How To Use Hiking Poles (+ Buying Guide)

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You’ve certainly seen hikers marching along to the rhythm of hiking poles, also known as trekking poles. But how much do you actually know about how to use trekking poles, or what they’re even supposed to do for you?

Hiking poles aren’t magic, and grasping a pair won’t suddenly turn you into a super-hiker. You’ll need to learn how to use trekking poles properly to get the most out of them. They’re more helpful for some types of terrain than others, and there are some helpful tricks that will help you get the hang of them quicker.

To make things even more complicated, poles come in a confusing range of features and types, and it can be hard to know how to choose the best trekking poles for your specific type of terrain or hiking style.

I’ll answer all these questions and more in this post, so you can make a smart decision about whether you need hiking poles and which ones to buy. At the end of this post I’ll make a few recommendations to help you narrow down the search.

But first, let’s answer a common question…

Are Hiking Poles Worth It?

Maybe you’re wondering, do hiking poles really help? I don’t blame you for asking. Over my years of backpacking I’ve gone back and forth on whether I need or even like trekking poles. What I’ve learned from experience: it depends.

Whether trekking poles help you depends on your body, the terrain you hike, and your hiking style. Your preferences might even change over time as you get more experience. Let’s dive into the specific pros and cons.

Without hiking poles you can’t take summit pictures like this one (Rose Peak on the Tahoe Rim Trail). Just sayin.

Trekking Pole Pros and Cons

Advantages of Hiking With Poles

Why use hiking poles? Because they can provide all these advantages:

  • Stability on rough ground or with heavy pack
  • Extra power when hiking uphill
  • Make hiking a more well-rounded workout by adding load to your core and upper body while reducing load on your legs
  • Help with braking and controlling speed on downhill
  • Balance when crossing streams, rock-hopping, or dealing with ice, snow, or slippery mud
  • Planting a pole quickly can prevent a potential trip or fall
  • Extra support for injured or weak ankles or knees (only if used properly)
  • Exploring hazardous places (because of critters or poisonous plants) before stepping or reaching
  • Some lightweight shelters use trekking poles instead of dedicated poles to save weight
Using hiking poles for some extra uphill power on the John Muir Trail

Disadvantages of Hiking With Poles

Are there reasons NOT to use hiking poles? Definitely. There are plenty of situations where I don’t use my trekking poles, and these are the reasons:

  • It can be annoying to have your hands occupied (harder to snack while walking, take pictures, etc)
  • Extra weight to carry, if you get tired of using them and strap them to your pack
  • Cause additional wear and tear on trails, especially narrow ones in delicate landscapes
  • On really steep climbs or scrambles it’s easier to have hands free to steady yourself on the ground, rocks, or trees
  • Can be mentally tiring to think about pole placement in addition to foot placement
  • On hard surfaces that click-click-click sound can drive you nuts
  • On rooty or rocky trails the tips can get stuck
  • They slide easily on rocky surfaces, potentially creating a dangerous false sense of stability
  • Can be awkward to pack in luggage for travel, especially when traveling with a carry on only
Sometimes you really want your hands free, like for hugging trail signs showing how close you are to the finish line of a loooong day.

When to Use Trekking Poles

So, based on all those pros and cons, when do you need trekking poles? Here are some guidelines for when I recommend hikers use poles, and when I would suggest going without them.

Of course, these are just suggestions. You might find you have different preferences, and that’s totally fine.

Hiking poles can be helpful when bushwhacking through an overgrown section of trail.

When to hike with trekking poles

These are some common situations where hiking poles can be really helpful:

  • On trails with a lot of elevation change (up, down, or both)
  • On rough, rocky, muddy, or rooty trails
  • On trails with lingering snow or ice (though poles are NOT a safe substitute for an ice axe)
  • On brushy overgrown trails or for extensive off-trail travel
  • On trails with a lot of stream or river crossings
  • When hiking with a heavier pack than you’re used to
  • While temporarily recovering from injury or weakness (approach with caution)
Trekking poles help with balance and avoiding slips on lingering snow.

When to NOT hike with trekking poles

These are situations where I often skip hiking poles or don’t find them as helpful:

  • On smooth and and mostly flat trails (not much elevation change)
  • On super-steep trails or scrambles where it’s easier to just use your hands for balance
  • While day hiking or lightweight backpacking, especially if you put effort into training your body for strength and stability
On super smooth flat trail like this, trekking poles may or may not help.
On terrain this steep, it’s actually easier to put the poles away and have your hands free.

