Trekking poles may not be… ok, definitely aren’t… the sexiest piece of hiking gear. Yet their presence or absence impacts every step we take. Like shoes we feel with each stride or a backpack we carry all day, trekking poles quietly shape the tone of our trail adventures.
And yet, how much do most hikers actually know about why we’re carrying these sticks, keeping our hands full and making it harder to take pictures or scarf trail mix on-the-go? We’ve heard they protect our knees and save energy, but the actual science isn’t always quite so clear. Are hiking poles even worth it?
As in many other domains, experience tends to foster appreciation of nuance. Ask a seasoned long-distance backpacker whether they use trekking poles, and they might respond with “What’s the trail like? How many miles am I trying to cover? How heavy is my pack?”
Hiking poles can be a valuable tool if chosen carefully, wielded correctly, and matched with the right kinds of terrain. Otherwise, they can just get in the way, or worse, promote bad movement habits.
This is your guide to leveling up your trekking pole expertise so you can get the most out of this often-misunderstood piece of gear. You’ll learn how to use trekking poles, when they’re most helpful, and how to choose between the many options if you’re looking to buy a new pair.
There’s a lot of information in this post, so use these quick links if you want to jump straight to one of these sections:
- When are poles most helpful?
- How to use trekking poles effectively
- Buyer’s guide: what to look for in hiking poles
- Best poles for different use cases
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 general guidelines that should get most people 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 when hiking downhill, 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 feel easier, downhills smoother, and have saved me personally from many potential faceplants on slippery or rocky trails. They’re also great for rugged routes with slippery snow, water crossings, boulder hopping, or bushwhacking.
Backpackers in particular tend to find hiking poles worthwhile. For one thing, many lightweight shelters use them 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. At the end of a very long hiking day, I notice that using poles takes the slightest bit of weight off my sore feet.
Finally, if you’re on a multi-week hike and concerned about your upper body strength withering to nothing while your legs go into beast mode, a vigorous hiking pole rhythm can keep your arms and shoulders just a tiny bit more active.
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 your hike involves any scrambling / class 3 terrain, you might prefer to have hands free for balance.
If you have trouble finding the right rhythm, trekking poles can feel awkward. On smooth flat ground, sometimes a quick walking gait is faster than a comfortable pole plant rhythm. On rough ground it can be mentally tiring to focus on where to plant the poles; two feet are already enough to worry about.
On narrow trail through delicate environments like alpine tundra, we do minor damage with our poke-poke-poking. 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 to use trekking poles:
I use trekking poles for: backpacking trips or long day hikes involving lots of up and down, rough trail or cross-country hiking, or special conditions like snow, lots of water crossings, or bushwhacking through dense brush.
I don’t use trekking poles for: short or casual hikes, especially on smooth and flat trails. On the other side of the spectrum, scrambles where I often need my hands for balance.
How to Use Hiking Poles
Now that we’ve covered the “why” and “when,” let’s talk how to use trekking poles. As with any tool, they’re most helpful when used correctly.
How to Hold Hiking Poles
Most hiking poles have a grip and a strap. Grips are often molded to fit a hand shape. 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 (this is a common mistake) through the strap. Then, separate your thumb from your fingers, lower your hand and wrap it around the grip so 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.
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 it will slip and your poles will be useless.
For telescoping poles with two joints / three sections, often they are labeled so that both joints must be set to the desired length for the total length to be correct. It’s best to use these markings so that the joints are evenly adjusted.
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:
|Height||Suggested 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.)|
Adjusting Pole Length For Hills
The ideal pole length depends on whether you’re hiking uphill or downhill. Don’t bother stopping to adjust for every little rolling hill, but do consider it for long climbs or descents.
Since your poles land out in front of you as you’re walking, they should be adjusted to still create that 90 degree bend in your elbow when they land either uphill or downhill from your feet. This means they should be longer for downhill and shorter for uphill. A couple inches is a good place to start. Adjust more for steeper hills.
