Trekking poles have become standard equipment for many hikers, trekkers, backpackers and snowshoers. The reasons why are simple: They enhance your stability and support on all types of terrain. When shopping for trekking poles, your key considerations should be weight, price, shock absorption, shaft construction and the type of grip. Here’s how to choose.
Why Use Trekking Poles?
Trekking poles offer a number of practical advantages:
- They provide better balance and footing.
- On downhill hikes especially, they decrease the amount of stress on your legs and joints.
- On uphill climbs, poles transfer some of your weight to your shoulders, arms and back, which can reduce leg fatigue and add thrust to your ascents.
- They make crossing streams, loose rocks and slippery surfaces such as ice and snow patches easier and safer.
- They help you establish a walking rhythm.
- They can push back overhanging vegetation from the trail and probe soggy terrain for holes and boggy spots.
Trekking poles are most helpful to those with weak or damaged knees or ankles, particularly when going downhill, because the poles absorb some of the impact that your body would normally sustain. According to a 1999 study in The Journal of Sports Medicine, trekking poles can reduce compressive force on the knees by up to 25%. This translates into literally tons of weight that your body will not have to support during the course of a regular hike.
It should be noted that using trekking poles will not decrease your overall energy expenditure since you’ll be using your arms more than you would when walking without poles. They do, however, help distribute your energy usage in a way that can help your hiking endurance.
Types of Trekking Poles
To start shopping, consider the strength and health of your ankles, knees and hips. You’ll also want to keep in mind whether you’ll be using your poles on rugged or relatively flat terrain and the amount of weight you typically carry in your pack.
Poles can be categorized as follows:
Antishock poles: These offer internal springs that absorb shock when you walk downhill. With most poles, this feature can be turned off when it’s not needed such as when you’re walking uphill. The antishock feature is recommended if you have weak or damaged ankles, knees or hips. It adds a bit to the cost of the poles.
Standard poles: These do not have the antishock feature and are lighter and less expensive as a result. While they don’t absorb as much impact as antishock poles when going downhill, they do provide a similar level of balance and support.
Compact or women’s poles: These are shorter and have smaller grips for hikers with smaller hands. They are easier to swing because they weigh less and are also simpler to pack. Youth poles for kids are also available.
Hiking staff: Sometimes called a walking staff or travel staff, this is a single pole that’s most effective when used on relatively flat terrain and with little or no load on your back. Hiking staffs are adjustable and some include the antishock feature. They may also include a built-in camera mount under the handle that can be used as a monopod.
Nordic walking poles: Long established in Europe, Nordic walking is gradually becoming popular in the U.S., too. It’s a social activity that offers a total body workout. Nordic walking poles are a modified version of trekking poles. REI does not currently carry poles designed for Nordic walking.
Shop REI’s selection of trekking poles and hiking staffs.
Weight and Price
These 2 factors go hand in hand. Typically the less poles weigh, the more they cost. Lightweight poles offer the advantage of less swing weight, which makes them easier and quicker to move. Over the course of a long hike this means less fatigue. Lighter poles are also easier to pack.
The makeup of the pole shaft is a key determinant of its weight and price.
- High-grade aluminum (7075-T6 or 7075): The stronger and the more economical choice, aluminum poles usually weigh between 18 and 22 ounces per pair. The actual weight (and price) can vary a bit based on the gauge of the pole, which ranges from 12 to 16mm. Under high stress, aluminum can bend but it is unlikely to break.
- Carbon fiber: The lighter and more expensive option, these poles average between 13 and 18 ounces per pair. They are good at reducing vibration and are also quite strong. Under high stress, however, carbon-fiber poles are more vulnerable to breakage or splintering than aluminum poles. If you hike in rugged, remote areas, this is something to keep in mind.
Trekking poles are identified by their 2 or 3 interlocking sections. This adjustability (which typically ranges between 24 to 55 inches) lets you adapt the poles to your height and the terrain. If you’re exceptionally tall or short, check the size range of each model to make sure it suits your body.
Most poles use a twist-and-lock system in which you find the desired length and then twist the pole hard to the right to hold. Some popular varieties:
- DuoLock: This trademarked feature on several REI and Komperdell poles applies a wide area of pressure against the pole walls to achieve secure length settings.
- FlickLock: This Black Diamond brand system is also strong. It’s a lever-based, clamp-like feature that is quick and easy to adjust, even when wearing gloves.
- Super Lock System: Leki’s system uses an expander and screw setup that is consistently strong and dependable.
- Stop Lock: This Komperdell system does not adjust pole length, but rather prevents pole sections from completely disengaging.
The shape and feel of a pole’s grip varies from brand to brand, so it’s preferable to try several models. Some grips are angled or positioned into the upper pole section so that they are ergonomically at a neutral angle. This can improve comfort and pole compactibility. Others feature grips that extend down the shaft, allowing you to grasp the poles more easily on short uphill sections. Keep in mind that many brands designate left- and right-hand poles on either the grip or the strap. Several materials (or a blending of materials) are used:
- Cork: This resists moisture from sweaty hands, decreases vibration and best conforms to the shape of your hands.
- Foam: This absorbs moisture from sweaty hands and is the softest to the touch.
- Rubber: This material insulates hands from cold, shock and vibration, so it’s a popular choice for cold-weather activities. The downside is that it’s more likely to chafe or blister sweaty hands, so it’s less suitable for warm-weather hiking.
As noted above, some poles come with an extended grip that allows a lower grip position. This feature is particularly useful on steep traverses so you don’t have to shorten the length of your up-slope pole.
