Gone are the days when a random stick found in the woods was used for balance and stability. Today, trekking poles, made out of aluminum or carbon fiber materials, have replaced the stick as a means of support. Manufacturers, such as Leki and Black Diamond, to name a couple, offer numerous styles with varied features. How do you know which one to choose? Here are the basics to help you understand when and why they just may become your new favorite must-have when on the trail.
First and foremost, why should you consider purchasing trekking poles?  Simply stated, they help to minimize extra stress to the quads and knees, especially when hiking downhill and even more so with backpacking when you’re carrying considerable weight. By absorbing that extra stress, poles provide more confident balance and support. Listed below are some of the essential characteristics of trekking poles:

  1. Adjustable Height – Unlike the old stick, trekking poles provide adjustability for length, which is determined by terrain and by your height: If on a flat surface, the correct height is with the wrists parallel with the elbows. When descending, the poles need to be lengthened, while the poles should be shortened when heading uphill.
  2. Internal and External Locking Systems – Most trekking poles have an internal lock whereby you simply hold the pole in one hand and use the other hand to twist the pole until it locks into place securely. Recently, manufacturers have introduced flick locks; to adjust, flick the lock open with your finger, slide one section of the pole to the correct height, and then press the lock closed.
  3. Steel and Carbide Tips – Steel tips are adequate but found mainly on inexpensive and children’s models. Carbide tips are superior in durability, grip and traction.
  4. Hand Grips – Handles are made out of rubber, foam, or cork. Rubber grips are durable and last longer, but foam and, especially cork handles, are softer, break in easier and mold to the shape of your hand.
  5. Shock-Absorbing Springs – Some higher priced models contain springs located inside the shaft in order to absorb stress from your arms and legs.
  6. Baskets – Most, if not all trekking poles include baskets that sit near the bottom.  They help to prevent the poles from sinking into the ground when hiking. Larger baskets are needed when snowshoeing.
  7. Aluminum and Carbon – Carbon fiber is generally lighter and appeals to ultra-light hikers, but aluminum is much more durable. I believe trekking poles should be considered first as a tool for providing balance and support rather than for how much they weigh. Of course, depending on the intended activity, weight can matter in your decision.

For instance, fast-packer poles made by Black Diamond work great for day-hiking, trail running, or touring around the city before heading back on the train or bus for the ride home. These 3-section poles collapse compactly for easy storage, and though lightweight, still offer stability. They are not suitable, however, for backpacking, especially if carrying more than 30 lbs. Stronger poles, those made from aluminum, work best.

Even if you’re not backpacking, you may still enjoy the benefits of a walking staff. Walking staffs differ from trekking poles in that they are sold as singles rather than in pairs, and often feature camera mounts. They are commonly used for strolls in the neighborhood or, better yet, on vacation.

Now that we have covered the basics, we must ask: Are trekking poles really needed? It depends on the terrain, type of activity, and the individual. For backpacking, I believe they are absolutely indispensable and beneficial to the user. (I learned the hard way when not using them on a trip in New Hampshire’s White Mountains years ago.  While the scenery is unforgettable, the trails are unforgiving.  My legs and knees paid a dear price, taking more than a week to recover). As for day-hiking, they may not be as important, but as always, the terrain and your own personal joint health and fitness will dictate your decision. If you’ll be hiking on steep and rugged trails, such as those found in the White Mountains or the Green Mountains in Vermont, trekking poles are indeed necessary.  But if you’re day hiking on relatively flat terrain with few challenges, poles may not be of much benefit.

Let us know what you think!  We look forward to your feedback and sharing your experiences.