Maybe you’ve seen hikers cruising along the trail with their trekking poles and you’re wondering what the point is. Perhaps someone recommended you grab a pair for an upcoming hike, but you hesitate to spend the money.
Are trekking poles worth it? Are they worth the money, the inconvenience of having your hands full while hiking, and the effort of learning how to use them effectively? Do you really need trekking poles for hiking, or is this just another expensive gear fad?
I’ve asked myself this same question many times! As an experienced day hiker and long-distance backpacker, I sometimes use trekking poles and sometimes leave them at home depending on the hike in question. Over many years of hiking and backpacking I’ve figured out when hiking poles are worth it for me, and I’m here to help you answer this same question for yourself.
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Do you really need trekking poles?
Maybe you’re wondering, do hiking poles really help? I don’t blame you for asking. Over the years I’ve gone back and forth on whether I need or even like trekking poles. What I’ve finally decided: it depends.
First thing’s first: do what works for you! Hike your own hike, as the saying goes. We are all different.
But since you’re here, I assume you’re looking for something more than “try it and see.” So here are the pros and cons of trekking poles to get you started off on the right foot – pun intended.
Advantages of Hiking With Poles
Most people who hike with trekking poles point to benefits like a faster pace, less perceived effort, less strain on the knees, and improved balance. There’s some scientific evidence to support this, though it’s not as clear-cut as you might expect. Still, many people intuitively feel that poles save energy and make hiking easier.
Trekking poles really shine on rugged terrain with lots of elevation change. They make uphills easier, downhills smoother, and can save you from potential injury if you slip or catch a toe. They’re also great for rugged routes with slippery snow, water crossings, boulder hopping, or bushwhacking. At the end of a very long hiking day I notice that poles take the slightest bit of weight off my sore feet – totally worth it!
Backpackers in particular, as opposed to day hikers, tend to find hiking poles worthwhile. For one thing, many lightweight shelters pitch with trekking poles in lieu of tent poles. It’s often possible to substitute lightweight tent poles instead, but if you’re going to carry poles, may as well use them to help manage that extra weight on your back.
If you’re on a long backpacking trip or thru hike and concerned about your upper body withering to nothing while your legs do all the work, a vigorous hiking pole rhythm can keep your arms and shoulders a bit more active. During long days on the trail the extra motion in your arms can help prevent minor swelling that often occurs in the hands.
Disadvantages of Hiking With Poles
Trekking poles have one very obvious drawback: your hands are occupied. If you like to snack or snap pictures while walking, it’s awkward to transfer both poles to one hand before you can do anything. If you’re hiking on smooth ground and don’t need help with balance, this alone can make hiking poles not worth it for many people.
On certain types of terrain, trekking poles can feel awkward. On smooth flat ground sometimes a quick walking gait is faster than a comfortable pole rhythm, especially if your poles are heavy. On rough ground it can be mentally tiring to focus on where to plant the poles; two feet are already enough to worry about. If your hike involves any scrambling / class 3 terrain, you might prefer to have hands free for balance.
If you get tired of using your poles for any reason, you’ll need to stash them in your backpack or carry them. Many backpacks offer pole loops for this purpose, but longer and heavier poles can feel a bit awkward on your pack. A lightweight z-fold pole like the Black Diamond Carbon Distance Z is best for this case, but it’s not cheap.
On narrow trail through delicate environments like alpine tundra, we do minor damage to the trail with our poke-poke-poking (using rubber tips can help). And on rocky surfaces, the click-click-clicking can drive you NUTS (or is that just me?).
Having invested a lot of time in improving my biomechanics to avoid overuse injuries, I sometimes worry that using trekking poles will make my body lazy. Just as I don’t rely on stiff boots to “protect” my feet, I don’t like the idea of relying on poles to “protect” my knees. I try to always stay mindful of my biomechanics even while hiking with poles, and I do regular strength and mobility work to train my brain and muscles to protect my joints without outside assistance. My body should be able to walk and run on its own, and I’d like to keep it that way as long as possible.
When to Use Trekking Poles?
Putting all this together, here are my personal criteria for when trekking poles are worth it:
I use trekking poles for:
- backpacking trips or long day hikes involving lots of up and down
- rough trail or cross-country hiking
- special conditions like snow, lots of water crossings, or bushwhacking through dense brush
I don’t use trekking poles for:
- most day hikes
- short or casual hikes, especially on smooth and flat trails
- scrambles where I often need my hands for balance
Everyone is different though, and the best way to know if you need trekking poles is to try them on a variety of trails. Folks who are new to hiking, older, or not confident in their balance may prefer to use poles all the time. As you gain more experience you might find yourself leaving them at home for certain hikes.
Trekking poles don’t have to be expensive. Though top-of-the-line models are quite pricey, you can snag a basic set of aluminum poles for under $40. For more on what to look for and how to choose, see my trekking pole buyer’s guide. Happy trails!
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