Try hiking with only ONE pole

I learned this tip from a climbing guide while scrambling up some of California’s tallest mountains and it instantly helped me: sometimes one hiking pole is better than two, or none. On sufficiently rough trail you may find that one pole is helpful for balance, but two poles are just too complicated.

If you feel like it’s taking a lot of mental effort to figure out where to put your poles as you step, or you’re just planting them haphazardly without really getting much benefit, try stashing one in your pack and hiking with a pole in only one hand.

Usually your dominant hand is best for this, but sometimes it’s nice to trade off, or it might depend on the terrain you’re hiking.

Strengthen your body instead of depending on poles

While hiking poles are useful to everyone in certain situations, I sometimes see newer or weaker hikers assuming that hiking poles will protect their knees or eliminate the aches and pains that develop when they hike. It’s similar to how people assume that stiffer hiking boots will protect their feet and ankles, instead of building the strength to hike comfortably in trail running shoes.

This is a dangerous assumption, in my opinion. If we use poles as a crutch (literally or figuratively) we risk compensating for weakness and poor movement patterns that will come back to bite us later. Of course it’s fine to use poles for some extra help – that’s what they’re for. But if you have trouble hiking even short distances without them, you should look into what might be limiting your body.

All hikers will benefit from basic strength training, especially for glutes and core, so find a program that works for you. And instead of using poles to avoid using your knees, keep your knees happy and healthy with good biomechanics.

How to Use Hiking Poles

Now that you know when to use hiking poles and what you’ll get out of it, let’s talk about how to use them.

How to Hold Hiking Poles

Most hiking poles have a grip and a strap. Grips are often molded to fit a hand shape, so position the pole so your hand wraps around the grip in the way that feels natural.

To use the strap, hold it out at a 90 degree angle from the grip and slip your hand UPward through the strap. Then, separate your thumb from your fingers, lower your hand and wrap it around the grip so that the top portion of the strap is actually between your palm and the grip. The strap will pass underneath your thumb and wrap around the back of your wrist. This grip allows you to transfer more force through the strap as you use the pole, so you don’t have to grip as hard.

Step 1: Insert hand upward through strap
Step 2: Place hand over strap onto grip

Adjusting Hiking Pole Length

Dialing in the correct hiking pole length makes a HUGE difference in how helpful and comfortable they will be.

The ideal hiking pole length creates a 90 degree bend at your elbow when you plant the pole straight down in front of you. Simply plant a pole so the shaft is vertical and adjust it until your forearm is parallel to the ground.

Many poles are adjustable throughout a range, so setting the right length is just a matter of adjusting the locking mechanism. Different brands and types have different locking mechanisms, and it’s important that you choose one that’s secure, otherwise your poles will be useless.

For telescoping poles with two joints / three sections, often they are labeled so that if you set both sections to the desired total length number, the total length will come out right. It’s best to use these markings, instead of just adjusting randomly based on pole height, so that the joints are evenly adjusted.

This trekking pole has two twist-lock joints, each labeled with total pole length options (in cm). To adjust, set each joint to the number matching the total desired pole length.

If you’re considering buying a fixed-length pole (see below for more advice), use the manufacturer’s size chart to choose the correct pole length based on your height. If you can’t find a chart, use these recommendations from REI:

HeightSuggested Pole Length
< 5 ft. 1 in.100cm (39 in.)
5 ft. 1 in. – 5 ft. 7 in.110cm (43 in.)
5 ft. 8 in. – 5 ft. 11 in.120cm (47 in.)
6 ft.+130cm (51 in.)
Hiker backpacker on John Muir Trail
This pole height is just about right: elbows are bent at ninety degrees.

Adjusting Pole Length For Hills

The ideal pole length also depends on whether you’re hiking uphill or downhill. Since your poles land out in front of you as you’re walking, if the ground ahead of you is slightly higher than your feet (walking uphill), then your poles should be a bit shorter. On the other hand, if the ground ahead of you is lower than your feet (walking downhill), your poles should be a tad longer. A few inches is usually enough, more for steeper hills, but see what feels comfortable.

You don’t need to go crazy with this on rolling trails, but when approaching a long section of climbing or descending it’s worth taking the time to adjust your pole length.

Hiking Uphill: Use Poles for Power

For uphill hiking the poles’ primary use is for extra “umph.” You’re basically using your upper body – mostly back and tricep muscles – to push backwards with the poles in order to move your body forward. This can help your glutes and hamstrings – the leg muscles usually responsible for this backward pushing motion – fatigue less quickly, or increase your overall hiking speed.

For sustained uphills, shorten adjustable poles by a few inches (more for steeper slopes) to keep your hands at the right height relative to the ground in front of you.

Don’t be afraid to pole with intention! You’d be surprised how much assistance you can get if you try.

