Thinking about investing in trekking poles? You've come to the right place. The following article explores everything you’ll need to make an informed trekking pole decision: Pros and cons, style and design, proper pole technique, and more.
The Pros: 7 Reasons You Need Trekking Poles
- Poles incorporate your arms, back, and shoulders into the hiking motion, allowing you to use more muscle groups to propel yourself uphill and to control your descent. Many contend that over time this lessens leg fatigue.
- Poles distributing pack weight across four “limbs” instead of two. When descending with a full pack, poles help control the rate of descent and stabilize pack sway, especially when moving quickly.
- Poles help establish a consistent rhythm. Some people find the cadence meditative; others find a consistent rhythm helps increase their speed.
- Poles increase balance and control on difficult terrain like mud, snow, slick bridges, and river crossings. They also allow you to test sketchy footholds and thus avoid a misstep.
- Poles, when used correctly, reduce the impact on legs, knees, and ankles, especially when going downhill. By allowing the shoulder muscles to absorb some of the force that would otherwise travel through the knees, trekking poles make hiking more comfortable for people with compromised joints.
- Poles can fend off animals like snakes and unruly dogs, and they can deflect backcountry nuisances like spider webs, branches, and thorny brambles. In winter, you can smack snowy branches with your pole.
- Poles can sometimes be used for more than trekking. Some people use them for tent or tarp poles; in a pinch, they can also double as a medical splint.
The Cons: 7 Reasons You Don't Need Trekking Poles
- Environmental impact. Poles punch holes in the dirt and scuff rocks. They can also damage fragile terrain.
- Poles can snap or bend if caught in rocks or between roots. This is particularly true with carbon poles when moving quickly.
- Annoying Sound. Some people find the repetitive clicking sound that happens on hard surfaces maddening and disruptive.
- Not hands-free. If you like snapping lots of photos, snacking, or drinking water, the poles and straps can be an encumbrance.
- Snag potential. Poles can get caught on trees branches and brush.
- Compromised balance. If you are over-dependent on your poles when coming downhill, your center of gravity is no longer centered over your legs, which means your balance could be compromised. If you fall, it may be harder to catch yourself.
- Forward lean. Poles can invite forward lean and leaning forward puts a lot of extra stress on your lower back, shoulders, and arms.
Thoughts from a Trekking Pole Fan
As a person who overthinks nearly everything, buying trekking poles, admittedly, was yet another chance for my brain to go into a rabbit hole of hemming and hawing and minutia. Ultimately, here are my takeaways:
- The pros far outnumber the cons. As I see it, a good case can be made that most of the so-called cons are arguably more issues of technique and usage than actual cons. For instance, leaning too far forward—just adjust the pole length to keep arms at a proper angle. Poles catching on trees and brush—just remove the baskets or don’t use baskets in the first place (I don’t). Scratching rocks—just use a rubber tip.
- I believe adjustable poles are a must. I shorten my poles when going uphill and lengthen them when going downhill. For my needs this feature is very beneficial; I also like the fact that my wife can use the same poles, even though she’s slightly shorter than I am; finally, adjustable poles are packable (a feature I use constantly).
- I tend to get sore knees, so I use my poles when I’m backpacking or on long, steep day hikes. The poles aren’t a magic cure-all—my knees still sometimes hurt—but the poles definitely help mitigate soreness. That being said, there are still plenty of situations in which I leave my poles behind (or in my pack). I never use them on flat, easy day hikes, for example, and I never use them on unstable scree or on an extremely steep pitch.
- I use carbon poles because I've found over the years that the reduced weight of carbon (paddles, bike frames, etc.) makes a huge difference on lengthy adventures—carbon is worth the extra money in my book. Breakage has never been a problem for me, though it's worth noting that I’m a lightweight guy. I’ve watched my brother-in-law, who is bigger and stronger than I am, demolish carbon bike parts for years—a few hours on a trail with carbon poles and he'd probably demolish them too. The takeaway: If you're big and burly and prone to breaking stuff, consider using carbon poles that have aluminum bottom-shafts.
Trekking Pole Style and Design
Composite: Composite poles feature shafts that are made either partially or entirely from carbon. Carbon makes a pole lighter but also more expensive (sometimes a lot more expensive). Carbon poles are good at reducing vibration, but they are more vulnerable to breakage or splintering than aluminum poles. Some manufacturers sell carbon poles with aluminum lower sections to mitigate the risk of breakage.
Aluminum: Aluminum poles are more durable and economical but are slightly heavier than carbon. Under high stress, aluminum can bend, but it is less likely to break than carbon.
Adjustable: Adjustable poles allow for greater flexibility and have many advantages: You can shorten you poles when going uphill and lengthen them when going downhill; you can share your poles with someone slightly shorter or taller than yourself; you can collapse them and store them in your pack.
