I have hiked and backpacked for years without trekking poles. I’ve seen plenty of people using them, but always thought they would be more of a nuisance than a help. My views have changed, with this caveat: trekking poles are great when you use them correctly. Sadly, most people I see on the trails do not — something easily remedied.
How do trekking poles help?
There are several reasons for using trekking poles:
- Trekking poles can relieve the strain on your back and legs. A landmark study published by Dr. G. Neureuther in 1981 proved that use of “ski poles” while walking reduces the pressure strain on the opposite leg by approximately 20%.
- Poles can help your balance, especially important for stream crossings with a heavy backpack.
- Trekking poles can improve your workout, allowing you to burn 20-40% more calories.
Last year on a hike up Mt. San Jacinto, I borrowed a pair of trekking poles from my friend Richard. Beforehand, I studied the proper technique for holding and using the poles over at Pete’s Pole Pages — a great resource.
The verdict? I’m hooked. Trekking poles make a huge difference, especially on hilly terrain or with a backpack. I bought a pair of Black Diamond poles before my recent backpacking trip on the Trans-Catalina trail, and they saved my back, my knees and my butt more than once. The steep inclines of the Trans-Catalina trail would’ve been treacherous without them, and my legs would’ve given out long before reaching camp.
There are some negatives, but those are pretty obvious. First, they can be a nuisance when you want to take a photo or pull out a map — anything that requires your hands. And they tend to get in the way on narrow trails with thick plant growth. You get pretty good at learning to stow them soon enough.
What is the proper technique for hiking with trekking poles?
There are three basic rules you need to follow:
RULE #1 – Adjust the height properly. This is a subjective adjustment, but adjusting the top of the pole to line up with your belt-line is a good starting point. You may go shorter for steep uphills, or longer for steep downhills. EXPERT TIP: keep the top section completely collapsed and use the lower section to adjust to the proper height. Then tweak the top section as needed for up-or-downhill hiking.
RULE #2 – Use the wrist straps properly. This is the number one problem that I see — most people haven’t learned how to use the wrist straps. It’s not really intuitive, but when used properly, your wrist strap will support your weight without requiring you to grip the hand at all!
RULE #3 – Swing the poles with rhthym. This is something you never really stop to think about, but even without poles your arms swing as you walk. When you put your right foot forward, your left arm swings forward as well. Our body does this to help maintain smooth balance as we move. With trekking poles, it’s no different. Plant the left pole forward as you step forward with your right foot (and vice versa). Develop a rhythm and put some energy into each “plant” and you’ll find you can literally propel yourself forward with the poles.
A few bonus pole tips
Here’s a few words of wisdom that you may not find at the store or in the manual:
- Given the choice between twist-lock or flick-lock adjustable poles, get the flick-lock. They are more reliable and much easier to use.
- Regardless of what type of locking system, store your poles unlocked. This will increase the longevity of the locks.
- Stow the baskets in your pack. They are not only good for snow, but also useful in loose scree.
- Backpacking? Wrap a 3 foot length of duct tape around the top-most section of the pole. Now you’ve got an on-the-go repair kit that’s easy to find.
More Trekking Pole Resources
- Cascade Mountain Tech Trekking Poles – These are carbon fiber with cork grips and flick-locks, and exactly what I use. You can get them on Amazon or in season Costco often carries them.
If cost is no object, these Black Diamond trekking poles are the ones I originally bought.
- Pete’s Pole Pages – Truly one of the best resources on how to properly use your trekking poles. Highly recommended!
- POLES for Hiking, Trekking and Walking – This instructional DVD is a little cheesy, but I picked up some good pointers.
Great tip on using the straps properly. Most of the people I see using poles are not using this method. It really makes a huge difference. Also I just got that same pair of Black Diamond poles. I love the cork grips. The feel is so much nicer compared to my previous pair which had plastic grips covered in some sort of soft touch material. The only caveat is that I’ve heard that rodents will sometimes gnaw the cork handles (they absorb salty sweat from your hands), so it’s probably a good idea to take some extra caution with them when backpacking.
I know these are demonstration videos only, but I love that you are giving all these important tips on pole usage, but then you saunter off in flip-flops.
Poles are my next purchase so i’m really glad I came across your blog on this! Very informative.
This was an interesting article thank you. I also could not see the point in trekking poles, in fact I used to own some, used it once or twice, then never used them gain. I found it was a hindrance more than an aid. However after reading this article I am convinced. The advice on the technique is also very helpful, especially how to use the straps, great detailed information there. Not sure if I will get a pair though, as I am only just getting back into hiking, and want to keep costs low.
While I agree that they can get in the way on narrow trails, or bushy trails, they are also really quite helpful on them as well. Using the poles as a stick effectively, you can prevent your hands from doing the dirty work, save your legs from nettles and check for wildlife you don’t want to get near to, such as snakes(not that in the UK I have come across much wildlife), checking the stability of the ground.
