I bought my first pair of trekking poles while training for my Appalachian Trail thru hike, which was also my first backpacking trip. I thought I was hiking just fine without them, but every AT gear list recommended a pair. Well those $100 poles were soon left on the roof of my car, driving away from a trailhead. But my second pair, whew boy, I fell in love fast. Now I rarely hit the trail without poles, even for short hikes.
As with most outdoor gear, there is initial sticker shock and a question of “Do I really need these?” Lightweight, long distance options can set you back a pretty penny, but I got a thousand miles from a set of $60 Black Diamond Trail Sport 2.
If you’re on the fence about the purchase, perhaps borrow some from a friend or find a cheap pair on clearance to test out. I highly recommend trying poles at some point, especially if you have limited mobility or plan to hike regularly. Here are the basics to help you get acclimated.
How to Use Trekking Poles
Place your hand up through the bottom of the strap and grab the handle. The brand logo will typically face you if the strap is positioned correctly. This baffled me for some time.
There is no correct rhythm to hiking with poles. I scoped many other hikers’ techniques on the AT, convinced there was some proper method. Nah. Poles are tools, use them however you need. The first few miles may feel clunky, but you’ll find your groove before long.
I typically place a pole for every step, opposite my feet (right pole with left step). Sort of like using an elliptical machine. Some hikers take two steps for every pole placement or carry only one pole to use as needed. Some people find poles intrusive and skip them altogether.
Here are two common poles types:
On the left is a Masters brand pole with two places to extend the pole length. This is a fairly standard set up. After adjusting the length, you screw or clip/lock the joints in place. Read user review before purchasing. Some models are notorious for loosening at the joints and collapsing during use. For best effect, shorten the poles a bit heading uphill, and lengthen them going down.
On the right are my Black Diamond Distance Z trekking poles. These are fixed-length poles, meaning the length can’t be adjusted once they’re locked in place. You just pick a size depending on your height. I really loved my Distance Z poles until one snapped in half after less than 500 miles of use, causing my worst fall to date. I still use the replacement pair Black Diamond provided, but I’m quick to note if they’re feeling wobbly.
When you’re standing still holding the pole straight down to the ground, your elbow should rest at a comfortable 90 degrees. My shoulders default to a slouch, especially carrying a pack, so I use the poles help straighten my posture.
Here’s a great article if you want to nerd out over specific parts of the pole and how to best adjust for your height.
When to Use Them
The extra two points of contact provide a general boost in speed and agility. They also support whatever weight you’re carrying on your back. If you have limited mobility, or feel uncertain about uneven terrain, poles provide a great deal of steadiness and confidence with each step. They add a control to your movement, regardless of age or experience.
Trekking poles are incredibly helpful when traversing technical terrain, which is to say rocks, roots, snow, etc. The more stability you have crossing rain-slick rocks and slippery mud, the better. I can’t tell you how many stumbles and twisted ankles I have prevented with last minute, steadying pole saves.
You may notice their usefulness more with elevation than on flat terrain. Going uphill, trekking poles engage your arms, upper back, and shoulders to pull you forward, taking some strain off your legs. I personally find them even more effective going downhill, offsetting weight from my knees and hips. The cumulative effect of this cannot be overstated. The more ups and downs, the more your body with thank you for using poles.
God forbid you encounter aggressive wildlife, but it doesn’t hurt to have something at hand to defend yourself. In the case of bears, raise the poles over your head and clack the together to appear larger than you are. (Lots more bear safety tips to come.)
Poles have countless other utilities, from clearing away spider webs and overgrown brush, to testing the depth of a water crossing. They’re wonderful to lean on when you need to stop and catch your breath. Some ultralight tents even use trekking poles as their support system. Many people swear by Hyperlite tents, I’d like to try one out.
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For what it’s worth, my next purchase will be a pair of extendable Leki poles. I have yet to hear a Leki owner complain about their purchase.
I hope you found this brief introduction to trekking poles helpful. Comment below with thoughts, questions, and other helpful tips!