Hiking Poles: How to Choose the Right Ones for You

Published on 12/08/2023 · 15 min readAdd some safety and stability to your next hiking adventure with the right set of hiking poles! Learn how to choose the perfect poles for you in this guide.
Hunter Reed, Camping Expert
By Camping Expert Hunter Reed

Photo by Alberto Menendez Cervero

TLDR: Hiking poles enhance stability, reduce strain on your body, and improve balance during all types of hikes. They're suitable for everyone, from casual walkers needing extra support to hardcore runners tackling tough terrains. The exact type of hiking pole best suited to you depends on what type of hiking you’re using it for, the terrain you’re in, and the main motivation behind why you started considering hiking poles in the first place!

My name is Hunter, and I have been an avid hiker since I was a young girl! I’ve done my fair share of trail activities from long hikes, to short hikes, multi-day backpacking trips, to trail running. Until a few years ago, I never really understood the need for hiking poles. It seemed like extra weight I didn’t want to carry on hikes and unnecessary for most people. But one day, I borrowed a friend’s hiking poles for a backpacking trip and my mind was totally changed. I assumed these would be a hassle to bring along, but they actually made me feel so much more stable with a heavy pack on my back, prevented soreness in my knees at the end of the day, and made it easier to get into a rhythm while on the trail. Since that trip, I have tried quite a few different types of hiking poles in different types of terrain, situations, and conditions. In this article, I’ll walk you through everything you need to know about hiking poles so that you can find the perfect pair for you - trust me - they’re worth it!

What are Hiking Poles?

It’s helpful to understand what hiking poles are and why hikers use them. Hiking poles (also sometimes called trekking poles) are like walking sticks, but way cooler and more advanced. They have handles on the top, and a wrist strap around the handle to keep them securely in your hand, even if you accidentally drop the handle. They help with balance and take some pressure and work off your legs and knees while you're on the trails.

So, are they necessary for everyone? And why might people choose to use them? No, they might not be necessary for every type of hiker, but they do offer many benefits no matter what kind of intensity hiking you’re planning to do, and how long of hikes you’re planning to do. As I mentioned above, they are a great tool to help keep balance, especially on more technical terrain where a bit of extra stability can help prevent tripping or a tumble. The other main reason hikers use poles is because they take some of the pressure off your joints, especially on the downhills. Steep downhills can leave you with sore knees from the constant pressure of bracing yourself with every step. Poles can help distribute that work a bit better so you can put some of the weight on your poles during descents, and take some of the weight off your knees.

Even on flat, non technical trails, some hikers still like to use them because they add a bit of rhythm to your walk and have been shown to increase your pace, which can turn a more casual walk into a bit more of a workout!

While they aren’t quite as high up on the required hiking gear list as a good pair of hiking boots, they are still a great tool for any type of hiker that can make your hikes smoother, safer, and overall more fun.

What to Consider When Buying Hiking Poles

Now that you’re familiar with what hiking poles actually are, let’s jump into a few considerations to think about before you settle on a pair of hiking poles.

What is the main reason you want hiking poles?

Photo by New Africa

Your primary motivation for getting hiking poles is one of the biggest decision-drivers on which poles you settle on. Are you looking to reduce the strain on your knees during descents? Seeking extra stability on uneven terrain? Do you need support for carrying a heavy backpack on long treks? For trail runners, it might be about maintaining rhythm and speed. Having an understanding of the core reason you’re considering hiking poles will guide you towards poles with the right strength, weight, and features for your exact needs.

What type of terrain will you be using them in?

Photo by Ondra Vacek

Next up, consider the type of terrain you’ll primarily be using your poles in. For rugged, mountainous trails, you'll need poles with durable construction and comfortable grip. If you're mostly on flat or slightly hilly terrain, you might prioritize lightweight and compact poles. If you plan to use these for snowshoeing and winter hikes, you’ll need poles with wider baskets so they don’t sink into the snow everytime you plant them.

What is your budget?

The amount you’re looking to spend on a pair of hiking poles will, of course, play a big role in the specific poles you end up going with too. Thankfully, there's a wide range of options when it comes to hiking poles that can fit most every budget. Basic poles, which offer standard features, are fairly durable, but don’t have all the bells and whistles and durability, can be found at lower price points around $40 to $80. Mid-range poles strike a balance between quality and cost.They’re usually more durable and have more features like adjustability and more comfort grips. Those tend to run around $90 to $130. If budget isn’t as much of a consideration and you’re looking to invest in high-end poles with top-tier durability and comfort, there are some great pole options out there with more advanced technology like shock absorption, and ergonomic designs, suitable for frequent and intense hiking. These tend to run around $150 to $200, which might sound a bit pricey for some hikers, but they’ll last a lifetime and be much more comfortable than a low-end hiking pole.