They are a useful tool to have.
p.s i agree with the flip flop point haha.
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Jeff Hester says
Thanks, Alec. I’m glad you found this useful. I don’t use trekking poles all the time. Usually the qualifier for me is either carrying a backpack or covering distance with a lot of downhill.
Trekking poles don’t help me so much on the uphill unless it’s really steep (or again, I’m carrying a backpack). But they save my knees on long downhills.
I took a look at your site. I see you are in Wales. I’ve never hiked there before, but I’m hoping to make it there in the next few years. Good luck on the site!
Thank you, yeh you should definitely check Wales out for hiking, while the weather and the diversity of California can’t be found in Wales, there are some fantastic locations, I recommend North Wales, for challenging hikes.
Doris Blanchet says
Great article Jeff!
My husband swore against trekking poles – ‘not the manly thing’. That quickly changed after doing the Kalalau Trail in Kauai – where a rain spell had him slipping dangerously on a narrow muddy path to crushing waves below! After I had to give up one of my poles for him to use – it’s funny how he quickly changed his tune!
Now it’s a manly thing to have them! 🙂
And the article on the Kalalau Trail ..
Jeff Hester says
Sounds like an amazing — and scary — trail. Hiking poles aren’t really a sign of weakness, but of intelligence. Used properly, that is.
How do trekking poles improve your workout and burn more calories? Can you elaborate?
Jeff Hester says
I’m not an expert in physiology, but the non-profit research firm The Cooper Institute studied this and found that “nordic walking” (walking with poles) burned about 20% more calories than walking without them: http://www.cooperinstitute.org/nordic-walking
In my personal experience. I have found that they can really make a difference, especially climbing hills. I’m able to transfer some of the effort to my arms, essentially pulling myself up the hill.
Interesting … thanks. I always assumed the opposite. For me personally, hiking with the poles seems to make things easier and it feels like less of a workout.
Martin Rye says
The 1981 report is often mentioned but I have never found it. I asked Chris Townsend once if he has and he said no.
There has been research recently that proves the benefits. Alp Kit had some I recall, and KLETS good pice here http://www.klets.co.uk/walking_pole_report.pdf
I also don’t use straps with poles and feel they offer little. In truth people are forcing huge amount of force onto their wrists and risk injury.
Your video I feel shows poor hight for a pole. But there is no exact hight. Pacer Poles are by far the best design going and efficient. But often the pole needs to go away and hands need to be free to grab rocks and the like on descents. Too many people get focused on their poles offering support on decent and ignore the fact they need to be holding a rock and taking their time safely getting down.
Also often narrow trails and deep vegetation to the side mean the pole is useless as you cant get them to be effective. Trekking Poles are superb and I have used for over 16 years now. Backpacking I always have a pair.
On river crossings I also suggest one is best on deep rivers. Hold it tight and move carefully with small movements. I have found that much more controlled than two on deep water crossings.
I have never met an old person saying not using poles saved their knees, but many have said taking up using trekking poles saved their walking trips ending from bad knee pain.
David Sussman (@DavidSussman) says
Very helpful article! I have found the poles with internal shocks are most effective, especially on descents. As someone with knee problems, they are very much appreciated. Thanks.
Wow, $2 ,250 hiking poles (following Amazon link) 🙂
Thanks for this article, very helpful.
Jeff Hester says
That is CRAZY, Rick! I didn’t spend that much for mine. I’m guessing that model is no longer in production. I’ll update the link to the current comparable model.
EDIT: I just checked the link and that model is still available and listed for $109 (which is a little less than what I payed a few years ago). Not sure why Amazon was listing it over $2000. Weird.
Thank you Jeff,
Would you know how these poles compare to the Black Diamond Alpine Carbon Cork ones?
why would you want to burn 20%-40% more calories while hiking or backpacking?? that would require more than 20%-40% more food and water to carry, because not only do you have to carry more food and water for meals to make up for the additional exercise of using your arms, but you also have to carry more food and water to make up for the additional calories burned while carrying extra food and water. Not to mention you have to waste time and money preparing the extra food, and you have to work more at your job to buy the additional food. If the 20% to 40% extra calories burned is true, trekking poles would be an utter waste,
Jeff Hester says
Alina — I haven’t tried the carbon poles, but both my wife and I have Black Diamond poles and have been very happy with them. No problems at all in five years of use.
Scott — You make a good point. I’m just reporting the data here (the link goes to the source of that info), but I cannot vouch for it’s accuracy. I will say that you should do what works for you, and that’s something that only experience — not I or anyone else — can tell you. I know that I used to scoff a the idea of using trekking poles, and now I wouldn’t backpack without them. That being said, there are times when I stow them, and on most hikes <10 miles or <2000 ft vertical gain I don't bring them along.
Oh, and when I am backpacking, I'm always running a caloric deficit (most people do). I couldn't carry enough food to compensate for what I'm burning. If it's a long hike (like the JMT) I make up for the deficit somewhat when I hit the resupply points.
