Whether you’re thru-hiking across the country or heading out on a quick weekend jaunt, trekking poles can add a lot of stability and comfort to your hike. Trekking poles shouldn’t be considered essential, but many hikers and backpackers love them for a variety of reasons.
In this article we’ll break down everything you need to know about hiking with poles and what you should consider before buying a pair of your own. If you’re looking for our favorites, check out our Best Trekking Poles list.
Trekking Pole PROS
Trekking poles take stress off your joints – The biggest advantage of hiking with trekking poles is that they absorb some of the shock your joints take when you step – especially on ascents and descents. Have you ever felt pain in your knees while hiking a steep downhill trail? Try using trekking poles to take some of the pressure off of your knees and relieve pain.
Give your arms something to do! – Every day is leg day on hiking trails. Unless your hike includes boulder scrambles or bushwhacking, you may not be engaging your arms much at all. Trekking poles give your arms some exercise and can help to keep your hands from swelling while you’re gaining elevation. Dangling your arms at your sides while you ascend can lead to poor circulation which can cause your fingers, hands, and wrists to swell up. Keeping your arms elevated, combined with the pumping action used with trekking poles, promotes better circulation and can prevent swelling.
Maintaining balance – You know what’s better than two legs? Four legs. Trekking poles act as another set of limbs to give you more stability when tackling tricky terrain. Poles can help you keep your balance when crossing swiftly moving water, traversing snowfields and ice patches, trekking along narrow ridgelines, and when going up or down hill on loose ground like sand or scree. We have also on more than one occasion used trekking poles to remain upright while battling high winds.
Trekking poles can help you maintain a good pace – Using trekking poles can get you walking in a smooth rhythm – foot, pole, foot, pole – and can help you sustain a good hiking pace for longer periods of time. We’ve noticed that we tend to hike a little faster when using trekking poles and the repetitive motion can be somewhat meditative while we hike.
Poles can be used to test ice strength and water depth – It can be hard to determine how deep a water crossing is or how thick the ice on a frozen stream is. Trekking poles can take the guesswork out of it and help you cross hazards safely.
Leave the tent poles at home – We love multipurpose items – some ultralight tents ditch the tent poles and use trekking poles to hold the structure instead. Some of our favorite trekking pole tents are the ZPacks Duplex and Triplex, the Hyperlite Mountain Gear Ultamid 2, and the Tarptent Stratospire 2.
Trekking poles can help keep wild animals at bay – It’s always important to stay aware of your surroundings when in the backcountry. Do what you can to avoid sneaking up on wild animals or encroaching on their territory. Despite our best efforts, sometimes animal encounters are inevitable. If you find yourself too close for comfort to a large animal such as a bear, banging your poles together or against trees and rocks makes a harsh sound that will often scare the animal away. You can also wave trekking poles above your head to make yourself appear larger, which can discourage animals from approaching you.
Trekking poles can help you get a hitch into town – Whenever we need to catch a ride from trail to town or vise versa, we always keep our trekking poles out. Poles signal to drivers that you are a hiker needing to get somewhere, and in our experience they have increased the likelihood of a quicker pick-up.
Trekking Pole CONS
Trekking poles can be cumbersome – For us, the biggest drawback to trekking poles is that they can be limiting in some situations. On trails where you need to do hand-over-hand climbing or you have to use rope assists, it can be annoying to have to stash your trek poles on your pack, and then get them back out, and then stash them, and then get them back out. Likewise, if you like to take a lot of photos like we do, trekking poles tie up your hands and can get in the way when you need to grab a quick shot.
Weight – Some people like to use their poles only on uphill and downhill stretches of trail. This means that the poles are stashed on their packs in the meantime, which of course is extra carried weight.
You may be using more energy – It’s generally accepted that pumping your arms with trekking poles expends more energy than walking without poles. There haven’t been many studies on this and some people disagree. Our feeling is that a little extra workout for our arms isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and if the stress-reducing benefits of trekking poles are a good fit for you, then the extra expended energy is likely totally worth it.
Expensive – Putting together a good hiking/backpacking kit can be pretty expensive. Trekking poles are not a necessary piece of gear, so the cost can be hard to justify for those starting from scratch with little to no gear or for hikers on a budget. Our favorite trekking poles range in price from around $60 all the way up to $200. If you are looking for a solid pair of affordable poles, we recommend the Montem Ultra Strong Trekking Poles.
Not always LNT friendly – The carbide tips on many trekking poles dig into rock, which will often leave unsightly scratches, gouges, and chips in rock formations on the trail. This can be off-putting to some, especially when traveling over old and pretty granite formations.
WHICH POLES ARE RIGHT FOR YOU?
There are so many trekking pole options out there and the subtle differences can be hard to distinguish when you’re first starting out. Here are some things to consider when making your choice.
- Carbon Fiber – Carbon fiber is a lightweight yet durable fiber reinforced plastic. Carbon fiber poles are a popular choice among lightweight backpackers and folks who keep their poles stashed until they encounter trickier terrain. While carbon fiber is very strong, it’s less durable than aluminum. If you’re the type of hiker who relies on poles a lot to keep your balance, carbon poles may not be for you. If a carbon fiber pole fails, it will snap. This leaves very little room for regaining balance if one of your poles should fail. Because carbon fiber is ultralight and requires a more involved process to manufacture, it is considerably more expensive than aluminum. Our favorite carbon fiber trekking pole set is the Gossamer Gear LT5.
- Aluminum – Aluminum is a super durable and decently lightweight metal that can withstand a lot of abuse. We like aluminum poles because they are reliable and tend to be a lot more affordable than carbon fiber poles. In the rare case of an aluminum pole failing, it will usually bend rather than snapping. That means it can be much easier to regain balance before falling if the pole should give out. Aluminum is slightly heavier than carbon fiber. If you keep your poles stashed most of the time while you’re hiking they may not be your top pick. Our favorite aluminum poles are the Black Diamond Trail Ergo Cork Trekking Poles.
