Backcountry Hiking Safety and Survival

Trekking Poles 101: Don’t Hit The Trail Without Them!

From the beginning of time, mankind has used some form of hand-held stabilization tool when traveling on foot over less than ideal terrain. The simplest tool was the walking stick, which often had humble beginnings as a fallen branch from a nearby tree.

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When viewed through today’s eyes of some beginner hikers however, it might seem as though trekking poles are an unnecessary piece of equipment which just get in the way, limit mobility, and add weight to the overall gear kit.

Besides, aren’t trekking poles just for older hikers with weak knees who need the assistance to get down steep hills?

Absolutely not.

No matter your age or fitness level, trekking poles can be invaluable to anyone out on the trail. They do much more than just help with balance and support; they take pressure off the joints in your legs, help you keep a steady pace when hiking, and often help you to hike uphill with less physical exertion.

Uphill Terrain

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When I first used trekking poles on that long-ago hike to Mt. LeConte in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the many advantages they provided while going uphill were invaluable.

I was not in the best hiking shape in those days, and trekking poles provided me with much appreciated assistance while climbing steep, rocky terrain. Traveling uphill with trekking poles allows the hiker to utilize upper body muscles in addition to their leg muscles to help propel themselves uphill.

Now, whenever I hike uphill with trekking poles, I use them to give me an extra boost with every step I take. I usually find myself planting the poles into the ground in front of me, and then using them to propel myself forward for the next few strides.

To put it into perspective, whenever I hike without my trekking poles (which I must admit, is almost never), I quickly notice that my legs become fatigued at a faster rate. In addition, the added stability that trekking poles provide becomes beneficial during climbs at the end of a tiring day.

Admittedly, I’m not the most graceful hiker out there. In fact, I’m really, really clumsy. Hiking with trekking poles prevents me from tripping over my own feet or even the tiniest root or rock as I push through those long, and frequently steep, miles before getting to camp.

Flat Terrain

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When you’re hiking along on straight, flat, and smooth trail with no roots or rocks to worry about, wouldn’t trekking poles would be entirely unnecessary?

Again, no.

Whenever I’ve found myself hiking on easy, flat terrain, I still use trekking poles to my advantage. I do this by allowing them to guide my movements forward and help keep a consistent pace in my stride.

How?

Think of the last time you went for a run or jog. A fundamental part of proper running technique is to swing the arms in sync with the legs as you travel forward. This not only helps to keep our balance, but it also helps keep a consistent pace.

This same principal applies to using trekking poles on flat terrain; the extra arm motion helps the hiker stride forward, without any deviation in speed.

Downhill Terrain

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The most obvious advantage of using trekking poles is to use them when hiking on downhill terrain. I have found that the biggest perk of using trekking poles is that they do a tremendous job assisting hikers who are traveling down steep trails.

Not only does this assistance come from improved balance, but it also comes in the form of reduced stress on the ankle and knee joints.

When hiking downhill, I always extend the length of my trekking poles so I get a longer reach with them. Then, I plant them out in front of my body and use the stabilization they provide to bring myself forward and down the trail.

This technique places a fair amount of your body weight on the trekking poles, but not so much that the poles risk losing their structural integrity. I’ve also found that having a pair of poles with a knob at the top of the handle is helpful, as I usually find myself gripping the top of the pole more often while traveling downhill.

Water Crossings

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Not only are trekking poles useful when hiking over varied terrain, they are also useful for water crossings. Nothing makes me more thankful to have trekking poles than emerging out of the woods and coming upon a fast-moving creek with no bridge in sight.

Trekking poles provide essential stability when fording through any water, whether fast or slow-moving. When fording, make sure each time you plant the trekking pole that it’s secure on the bottom before moving forward. If the water is deep, lengthen the poles.

Tent Poles

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Some lightweight tents and tarps require trekking poles for proper pitching. If you own one of these, make sure you have poles that work not only for you but also for your tent or tarp. Most often, adjustable poles will work best for tents and tarps because you can fine-tune the length to make setup easier.

Essential Gear

Whether trekking poles are being utilized for extra stabilization, to reduce pressure on leg joints, or to simply propel a hiker over a giant boulder, they are a valuable piece of gear that routinely make it onto the gear lists of experienced hikers of all ages.

It is entirely possible to have a safe, successful hike without trekking poles, but I’m confident that once the initial awkwardness of transforming into a quadruped subsides, every avid hiker will eventually recognize the advantages provided by trekking poles.

Over the past five years, I have used one pair of poles. The [amazon_textlink asin=’B01M08L2F1′ text=’Black Diamond Alpine Carbon Cork’ template=’ProductLink’ store=’travelswit0f1-20′ marketplace=’US’ link_id=’2bb8e63a-7fc6-11e8-8029-2f743ba9ba4f’] poles are, in my opinion, the best poles that money can buy. They are virtually indestructible, lightweight and sturdy. If the metal carbide tip breaks off, just buy a pair of replacement tips – no need to replace the entire pole

My Black Diamond poles traveled with me to Africa and suffered abuse from less-than-careful baggage handlers without a scratch.

For a more budget friendly option, I recommend [amazon_textlink asin=’B00XM0YGW8′ text=’Cascade Mountain Tech’ template=’ProductLink’ store=’travelswit0f1-20′ marketplace=’US’ link_id=’4a1ff2fe-7fc6-11e8-b953-5b59919a0097′] poles.  I have a pair that I use as a “loaner” pair.  They are not as high quality or durable as the Black Diamond poles, but the price is fantastic.

Disclosure: Post may contain affiliate links which means I may earn a slight commission if you make a purchase by using my link.

CLICK HERE FOR MORE TREKKING POLES OPTIONS

What are your experiences using poles?  Do you even use them?  Any helpful tips? Let me know in a comment below.

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10 Comments

  1. What a great idea! I’m headed to Scotland later this summer and hadn’t even thought of bringing trekking poles – but they’re sure to help make the highlands easier to hike!

    1. Definitely consider taking them! I’m headed to Ireland next week and will be bringing mine. I plan to summit Carrauntoohil, the highpoint of Ireland. My trekking poles will travel in my checked baggage with the rubber tips attached and duct-taped to the bottom of the bag.

  2. I don’t hike that often, and I’ve rarely used trekking poles. But I do remember using them at some point, and they made such a huge difference. If I decide to get more outdoors-y, I’ll remember this post. Thanks for sharing this.

  3. I wish I would have read this sooner! My husband and I went to Alaska last summer and I did my first real major hike… trekking poles would have been amazing to have!

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