The Basics and Benefits of Trekking Poles

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.

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  • MikeTucson

    You didn’t comment on the cane/poles such as the one pictured. The oldest version was called “Wanderfreund” by Leki. They are long enough to be used as trekking poles except by the tallest people going downhill and short enough when compressed to go in a 28″ duffel. Cork doesn’t mold to your hand, but it’s cool, comfortable, and washable. They are excellent canes. Many historical or archaeological sites do not allow metal or carbide tips. Use the rubber caps and take spares. I thought your comments were wishy-washy. Simple. Four legs are better than two. Aluminum. They’re light and strong.

    • Michael, Napa, Ca

      One of the most beneficial aspects that has not yet been discussed is that Hiking poles change your hiking posture. They facilitate “glide walking” .where you walk more upright using your glutes to propel yourself forward (which is much better for your back) rather than falling forward and catching yourself with each step, With poles you drive yourself forward with your upper body and train your glutes to swing your legs and propel you. Poles build upper body strength and protect your back. I wouldn’t even walk at the beach without them.

    • Backpckr

      An unmentioned benefit. They help chase away unwelcome dogs.

  • Bruce

    Yes, trekking poles are great, for the reasons explained. I am still backpackiing actively at age 71, and consider them essential. But, the best poles are Pacer Poles, an English product I have only seen on-line. Why doesn’t Campmoor sell those? Pacer Poles are much better designed than are Leki, Black Diamond and the other USA brands.

  • Mark

    Trekking poles are essential. Some friends and I hiked a loop on the AT and down through the Smokies back in March. I experienced considerable pain in my knees during the decent. A hiker we met along the way insisted I use his poles as we made our way down to the campsite. They made a huge difference virtually eliminating stress and pressure on my knees. Its the difference between being 2wheel and 4wheel drive on rough terrain.

  • Bill

    Trekking poles are a must especially in emergencies. This past weekend while dayhiking on the Smoky Mts. I fell while helping a young family whose father and 3 year old son had fallen minutes earlier. My fall fractured several bones in my left shoulder. My Black Diamond poles were invaluable in walking the 3 miles back to our car. Don’t leave home without them, even for short day hikes.

  • Maintainer.NC

    Trekking poles are as essential as a good backpack. I understand the comment about Pacer Poles, but from what I’ve seen they’re more for strolling a country lane than hiking/backpacking in the backcountry. I sure wouldn’t want to have PP instead of a good pair of Leki’s on the sections of the Appalachian Trail that I maintain. Steep downhills, rugged uphills, rock scrambles, you name it. I’ve found that adaptability trumps single-purpose equipment when you’re faced with unpredictable geography.
    For my money, Leki’s Khumbu series is strong enough to take anything the Appalachian Trail can dish out.
    Why doesn’t Campmor sale PP? One, they deal with closeouts and overstocks. PP is a niche retailer and probably doesn’t have enough stock to ship to the US for Campmor. Also, EU retailers generally can’t do much business here because of economic constraints. By the time they ship the stock, the price is way over what American consumers will pay.

  • Packer

    Just spent a week in the Wind River Mountains of Wyoming. Had never used poles before and was leery about using them. I am 68 years old and was carrying about 60 lbs,, so decided to give them a try. Traveled 4-6 miles per day……………..these things are amazing Recommend the spring loaded ones to any one backpacking in the mountains….they take stress off your back and legs.

  • CP

    Believe it or not, I use an old pair of aluminum Salomon ski poles that were purchased for $2.50 at Goodwill. I’ve hiked over 200 miles on the AT since last year and they have been indispensible. They aren’t adjustable but they are perfect for me. They saved my bacon one day as the edge of the trail gave way; I dug the right pole into the ground and it stopped me from sliding down an embankment (though the drop wasn’t much at all). My wife didn’t think they were that necessary until we hiked up from the James River Footbridge on the AT (up to Big Rocky Row); she changed her mind pretty quickly as it’s a strenuous climb. Don’t leave home without them!!

  • Steve

    I hike in the White’s every summer, and would NEVER consider hiking without my poles. The sability of sure footedness they provide me while hiking the rocky trails is tremendous.

  • George, Texas

    Hiking poles are essential, especially when carrying a backpack and when climbing or going downhill. I have “caught” myself with the poles many times while carrying a pack. A couple of years ago I hiked a steep trail in Colorado. As I came down a really steep section of trail strewn with basketball-sized boulders my two hiking poles were the only thing that allowed me to keep my balance over those rocks and I am sure they kept me from breaking an ankle.

  • Fried Squirrel

    After a month on the AT and doing fine without poles, a trail friend recommended I use them to avoid losing upper body strength. I hadn’t realized how weak my arms had become.

  • vent noir

    I used to think poles were just extra weight to carry. After using them for the first time on rocky/slippery trails in the Adirondacks, my opinion changed dramatically. No pain in the knees and much shorter recovery time. I’m sold!

