What is a Trekking Pole? : An Expert Shares His Knowledge

Trekking or hiking poles have been around for generations, but there has been a renewed interest in their use and they’re now more popular than ever before.  Let’s explore what they are exactly, and how to choose and properly use them.


 What is a Trekking Pole?

Trekking poles are hiking accessories that are typically aluminum telescoping sticks that provide hikers with stability and balance on uneven terrain and can help reduce fatigue in legs and hips if used correctly on all terrain.

Trekking Poles also go by the name of “Hiking Sticks” or “Walking Poles”.


How Do I Use a Trekking Pole?

Using a trekking pole is very simple. It’s the same as using a wooden walking stick or staff you might find in the forest. In fact, your arm motion looks very much like a cross country skier using ski poles, since they’re used for a similar purpose.

You simply put one in each hand and as you hike, you poke them beside you gently for stability, and of course, you can use them for random actions like clearing away debris, poking at various curiosities on the trail, and pushing hard on them in order to regain lost balance or help with an uphill climbing task.

  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Google+
  • Pinterest
  • LinkedIn
Trekking Poles can add stability and reduce stress on any hike, allowing hikers to extend their hiking years well into retirement

What Are the Benefits of Using a Trekking Pole?

We’ve talked a bit about the benefits of trekking poles, but here’s a shortlist that will help you understand the benefits better and decide if they are right for you:

  • Improve overall stability during a hike
  • Can reduce the force and stress on knees walking downhill
  • Can help reduce entire body stress by distributing weight and load over whole body
  • Can help improve posture
  • Help for walking up hills and steep inclines
  • Reduce speed and maintain control on steep downhill climbs
  • Offer extra anchors and stability while walking in/on stream beds with water
  • Offer potential protection against animal aggression
  • Often used to move aside potential dangers like Poison Ivy or Poison Oak
  • Will keep your hands higher (closer to heart and chest) if your hands tend to swell easily
  • Can easily be used for a shelter like supporting a tent or a tarp
  • Help in offering a more “full-body” workout by encouraging use of upper body
  • If you don’t mind applying energy in your upper body, you can use the poles to propel yourself forward.
  • Some evidence suggests senior pole users can hike for more years because of less body stress

The most obvious benefit of trekking poles is that they increase stability and reduce the impact on your knees and other leg joints, but there are also a ton of more subtle benefits to hiking with trekking poles.

First of all, studies suggest that using trekking poles on flat ground reduces the weight carried by the legs by about ten pounds, and the weight reduction is even greater on an incline, which makes a huge difference over the course of a long hike, especially if you’re carrying a backpack.

In addition, the poles keep your hands at about heart level, which improves circulation, reduces heart rate, and can help prevent you from getting the dreaded sausage fingers that often result from backpacking for hours with your hands swinging by your sides.

Poles also improve balance, which allows you to walk in a more relaxed way, getting into a rhythm that allows you to hike faster, longer.

It seems counterintuitive, but while trekking poles make hiking feel easier, they actually enhance the aerobic benefit of hiking:

studies suggest that using trekking poles can increase the number of calories burned on a hike by up to 20%. (This is a great benefit if you’re hiking to get in shape, but on a longer backpacking trip or hike, this might be a negative, as 20% more calories burned means 20% more calories must be carried.

Trekking poles can also be great for navigating tricky trails or when hiking off-trail. They’re great for sweeping away spider webs so you don’t have to walk into them face first, and they’re also great for navigating slippery rocks or stream crossing, as they give you two extra points of contact as well as giving you a tool to test rocks before stepping on them.

If you’re okay with using your arms more than you would on a regular walk, you can actually propel yourself forward to the extent that you can notice how much faster you’re walking and without even using as much lower body energy as you would on a normal walk without poles.

Finally, trekking poles can be used around camp once you’ve arrived at your destination. Some backpacking tents can be pitched with trekking poles to save weight, and they can also be useful in fashioning a makeshift gurney or splint in the event of an injury.

  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Google+
  • Pinterest
  • LinkedIn
Trekking Poles come in a variety of style and materials. They are also versatile tools for your hike or overnight trip

You may even be able to fashion your trekking pole into a selfie stick to capture epic photos of your solo trip!

Trekking Poles have helped me in ALMOST all the ways I’ve outlined above (other than fighting off animals and reducing swelling – since my hands don’t swell).

They are versatile enough since they are telescoping and can even be used as more of a staff than a ski pole.

One other benefit that a friend of mine told me about (I have not experienced this) is that she experienced a bit of an emergency (pulling hamstring muscle) and was able to make it to a nearby road where she signaled a car for a ride.

She suspects that by using her pole to help signal, it showed that she really was a hiker in distress and the driver of the car felt more at ease in stopping to help.

Hmmm. I would never have thought of that benefit on my own!!

Read on for the answers to more common questions about trekking poles.


What Are the Drawbacks of Using a Trekking Pole?

One of the major drawbacks to hiking with trekking poles is something that we already discussed because many people actually consider it a benefit.