Other Pole Considerations
Wrist straps: Most poles allow you to adjust the length of each strap in order to get a comfortable fit around your wrist. Since your palms and wrists will be in nearly constant contact with the straps, you may want to consider models with padded or lined straps to prevent chafing.
Baskets: Trekking poles are usually outfitted with a small, removable trekking basket. Larger baskets can be substituted for use in the snow or on soft, muddy ground.
Pole tips: Carbide or steel tips are commonly used to provide traction on most surfaces, even ice. Most poles also come with rubber tip protectors that extend the life of the tips and protect your gear when poles are stowed in your pack. These tips are also good for use in sensitive areas where you don’t want to negatively impact the ground. Angled rubber walking tips (usually sold separately) are for use on asphalt or other hard surfaces.
Sizing and Adjusting Poles
Each model differs slightly, but trekking poles usually adjust in size from about 24″ to 55″. Those in the compact pole category extend to a maximum of 49″. All trekking poles feature numbers on the shaft to help set length. The sections should be easy to adjust and shouldn’t come loose once you’ve selected a length.
To set the length, loosen the locking mechanism and slide each section to the desired length. Your elbow should be at a 90º angle. For maximum strength be sure to keep each section about the same length and avoid extending any section all the way to the end as this can stress the pole.
If the pole sections are not locking together, pull the pole completely apart, wind the expander nut to the widest setting you can while still allowing the nut to fit back into the pole cavity, and then reinsert the pole and twist to lock.
Proper pole length varies by the terrain:
- When hiking uphill: Shorten the poles by a few inches to increase load-bearing pressure.
- When going downhill: Lengthen the poles a few inches for better balance and control.
- On level ground: Your forearms should be parallel to the ground when you’re holding the grips and the tips are on the ground.
- On traverses: The down-slope pole should be longer than the up-slope pole (or you can simply grab the pole lower if it comes with an extended grip).
Using Pole Straps Effectively
Since wrist straps bear much of the load, it’s important to use them correctly. Be sure to put your hand up through the bottom of the strap, not down from the top, before grasping the grip. Adjust the strap so it fits snugly around your wrist.
Switching Off the Antishock System
The antishock system helps absorb stress when going downhill, but it’s best to turn it off when walking uphill or on level terrain. To do so on most models, simply push down to compress the spring and then turn the pole to lock it in place. Be sure to see the owner’s manual for specific details.
The most common complaint about trekking poles is that the locking mechanism will sometimes slip during use. This can usually be prevented with regular cleaning and drying of the locking mechanism. This maintenance also helps to add significantly to the lifespan of the poles by preventing internal corrosion.
Here is the general procedure for most poles (check the manufacturer’s instructions to confirm the procedure for your model):
- Completely separate the sections by unlocking or loosening each section until they can be pulled apart easily.
- Once the poles are dismantled, remove any dirt or moisture from the expander system and the seams between sections.
- Use a soft cloth to dry the connection points and the inside of the poles as much as possible. If necessary, use a soft nylon brush to remove any dirt or debris that may have gotten inside the poles. Note: Never use any kind of lubricant or alcohol-based product on the internal mechanisms as that could cause corrosion.
- Inspect the expander pieces for damage and replace parts if necessary.
- Once you have dismantled and cleaned the poles, allow them to air dry for at least several hours before reassembling.
Trekking Pole FAQs
Q: Can I use trekking poles for backcountry skiing?
A: It depends on the type of skiing. Sectioned poles are a great choice for backcountry downhill skiing with some models designed with that use in mind. On the other hand, classic cross-country ski touring requires a more aggressive pushing motion, so a standard one-piece skiing pole is usually better for that. Also, ski touring poles should be a bit longer, so taller people might find that trekking poles won’t extend far enough to suit them.
Q: Do trekking poles negatively affect trails? How can I reduce my environmental impact?
A: Much like hiking boots, trekking poles can cause at least some impact to a trail. They can scratch rocks, erode trails and potentially even harm vegetation alongside the trail. To minimize your impact, follow these practices:
- Keep the tips of your poles on the trail and not on the trailside vegetation.
- Avoid using poles in particularly sensitive areas where wildflowers or other vegetation are directly beside the trail. If you’re on flat terrain, consider saving them for uphill and downhill sections only in order to minimize soil damage.
- Use rubber pole tip protectors to cover the carbide point so they won’t dig into the ground as deeply. The use of pole baskets can, in certain circumstances, also minimize the penetration of pole tips into the ground.
- Remove pole baskets in areas where they can unnecessarily snag and damage vegetation.
Q: What are the downsides of antishock poles?
A: The antishock feature is especially helpful for those with weak ankles, knees or hips, but it does add somewhat to the weight and price of trekking poles. If you primarily want trekking poles for balance and support, you can probably do without the antishock feature.
Q: Any other uses for trekking poles?
A: Yes, trekking poles offer multiple secondary functions.
- Backpackers commonly use their poles as a handy place to store duct tape for in-the-field repairs. Simply wrap a few strips around the poles.
- Ultralight backpackers who camp with a tarp shelter rather than a tent often use their trekking poles as support poles for the shelter.
- Hikers can use their poles as a probe when confronting a water hazard.
- If you injure an ankle or knee while hiking, poles can double as an emergency crutch or even a makeshift splint.
- Why Use Trekking Poles?
- Types of Trekking Poles
- Key Considerations
- How to Use Trekking Poles
- Pole Maintenance
- Trekking Pole FAQs
- Quick Tip: Trekking Pole Adjustment (0:50)
- Quick Tip: Trekking Pole Length (0:59)
- Quick Tip: Trekking Pole Straps (0:43)
- Quick Tip: Carry Some Duct Tape (0:15)