An Expert Guide to How to Choose and Use Trekking Poles

Learn everything you need to know about choosing and using trekking poles on your next hike with this article from hiking expert, Eric Bergdoll.

Photo by Mick Haupt

People have been hiking with a stick to assist in balance since before the activity was called hiking. At this point, the image of an individual wearing a sun hat and holding a walking stick is a full-on outdoor cliche. The days of the old reliable hiking staff have come and gone, however, as fancy new materials and modern engineering have brought forth trekking poles. Lighter, more durable, more packable, more ergonomic, more shock resistant... The list of advantages goes on and on. Judging from a quick hike down any popular trail, the era of the trekking pole is here and here to stay.

Not your grandpa's hiking pole, modern trekking poles help a user cover long distances with significantly less effort, and there is real data to support how they make getting out and going for a hike easier on one’s body. In addition to helping with general stability, trekking poles are said to make a huge difference in reducing the force of impact on a user’s joints. According to The Journal of Sports Medicine, the impact force can be cut by up to 25% when walking downhill by using trekking poles. As most hikers know, few trails are on perfectly level ground. Trekking poles help you be sure of stability when taking larger steps, leading to faster hiking. They also propel you forward, like ski poles, which also results in moving faster. Keeping your upper body muscles involved while hiking also promotes better posture when carrying a heavy pack. Some lightweight backpacking tarp-tents, such as the Black Diamond Betalight and Hyperlite Ultramid also pitch using trekking poles, and these setups are some of the lightest options on the market for ultralight backpackers and result in a very solid backpacking shelter.

Choosing the right trekking poles

There are a few different options to weigh when considering a trekking pole purchase:

How many poles would you like to be hiking with?

A man demonstrates using one trekking pole versus using two trekking poles
Photos by Eric Bergdoll

Single pole (also known as a hiking staff) and double pole setups are both common options. The single pole vs double debate is a bit more complicated than bringing only one pole from a double pole setup on a hike, but doesn't have to be. Hiking with a single pole allows a person to keep one hand free. Single poles often come with a screw-off top section to attach a camera as well. Double poles will offer the most stability and the largest decrease in impact forces. Purchasing a double pole setup and using both for longer hikes with a heavy pack and only one for shorter hikes can be a good option. Luckily, this choice is mostly a matter of personal preference, so the best choice is up to you.

What is the best pole length?

A man stands in profile with a trekking pole
Photo by Eric Bergdoll

The best trekking pole will be the one that fits you right. All you need to decide on the perfect pole length is a tape measure. Start by standing up straight, keeping your arm by your side and elbow bent at 90 degrees. Have a friend or family member measure the length from the top of your hand to the ground. That measurement will be your ideal trekking pole length. Luckily, many trekking poles are adjustable, so this number doesn't need to be exact. Fixed-length poles do exist - some of their advantages being faster deployment and breakdown, but that info is covered in the next section.

Flick, Twist, or Fold Lock?

Two photos demonstrating lock types: a twist lock and a flick lock
Photos by Eric Bergdoll

Flick locks, twist locks, and folding locks are the three main locking mechanisms for securing adjustable trekking poles at the desired length. Since I use my trekking poles in the winter, I prefer the flick lock since it is easier to use with gloves. In addition, the way the materials contract in freezing temps makes the flick lock a more secure method. The biggest advantage of twist locks, on the other hand, is that they are easier to adjust on the fly, so if you plan on sticking to summertime hiking they are a great option. Folding poles are great for quick deployment. These tend to be extremely light and are very packable, so they are often used by ultra runners or fast hikers but are almost always fixed length.

Shock Absorbing and Shaft Material

Shock absorption can be a lifesaver for the crowd that has issues with achy joints. Even those without joint issues can be helped by shock absorption, especially if they are going down steep terrain.

Trekking pole shaft material can also make a difference in the amount of shock absorption poles have. Carbon fiber poles, for instance, have great vibration-dampening features and save quite a bit of extra weight compared to the aluminum offerings. The aluminum poles, on the other hand, are much more budget-friendly. It all depends on your budget and pole use.

Grip Material

Trekking pole grips are often composed of one of 3 types of materials:

  • Foam Grips are the most common. These are inexpensive to produce but tend to absorb moisture from your hand, making them not the best choice for wet climates. When dry, these grips can be very comfortable.
  • Cork Grips resist moisture from sweaty hands and dampen vibration. Cork-gripped trekking poles are the best option for those who sweat a lot or spend a significant amount of time hiking in hot weather.
  • Rubber Grips insulate hands from the cold but tend to chafe or blister sweaty hands. Rubber-gripped poles are great for cold weather but are not so great for warm and hot weather due to the chafing and blistering concerns.

Other Things to Consider

Wrist straps are featured on most poles, but some come without. If you pass your hand up from under, and grip around the top of the strap the poles can be held with a very light grip. Some more extreme users, such as backcountry skiers and ultramarathoners, might not want poles with wrist straps as they run the risk of getting caught in something. For the majority of users, however, the benefits greatly outweigh the issues they could cause.

A hand holds a trekking pole equipped with a wrist strap
Photo by Eric Bergdoll

Baskets make a difference depending on the type of terrain you are hiking in. If you plan to use the poles in the snow, powder baskets can be helpful to achieve solid points of contact with the snow, instead of having the planted pole sink in. Most trekking poles, with the exception of some of the cheapest or lightest weight options on the market, have the ability to swap their standard baskets for snow baskets.

Pole Tips: Most quality trekking poles come with either tungsten carbide tips or steel tips. A good upgrade to a set of poles, if hiking in rocky environments, are rubber tips. These rubber tips are mandatory in some parks, as some believe there is an environmental impact from the metal tips chipping away at rocks and scratching things on the ground. Angled rubber walking tips are also available for hiking on pavement.

Walking with Trekking Poles

There are a series of different techniques that come in handy when using trekking poles that allow the user to walk in the most efficient way possible. These techniques can be applied anywhere, from soft, flat trails to steep mountainsides. From a hike at the local city park to the Appalachian Trail, these tried and true techniques can help any hiker.

Alternating poles and legs is the most common method. With this approach, your right foot and left pole go together at the same time, and vice versa. This starts to feel perfectly natural with a little practice, and walking naturally is key to using trekking poles.

Double planting is another method that some find helpful. This involves planting both poles at the same time and taking two steps between each plant. This can be very helpful on steep climbs where having both poles on the ground helps with stability.

Trekking poles can be immensely helpful in negotiating obstacles. They can be used to vault over small streams and creeks, provide much-needed stability while finding footing walking across the river, be planted on both sides of a log while walking across, and help you dance right around the puddles on the trail. They can also be used to assess the stability of objects before stepping on them, or for seeing how deep a moving body of water is before attempting to cross it.

With a little practice, anyone can have their hiking experience improved through the use of trekking poles. From elderly hikers looking to take things easy on their joints to ultra-marathon runners sprinting down slopes with reckless abandon, there is a use for anyone looking for extra support and stability. If you want to know more about trekking poles feel free to reach out to my expert profile, I would be happy to answer any additional questions that this article doesn't answer or suggest the perfect trekking poles to get you out on your next hike. Happy trails

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Written By
Growing up in Colorado then later Western Pennsylvania, my family would go camping in the mountains most weekends. In spring 2015 I decided to ramp things up a notch by enrolling in a National Outdoor Leadership School semester, which consisted of 87 days in the wilderness. Since that trip, I have f...

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