USES MORE ENERGY:

Trekking poles can enhance the aerobic aspect of hiking, causing the hiker to use more energy. If you’re hiking to improve your fitness, then this would certainly be a benefit, but on a longer backpacking trip or hike it can be a serious negative as using trekking poles may cause you to fatigue faster and limit how much distance you can cover in a day.

One way that hikers cope with this is by using trekking poles on steep, technical terrain and then putting them in their packs when hiking on more moderate terrain.

This technique works well for some people, but it brings us to the second drawback of using trekking poles:

EXTRA WEIGHT:

If you put your poles in your pack for half the day, then you’d be smart to consider that you’ll be putting your legs and spinal cord through an even bigger workout by adding extra weight to your back.

OCCUPIED HANDS:

The third major drawback to using trekking poles is that your hands are occupied. While, yes, it’s possible to stop at any time, lean your trekking poles against a tree, and do whatever you need to with your hands, it can come to feel somewhat frustrating if you’re the type of person that uses their hands a lot while you’re hiking.

If you like to take pictures while you walk, munch on trail mix, check the map, or if you’re an amateur geologist who enjoys inspecting rocks, then you might find that trekking poles are annoying since you will have to ask either ask someone to hold them or stop and put them down whenever you want to use your hands.

You may well need your hands to grab rocks, ropes or other important climbing or hiking aids, and in those cases, having free hands will outweigh the desire to carry aluminum poles in each hand.

PRICE:

With a price tag ranging from $30 to over $400, trekking poles can have some impact on your budget and finances, so it’s good to consider if you need them.

Fortunately, there are lots of options on AMAZON for the lower price point which typically shouldn’t break too many banks and will allow you to see if trekking poles are right for you.

  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Google+
  • Pinterest
  • LinkedIn

Should I Use One Pole or Two?

New trekking pole users might find themselves wondering, “Should I use one trekking pole or two?” The answer depends upon what type of terrain you’ll be hiking. 

Single trekking poles, also sometimes referred to as a hiking staff, are great when hiking on relatively flat terrain with little to no weight on your back. On most other terrains it’s best to use two poles, and here’s why:

Trekking poles improve stability and reduce the amount of force on the knees when hiking downhill.

Using two poles allows you to maintain a straight, upright stance and reduce the force on both knees, whereas using one pole usually causes the hiker to twist slightly, which can cause discomfort over time and increase the chance of injury to the back.

If you do choose to use one trekking pole, as some people do, it’s a good idea to switch the pole between hands every once in a while to prevent undue fatigue on one side of your body.


What Type of Pole is Best for Me?

There are several materials poles are made from, and while carbon poles are the strongest and lightest, aluminum poles are exceptionally affordable and do the job well. If you’re a beginner who is experimenting with poles, aluminum is the way to go, while a veteran hiker is better served by the stronger, lighter carbon sticks.

CARBON – Carbon fiber poles are pricier and there’s still a chance they can break. However, in order to break a carbon trekking pole, you’d have to put such extreme pressure on it, that no other pole (aluminum or even a wood staff) would fare any better.

Carbon is also very light and you’d probably not even notice the extra weight if you stash them on your back during a hike.

ALUMINUM – Aluminum poles are the choice of most hikers since they do the job as well as carbon at a fraction of the price. They are certainly not as light and durable, but for most hikers, the difference between carbon and aluminum just isn’t significant enough to justify the price difference.

My own poles are aluminum and I’m not in the market for carbon anytime soon.

  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Google+
  • Pinterest
  • LinkedIn
The light weight of Carbon makes it the material of choice for many hikers

Pole Design and Optional Accessories

We’ve explored pole construction materials but there are other options that will affect both price and performance.

For example, the handle grips can be made of various materials like the very durable EVA (Ethylene-Vinyl Acetate), soft foam rubber, cork, and a variety of other materials.

The grip material is a matter of preference, but I prefer EVA since it’s the most durable. I don’t need soft foam for “comfort” knowing it will deteriorate in a few years from exposure to the elements.

Cork is a bit more expensive, and while it is seen as eco-friendly, it is also not ultra-durable, and it’s not easy to clean once it gets stained with grime.

Cork is best for hikers with sweaty hands, foam tends to be most comfortable, and rubber is best for hiking in cold temps, so choose the grip that fits your hiking preferences best.

Poles also come in telescoping designs, tri-fold designs, and fully fixed designs.

Obviously, fixed designs offer the most consistent performance and have the most in-line and lateral stability. However, they are not easy to find and they are not at all convenient to carry or transport.

Telescoping designs are the most affordable and common, and they also are the only type of pole that is adjustable. However, they are a bit heavier than other options and the telescoping locking mechanisms tend to be a bit bulky.

Also, my preference is not a telescoping style since the locking mechanisms can lose their tight grip and end up “telescoping” when you put a bit of pressure on them in the middle of a hike.

Tri-fold designs are the best option but they are more expensive than telescoping and they cannot be adjusted for height.

They are, however, the most compact, and the sections of the pole will never slip as a faulty telescoping stick will.

