How to Use and Choose Trekking Poles: Multi-Use Gear for Hikers
The Leki Poles That Keep On Trekking
The trekking poles pictured here have at least 4,000 miles on them, including an Appalachian Trail thru-hike a couple hundred miles on overgrown Minnesota trails, numerous Grand Canyon hikes, backpacking trips in New Hampshire's White Mountains, Dolly Sods in West Virginia and Pennsylvania's Laurel Highlands Trail, and off-trail trekking in Wyoming's Wind River Range.
These trekking poles have been up and down more mountains than I can remember. They've been dropped long way too, like when I needed to down-climb using my hands and was too lazy to stop and stow them in my pack. And they've literally saved my heiney (or at least my ankles and my neck) on dozens of occasions.
Let me tell you a little more about trekking poles—also known as hiking poles or hiking sticks—and why I rarely hit the trail without them.
Benefits and Multiple Uses of Trekking Poles
More than just a pair of hiking sticks, trekking poles....
- Lessen the impact on descents, especially the impact on your knees
- Give you extra power and help you push yourself up steep ascents
- Can prevent you from falling
- Help you quickly take the weight off your foot if you start to twist your ankle, preventing a strain, sprain or even a break
- Provide extra balance, particularly when crossing logs, rivers or other waterways, or slippery terrain
- Can increase your speed
- Reduce fatigue
- Can double as tarp poles or to make an emergency shelter out of an all-weather space blanket
- Are useful for wiping away the cobwebs crossing the trail, so they don't plaster themselves across your face (Had to add that one, because I do this with my poles all the time.)
- Can be used to fend off hungry bears and other critters with teeth and sharp claws (I'm actually not joking.)
- Can be used to gently move a snake out of your path (Been there, done that)
- Can be used to prop up your big, heavy backpack
- Can be used to test the depth of water or mud
- Give your arms some extra exercise while hiking (You should have seen my biceps and triceps after hiking the Appalachian Trail!)
- Help keep your balance on rocky, uneven terrain
Did I leave something out? Let me know in the guestbook at the bottom of this page.
Trekking Pole Features and Options
Not all hiking poles are created equal
Telescoping Trekking Poles: Poles that telescope are superior to those that are a single, fixed rod for a couple of reasons, the first and obvious being that the length can be adjusted to suit the user and be readjusted at any time. Another benefit is that that you can shorten them to their minimum length and stow them in your pack if you don't feel like using them for a while or need free hands for climbing or other technical maneuvers. Telescopic trekking poles come with two or three sections, with three sections compressing to the shortest length for stowing.
Shock-Absorbing Trekking Poles: Some trekking poles have built-in shock absorbing springs, with some anti-shock systems providing a range of settings you can choose from to suit hiking conditions. The shock absorbers lessen the impact of the pole hitting the ground, which is said to decrease the strain on shoulders and arms, particularly on long descents. I never have used shock-absorbing poles, which are usually more expensive than those without the system, but if you do purchase shock-absorbing trekking poles, you want to be able to "turn off" the system for going uphill. If you don't, it will detract from the power you can gain when you place each pole for the next step and actually work against you.
Grips: You want a grip that comfortably fits your hand. Grips can be made of a hardened cork, rubber, foam or plastic, with plastic being the least comfortable, especially when wet from rain or sweat. Rubber is fairly comfortable, with hardened foam and cork being the most comfortable. Poles that have a little padding below the grip are also nice, because you can periodically hold the pole there on short ascents rather than taking the time to adjust the length.
Tips: There are three types of trekking pole tips—single-point, chiseled, and rubber-tipped, with the most versatile being the chiseled point where the very tip looks like notches have been cut in it, leaving several points sticking out. The chiseled point provides traction when walking on surfaces from ice to pavement and most anything in between. The rubber tips work really well on hard surfaces, while sharp tips are best for icy conditions. Carbide tips are more durable than aluminum.
Baskets: The round rings above the tips are the baskets, which maintain "float"—meaning, the poles won't sink into soft ground or snow. Some trekking poles come with small, "summer baskets," but most have none at all. You can purchase and add baskets, though, including those that look like snowflakes which are best for ... you got it, snow ... while the large, solid baskets are great for mud.
Accessories: Some trekking poles come with additional gadgetry, like a little, basic compass, a tiny thermometer or flashlight at the top, or screw-off grips with little holding spaces inside. I've never bothered with these accessories and don't personally find them worth any extra cost.
My Trekking Pole Tips, Before and After Replacement
Trekking Pole Techniques
How to properly use your hiking poles:
Length: As with all hiking gear, it will take a bit of trial and error to determine the length of hiking poles that suits you best. Some people prefer to adjust the length depending on terrain, lengthening their poles when descending and shortening them for ascents. Me, I tend to leave my poles at the same length unless a descent will be especially steep and long.
Basically, here's how you adjust your pole length, at least to start: First, unlock the upper and lower sections of your poles by twisting them. On both poles, pull out the bottom section till it's just below the maximum limit. (You can tell if you've gone too far and push it back in a bit.) Twist the bottom section to lock it. Next, stand with your shoulders relaxed and put the pole under your arm. Adjust the length of the upper portion of the pole so that the top is about two or three inches below your armpit, then lock. You can use the first pole to set the length of the second.
Your arms should be bent at about a 90-degree angle when gripping the poles.