Hi, Jeff. Thanks for a great write-up on trekking poles. I’m 40 years old/5’8″/average weight and have just taken up moderate-level hiking over the past year. I’m planning two group hiking trips next year…one to Montana/Canadian Rockies and one to Iceland. Can you please tell me which poles, in your opinion, would be preferable…the one size ones or the 74-140 cm ones? Do you think they’re both equally reliable? I would love your input. Thanks, and happy hiking.
Jeff Hester says
MM – my personal preference and the poles that I use are telescopic. I like the Black Diamond poles because they have a camber-lock rather than a twist-lock (which I’ve heard is more prone to fail).
There are several benefits to adjustable poles. First, they are convenient for storage and travel. But the key on the trail is that you can adjust the length for the kind of terrain you’re on. Heading downhill? You can lengthen them a bit. Going uphill? Make them shorter. Going across a steep slope? You can adjust them to different lengths to match the slope.
Personally, I would never use fixed-length poles unless I knew I was going to be on fairly consistently flat or gently sloping terrain.
Excellent article Jeff. I started using trekking poles a couple years ago for steep trails and found them helpful. I admit, I didn’t like having both hands occupied so I switched to using just one trekking pole on my hikes. Granted, using a single pole probably doesn’t provide any benefit for reducing back and knee strain, but it has sure been helpful on the steep and slippery sections of trail.
I started with the twist-lock trekking poles and after every one of them eventually failed–a couple times while on the mountain–I switched over to the flick-lock type. By the way, thanks for including the tutorial on the proper way to use the straps. I first learned the technique from a hiking buddy while hiking down the steep and slippery east slope of Baldy on the Devi’ls Backbone Trail. That one easy-to-correct tip has made a huge difference in comfort and stability.
After reading this article and watching the videos, I will probably go back to using both trekking poles on my hikes. Love the video on how to walk with the trekking poles and glad you were wearing flip-flops while demonstrating. Having a cold beer and busting out the flip flops after a long hike is an awesome feeling..
I do all the same techniques with the exception of pole height. When I first got my poles I watched a lot of how to videos that said the poles should be adjusted so that your arm is at a 45 degree angle. Then make adjustments for uphill or down. I will have to give your suggestion a try next time. But other than that, all the way down to the duck tape, I do all the same things. I like the duck tape on my hiking poles more than on a water bottle. I do wrap a bit more length of duck tape on my poles. The poles and tape make a great stretcher if needed on the trail. 🙂
I have the twist lock kind of pole and only twice have I had an issue because the mechanism got dirty from stream crossings, etc. This video works great for all kinds of twist lock poles. 🙂 https://youtu.be/AnuI-Z4nPCw
Bill Dickson says
I don’t know if this was already covered in the comments but I would also not recommend buying the shock absorbing poles. While the extra give sounds appealing in the store, it becomes a hindrance on the trail. Even though my poles have a locking “no shock” option, they frequently slip out of the locked position.The extra give causes problems when trying to support myself on steeper downhills. Not to mention the extra weight the shocks add.
As someone who has had off-and-on knee problems when doing longer hikes, hiking poles have been invaluable for me. I’d add a few more items to your “reasons for using hiking poles” list:
1. Help you keep your stride or pace (good for getting into a consistent walking rhythm)
2. More control and stability on downhills
3. Extra points of contact for river crossings
4. Whacking bushes, branches and spider webs out of the way (especially handy if you’re hiking in the early morning when no other hikers have cleared the spiderwebs from the trail with their face yet 🙂
5. Testing a sketchy looking rock before you put weight on it
6. Fending off animals like snakes or small rodents (you never know…)
7. Supports for pitching a tarp (whether you plan to sleep in a tarp or need to set one up in an emergency)
8. For emergency litter or splint construction
The rest of your tips and recommendations are spot-on, in my experience. I’ve fleshed out my list of benefits a bit more here: https://adventures.hartleybrody.com/hiking-poles/ Thanks for sharing this article!
Bev T says
Everything I’ve learned about trekking poles is that they should be at a 90 degree angle. Even REI states that on their website. Why do you say lower?
Coach Bleecker says
This is the best article I read about hiking. Many many thanks for sharing with us. I hope you will post more article such like this.
Ron Derringer says
I’ve used one hickory broomstick with an embedded brass point for decades. It is useful on rough terrain, especially downhill. However, it gets in the way on steep terrain. It is great for stream crossing. It has taken my full body weight in dicey situations and has served as a glissade device. I dispense with it when I want to move fast on flat ground. Two poles would simply get in my way too often. And, I would never trust carbon or aluminum to save my life in full body and pack weight situations. Increased calorie burn is another very good reason Not to use them on a long trip. My suspicion is that hiking poles are promoted because they are, probably, the highest markup priced device they have for sale.