What Are the Different Types of Hiking Poles?

When shopping around for hiking poles, there are three different types of hiking poles you’re going to see. Each type has their own benefits and downfalls that make them better suited to different types of hikers, so let’s take a closer look at the three types!

Telescopic Poles

Telescoping poles feature two or three sections that slide into each other and have a locking mechanism which allows you to adjust the length of the hiking pole.

Benefits:

  • Can be adjusted perfectly to the height you need them to be.
  • Versatile and can be used for hikers of different heights (for example if you wanted to let a taller friend borrow them for a trip, or let a shorter friend test them out to see if they want to purchase some of their own).
  • Easy to adjust on the trail if you’re hiking somewhere with variable terrain.

Be Aware:

  • Typically a bit heavier than folding poles.
  • Don’t generally fold down very small, making it hard to store them on or in a backpack if you don’t want to use them for the whole hike.

Folding Poles

Folding poles are also sometimes called Z-style poles, and they are made up of three to five shorter sections that lock together when in use, and collapse when you need to store them (similar to tent poles!)

Benefits:

  • Typically the most lightweight option.
  • Easy and compact to store when collapsed, so great option if you want a pair of poles that you can stow for some parts of the hike and easily take out and use for other parts.

Be Aware:

  • Usually the length is not adjustable.
  • Most expensive type of pole.

Fixed Length Poles

Fixed-length poles are made of one single, non-adjustable shaft. They can’t fold up or adjust in size. However, they are generally stronger and don’t wear down as much over time since they don’t have the weak points that poles with folding or telescoping mechanisms have.

Benefits:

  • Typically stronger and last longer.
  • Not as many parts that can fail compared to folding or telescopic poles.
  • Come in a wide array of price, size, and durability options.
  • Cheapest option.

Be Aware:

  • Not adjustable, so must be sized correctly and the length can’t be adjusted based on terrain changes on the trail.
  • Can’t fold up or shorten for easy storage in a pack.

Features to Look Out for When Buying Hiking Poles

Now that you understand the different types of poles, how do you differentiate between all the options out there? It’s helpful to understand some of the main features available in hiking poles, so that you can pick and choose the features that would be helpful to have for your situations and needs in a pair of poles. Not all of these may be relevant or important to have in your specific poles, but regardless it’s useful to know what’s out there and what your options are!

Adjustable Length

Photo by Evergo UA

I mentioned this a bit in the section above, but adjustable length in a hiking pole allows you to shorten or lengthen the pole easily with a locking mechanism. This is a nice feature to have if you’re planning to let others use your hiking poles at any point. It can also be super helpful if you want to adjust the length of your poles while on the trail. Generally, when going uphill, it’s more efficient to have a slightly shorter pole length, and on the downhills, a longer pole length provides more stability. Even if you plan on being the only one who uses this set of poles, if you’re hiking in areas with a lot of elevation change, this would be a great feature to have.

Foldable Design

Photo by gubernat

A foldable design allows your hiking poles to break down into four to five smaller sections and fold together. The smaller size makes it easy to toss your poles in a backpack or strap them to the outside of your backpack if there’s a part of the trail that you don’t want to use your poles on. A lot of hikers who are just getting their first set of hiking poles prefer this design since it’s not as much of a commitment to use your poles the entirety of the hike. It’s also a popular feature for hikers who want poles strictly to give their knees some relief on the downhills, because you can just whip them out of your pack when you encounter any terrain with a decline.

Pole Shaft Material

Photo by Real Sports Photos

Most hiking poles have either aluminum or carbon fiber as the shaft material. Aluminum is more durable, but also a bit heavier. Aluminum also tends to bend under heavy pressure rather than snap in half, which makes it easier to fix if you’re far into a hike and this does happen. Carbon fiber is lighter than aluminum, making it a popular option among trail runners and ultralight backpackers. The downfall of carbon fiber is that it’s not as durable under pressure and if it does break, it will snap instead of bending, which would be difficult to fix if you’re on the trail when that happens.

Grip Material

Photo by Bear Fotos

Not only is the pole material important to think about, but the grip material is also equally important. The grips are the top section of the poles where your hand sits and it’s typically made from rubber, foam, cork, or some combination of these three materials. Some cheap poles will have plastic grips, and let me tell you, skip those poles. I’ve gotten plenty of blisters from poles with plastic grips and it is not worth it! Cork grips are typically the best option as it forms to your hand shape over time and it resists moisture better if your hands get sweaty. Foam grips are also a good option, it’s soft and comfortable, though it doesn’t resist moisture as well. If you’re hiking in colder areas, rubber is a good option because it has better insulation, but on warmer days it won’t resist moisture well and will leave your hands sweaty, which again can cause blisters.