Hiking Uphill: Use Poles for Power
Poles provide extra “oomf” when hiking uphill, letting our upper body muscles help out so our legs and hips don’t have to work as hard. Drive the poles firmly down and back as you hike, using them to keep forward momentum going smoothly throughout your entire stride. You might be surprised how much they can help power you forward.
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 control our speed when walking downhill. Using poles can take some load off these muscles so they tire less quickly. Poles can also help with balance and traction on steep or slippery downhills.
Hike With One Pole
If you feel like it’s taking a lot of mental effort to figure out where to plant your pole tips, or you’re just planting them haphazardly without getting much benefit, try stashing one in your pack and hiking with a pole in only one hand.
Usually your dominant hand is most comfortable, but sometimes it’s nice to trade off, or it might depend on the terrain.
Get 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. Here are the most common 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 step forward with one leg and plant the pole you’re holding in the opposite arm. Vary the timing slightly to see what feels good. Usually I plant the pole a split second after my foot hits the ground, but many people plant and step at the same time.
Both poles together: To support a big step down, establish balance by planting both poles at the same time and then take your step. You can do the same to give extra “oomph” for a big step up.
Two steps for one pole plant: Cruising along too quickly to swing poles easily? Try one pole plant for every two steps. It’s not as powerful, but it’ll give you something to do with your arms.
Single pole: When using one pole, it usually makes sense to plant it once every time the opposite leg steps. If needed for balance, plant it intentionally wherever it’s the most helpful. Switch hands from time to time to keep things even.
Use Poles for Balance on Difficult Terrain
When the trail gets rocky or you need to scoot across that narrow log bridge above the creek, trekking poles can be your best friend. Just keep in mind that the tips can slip, so plant them carefully and avoid leaning on them heavily in precarious positions.
Poles can and do break, especially the 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.
Stash or Carry When Not Needed
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.
For longer stretches when you want your hands free, fold them and attach them to your pack. Most backpacking packs, and some day packs and even running vests, have loops designed for this. 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.
Trekking Pole Buying Guide: What to Look For
For such a simple concept – basically a stick with a handle on the top – there are a surprising number of options to choose from! Here’s what to look for when buying trekking poles, and how to choose the pair that’s best for your needs.
If you’re new to the world of outdoor gear (welcome!), you can buy trekking poles at local outdoor gear stores like REI, or online at a variety of sites, including Amazon. I’ve linked to several below.
Note: if you’re wondering about the difference between trekking poles, hiking poles, hiking sticks, walking poles… There is none, as far as I can tell. They’re all just synonyms for the same equipment. You might find some sold as a single pole, often called a “hiking staff,” but otherwise poles are sold in pairs.
Adjustable vs. Fixed Length
Adjustable poles are a smart choice for most hikers, because they allow you to dial in the exact right length for your body and terrain. 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. They usually have a telescoping design, meaning they adjust (and collapse for packing) by sliding the two or three sections into one another.
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 long distance or fast-and-light folks. Fixed-length poles usually fold down into three sections connected by an inner cable, which is why they’re sometimes called z-poles.
Partially adjustable poles are a middle ground between the two, and a relatively new design. They’re available in several sizes, but also allow small adjustments within each size. Three segments fold in z-pole style, and one of the segments also has a short-range telescoping adjustment. They’re actually slightly shorter than fixed-length z-poles when folded, thanks to the telescoping segment, but also slightly heavier.
Weight comparison: For the same brand and materials, fixed-length foldable poles tend to be the lightest and telescoping adjustable poles tend to be the heaviest. You can see this in the following comparison between three different carbon trekking pole models from Black Diamond:
Which adjustment type is best? If you travel a lot for hiking, often carry poles on your pack, or are a fastpacker or ultralight hiker, you might prefer lightweight folding poles. Most other hikers do well with telescoping poles.
