When most people think of the “stereotypical hiker,” they usually imagine someone with a large pack on their back, bulky hiking boots, and a pair of trekking poles in their hands.
For those who aren’t too well versed in the world of backpacking, trekking poles may seem pointless… You may even think they’re just for show. However, the truth is that they can be hugely beneficial to hikers in many different ways. If you’re on the fence about whether or not to invest in a pair, look no further. I’ve created a comprehensive guide on everything you need to know about trekking poles.
What Are Trekking Poles?
Some people call them trekking poles, some people call them “hiking sticks,” and some people call them “those long, ski-pole-looking things that backpackers use.” Chances are, if you’ve ever hiked on a highly trafficked trail, you’ve seen at least a couple people using them before. According to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, about 90% of thru-hikers use them.
To put it simply, trekking poles are used to provide traction, support and balance during a hike. They come in various sizes with many different features.
Some backpackers may opt for using a hiking staff instead, which is basically a singular pole that‘s used for support. Hiking staffs essentially have the same function as trekking poles, except they‘re meant to be used on flat ground and they’re not great if you‘re carrying a backpack.
In general, trekking poles range in price from about $25 to $200, depending on what type and level of quality you’re looking for. The goal of using trekking poles while backpacking is to help take better care of your joints and provide an overall more comfortable experience.
Trekking Pole Anatomy
While there are lots of different brands and variations of trekking poles, most pairs have a similar structure. Let’s get familiar with the different parts of these hiking sticks so that we can better understand the ways in which they benefit us.
–The Handle of your trekking pole can make or break your experience in terms of comfort. Most trekking pole handles are made of rubber, plastic, foam or cork. I would generally stay away from plastic, unless saving money is your number one priority.
Foam absorbs moisture well and it’s great for a comfortable, soft grip. While rubber can cause blisters in hot weather, it’s perfect for cold weather trekking. Cork is also a fantastic, absorbent handle material because it absorbs vibrations and molds to the hand pretty well… It’s also eco-friendly!
–The Straps of trekking poles usually come attached to the handles. Many hikers actually use these incorrectly. To put the strap on properly, you must put your hand through the loop from the bottom, then grab the handles. If you put your hands through the top of the straps, you’ll be much more likely to injure your thumb in the case of a fall.
–The Shaft makes up the main body of your trekking pole. This is the part that’s going to be bearing most of your weight, so it needs to be sturdy. Aluminum is a great, affordable and strong material that will last you a long time. While carbon fiber is a bit less durable, it’s better at absorbing shock.
–The Pole Tips are the part of your hiking sticks that will be making direct contact with the ground. As a result, the material that they’re made of makes a huge difference.
Steel is commonly used for pole tips since it’s durable and provides good traction on most surfaces. Carbide (a mix of carbon and another metal) is another popular material for pole tips. Some trekking poles come with tip protectors. These will prevent your poles from scratching the ground or other items in your backpack.
Special Features and Add-Ons
If you’re not satisfied with the bare minimum, there are lots of add-ons to choose from that will improve the functionality of your trekking poles. For certain hikers, some of these features may be essential.
Trekking poles aren’t meant to be slammed against the ground with every step. However, if you think you could benefit from softer contact with the ground, look for a pair with shock absorption.
Some products are spring loaded, which does wonders for excess vibration. When the pole contacts the ground, the spring will help soften the impact. This is great for people with bad knees or hips, especially when traveling downhill. Some spring loaded trekking poles will allow you to turn this feature on or off.
These are basically round rings that you put on the tips of your poles to keep them from sinking into the ground. They’re usually made of rubber or plastic. Many trekkers use them and they’re especially helpful when there’s lots of snow or mud on the ground.
For the cinematographers and documenters out there, some modern trekking poles come with a monopod (or mount) for your camera! These can usually be removed and replaced easily. They‘re a great feature for outdoor content creators.
Most pairs of hiking sticks have adjustable length. This means that they come with multiple, telescoping sections which you can lengthen or shorten at your own will. These are great for hikes with varying incline.
The Locking Mechanism
When buying trekking poles (adjustable ones especially), you should always make sure that their locking mechanism is sturdy and reliable. This is what’s going to keep your telescoping sections from re-adjusting themselves mid-hike.
I find twisted and push-button locks to be the most effective. Twisted locks operate with the classic “righty-tighty, lefty-loosy” type of function, so you can make them as tight as you’d like.
Push-button locks can be a bit less strenuous to operate, since you just have to pull the pole to the right position and snap it into place. The downside to push-buttons is that they’re not always fully adjustable.
Foldable Trekking Poles
For portability’s sake, sometimes trekking poles are foldable. This means that they have multiple sections that can be bent inward, making for a much smaller package. These are great for hikers who want to store their trekking poles in a backpack or suitcase.
Oftentimes, folding trekking poles can be attached to the outside of a backpack as well.
How Do Trekking Poles Help You?
Walking with trekking poles can be super beneficial and make for a less strenuous hiking trip. Let’s take a look at exactly what these hiking sticks do to improve your backpacking experience and overall well-being.
Better For Joint Health
The joints in your legs, knees and hips are precious. They need to be preserved. Trekking poles allow you to distribute your body weight instead of letting all the pressure fall on your legs during a hike. This means that there’s less stress on your joints, especially when traveling downhill.
The most obvious benefit of using trekking poles is that they provide support. They give you more points of contact with the ground, which makes you more stable. It’s almost as if you’re walking on all fours. This means balance, control and traction. When using trekking poles, you’re less likely to suffer an ankle injury.
If you need to walk over something unstable, like a rock scramble or a log, you can transfer some of your weight onto these poles for some extra help. If you need to walk across a fallen tree and want to maintain your balance, extend your poles out on either side of you. This will help keep you on your feet.
Consistent Rhythm and Faster Speed
Sometimes, establishing a steady rhythm while hiking is challenging. If you’re performing a thru hike over the course of multiple days, your pace can be vital. Trekking poles will help you establish and maintain that pace.
Once you get into the rhythm of walking with your poles, you’ll be able to move like a well-oiled machine.
Avoiding The Elements
Whether it’s getting a thorn bush out of the way, removing spider webs from a trail or checking the depth of a puddle, trekking poles can be used as a means of removing or inspecting obstacles. It‘s like having an extended pair of arms.
Trekking poles can also be super handy if you encounter poison ivy, as you’ll be able to move it out of the way without getting too close. If your poles come into contact with poison ivy/oak/sumac, do not forget to wash them off with some rubbing alcohol.
Use Them As Tent Poles
There are some lightweight camp tents out there that don’t come with any support poles. These are usually referred to as “Bivuoac shelters.” In this case, trekking poles are perfect for holding up the tent‘s structure and keeping it relatively secure… Most trekking poles are actually more durable than tent poles.
Adjustable trekking poles are the best for this because they allow you to make your tent ceiling as high or low as you’d like.
A Means Of Defense
In some (unlikely) situations, you may benefit from using your trekking poles as weapons. When you venture out into the backcountry, you never know what type of animals (or people) you may encounter.
Your trekking poles can be used to fend off predatory creatures in the rare case that you’re attacked. If you’re approached by a bear, you can raise these sticks above your head to make yourself seem larger than you actually are (check out our guide to bear safety for more information on how to stay safe in bear country). If your life is ever in danger, these poles are definitely a worthy means of defense.
The Physical Benefits Of Using Trekking Poles
Using trekking poles isn’t just about making your hike easier. They can also provide you with multiple long-term, internal benefits that aren’t so obvious straight off the bat. Here are some of the things that hiking sticks can do for your health.
Better For Your Knees
According to Health Engine, about 19% of the U.S. population experiences knee pain regularly. If you fall into this percentile and still want to hike, trekking poles will be able to help you tremendously.
There will be significantly less stress on your knees when you have 2 hiking sticks to help distribute your weight evenly. Even if you don’t currently have knee pain, using trekking poles may help you prevent it in the future.