Hikers on Kilimanjaro using poles for a bit of extra push on the uphill.

Hiking Downhill: Use Poles for Braking

For downhill hiking, poles act like an extra set of brakes. Normally we use our quad muscles (the muscles on the front of our upper legs) to absorb shock and slow our speed when walking downhill. Using poles can take some load off these muscles, helping them tire less quickly and also putting less stress on the knee joint. Poles can also help with balance and traction on steep or slippery downhills.

For sustained downhills, lengthen adjustable poles by a few inches (more for steeper slopes) to keep your hands at the correct height relative to the ground sloping away ahead of you.

Using poles to stave off fatigue on steep downhill switchbacks on the John Muir Trail

Getting Into A Rhythm

There are a few different ways to use hiking poles in a rhythm with your steps. The best way is to experiment and see what feels best! You might also feel like switching it up from time to time for variety.

To get you started, here are a few patterns to play around with.

Alternate arms and legs

This is the most common way to use trekking poles, because it fits with the natural swing of your arms as you walk. Simply plant the pole on the opposite side of the leg you’re stepping with, at the same time that you step.

Vary the timing slightly to see what feels good. Usually I find myself planting the pole a split second after my foot hits the ground, but many people plant and step at the same time.

When hiking uphill you’ll probably want to plant the pole tips at or behind your feet. When hiking downhill it usually makes sense to plant the pole tips out in front of your feet.

Both poles together

This is more typical when taking a big step either up or down, or balancing to navigate an obstacle. Just plant both poles at the same time and then step.

Two steps for one pole plant

This is more of a cruising rhythm and doesn’t provide as much force, but sometimes I like it for sections of fast hiking on smooth trail when the regular rhythm gets a bit too fast but I don’t feel like stashing my poles in my pack.

Alternate arms, one pole plant for every two steps. Yes, you will end up alternating same side vs opposite side arm compared to your leg.

Single pole

When using one pole for some light balance or power on smooth trail, it usually makes sense to plant it once every time the opposite leg steps. If using it for balance on rougher terrain, plant it intentionally wherever it gives you the most balance. Switching hands from time to time can help keep things even.

Using Poles for Balance on Difficult Terrain

Here are a few tips for those times when you’re carefully picking your way along and using your poles heavily for balance. Maybe it’s a boulder field, or rock steps across a stream, or a steep and rooty trail.

  • Plant your pole(s) first to establish balance and plan your next move. Then move your feet.
  • Plant poles carefully on hard surfaces like rock, because the tips can easily slip and send you off balance (rubber tips help). It’s best to plant poles straight down on these surfaces, instead of out too far at an angle, and to assume that they could slip out. Don’t depend on them completely and be ready to regain your balance.
  • Poles can and do break (especially ultralight ones), and the locking mechanisms can fail. Try to avoid putting all your weight on them, especially if they’re planted in a place where they could slip or get stuck. They’re meant to assist you, not support you completely.
  • On dicey sections like wobbly boulders or slippery stream crossings, consider taking the straps off your wrist to avoid an even messier fall if things go wrong.
Using poles for balance while crossing a stream

Carrying Hiking Poles

Sometimes you want a hand free but don’t want to take the time to stash your poles. Simply shorten them all the way and carry both in one hand. If you grip them in the middle at their center of balance, this is surprisingly comfortable.

Stashing Poles In Your Pack

Even if you love hiking with poles, sometimes you’ll want to have your hands free, or you’ll hit a section of terrain where they’re hurting more than helping.

Most backpacking packs, and some day packs and even running vests, have a loop system on the outside for attaching poles. You’ll want to collapse or fold your poles into their smallest possible length, then look for two loops (one high and one low) on either side of your pack. Side pockets and compression straps work too, if you don’t have loops (or you can add loops).

If you can’t quite make it work with your pack, see this post for ideas and pictures.

It’s hard to totally avoid having pointy pole tips sticking out, but try to be mindful of what they might poke into in case of a fall or an accidental close encounter with another hiker.

Even on this minimalist day pack, he still found a way to stash hiking poles while scrambling up Mount Tyndall, a California 14er.

Trekking Pole Buying Guide

Types of Hiking Poles

Adjustable vs. Fixed Length

Adjustable poles are the smart choice for most hikers, because they allow you to dial in the exact right length for your body size and changes in terrain. They’re usually easier to use with most trekking pole compatible shelters. Another bonus: they can be lent to friends of different height, or a single set can be shared with a hiking partner when you each want one pole.

