pole material determines the weight and durability of your trekking poles. When it comes to pole material, you have two options:
Carbon fiber Trekking Poles
This is the lightest material currently used to build trekking poles. Carbon fiber was originally developed for use in the aerospace industry where parts need to be as light and strong as possible. A pair of carbon fiber trekking poles weighs around 1 pound (around 450 grams).
Carbon fiber is manufactured by weaving carbonized strips (usually polyacrylonitrile) together into sheets. These sheets are layered and bound together with a resin. The resulting laminate is used to make trekking poles that are incredibly strong and lightweight. Carbon fiber is also corrosion-resistant.
Carbon fiber trekking poles are a great choice for ultralight hikers who only use their trekking poles for technical sections of the trail and leave them stashed in their pack. They are also a great option for use as tent poles.
There are several drawbacks to carbon fiber trekking poles including:
- Less durable than aluminum poles- The material can’t take the same beating that you can give aluminum poles. Carbon fiber poles can also get brittle in extremely cold temperatures. In winter conditions, they can break more easily.
- When a carbon fiber trekking pole fails, it fails catastrophically- Basically, it will snap in half rather than bending. This can pose a safety risk if you rely on your trekking poles for balance. If your pole snaps at the wrong time, you could fall.
- More expensive- Carbon fiber poles cost about twice as much as aluminum models.
Aluminum Trekking Poles
Aluminum is a natural metal that is low density (lightweight), common, relatively easy to work with, and resistant to corrosion. When mixed with other metals into an alloy, aluminum becomes a very durable material that can take a lot of abuse. The type of aluminum that is most commonly used for trekking poles is called 7075. This alloy is commonly used in the aerospace and automotive industries.
Aluminum trekking poles offer a number of benefits over carbon fiber poles including:
- More affordable- They cost about half of the price of carbon fiber poles.
- More durable- Aluminum can take a beating without failing. It can withstand low temperatures without becoming brittle. Aluminum trekking poles are a great option if you expect to use them heavily.
- Safer- When aluminum fails, it usually slowly fails over time. Your pole will bend without snapping in half. The metal has a high fatigue point. This can save you from a fall.
The biggest drawback to aluminum trekking poles is the weight. They often weigh around 20% more than carbon fiber options. If you plan to carry your trekking poles in your pack for most of your hike, you may want to stay away from aluminum poles.
Trekking Pole Grip Material
The grip material determines the comfort of your trekking poles. You’re going to be holding these things for hours per day so you want them to feel good in your hands. Some poles use ergonomic grips which help to angle the poles in a way that keeps your wrists in a neutral position. I recommend these. Some poles just have straight grips or L shaped grips. These are good for light use.
You have three options when it comes to trekking pole grip material:
- Cork- This is the best grip material for most hikers. Cork is hydrophobic meaning it resists sweat and water. This helps to keep your hands dry and reduces your likelihood of developing blisters. Cork also offers vibration dampening and can mold to the shape of your hand over time, increasing comfort. The material is also very durable. The only drawback to cork grips is that they are expensive. Cork is often used on premium trekking poles and is great for warm weather hiking.
- Foam- This material is soft to the touch and absorbs sweat from your hands which helps prevent blisters. Foam is also cheap. The biggest drawback to foam grips is that the material degrades over time. It’s the least durable option.
- Rubber- This material provides insulation for your hands and vibration dampening. It is very durable and affordable. The problem with rubber is that it can be hard on your hands when you sweat. The reason is that it doesn’t absorb water or dry particularly quickly. Because of this, you are more likely to develop blisters when using rubber gripped trekking poles. Having said this, rubber grips are great for winter hiking because you’ll be wearing gloves anyway. The added insulation of rubber grips helps as well.
Trekking Pole Designs
The design determines how packable and adjustable your poles are. It also plays a role in the durability of your trekking poles. You have three options when it comes to trekking pole design:
- Telescoping- This is the most common design. Telescoping poles collapse into themselves for storage. The biggest benefit to this design is that the pole height is adjustable. You can extend the poles when descending and shorten them when climbing. You can adjust the pole to the ideal length for your height. Being able to adjust the pole length also comes in handy when pitching a tarp or trekking pole tent. The drawback to this design is that telescoping poles are generally heavier than other design options due to the added weight of the locking mechanisms.
