Hiking with Confidence: How to Choose and Utilize Trekking Poles

Published on 06/23/2023 · 8 min readLearn everything you need to know about choosing and using trekking poles on your next hike with this article from Campng & Hiking Expert, Eric Bergdoll.
Eric Bergdoll, Camping Expert
By Camping Expert Eric Bergdoll

Photo by Pavlo Glazkov

People have been hiking with a stick to assist with 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. Like most updated hiking gear, trekking poles are lighter weight, have increased durability, are more packable, more ergonomic, and more shock resistant than their older counterparts... and 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 load and force of impact on a user’s joints, especially their knees. According to The Journal of Sports Medicine, the impact force when walking downhill can be cut by up to 25% 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, especially on flat sections of the trail or when traveling uphill, and prolonging the onset of fatigue. 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 Should You Hike With?

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 poles 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?

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, often measured in cm or in, is a tape measure. Start by standing up straight, keeping your arm by your side and elbow bent at a 90-degree angle. 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, which is ideal since you may want to use longer or shorter poles depending on the terrain, so your measurement doesn't need to be exact in order to obtain the correct height. 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?

Photos by Eric Bergdoll

Flick locks, twist locks, push-button locks, and folding locks are the main locking mechanisms for securing adjustable trekking poles at the desired length (or for un-securing them so they can collapse to a packable length and be thrown into your pack or travel bag). Since I use my trekking poles in the winter, I prefer the flick lock, which is also known as a lever 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 having poles with a push-button lock or twist lock, 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 and lack the convenience of adjustability.

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 shafts, for instance, have great vibration-dampening features compared to the aluminum offerings. Carbon fiber poles are also lighter, which makes a big difference for the backpacker who is shaving ounces. The aluminum poles, on the other hand, are much more budget-friendly than carbon poles. It all depends on your budget and pole use.

Grip Material

Trekking pole grips and handles 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 provide the most comfort 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 chafing and blistering concerns.

Other Things to Consider

Wrist straps

Photo by Blazej Lyjak

Wrist straps are featured on most poles, but some come without them. 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.


Photo by Duet P & G

Baskets make a difference depending on the type of terrain you are hiking in. If you plan to use the poles in the snow, such as when backcountry skiing or using snowshoes, 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. And snow baskets can also be useful as "mud baskets"!

Pole Tips

Photo by Luna Doc

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 tip protectors. These rubber tips are mandatory in some parks, as some believe that metal trekking pole tips have a negative impact on sensitive environmental areas, for example, tips chipping away at rocks and scratching things on the ground. Rubber tips will also provide the user with more traction than metal tips. Angled rubber walking tips are also available for hiking or walking on pavement or asphalt.

Walking with Trekking Poles

Photo by Ground Picture

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 ascents 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. They can even be used at your campsite as tent poles or to set up a shade awning! If you want to know more about trekking poles, reach out to Camping & Hiking Expert here on Curated. We would be happy to answer any additional questions that this article doesn't cover or suggest the perfect trekking poles to get you out on your next hike. Happy trails!

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