Wrist Straps: I find that my weight is usually on the wrist straps much more than on the grips, as it really should be. And I never have to grip the handle tightly in order to apply pressure. The straps should be adjusted so that you can easily slip your hands into them from below. Slide your hands up till the strap is around your wrist, then grip the poles with the strap below the palm of your hand. The wrist strap should not be tight. Lengthen if necessary. (See the video below to see what I mean...)
The Wrong Way and the Right Way to Hold Trekking Poles
Left or Right? Some pairs of trekking poles do actually have left and right-handed poles. Mine do. The right one has a white dot on the top of the grip, and the left is all black. I sometimes get them mixed up when not paying attention, but I eventually do notice and then notice that they're more comfortable when switched to their proper sides. The hand grips fit better.
Pole Movement: Trekking poles should be thought of as extensions of your arms, so they'll swing forward and back just as your arms would without them, with your left arm coming forward as you take a step forward with your right leg and vice versa.
Ascending: When going uphill, swing the poles ahead and push on them to help move you up, and keep pushing as you move past them. To get extra power on really steep slopes, you can move your hand to the top of the handle and give a final push as the pole moves behind you. I've even put both poles in front of me at once on super steep terrain, using both arms to give myself an even better push.
Descending: On descents, the poles can take much of the weight by putting them well ahead of you. For long descents, it helps to lengthen the poles.
Do You Like Using Trekking (or Hiking) Poles?
Do you take poles or hiking sticks (or even just one) with you on the trail?
Some Answers From Readers
I rarely leave home and hit the trail without my trekking poles. I stow them, telescoped, on my pack if I don't want to use them for a while, but I like knowing they're there and often need to take them out before a hike is over. - Ramkitten2000
Yes I do! They are useful! - Philippians468
I'll take one with me when I go on a particularly difficult hike when I could do with the extra stability. - Anonymous
On short trips, only sometimes, if I know there's going to be snow or loose gravel. On longer trips, definitely. - MisterJeremy
I almost always use trekking poles. They take a lot of stress off my knees (especially on hard descents) and as Ramkitten points out, are multi-use. I have a pair of Leki Makalu Pros but now use my Gossamer Gear Light Trek 4s because they're VERY light (carbon). - jasonklass
I used hiking poles for the first time this past summer -- bought them the day before our trip out to Glacier Nat'l Park, and I'm SO glad I did. I've had knee problems, and this time my knees were fine, and I was able to cross snowfields and small streams without worrying about stability. - KarenHC
I only have one for hiking. But I do use two ski poles for the same purpose when I hike the ski fields to see a competition. - RhondaAlbom
I never used to use trekking poles until I developed an intermittent knee problem, and now I almost always use them, especially when I'm carrying a heavy pack. They make a huge difference to that knee when it starts acting up. - anonymous
I've got very basic trekking poles that I bought one at a time when I was poor. I've had them for about 10 years and love them. Great post! - Anonymous
I almost never hit the trail without them. I would have had more than a broken ankle (and possibly a broken neck) without them. - Ramkitten2000
I've been holding it slightly wrong the whole time! Interesting article, I sure could have done with a spare one of these whilst in Iceland trekking! - livetech
One stout stick is my companion. Black oak - SusannaDuffy
Deb Kingsbury: I rarely leave home and hit the trail without my trekking poles. I stow them, telescoped, on my pack if I don't want to use them for a while, but I like knowing they're there and often need to take them out before a hike is over.
Philippians468: yes i do! they are useful!
anonymous: I'll take one with me when I go on a particularly difficult hike when I could do with the extra stability.
Jeremy: On short trips, only sometimes, if I know there's going to be snow or loose gravel. On longer trips, definitely.
jasonklass: I almost always use trekking poles. They take a lot of stress of my knees (especially on hard descents) and as Ramkitten points out, are multi-use. I have a pair of Leki Makalu Pros but now use my Gossamer Gear Light Trek 4s because they're VERY light (carbon).
Karen: I used hiking poles for the first time this past summer -- bought them the day before our trip out to Glacier Nat'l Park, and I'm SO glad I did. I've had knee problems, and this time my knees were fine, and I was able to cross snowfields and small streams without worrying about stability.
Rhonda Albom: I only have one for hiking. But I do use two ski pole for the same purpose when I hike the ski fields to see a competition.
anonymous: I never used to use trekking poles until I developed an intermittent knee problem, and now I almost always use them, especially when I'm carrying a heavy pack. They make a huge difference to that knee when it starts acting up.
anonymous: I've got very basic trekking poles that I bought one at a time when I was poor. I've had them for about 10 yrs and love them. Great post!
Deb Kingsbury: I almost never hit the trail without them. I'd have had more than broken ankle (and possible a broken neck) without them.
livetech: I've been holding it slightly wrong the whole time! Interesting article, I sure could have done with a spare one of these whilst in Iceland trekking!
Susanna Duffy: One stout stick is my companion. Black oak
My Trekking Pole Picks
Here are some poles and accessories to take a look at. I have the Leki poles, the longer tips shown, the "performance baskets" and the tip protectors....
Some Poles to Choose From
Shock Absorbers or No Shock Absorbers?
For me, the benefit of having shock absorbers don't justify the additional cost, but some people really like the "give" these poles have. I've tried both types and prefer the poles above, without the shock absorbing feature, but if you do prefer it, I recommend these....
The Leki Shock-Absorbing Alternative
A Plug For Lekis (And Trekking Poles In General)
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
Questions & Answers
© 2009 Deb Kingsbury