Fixed length poles only make sense when going as ultralight as possible, in my opinion. They usually come in a range of sizes spaced 10 cm apart. Leaving out the adjustable mechanism saves an ounce or two per pole, but this level of weight savings is probably only relevant to ultrarunners, fastpackers, alpine climbers, and other fast-and-light types.

Partially adjustable poles are a middle ground between the two. They are still available in several different sizes, but offer adjustment within the smaller range of each size.

Let’s look at three different Carbon trekking poles from Black Diamond to see the difference in weight:

Collapsible / Telescoping vs. Foldable

Most hiking poles have some way of getting smaller so you can pack them more easily. Common methods are:

  • Telescoping: pole sections slide into each other. Most telescoping poles have three sections, though it’s also possible to have two, which won’t be as compact when collapsed.
  • Foldable / Collapsible / Z-Pole: sections pull apart slightly, remaining joined by a flexible internal cable, and then fold against each other, kind of like tent poles. Also sometimes called “z-poles” because their folded shape looks like the letter Z.
  • Fold / Telescope Combination: A relatively new type of foldable pole that also allows limited telescoping adjustment.

Generally, foldable poles pack down shorter and are lighter, but don’t adjust much (or at all). Telescoping poles are often more durable and adjustable but have a longer packed length.

If you travel a lot for hiking, often switch between using and carrying your poles, or are a fastpacker or runner with a minimalist pack, you might prefer folding poles. Most other hikers can easily work with telescoping poles. There’s even an option to combine the two, with a foldable design that also has one telescoping joint.

Using those same Black Diamond examples from above, you can see how adjustment type typically correlates with weight:

Foldable Black Diamond Z Poles were perfect for climbing Kilimanjaro, since they fit neatly in luggage for travel.

Anti-Shock vs. Rigid

Some hiking poles have an “anti-shock” feature, essentially a spring that compresses when the pole is planted to reduce the discomfort of repeated shock to the hands. Are anti-shock poles really necessary?

If you tend to have hand, wrist, or elbow issues, perhaps an anti-shock pole is right for you. They can also be good if you’ll be hiking on hard surfaces for long periods of time (granite in the high Sierra for example).

For everyone else, I typically don’t see this feature appreciated much. It adds weight, can make annoying noises, and can give you less pushing power when using poles for uphill “umph.” Some poles have the ability to lock out the spring mechanism for this case, but they don’t always lock securely.

Carbon naturally has shock absorbing properties, so carbon hiking poles are a way to capture some of the same anti-shock benefits without the drawbacks.

Lightweight / Ultralight

Quality hiking poles generally range from around 10 – 20 ounces per pair, with roughly 13 – 17 ounces being most common. On the lighter end of this range, poles are referred to as lightweight or, at the very lightest end, ultralight.

As a general rule (there are exceptions), lighter poles are usually foldable, rigid (no anti-shock), less adjustable, made of carbon, less durable, and more expensive.

Heavier poles are generally telescoping, adjustable, made of aluminum, more durable, and cheaper.

How much does trekking pole weight matter? It depends. Since poles are long and need to be swung with each step, extra weight in the shaft will definitely be noticeable (thank you physics), and will make the poles feel sluggish and harder to move quickly.

Pole weight also factors into pack weight if you often stash poles in your pack instead of always hiking with them.

For most hikers, a mid-weight pole is a good balance of value and comfort. If you’re on a budget and like a “traditional” style of hiking – not pushing for speed or counting ounces carefully – don’t hesitate to save money by getting a heavier pair.

Ultrarunners, fastpackers, climbers, etc. are generally the folks who will find ultralight and highly packable poles worth the money, as well as the tradeoffs in adjustability and durability. The durability issue is real; my husband broke an ultralight Black Diamond Z Carbon pole a few years ago when it got jammed while hiking on snow-covered rocks.

Black Diamond Carbon Z Poles, perfect for this lightweight peakbagging and scrambling expedition in California’s high Sierra

Grip Material: Cork, Foam, or Rubber

The most important thing about grips is that they feel comfortable in your hand. Beyond that, you might want to consider the type of grip.

Cork grips are heavier but have the nice property of molding to your hand over time for a personalized fit. They absorb sweat well and are a good choice for most hikers.

Foam grips are lighter, also absorb sweat more, but don’t conform to your hand.

Rubber grips are insulating and don’t absorb sweat, making them a good choice for winter hikes or mixed hiking/skiing adventures.

Most people don’t choose their poles based on grip type, but it can be a nice bonus to get the kind you want on an otherwise good pole.

Interchangeable Tips

Some poles come with both rubber and metal or carbide (a hard material made of both metal and carbon) tips, or the option to buy them separately. Why would you need different types of hiking pole tips? For different types of surfaces.