- Cork – We think cork is the best material for pole grips. It’s comfortable, durable, and porous so it can wick away sweat from your hands and prevent blisters. The only real drawback to cork is that it tends to be more expensive than other grip materials. One of our favorite cork-handle trekking poles sets are the Black Diamond Alpine Carbon Cork Trekking Poles.
- Foam – Foam is a comfortable and generally more affordable grip material. It will break down quicker than cork or rubber, but it is still decently durable. One of our favorite foam grip pole sets are the REI Co-op Flash Carbon Trekking Poles.
- Rubber – Rubber grips are very durable and generally affordable, but they tend to be the least comfortable. They can be hard to grip if your hands get sweaty and they are more likely to cause blisters on your hands. We tend not to recommend rubber-gripped trekking poles.
- Telescoping – Telescoping poles have the most adjustability making them good for those who like to adjust the height of their trekking poles depending on the terrain. This is also useful if you plan to use your trekking poles as your tent poles. Telescoping poles tend to weigh a little bit more than trifold and fixed poles due to the extra length allowance. This is the most common pole design.
- Trifold – Trifolding trekking poles are generally the lightest and most compact design. They have three pieces that are held together by an internal tension cord and held in place by a push button locking mechanism. Trifolding poles are great for those who do a lot of airline travel, because they usually fold down small enough to fit in small luggage. We’ll talk a little more about airline travel with trekking poles later. Our favorite trifolding poles are the Leki Micro Vario Carbon Trekking Poles.
- Fixed – Fixed height trekking poles are not very common and we tend not to recommend them because they are hard to stow on your pack when they’re not in use. Fixed design is more typical of ski poles. We don’t recommend using ski poles for hiking because the two styles are held at different heights and have different shapes for their respective sports.
It’s important to have the right size trekking pole in order to fully enjoy the benefits of hiking with them. Poles that are too tall will push your posture back and could cause discomfort in your shoulders. Poles that are too short will cause you to lean forward and could put a strain on your back. When you are holding your poles at your sides, your elbows should be situated at a right angle.This will ensure good posture and will maximize the comfort and effectiveness.
Our Top Recommendations
We researched and tested dozens of poles to create this list of the Best Trekking Poles. All the poles listed below have a great balance of durability, comfort, weight and value. We hope this list helps you find the ideal trekking poles for your needs.
According to the TSA website, trekking poles are only permitted in checked luggage. If you know you will be flying with your poles a lot, you’ll probably want to go with trifolding poles because they pack down smaller and can fit better in travel bags. We also recommend using REI Co-op Trekking Pole Tip Covers when traveling to keep your pole tips from tearing through your bag.
- TIPS – Many poles have interchangeable tips or can be modified with different caps for various types of terrain. Carbide tips are the standard tips that most poles come with and they are designed for all terrain hiking. They are especially good for gripping rock and ice. You can easily replace them on most trekking poles if they worn down by unscrewing the old ones and then screwing in new ones. Black Diamond and Leki offer screw on replacement tips to name a few.
- TIP COVERS – As we mentioned above, tip covers are great for protecting your stuff from damage by the carbide tips during airline travel or if you store your poles in a closet.
- RUBBER CAPS – Rubber caps are a great accessory for anyone who uses trekking poles around town or on paved hiking trails. The standard carbide tips that most poles come with will wear down quickly on pavement, so it’s a good idea to use rubber tips to protect them. Most manufacturers make specific rubber tips that slip over the end of their trekking poles; Leki makes a really cool footed rubber walking tip designed for more efficient movement.
- BASKETS – Baskets easily screw on to the end of poles and help to keep them from sinking way down into sand and snow; we bring them along for coastal hiking and snowshoeing. Most pole manufacturers make specific baskets for their poles like the Black Diamond Powder Snow Baskets and the Leki Snowflake Baskets.
HOW TO USE TREKKING POLES
- HEIGHT ADJUSTMENT – Make sure the height of your trekking poles puts your elbows at a 90 degree angle when you hold the poles by your side.
- GRIP – When grasping the grip, put your hand through the bottom of the security strap so that the top of the strap is between your thumb and index finger. Holding the poles properly will keep you from needing to death grip the handles and will be safer for your wrists and thumbs if you need to catch yourself while falling.
- STRIDE – The most efficient way to walk is to strike with the pole opposite of the foot you step with. So if you are stepping with your right foot, you should be placing your left pole down. The pole should be striking the ground near where your back foot is to propel you forward. This method may require some practice, but you’ll find yourself getting into a good groove after a few tries.
TOP TREKKING POLE Picks
For more in depth information on trekking poles, as well as a list of our top choices, visit our Best Trekking Poles list. For a quicks snapshot of our recommendations, we’ve listed our top choices below.
- Gossamer Gear LT5 – Top ultralight pick
- Montem Ultra Strong – Top budget pick
- Black Diamond Trail Ergo Cork – Top all-around value pick
- Leki Micro Vario Carbon – Top tri-folding pick
Trekking poles are not a strictly necessary piece of gear, but many choose to take them on their hikes because they provide a lot of benefits. Poles take a lot of strain off your joints while you hike and can help you maintain balance through various types of tricky terrain. Some find that they hike faster while using poles and enjoy that they keep their arms entertained, while others find trekking poles cumbersome and don’t like that they occupy their hands. If you do choose to hike with trekking poles, It’s important to make sure your poles are adjusted to the correct length and to ensure proper technique to get all the benefits they provide.
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