- Foldable- These work kind of like tent poles. They come apart, usually into three pieces. The three pieces are often held together by an internal cord. A push-button locking mechanism locks the poles together. This design is lightweight and compact. These are a great choice for hikers who travel often and need to pack their poles in their luggage. Ultralight hikers and trail runners tend to choose this design as well.
- Fixed- These poles are simply fixed in their position. They don’t break apart or collapse in any way. The benefit of this design is that they are lightweight. There is no added weight for locking mechanisms because there are fewer parts. These poles are also very reliable and strong. They don’t have any weak spots where they come apart. The drawback is that they aren’t adjustable. This is a problem on trails with a lot of elevation change. They are also difficult to pack when you’re not using them.
Trekking Pole Length
In order to enjoy all of the benefits of trekking poles, they must be the correct length. If your poles are too short, you tend to hunch over while you walk. This can cause back and shoulder pain. If your poles are too long, they become awkward and unwieldy to use and can put your body in an unnatural position. The trekking pole length that you need depends on your height.
Ideally, your trekking poles should put your elbows at a 90-degree angle when you hold the tips of the poles on the ground next to your feet. Most models are adjustable which makes this position easy to achieve. If you’re buying fixed length poles, you’ll have to measure and choose the correct length for your height.
Tips for Buying Adjustable Trekking Poles
If you are taller than about 6 feet (182 cm), look for adjustable trekking poles with a maximum length of at least 51 inches (130 cm).
If you are shorter than 6 feet, you don’t have to worry abut the height of your adjustable trekking poles. They are designed to be used by people of a wide range of heights. You can shorten them to make them work for you.
Tips for Buying Fixed Length Trekking Poles
Most manufacturers include a size chart. This tells you which pole length is recommended for your height. When buying fixed length trekking poles, ideally you want to try them before you buy them to make sure you get the correct length.
How to Adjust Trekking Poles
The great thing about adjustable trekking poles is that you can change the height so your poles are always in the ideal position, no matter what kind of terrain you’re hiking. If your poles are not properly adjusted, you may experience pain in your back, neck, shoulders, or arms.
- For general use- You want to set your trekking pole’s height so that the tips touch the ground near your feet when you’re holding your hands out in front of you with your elbows bent at a 90-degree angle. When you do this, make sure that you’re holding the trekking poles perpendicular to the ground.
- For uphill sections- Shorten your trekking poles by 2-4 inches (5-10 cm) when hiking uphill. This can help you to gain more leverage and can help to keep your shoulders in a more neutral position. For extra steep inclines, you may have to shorten your poles even further to achieve the ideal position. When hiking uphill with trekking poles, your shoulders should never feel like they are in an unnatural position. You shouldn’t feel your backpack straps digging into your shoulders either.
- For downhill sections- Lengthen your trekking poles by 2-4 inches (5-10 cm) when hiking downhill. This can help to keep your body in a more upright and comfortable position. For very steep sections, you may want to lengthen them even more.
Tip: Most adjustable trekking poles have three sections. If this is the case with your poles, set the adjustment nearest to your hands so that the adjuster is in the middle of its range. Next, set the bottom adjustment so the poles are at your desired height. Setting the height of your poles this way offers two benefits. First, you can easily fine-tune the pole height on the fly using only the top adjuster. This can also help make the poles more structurally stable.
Trekking Pole Features and Accessories
- Adjustable- This allows you to dial in the ideal pole length for your height. Trekking poles usually adjust between 24 and 55 inches (61-140 cm). This is a great feature to have on hikes with a lot of elevation change. As outlined above, you can adjust the length to suit the grade you’re hiking on. Adjustability adds weight.
- Wrist straps- Most trekking poles come equipped with wrist straps. These help you grip the pole tight and help you avoid losing your pole if you drop it. They also allow you to use your hands to take a photo or eat without having to store your pole. You can just let them dangle on your wrists. To properly use trekking pole straps, you put your hand through the bottom of the strap then grip the pole. This helps you keep your hand in a neutral position on the pole. Some straps come with padding for additional comfort. Some straps are adjustable to fit your wrist size. A few straps are designed specially for your left and right hand for a more custom feeling fit.
- Camera mount- This is a nice feature for those who like to photograph their hikes. A camera mount under the handle allows you to use your trekking pole or hiking staff as a monopod or selfie stick.
- Shock absorption-These poles include internal springs to absorb shocks while hiking downhill. Most shock-absorbing poles allow you to lock them in place to turn this feature off when you don’t need it. For example, you don’t need shock absorption while climbing. This is a great feature for hikers with unstable knees, hips, or ankles. It can also help those with joint pain.