Metal or carbide tips provide the necessary bite and grip on soft surfaces like dirt. But on hard surfaces like granite, pavement, or sandstone, carbide tips will slip easily. They can also damage fragile trails, especially soft rock like sandstone, or high-use trails of any kind.

Use carbide or metal tips for most normal hiking. Use rubber tips for hikes on rock, and/or fragile or high-use trails.

Snow Baskets

Most trekking poles come with “trekking baskets,” which are just the normal discs near the tips that prevent the poles from sinking too deeply into dirt.

Snow baskets, also called powder baskets, are larger and prevent the poles from sinking too far into deep snow. This is, obviously, only useful if you hike in deep snow. Some poles come with snow baskets or the option to purchase a compatible set separately.

Locking Mechanisms

There are several different mechanisms used to lock a pole into extension: lever lock, twist lock, and button lock are a few. They can all work, but it’s important to choose a model with a reliable locking mechanism (read buyer reviews). Generally twist locks are considered a bit less fail-safe than the other two.

Women’s Hiking Poles

Some manufacturers offer hiking poles for women specifically. What’s the difference (besides the color scheme)?

Hiking poles for women typically:

  • Are shorter, or have a shorter adjustable range, typically up to 120cm or so. This can shave off a bit of weight compared to the unisex version with a wider range.
  • Have smaller grips designed to be comfy for smaller hands.

So will you benefit from women’s hiking poles? Only if you’re relatively short and looking to minimize pole weight, and/or if you have particularly small hands. Otherwise, most women won’t notice any issues using unisex poles.

The Best Hiking Poles

Finally, the section you’ve been waiting for… Now that you know all about hiking poles, how do you choose the right combination of features for you?

Here are some easy ways to narrow down your hiking pole options, and a few recommendations for popular picks within each category.

Typical Day Hikes or Backpacking Trips

If you aim for the sweat spot between lightweight and comfortable, fast and slow, value and top-end, then a mid-range pole will likely be fine. Look for:

  • Fully adjustable (likely telescoping) design
  • Cork grips
  • Aluminum or durable carbon shaft
  • Good buyer reviews

Some popular options in this category:

For hikers who spend more time on rough trails or off trail, err on the side of heavier and more durable, such as the REI Traverse (18.5 oz).

Long Distance Thru Hiking

Thru-hikers tackling multi-month adventures, like the Pacific Crest or Appalachian Trail, will usually want a combination of features:

  • Reasonably lightweight
  • Durable and stands up to heavy use
  • Snow baskets, potentially, if hiking in early season or high snow year

Some recommendations in this category:

Some ultralight thru-hikers will also want to check out the even lighter options in the following section.

Fastpacking, Ultralight Hiking, Alpine Climbing, Trail Running

If more miles or more vert is what gets your blood pumping, and you’re willing to spend more money on the perfect gear, you’ll likely want an ultralight hiking pole.

Look for:

  • Lightweight carbon shaft
  • Foam grips
  • Foldable design with short folded length
  • Compatibility with ultralight shelters

Be prepared to take extra care with these less durable poles, and accept the fact that you may need to eventually replace them if they break. (I love my Black Diamond Carbon Z-Poles, but my husband broke his while postholing in late-summer snow.)

Popular options in this category:

Winter Hiking, Snowshoeing, Ski Touring

If you want a do-it-all four season hiking pole, a pole specifically for winter activities, or plan to do a lot of early-summer hiking in lingering snowpack (hiking the PCT on a high snow year for example), you’ll want a pole with:

  • Durable shafts, probably aluminum (it’s easy to damage poles when they get stuck in snow)
  • Interchangeable snow baskets
  • Rubber grips (optional)

The REI Traverse (18.5 oz) is a good example in this category.

Budget Hiking Poles

All those fancy features are nice if you have the cash, but the truth is, most cheaper hiking poles will work just fine too. Here are some well-reviewed budget trekking poles: Cascade Mountain Tech Carbon (16 oz).

However, if you’re looking for a good deal on trekking poles, I recommend looking for used gear and watching for sales instead of deciding on one specific brand or model. Keep an eye on sites like REI Outlet, REI Used Gear, GearTrade.com, Sierra.com, and eBay for deals on new and used gear.

More Hiking Resources

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Pictures of trekking poles with text: Hiking Pole Buying Guide
Pictures of trekking poles with text: Hiking Pole Buying Guide
Pictures of woman using hiking poles on uphill, with text: how to use your hiking poles more effectively
Picture of hiker with text: how to correctly use trekking poles
Picture of trail with text: do trekking poles really help?

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