Interchangeable Tips & Baskets

Photo by Olga Popova

Hiking poles are sold in a variety of tip types and basket types and some poles have the option to swap out the tips and baskets for other tips and baskets. Tips provide traction on different surfaces, with some such as carbide tips being better suited to mud or snow and others, such as rubber tips being better suited to dirt or rocky terrain. Baskets, on the other hand, keep your poles from sinking into the ground. There are a wide array of different basket types from snow baskets to mud baskets to ultralight baskets. Smaller baskets are great for harder ground such as dirt or rock, whereas larger baskets will prevent your poles from sinking in snowy or muddy areas. Getting a set of poles that offers interchangeable tips and baskets will make your poles more versatile for different types of weather, terrain, and trail conditions.

Locking Mechanism

Photo by Basotxerri

For telescoping or foldable poles, pay attention to the type of locking mechanism. The locking mechanism will keep your poles at the correct height and locked together when in use. Most locking mechanisms are either a twist lock or a lever lock. Lever locks are the easiest to use, and my personal favorite because it makes it quick and easy to adjust the poles while on the trail. The downfall of lever locks is that they are more prone to getting dirt in them and a few times I have accidentally knocked the lever open as I am walking, which makes it annoying to stop and readjust. Twist locks are a bit burlier and not as easy to adjust on the trail, but they are more resistant dirt and since they are more complicated to adjust, it’s not likely you would accidentally adjust them as you’re walking.

How to Choose the Right Hiking Poles for You

Photo by soft light

We’ve covered a lot of ground, but if you’re still curious as to which pair of hiking poles is the best for you, keep reading! Below, I have listed three Curated customers I have helped find hiking poles during my time as a Hiking and Camping Expert. They each have different situations and reasons they want hiking poles, and different features that would be helpful for them to have in a pole. I have also listed a few specific pole models that would be a good fit for them based on what they need!

Danielle, the Technical Trail Runner

Danielle is an avid trail runner and likes doing long full day runs in the mountains around her home in Boulder, Colorado. There’s a lot of mountains and varied terrain on the trails she generally runs in, and she runs in all four seasons, meaning she has her fair share of nice, sunny days, but also plenty of muddy and snowy days. Weight is a primary concern to her because she doesn’t want to carry extra ounces on her runs when she doesn’t need to, and grip comfort is also important because her hands sweat on runs and she does not want blisters!

Features Danielle should look for:

  • Lightweight for high-speed movement and ultra-light construction (preferably carbon fiber poles)
  • Versatility for different terrain and conditions - interchangeable basket and tips to adjust for the season and terrain
  • Compact design for easy carry when not in use
  • Comfortable, moisture-wicking grip

Recommendations for Danielle: Black Diamond Distance FLZ, Leki Ultra Trail FX, Mountainsmith Carbon Lite Pro

Trish, the Casual Hiker

Trish enjoys easy weekend hikes around her hometown of Prescott, Arizona. She sticks to more relaxed trails without too much technical terrain or elevation change, but as she’s gotten older her knees have started to hurt in the days after her hikes, so she wants some hiking poles to give her some extra support. She doesn’t need all the bells and whistles in a hiking pole, but does want something comfortable that gives her good stability so she can continue her leisurely hikes without worrying about the next few days of knee pain.

Features Danielle should look for:

  • Joint support, particularly for the knees
  • Reliable stability for uneven trails
  • Adjustable length with a secure locking mechanism that she can easily change while on the trail
  • Ergonomic and comfortable grips

Recommendations for Trish: Black Diamond Trail Ergo Cork, Leki Cressida Antishock, Kelty Upslope 2.0

Preston, the Long-Distance Backpacker

Preston loves multi-day backpacking trips. He’s backpacked in just about every kind of terrain, from the Appalachian Trail to the Rockies. Since his backpack is typically weighed down from all the gear he needs to bring, he’s looking for a pole that can help reduce the load on his back and knees. Reliability is important to him because he doesn’t want to risk his poles breaking while he's miles into the backcountry.

Features Preston should look for:

  • Features to ease the burden on joints and back
  • Durable materials (e.g., high-grade aluminum poles) and robust construction for long-term use
  • Adjustable, dependable locking mechanisms
  • Interchangeable tips and baskets for different terrains

Recommendations for Preston: Leki Makalu Lite Cor-Tec AS, Black Diamond Alpine Carbon Cork Z, Mountainsmith Basalt 3 Section

Talk to an Expert!

Still not sure how to settle on the exact right poles? Don’t worry! Here on Curated we have a dedicated team of Camping and Hiking Experts who would love to help you narrow down your gear hunt and find the exact right product for your needs and situation. Reach out today to get free, personalized advice from our Camping and Hiking Experts!

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