Other Options

Baskets are the small plastic pieces that sit above the tip of the pole and keep the pole from sinking too deeply into mud or snow.

If you’re hiking on dry, dirt trails then you may not need baskets on your poles, so you can choose to take them off if they are removable, or you can replace them with bigger baskets for muddy or snowy conditions.

Hiking Pole Baskets are an inexpensive way to make your poles far more versatile in all conditions

Most poles have steel or carbide tips. Some poles come with rubber tip protectors or you can buy them separately to extend the life of your poles or to prevent your poles from scratching up rocky trails or puncturing the ground in sensitive areas.


Our favorite entry-level poles include carbon construction, a full accessory kit, and incredible buyer ratings. It is the Hiker Hunger Outfitters Carbon Trekking Pole System.

The Hiker Hunger Carbon Trekking Pole (and accessories) is the best option for entry-level hikers and is priced WAY below any name-brand carbon poles on the market.


Our favorite high-quality name-brand pole that we truly trust, is the Black Diamond Distance Carbon Pole. This is a truly elite-level trekking pole with a long list of enviable options we invite you to research for yourself!

The Black Diamon Distance Carbon Trekking Stick is our choice for a long-lasting and high-quality set of sticks. Full disclosure – I don’t own this set … yet!


So, how do I decide whether or not to use poles?

You can do all the research in the world but the only way to make a truly informed decision about trekking poles is to buy a pair and try them out for yourself.

If you’re not sure about whether or not a set of poles is right for you, try to buy a set from a store that allows you to return them (Amazon is one of the best for returning product with which you’re not 100% satisfied), or if you happen to know someone with a set, borrow them from a friend before you buy.


How do I fit my trekking poles?

When deciding on which poles to buy, your best bet is to buy height-adjustable poles. Adjustable poles work great because you can quickly adjust the height depending on your terrain.

You generally want your elbows to be bent at a ninety-degree angle when your poles are planted, so you’ll have to shorten your poles by about 5-10 centimeters to maintain this angle when hiking uphill, and likewise, you’ll have to lengthen them by 5-10 centimeters for descents.


How much do trekking poles weigh?

Trekking poles typically weigh between 12 and 22 ounces per pair, though some claim to be lighter. Aluminum trekking poles are the most common type of pole as they are durable and economical, and tend to weigh between 18-22 ounces.

They have been known to bend under higher stress, however.  Composite poles are lighter and more expensive, as they are made partially or entirely of carbon and can weigh as little as 12 ounces per pair.

While these poles are significantly lighter, they are more vulnerable to splintering or breaking under very high stress (you likely won’t stress them to their breaking point), which is an important consideration if you will be using them on very steep or technical terrain.


How do I walk with poles?

The final and most important thing to consider before hitting the trail with a new pair of poles is your walking technique, as well as how to actually grip the pole and where you plant the pole.

Gripping the Pole

Aaron Linsdau is a Polar Explorer and long time trekker. His advice is invaluable when it comes to all aspects of hiking, and he has some thoughts on how to use trekking poles properly.

He says the inclination for most hikers is to just put their hand through the strap and grip only the handle of the pole. The better way (that allows you to control the pole better and use less energy to grip) is to actually grip the strap inside your palm along with the actual handle.

Bring your hand up through the strap, and then you grab the strap itself and then grab the pole grip.

If you have a momentary loss of control of the stick, it’s easy to regain control using this technique, and it’s easier to hold the grip using less energy and gripping power

Aaron Linsdau – Polar Explorer and Motivational speaker

  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Google+
  • Pinterest
  • LinkedIn
Bring your hand UP through the strap …
  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Google+
  • Pinterest
  • LinkedIn
… then grab both the strap and the pole grip handle for best control

Walking

When walking with trekking poles, make sure you maintain a natural gait, as if you weren’t carrying poles in your hands.

This means planting the opposite pole with the opposite foot, so when your right foot is forward your left pole is planted, and vice-versa. On steep climbs or descents, you may find it helpful to plant both poles, take two steps, and repeat.

Try out different methods and experiment with placing your poles further forward or further back until you find a style that suits you. Most importantly, if you start to feel any unusual discomfort try adjusting your poles.

  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Google+
  • Pinterest
  • LinkedIn
Trekking Poles can be helpful in uneven and tricky terrain

Generally, it makes the most sense to plant your pole no further ahead than your body and then push back on an angle to give yourself forward thrust.

Don’t plant the pole in front of you. That will actually push against your forward motion.

Instead, I plant the poles behind me and I use my arms to push them in order to give myself a little bit of lift, and some extra forward thrust.

Aaron Linsdau – Polar Explorer and Motivational Speaker

If the discomfort persists, it’s probably best to put the poles away until you can figure out what is causing the discomfort.

For more information about trekking pole use, check out the following resources:

How to Choose and Use Trekking Poles and Hiking Staffs

How to Use Trekking Poles like a Pro (video)

Sources: Aaron Linsdau – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rYXi143QffE


  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Google+
  • Pinterest
  • LinkedIn

Recent Posts

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This