- Rubber caps- Most trekking poles have carbide tips. This hard material is excellent for gripping on rocks and ice. Rubber tips are great for hiking on paved trails. They can save your carbide tips from wearing down on pavement. They can also protect your gear from the sharp carbide tips when you pack your poles. Rubber caps can also protect the environment when you’re hiking in sensitive areas. For example, they can prevent your trekking poles from leaving marks and chips on fragile rocks.
- Ultralight- Trekking poles that are marketed as ultralight usually weigh less than 1 pound. The benefit to these is the lightweight. They are usually less durable than normal-weight models which weigh 4-8 ounces more.
- Baskets- These are discs that screw on to the end of your trekking pole. The increase the surface area so your pole doesn’t sink into soft surfaces like sand, mud, or snow. They are usually made of plastic and measure around 4 inches in diameter.
Trekking Pole Recommendations
Below, I’ll outline a few of the most popular and best value trekking poles on the market.
These are an all-around great pair of trekking poles that sell for an affordable price. They are made of lightweight yet durable aircraft-grade 7075 aluminum. The pair weighs 20.4 ounces (about 578 grams). They extend to 54 inches and will work for anyone between 4’ and 6’4”.
These poles offer comfortable cork grips and flip locks for easy adjustment. They come with all of the accessories you’ll need including two sets of baskets, rubber tips, and a carrying case to keep the poles safe while not in use. They are available in 8 colors.
These are telescoping poles. They collapse to 24.5 inches. They can also be disassembled for packing. These poles pack down to 21 inches.
These ultralight carbon fiber trekking poles weigh in at just 15.2 ounces (431 grams) for the pair. They feature premium cork grips and easy adjustability with a quick-locking mechanism. They include two sets of baskets, rubber tips, and a carrying bag.
One unique feature of these poles is the extended foam grip below the cork grip. These give you an additional hand position that can come in handy while climbing steep terrain. These poles adjust from 24-55 inches (61-140 cm).
This single trekking pole or hiking staff folds down to just 12 inches (30.5 cm), making it a great choice for travelers. You can easily fit it in any suitcase. Some travelers have even packed it in their carry on without any issues.
This pole would also work well as a support for a trekking pole shelter or tarp. It is a very basic trekking pole with a rubber grip and rubber tip. It weighs 14 ounces (about 400 grams). One thing to note is that it is only adjustable between 49 and 53 inches so it’s not ideal for those who are much shorter or taller than average.
A Few Techniques for Using Trekking Poles
There is a slight learning curve when you start using trekking poles. If you use them improperly, they could end up doing more harm than good. The following tips and techniques will help you get started.
Alternate Your Poles and Steps
When walking with trekking poles, you want to plant your foot in time with the opposite trekking pole. For example, if you’re stepping on your left foot, you want to plant your right trekking pole. Your step pattern should go something like right foot, left pole, left foot, right pole, etc.
This technique isn’t too hard to master. Once you get going, you can maintain this pattern without thinking about it. It just feels natural to walk this way. After you stop, you may have to take a few steps to get back into your rhythm.
Double Plant on Treacherous Terrain
In areas where you need extra balance or traction, it can help to plant both poles in a stable position before stepping. After you step and stabilize yourself, move both poles to a new stable position. This comes in handy when crossing rivers, walking on rugged rocky terrain, walking on ice, or walking over slippery rocks or logs.
Hold Your Poles Out to the Sides for Extra Balance
This technique comes in handy while walking across a narrow log over a stream. Hold your trekking poles straight out like a tight rope walker would use a long pole for balance. This can greatly improve your balance and give you confidence while walking over narrow obstacles.
Swing Your Arms While Hiking Quickly
When you walk quickly, you naturally swing your arms. You should try to maintain this same swinging motion while hiking on flat terrain. You can do this by planting the poles just slightly in front of your feet and using them to push off. This helps you maintain momentum.
Final Thoughts: Do I Need Trekking Poles?
Personally, I love trekking poles. Carrying an extra pound of weight to save my knees is well worth it in my book. The added stability helps as well. I feel much more confident hiking over slippery surfaces and technical terrain with trekking poles.
Having said this, trekking poles aren’t always necessary. For a casual walk along a flat trail or a simple day hike, you can easily get by without them. Particularly if you are in good health.
Do you hike with trekking poles? Share your tips and experience in the comments below!
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