  • GVR4996

    The “mile” will never be the same. An absolute must! I bet they save me a fall (stumble) every mile and help keep a nice tempo (pace) to your hike. They are also handy for self defense in the backcountry or anywhere. Too many advantages to list…..I guarantee it will positively effect your trekking experience.

  • NYtrikester18

    With many injury/re-injury events forty years as a nurse, I was trip/falling a lot and husband suggested trekking poles. First pair were Leki with cork handle, palm-glove, anti-shock pole, & ribbed rubber foot. With neuropathy in hands and feet and DJD in low back, I found that I could walk upright without falling, cork did not blister my hands, tether keeps the pole in my hands while walking or shopping. Voila! I am safely mobile and stronger nowadays 4 years later.

  • NonprofitMom

    Sorry to be so “old school,” but I am not convinced that trekking poles are essential. My husband (age 60) and I (age 55) just finished a six-day cross country trek in the High Sierra; we were two of the very few people we saw without poles. We hadn’t been backpacking for 10 years. We made several key ultralight purchases (backpacks, sleeping bags, stove and cook kit) to lighten the load, and reduce the stress on our knees. As a result, our packs were both under 30 pounds for six days (including bear canisters). We saw many people who appeared to use their poles as a proxy for lack of fitness, or overweight packs. Particularly scary to watch were the hikers who used their poles in ways that put their bodies in overextended and precarious positions. We saw others that clearly had control of their bodies, packs and poles. I am sure that trekking poles are great assistants to those who know how to use them properly. But, I am not convinced that we are those folks. Maybe in another ten years…

    • Zero Day

      Until knee problems began a couple of years ago I NEVER hiked with poles and absolutely loathed the things. They scar rocks and “aerate” the trail. Poles have become so ubiquitous, however, that I was once asked by an incredulous hiker “how do hike WITHOUT POLES???” Easy, until you have knee injuries. My orthopedic surgeon actually advised trekking poles–Leki specifically. Still, my philosophy remains the same. I am “old school” as well, and if my knees were healthy would not use the poles.

  • The best way to reduce the weight on your feet, outside of reducing pack
    weight, is to use trekking poles. I cannot understate the value of
    trekking poles. Not only do they remove 10-15 pounds of weight off your
    feet with every step, they improve your balance on steep goat tracks
    and over streams. Trekking poles dramatically reduce your chances of
    stress fractures and sprained ankles. I also find that trekking poles
    increase the enjoyment of hiking. Trekking poles give your hands and
    arms a role in the hike and it makes the hike more of a dance. Trekking
    poles do not have to be calculated as part of your pack weight unless
    you are one of those crazy people that carry them on your pack!

  • SARGuy

    I don’t think I could take my cortisone-injected knee up into the mountains without my B. Diamond carbon-fibres – summer time the baskets come off and go back on when there’s snow above 10,000 feet Poles are great for fashioning splints too and for supporting snow caves/trenches.

  • miki

    aluminum is much more durable than carbon
    Not at all. Carbon is in use many years in widsurfing, treated with stress, scratches, sand in joints… and resists really well.
    It is durable and resistant to electrolytic corrosion

  • miki

    Anyway, trekking poles are great example of marketing of useless things.
    Of course: who bought – will defend his lost money to the death.

  • Mork

    Stand on scale then stand with hands resting on poles in trekking position. You wil register 10 – 15 pounds lighter.

  • Jen

    I am surprised nobody has mentioned this, but besides the benefit of upper body strength-building and weight relief for preventing knee injuries, it also helps immensely with swollen hands and fingers while hiking. When I’m doing any kind of strenuous hiking, no matter how much water I drink or what the weather is, my hands swell to the point of discomfort and my rings become too tight. Carrying poles gives my hands something to do and keeps the circulation moving, and I almost never have a problem now.

  • KatyW

    I started using poles when I needed to. I have been strong most of my life and could scamper up the steepest off trail slopes. The day came, when I was in my 60s that I needed poles to keep going up those slopes. Poles slow me down in some cases, but without them I wouldn’t be able to ascend 5K+ feet of elevation off trail. I am near 70, so close I can taste it. I expect at least another 10 years before it will be time to take the easy trails.

  • Aaron Dougherty

    My stick is adjustable – on the fly, even! No need to stop and unscrew anything. When I want it to be longer I grip it near the top – for shorter, I grip it farther down! But of course wood is ridiculously heavy and telegraphs every shock to your hands and weathers poorly and HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA

  • photojon

    I’ve always preferred using just one pole. I’m not in a race, and I like one hand free to use my camera.

  • Diana Starr Daniels

    I use a walking staff on my daily hikes in the woods in NH. It’s not really rough terrain, but it helps with balance on foot bridges and going down hill. At 74 that’s just prudent. I also have this fantasy of saving my Corgi from a coyote attack. Highly unlikely, but having a staff to whack makes me feel better. 🙂