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 doubt you’ll miss this feature. It adds weight, can make annoying noises, and gives you less pushing power on uphills. 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
Hiking poles generally range from around 10 – 20 ounces per pair, with the 13 – 17 ounce range being most common. On the lighter end of this range, poles are referred to as lightweight or even ultralight. The difference is usually a product of the adjustment mechanism, material, and to some extent design.
How much does trekking pole weight matter? Since poles are long and need to be swung with each step, extra weight in the shaft and tip will definitely be noticeable (thank you physics). Grip weight is less noticeable, unless the poles are attached to your pack.
Most poles have shafts made of aluminum. They might be more durable if they’re high quality, but on the heavier end of the spectrum they can feel sluggish and resistant to swinging quickly. They also add more weight to your pack if you choose to stash them.
Lightweight poles are usually made of carbon, are more expensive, and may not be adjustable. They’re also slightly more likely to break under extreme stress, like getting caught between two rocks while you barrel ahead.
So do you need lightweight poles? If you’re on a tight budget or consider yourself a “traditional” backpacker who mostly enjoys casual trips and appreciates your campsite comforts, a durable mid-weight pole will be a good balance of value and comfort. If you’re a thru hiker, fastpacker, lightweight backpacking enthusiast, or just pride yourself on a brisk stride, you might find lightweight poles worth the tradeoffs (and the money).
Other Things to Look For
Three Piece vs. Two Piece: Telescoping poles consist of either three slide-able sections or two. Three piece poles collapse down a bit shorter than two piece poles, but otherwise they work similarly.
Maximum Length: Most folks won’t have to worry about this, but if you’re on the tall side, check to make sure the poles extend long enough to fit you comfortably.
Grip Material: The most important thing about grips is that they feel comfortable in your hand. I wouldn’t choose trekking poles based solely on grip type, but it’s nice to at least know what you’re getting.
- Cork grips are heavier but mold 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 and also absorb sweat well, 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. Not very comon.
Interchangeable Tips: Some poles come with both rubber and metal or carbide tips, or the option to buy them separately. Metal or carbide (a hard material made of both metal and carbon) provide secure grip in dirt, but slip easily on hard surfaces like granite and can damage soft surfaces like sandstone. Use carbide or metal tips for most normal hiking, and rubber tips for fragile areas or long distances on rock.
Snow Baskets: Most trekking poles come with “trekking baskets,” which are just the normal discs near the tips that prevent 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.
Locking Mechanisms: There are several different ways to lock telescoping poles 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 reliable than the other two, but it depends on the quality and manufacturer.
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 by Use Case
If you’re still wondering how to choose trekking poles, here are some top picks in each category. It’s hard to go wrong with these solid options from reliable brands.
Casual Day Hikes or Backpacking Trips
If you aim for the sweet spot between lightweight and comfortable, fast and slow, value and top-end, then a mid-range pole will likely suit you. Look for a fully adjustable telescoping shaft, cork grips, and good buyer reviews for durability and a reliable locking mechanism.
Long Distance Backpacking
Thru-hikers tackling multi-month adventures like the Pacific Crest Trail will usually want a pole that is lightweight yet durable, up to the challenge of spending months on the trail. They may also want snow baskets, depending on timing and snowpack.
If your style tends more toward ultralight, you’ll also want to check out the even lighter hiking poles in the next section.
Fastpacking, Ultralight Backpacking, 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 want an ultralight hiking pole. Look for a lightweight foldable carbon shaft, foam grips, and a short folded length that can easily attach to your pack when you need your hands free.
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.
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. The Cascade Mountain Tech Carbon (16 oz) are budget trekking poles with an average Amazon rating of 4.7 stars – not bad!
You can also find great deals on trekking poles by looking for used gear and watching for sales. Keep an eye on sites like REI Outlet, REI Used Gear, GearTrade.com, Sierra.com, and eBay for deals on both new and used gear.
More Hiking Resources
If you’re thinking about buying trekking poles, you might also like these other hiking resources:
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