The Advantages of Trekking Poles 101

Since the beginning of mankind, humans have been known to use forms of hand-held stabilization when travelling on foot over difficult terrain (the most common form being a contraption known as the walking stick). When viewed through the eyes of some beginner hikers, it might seem as though trekking poles are an unnecessary piece of equipment, which just get in the way and limit mobility. And besides, aren’t trekking poles just for older hikers with weak knees, who need the assistance to get down steep hills?

As a fit, 20 year old male, I still find trekking poles to be completely invaluable. This is because they do much more than just help with balance and support; they take pressure off the joints in your legs, they help you keep a steady pace when hiking, and they even allow you to hike uphill at less physical expense. Here are some of the most important advantages trekking poles provide over varied terrain:

Trekking Poles on Uphill Terrain

(photo courtesy of Jimmy Thomas)

(photo courtesy of Jimmy Thomas)

When I first began to use trekking poles, the many advantages they provide while going uphill were definitely not on the forefront of my mind. However, I soon realized that trekking poles provide me with great assistance while traversing steep, inclined terrain. Traveling uphill with trekking poles allows the hiker to utilize their upper body muscles, in addition to their leg muscles, when propelling themselves uphill. As 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. This technique does place a significant portion of my body weight under the support of the poles, but after using them for two full summers of backpacking and peak-bagging on the rugged trails of the White Mountains and Adirondacks, I have yet to even come close to snapping my Leki Corklite poles.

The assistance trekking poles provide with each individual step may be minuscule, but by the end of a long climb, the extra help becomes very apparent. 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. Maybe it’s just me, but hiking with trekking poles prevents me from tripping over myself as I push through those long, and frequently steep, miles before getting to camp.

Trekking Poles on Flat Terrain

(photo courtesy of Compass Points Media)

(photo courtesy of Compass Points Media)

So you’re hiking along on straight, flat, and smooth trail; there’s no protruding rocks to worry about, you’re hiking at a comfortable pace, and there is no mud present for you to slip on. Wouldn’t trekking poles would be entirely unnecessary in this (relatively unrealistic) situation? What benefits could trekking poles possibly have when keeping balance isn’t an issue?

Whenever I’ve found myself hiking on easy, flat terrain, I still use my trekking poles to my advantage. I do this by allowing them to guide my movements forward, and keep a consistent pace in my stride. Now, I will acknowledge that most of the time, the consistency of each stride is probably the last thing running through a hikers mind (especially if dinner time is approaching). However, think of the last time you went for a run or jog. An integral part of the human running technique is that we swing our arms in sync with our legs as we travel forward. This not only helps to keep our balance, but it also helps us 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.

Trekking Poles on Downhill Terrain

(photo courtesy of Jimmy Thomas)

(photo courtesy of Jimmy Thomas)

It’s finally time to shed some light on the most obvious advantage of trekking poles; using them on downhill terrain! It should be no secret that one of the biggest perks 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 in the form of balance improvement, but it also comes in the form of reduced stress on the ankle and knee joints.

When hiking downhill, I tend to move in increments. I plant my trekking poles out in front of my body, and then use the stabilization they provide to bring myself forward. Then, I usually stop my forward momentum for a split second, and plant my poles out in front of myself again. This technique also requires you to place 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.

Other Advantages of Trekking Poles

Contrail Tarptent

A trekking pole being used as support for an ultralight shelter (photo courtesy of Cole Heathcott).

Not only are trekking poles useful when hiking over varied terrain, they are also useful for a few other miscellaneous reasons, the first being water crossings. Nothing makes me more thankful to have trekking poles than emerging out of the woods, right at the bank of a wide, fast moving river, with no bridge in sight. Rather than searching left and right to find an appropriate stick to help me across, I can just dive (well, not literally) right into the crossing, and make it through with minimal delay and endangerment to myself. If you’ve ever crossed a fast moving river, there is no doubt in my mind that you understand the importance of having stable footing throughout the process.

A new advantage to trekking poles has emerged in the past few years, as ultralight backpacking has become more popular. Many ultralight shelters and tents can be set up using trekking poles instead of tent poles. This allows hikers to use their trekking poles as a multipurpose item, thus cutting weight from their packs.

Whether trekking poles are being utilized for extra stabilization, to reduce pressure on leg joints, or to simply propel a hiker over a giant pit of mudthey are a valuable piece of gear that routinely makes it into the gear lists of experienced hikers, both young and old. If you’ve never hiked with trekking poles before, I encourage you to think about them on your next hike, and you may begin to recognize situations where having them could prove to be useful. 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.

Can you think of any more advantages to hiking with trekking poles? Leave a comment below!

(heading photo courtesy of Jerome Gagner)

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Comments 29

  • Jessie : Mar 20th

    Thanks for the insight, I am sure I will be bringing a pair of these along with me when I hike the AT. How long have you been hiking, or preparing to hike the AT?

    Reply
    • Kyle O'Grady : Mar 20th

      Hey Jessie! I am planning to thru-hike after I graduate (finishing up my sophomore year), but I have been backpacking for about four years now. I first started using trekking poles when I was about two thirds done section hiking the Long Trail in Vermont. I made a last minute decision to bring them, mostly as an experiment, and pretty much fell in love with them. If you’ve never used trekking poles before, I highly recommend buying a cheap pair online (you can find them for around $20 bucks) and trying them out on a shakedown hike. If you like them, then you can purchase a higher quality pair, and if you don’t like them, at least you didn’t spend a lot of money. Just know that the cheap pairs do not last very long, and I wouldn’t feel comfortable using them for high mileage trips. Let me know if you have any more questions; you can comment here again, or at my Facebook page!

      Reply
  • