How to Choose and Use Trekking Poles

This guide is aimed at explaining everything you need to know about trekking poles. The first part is focused on the main considerations when choosing trekking sticks such as types, different parts of a pole, main materials used, weights, and other important features and properties. There’s also a list of important advantages and disadvantages of using hiking poles as well as some useful tips. All this will, hopefully, help you choose the right hiking poles for your next adventure. The second part is focused on explaining how to use trekking poles correctly. In this part, we've included and a diagram about sizing trekking poles. You can download it in high resolution by following the link below the diagram.

Depending on whom you talk with, trekking poles are either an essential bit of kit or an unnecessary hassle. Hiking sticks offer additional support on rocky trails and much more, but some hikers don’t think they’re worth the extra energy required to carry and use them.

Trekking sticks can increase your balance and can be very useful when negotiating steep slopes and boulder fields as well as when fording streams. These are just a small part of all the benefits of hiking sticks. You can also check out the pros and cons of using trekking sticks to learn why many hikers consider hiking sticks useful, whereas others find them unnecessary.

Two hikers with trekking poles climbing a snowy mountain

Hiking sticks can be invaluable during winter travel

Considerations when choosing trekking poles

Types of trekking poles

There are two main types of trekking poles - telescopic poles and fixed-length poles. Most hiking poles adjust to various lengths - their lengths can be fine-tuned to suit the conditions or the terrain. Adjustable poles can also be collapsed to a small size via telescoping or foldable shafts for easy packing. Their main downside is that they require more maintenance and after a backpacking trip you may need to disassemble, clean, and dry them.

Telescopic trekking poles

The classic trekking stick consists of two or three telescoping sections, the extension of which is controlled with a locking mechanism, which can be internal or external. Internal locking mechanisms (twist lock) are more complicated than external locking systems, malfunction more, tend to slip when it’s cold or wet, and are prone to icing up in winter. Generally, the external designs (lever lock style mechanisms - springed ferules and levering clamps) are more reliable. Telescoping poles can be easily fine-tuned for an extended uphill or they can be dramatically resized for an entirely different user or application. Keep in mind that two-shaft poles are less adjustable than the more common three-shaft poles. Moreover, they are not as compact and are more difficult to pack and carry on a hiking backpackHowever, two-shaft poles have the strongest and stiffest design with minimum moving parts that can break, which makes them more suitable for traveling on snow.

Foldable trekking poles

Foldable trekking sticks are similar to tent poles (no surprise that some call them “tent pole style”) as they are usually made of three sections connected and tightened with an inner tension cord. Their biggest advantage over telescoping poles is that they pack down small and can be quick to deploy, which is why foldable poles are popular for ultra-running. They are often lighter due to the fact that the manufacturers use thinner and weaker shafts so most foldable poles hardly can be called “durable”. Some other disadvantages: the joints wiggle and most models have fixed length and can’t be adjusted.

Fixed-length trekking poles

Fixed-length trekking sticks consist of fewer parts and are stiffer, lighter, and less expensive. They are popular among ultralighters and those who only need them for one activity and need a certain length. Fixed-length poles are less packable, which makes them more difficult to carry and easier to be damaged when transported.

Trekking pole parts and materials

Materials

Trekking poles shafts are usually made of aluminum or carbon fiber. Both are light and relatively stiff. Carbon fiber poles, however, have superior characteristics and are more expensive. They are lighter, stiffer, more durable, and absorb shock better than aluminum poles. Reinforced carbon poles are also preferred for winter use since they aren’t cold to the touch in low temperatures and because of their superior durability. Under high stress, carbon poles are more likely to snap than comparable aluminum poles (they are unlikely to break and will probably bend and remain partially functional). If you carry a gear repair kit with duct tape/nylon cord and tent stake(s) or glue, you can try to temporarily fix a broken pole on the trail. This can restore it to a functioning state but if a pole snaps, it’s pretty much done. Some poles are made of a combination of both aluminum and carbon and have an aluminum upper pole and carbon lower.

Aluminum or carbon fiber trekking pole can be easily broken when stuck between tree roots or rocks. This can’t happen to wooden trekking poles. Wooden poles for hiking are an environmentally sustainable alternative crafted from various woods such as bamboo, sassafras, and hickory. Unfortunately, wooden walking sticks don’t have many advantages for backpacking except for the fact that they are made of wood and won’t snap when caught between tree roots or rocks.

DIAGRAM 1: TREKKING POLE PARTS

Trekking pole parts diagram

Source: Trailspace

Grip materials

Most trekking sticks have different handle design but it hardly affects the performance of the poles. However, the grip material should be an important factor when considering a pair of trekking sticks. There’s a variety of materials used for crafting hiking poles grips. The most common materials used are: cork, foam, rubber, and plastic.

Premium grips are made of cork or high-density foam. Cork and foam grips feel comfortable and reduce perspiration buildup in the hand, which makes them perfect for warm conditions and environments. Foam handles are probably best for winter hiking because they will keep your hands warmer in cold temperatures. Both cork and foam are lightweight and thermo-neutral. Foam is softer than cork but also lasts less. Rubber and plastic grips are heavy and abrasive and get slimy when wet. Plastic is not recommended for winter hiking, whereas rubber is okay for winter because of its inherent properties such as durability and water-resistance.

Straps

Nearly all hiking poles have adjustable and integrated straps attached to the tops. Some hikers recommend removing them, while others prefer using the straps. Without straps, the poles are lighter by 30-50g (1-2 oz) and the movement is less restricted. Additionally, if your hands are not tangled in the straps, you’re less likely to break your pole if it gets stuck. One of the biggest benefits of pole straps is that they can be a great precaution against losing a pole when fording rivers.

Tips and baskets

Hiking poles are equipped with small carbide tips probably because carbide is extremely hard and durable. These tips are great on soft and broad surfaces but they are less reliable on hard and small surfaces. The tips need replacement, about every 2000 to 3000 km, depending on the terrain. Be careful 

Most poles come with removable trekking baskets. There are two types of trekking baskets - summer and winter baskets as snow baskets are wider. They are useless for most types of terrain but can be very useful in winter since they increase float on soft, winter snow.

Hiker with a trekking staff on a snowy mountain peak

Poles are an important tool in mountaineering and when carrying heavy packs

Other trekking pole considerations

Weight and pack size

The overall weight of trekking poles depends on the materials they are made of (especially the shaft) and on their features. Generally, you’d like to save weight because lifting your arm and swinging a pole thousands of times per day will invariably lead to increased fatigue affecting your performance on the trail, especially on longer trips. The good news is that there aren’t significant differences between ultralight poles and heavier sticks as far as their performance is concerned. Lighter models weigh between 280 and 450g (10-16 oz.) per pair, while most poles are usually between 450 and 630g (16-22 oz.) per pair.

Gender

There are gender-specific poles but don’t be fooled - the main difference between men’s or women’s trekking poles and the majority of hiking sticks that are advertised as unisex (and work equally well for both men and women) is in the color and length.

Price

The price depends on many objective and subjective factors like materials, features and functionality, brand, etc. Understandably, there are cheaper and more expensive brands and designs. Models such as Black Diamond Alpine Carbon Cork Poles and others made by popular manufacturers can be found for $150-200, whereas budget-friendly alternatives such as TrailBuddy Trekking Poles, Foxelli Trekking Poles or Cascade Mountain Tech Carbon Fiber Adjustable Trekking Poles cost as little as $35-45 (all of these models are available at Amazon).

Manufacturers and brands

Most trekking poles are manufactured… Guess where? If China or Asia is what you guessed, you are correct. No matter the brand, design, features, materials, colors, most big and not so big manufacturers of trekking sticks manufacture them partially or entirely (or order them to a third party) in China so the origin of the poles shouldn’t be among the main considerations affecting your buying decision. Certainly, there are exceptions like KOMPERDELL. They produce all of their poles in Austria. Popular manufacturers/brands of trekking poles include: Black Diamond, LEKI, REI Co-op, KOMPERDELL, and Montem.

Old people walking with sticks

Trekking poles can be of benefit not only to old people 

One or two poles?

Although some hikers use only one pole because they like to have the other hand available for scrambling, bushwhacking, etc, most experts recommend using two poles. All the advantages of a staff (hiking staff or walking staff is how a single pole is called) are more than doubled when you use two. Walking with two poles uses the upper body muscles and takes much of the strain off the legs and hips. Using one pole takes the strain off only some of the time and can make you feel unbalanced. This can be especially dangerous when crossing difficult terrain. Using a hiking staff can be convenient on relatively flat terrain when wearing a light pack. Balancing with a heavy backpack is much more difficult and if your pack is like 30kg, it isn’t recommended to experiment with using a single pole. You’ll need more support and stability and you’ll definitely need two trekking poles.

Sheep around shepherd with stick

The predecessor of the modern hiking stick is still used by many people around the world 

Trekking poles or not - pros, cons, and tips

Pros

There are various benefits of using walking poles that can't be ignored:

  1. Make walking easier: They help improve and maintain your balance while ascending and descending with a heavy backpack. Especially useful for tackling mountainous terrain – most serious hikers consider them a critical piece of equipment. During both climbs and descents,  they can help you maintain your balance and provide increased support on tricky terrain. Moreover, they will reduce the strain and force of gravity on your legs when hiking. Of course, it‘s not a free ride - the strain is just moved to your arms and upper body, and you have to carry the weight of the poles. But sharing the effort does mean that your legs get less tired while your upper body and arms maintain their strength. Additionally, trekking sticks are especially helpful for long-distance hiking. Long hikes, particularly steep terrains, will tire out legs. However, your upper body is still fresh. Hiking sticks give your arms extensions to reach the ground, so when using them you engage your back, shoulders, and arms. Even walking flat, using poles evenly distributes the burden of walking onto all four limbs and core.
  2. Facilitate river stream crossing: They provide you assistance and balance in the river. It is generally best for one person to cross at a time while using a pair of hiking sticks. Cross sideways to the current, taking small steps, and move slightly downstream toward the opposite bank. Always keep three solid points of contact and use the poles to probe your way.
  3. Knee saver: Reduce stress on knees. Hiking sticks reduce the strain that would ordinarily be absorbed by the joints and muscles in the lower body alone.
  4. Aid walking when injured: If you injure a foot or knee while on the trail, they are a great aid in helping you walk as you can use them similar to a crutch. You wouldn’t put the cane under your arm, but they will help you alleviate the injury by taking the weight off an injured leg while walking.
  5. Convenient for canyon hikes: Many canyon hikers use aluminum trekking poles for steep off-trail descents and ascents. Others prefer wooden walking sticks, which are a must for traveling through canyon narrows to negotiate slippery moss-covered stones.
  6. Use in camp: In camp, they can turn a fly-sheet door into an awning, support a wash line or tarp, and retrieve bear-bagged food. Some tents can be pitched with hiking sticks, too.
  7. Use in the rain: Since rocks and roots can be slick when wet, using hiking poles is an especially good idea in the rain.
  8. Use on unstable terrain: Hiking poles are extremely useful on unstable terrains, like wet grass, mud, scree, snow, and ice. They are incredibly useful for balancing on tricky sections and rough surfaces, particularly if you’re carrying weight. In slippery, muddy or snowy conditions they help a lot. Also for testing how deep snow is, how thick mud may be, and stabilizing oneself while crossing tricky terrain.
  9. Use for self-defense: Trekking sticks can be used to protect yourself if you are attacked by aggressive dogs, wild pigs or even a bear if hiking in bear country.
Trekking poles can be used for probing snow for cracks and crevasses

    Trekking poles can be used to test snow depth without putting yourself in danger

    Cons

    1. The extra energy wasted, especially when applying a wrong technique.
    2. The annoying clicking noise they make.
    3. Obstruct hand function.
    4. Metal tips offer unreliable hold on hard rock and pavement.
    5. Some find them annoying in bushy terrain and when scrambling. In those cases, it's better to strap them to the backpack.

    Tips for choosing and using trekking poles

    Here are some tips to consider before buying and using trekking sticks:

    • Features like shock absorbers and carbon fiber shafts are cool but expensive and, honestly, they aren’t much needed for most backpackers.

    • Grip extensions, which offer several more inches of nonslip material below the primary grip, are highly recommended because they allow for quick choke-ups on uneven terrain.

    • Learn to use the straps properly by inserting your hand from below and be sure that the grip is comfortable in bare hands.

    • Heavy poles are more difficult to swing and will be tiring you fast. Once your hands get tired, you may start to drag or stow away your poles or walk in irregular sequence because the arms cannot match the speed of their legs.
    • It’s important to invest in hiking sticks that you can use correctly. Your comfort is critical when walking with hiking poles so if your poles feel awkward or if they are always lashed to your pack as dead weight, you’d be better off without them.
    • You need to find your rhythm of walking with trekking poles. It is best to do a few training walks with them before you set off on a long hike.

     

    How to use trekking poles properly

    Using straps

    The straps should be used to support your hands and take the weight. To use the straps, adjust the size of the loop so that you can put your hand up through the strap from below, then bring it down so the strap runs between the thumb and fingers and over the back of the hand. With the poles held like this, you can flick them back and forth without having to grasp them tightly. Additionally, you can easily reach forward, say down a steep incline, or push back, for example when leaping a stream, and still remain in contact with the pole and supported by the strap.

    When using hiking sticks to travel downhill the first thing to do is remove your hands from the straps and make sure you engage the shock system of the pole to lessen the impact if you fall, especially when you're carrying a hiking pack.

    DIAGRAM 2: USING STRAPS

    Using trekking pole straps properly

    Sizing trekking poles

    The hiking poles need to be the right length, i.e. you need to adjust them properly. For hiking on flat and gentle slopes, the poles should be pointing straight down with your elbow bent at a right angle. On steep ascents, a shorter pole is better because it helps to maintain proper posture. Walking uphill is more efficient when you keep your hiking poles close to your body. You want to give yourself a little push up the hill, not a pull, you may want to loosen the straps or take your hands out of them, as they can get too tight with the increased angle.

    When descending, your poles should be longer than the usual length because they need to support give you while you’re climbing down a steep slope. You can lengthen the poles by 5 to 10 cm. Try to plant your poles slightly ahead of your body to give a bit of a braking action. If you leave the pole unadjusted, slopes will prevent you from using the 90-degree angle that is the ideal position.

    DIAGRAM 3: SIZING CONSIDERATIONS AND TERRAIN

    Sizing trekking poles and terrain

    Download Sizing Trekking Poles Diagram in high resolution

    Trekking pole technique

    Grasp the handle lightly. Squeezing will result in wasted energy and probably blisters. If you keep your grip relaxed with the pole able to rotate forward, it will take minimal effort to flick the pole forward and back between your thumb and forefinger with each step. That's all you'll really need. You can close the other fingers loosely. A tight grip on the pole isn't necessary and can tire your hands and wrists. When you hold the grip, your elbow should be at a 90-degree angle and your forearm should be parallel to the ground.

    Each pole goes forward when the opposite leg does to maintain balance as you move. Plant the left pole forward as you step forward with your right foot and vice versa to maximize balance and move naturally. Develop a rhythm and put some energy into each “plant” - the feeling is like pushing yourself forward with the poles. With a little practice, you can find your rhythm and will experience the benefits of walking with trekking poles, particularly when walking uphill.

    Backpackers walking with trekking poles

    Many backpackers use trekking sticks in mountainous terrain

    backpack keeps the load out of the way of your arm movement and does not limit your movement while you are using hiking sticks. Choose a daypack or hiking pack that has enough carrying capacity for your hike. You can read our posts about packing for a day hike and packing for a multi-day hike for more info on what to bring on your next hiking trip and how to pack efficiently (you can find links just below the post - in Related Articles).

    You can keep your walking sticks from sinking into the mud too deeply by making use of snow baskets or mud baskets on your trekking sticks when conditions do get muddy and also to provide a little extra stability and balance for you.

    If the tip is caught between two rocks and you pull forward, it could break or bend. If this occurs, let the pole go back to the same angle it got caught and pull out straight.

    Conclusion

    Whether trekking poles are essential or not mostly depends on what outdoor activity you are doing. If you plan on carrying a 15 kg pack on a backpacking trip, then hiking sticks would be of great help to you; lessening the strain on your knees and helping to transfer some of the weight of the large bag. You might not necessarily need hiking poles for day hikes. However, if you suffer from sore knees, hips, or back, they can make a huge difference. They take the stress out of the knees downhill and give you extra confidence in exposed terrain.

    Hiking sticks can make a big difference on your hike, however, to gain the most benefit from hiking poles, you need to use them properly. Hiking with trekking sticks requires well-adjusted poles and proper technique. Get acquainted with how to adjust the length of your poles and find a height that suits you best for the walking conditions you encounter on the trail. Learn how to use hiking poles the right way. Knowing not only their advantages and disadvantages but also the proper technique will allow you to take advantage of all the benefits of using trekking poles.

    Many do not know how to use hiking poles to their best advantage. This results in missing much of the benefit of having them. Don't be one of these, learn how to use hiking sticks properly and avoid making common mistakes.

     

    Related Articles

    How to Cope with Various Terrain 

    Ultimate Guide to Hiking Clothing

    Guide to Hiking Footwear

    Backpacking Repair Kit

    How to Plan a Hiking Trip

    Packing for a Day Hike

    Packing for a Longer Trip

    Tips for Beginners

     

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    How to choose and use trekking poles properly


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