Fixed Length: Good fixed-length poles tend to be lighter weight than adjustable poles because they have fewer parts. Less swing weight makes them easier to move, which makes them popular in the ultra-light and running crowd. You’ll instantly know when you are looking at a pole designed for the ultra-light crowd—minimalistic, light, and expensive. If you see a cheap fixed length pole, it’s probably thick aluminum and heavy (and, in my opinion, not worth your time).
Foldable: Foldable trekking poles (not to be confused with adjustable poles) function just like tent poles (with a cord inside that holds them together when collapsed). Foldable poles are typically highly packable, lightweight, and quick to deploy. If I were an ultra-runner (which I am not) this is what I would buy. Warning: Good ones are expensive.
Shock-absorbing: Shock-absorbing poles have internal springs that absorb shock when you walk downhill. This feature can usually be turned off when it's not needed. Shock absorption is a nice feature if you have unstable hips or bad knees, but the feature adds weight and cost to the pole. For most people, the shock-absorption feature is overkill.
If you have adjustable trekking poles, it’s important to know what height to set them at. Properly adjusted poles will put your elbows at a 90-degree bend when you hold the poles with tips on the ground near your feet. Improperly adjusted trekking poles can cause distress to your arms, shoulders, back, and neck. (*Mark your poles with permanent marker, so you can quickly lock in the setting you use on normal terrain)
If your adjustable poles have three sections (many do), it’s helpful to set the top adjustment so it’s in the middle of the adjustment range and then set the bottom adjustment to the length that puts your arm at the correct angle for general hiking (see above). When you need to make adjustments for steeper uphill climbs or downhill descents, you can use just the top adjustment to fine-tune the length.
If you are hiking on flat terrain, adjust the pole length so that when you hold the pole vertical with the tip on the ground, your arm makes a 90-degree bend at the elbow. This will be the right length for most of your hiking.
If you are hiking a long uphill section, shorten each pole by about 5–10cm to get more leverage and more secure pole plants. The steeper the slope, the more you shorten your poles. Your trekking poles should assist you in moving uphill without causing strain or fatigue to your shoulders. When you are taking a particularly steep upward step, don't plant and then pull yourself up the incline. Instead, place both poles next to or slightly behind your feet and push down as you step up.
If you are hiking a long downhill section, lengthen each pole by about 5–10cm longer than the pole length you use for flat terrain hiking. This keeps your body more upright for better balance.
If you are hiking on a long traverse, you can shorten the pole on the uphill side and lengthen the pole on the downhill side as needed to improve comfort and stability.
FAQ: Are there any reputable scientific studies on the benefits of trekking poles? Yes, you can read the full article here. If you prefer the short version, here’s an excerpt: “The results showed that there was significantly less muscle soreness in the group using trekking poles. This group demonstrated a reduced loss of strength and a faster recovery immediately after the trek compared to the control group. Self-rated soreness peaked at 24-hours in both groups but was significantly lower in the trekking-pole group, both at this point and at the 48-hour point. In addition, levels of the enzyme creatine kinase (which indicates muscle damage) were much higher at the 24-hour point in the non-pole group, while the trekking-pole group’s levels were close to the pre-trekking levels. This shows that the muscle damage they were experiencing was negligible.”
FAQ: What about using an old-fashioned hiking staff? It’s your call. Plenty of hikers contend that one pole (or a staff) provides all the balance they need without tying up both hands. People have used walking staffs for thousands of years, which suggests that using just one pole has proven merit (I personally feel unbalanced when I do it).
FAQ: Will poles prevent me from catching myself if I fall? Possibly, but they may also prevent you from falling in the first place. Most pole users will tell you that their poles have saved them from falling for more times than they have caused them to lose balance.
FAQ: Do I need to buy adjustable poles? In a word, yes. Unless you’re a speed hiker or ultra-runner who prioritizes light weight above all else, adjustable poles are your best choice.
FAQ: If I have good knees and decent balance, do I really need poles? Poles are not a necessity for everybody. A hiker with strong, pain-free knees and good balance may well feel encumbered by poles. But for much of the hiking population, poles can provide a great benefit. Put simply, if you’re twenty years old, don’t buy them. If you’re sixty years old, you should have bought them ten years ago.
FAQ: Can I just use ski poles instead? Trekking poles look like ski poles, but their adjustability and grip design make them a more effective hiking accessory than you’ll find in a repurposed ski pole.
FAQ: Does pole usage increase overall energy usage? Yes, pole usage increases energy usage slightly, but since it also decreases leg fatigue, most hikers see it as a fair exchange. Also, using poles for added propulsion makes the last few miles of a hike feel easier—even when you're tired.
FAQ: Are carbide tips helpful? Yes, but only on hard snow, ice, and on slippery slab. In most other conditions, it’s best to keep carbide tips covered with rubber caps. For most people, carbide tips aren’t necessary.