Better For An Efficient Workout
Hiking with trekking poles allows you to work out more than just your lower body. By simply holding, lifting and controlling your hiking sticks, you’ll be engaging your arm and shoulder muscles. This means that you’ll be able to burn more calories.
Better For Your Heart
Since trekking poles allow you to get a bit more cardio in, using them will help improve your heart health. If you’re holding your poles correctly, you’ll also be keeping your hands closer to the level of your heart. This makes it less difficult for blood to circulate through your arms, thus reducing your chance of swelling.
There are several other physical and mental benefits from using trekking poles and they all will help improve your performance as a hiker.
Tips For Using Trekking Poles
If you’re new to the world of hiking poles, you may not know exactly where to start or how to use them. Granted, they do seem pretty straightforward.
However, there are definitely techniques to apply and notions to keep in mind if you want to make the best of your trekking poles.
The Proper Way To Walk With Trekking Poles
When you’re using trekking poles, you should try to walk as naturally as possible. Make sure that you’re alternating your legs and arms… In other words, when you step with your left foot, you should be planting your right trekking pole, and vice versa.
When both of your poles are firmly planted on the ground, your elbows should form a 90 degree angle.
When walking on flat ground (also known as “Nordic Walking”), you should plant your poles at a 70 degree angle. The handle of your pole should be slightly ahead of where the tip is.
Trekking poles can be hugely beneficial when traveling uphill. Your leg muscles will have less work to do when your arms join in on the action. If your poles are adjustable, it’s best to shorten them when you’re going uphill. You should keep your spine fully erect and maintain good posture.
Be sure to plant your poles down at your sides, not in front of you. This will help make it easier on your arms. Also, try to take tiny steps.
Some backpackers like to “double plant” when they’re climbing. This means that you plant both trekking poles in the ground at the same time and take two steps.
Even though it may not always feel like it, walking downhill is more strenuous on your body than walking uphill. In fact, going downhill puts about double the pressure on your knee joints.
If your poles are adjustable, it’s best to lengthen them about 2 – 4 inches when traveling downhill. The steeper the slope is, the longer your poles should be. Also, try to keep your hands on the top of the handles.
If you’re walking on the side of a hill where your slope is uneven, you should adjust your poles accordingly. Telescoping poles make this easy to do.
Preserving The Environment
A main issue that many people have with trekking poles is that they can sometimes damage the environment. If you’re using too much pressure when walking with them, your hiking poles can leave scratches, marks or holes on natural surfaces.
When backpacking, we should always try to leave absolutely no trace of ourselves. If you’re walking on surfaces that scratch (like rocks) or break (like moss) easily, consider using walking tips. These are usually made of rubber and will do less damage to the ecosystem. If you don’t have these tips and you find yourself in an area of fragile ground, consider putting the poles away for a bit.
Also, you should only use baskets when there’s heavy snow or thick mud on the ground. Otherwise, they can cause more damage.
Picking The Right Size
As stated previously, if your trekking poles are the right size, your elbow should be at a 90 degree angle when they’re planted in the ground.
If you’re investing in fixed length trekking poles, I’d highly suggest going to the store and trying them in person instead of ordering online.
If your poles have multiple adjusting sections, it’s best to extend the bottom sections fully and allow the top one to be variable. This way, if your poles need adjusting, you only need to change the top section.
Since your trekking poles will be in your hands throughout your entire hike, it’s important to consider their weight. The heavier your poles are, the more strenuous each step is going to be. Fixed length trekking poles tend to be the most lightweight, since they don’t have long, telescoping sections.
Whether you’re a trekking pole expert or a skeptical noobie, pretty much everyone can benefit from using trekking poles while backpacking. It’s important that you know how to use them correctly… Otherwise, you risk causing harm to yourself or the environment.
If trekking poles aren’t for you, that’s fine too. Some people feel more connected with nature without them. Either way, it’s important to acknowledge the significance and functionality of these popular hiking tools.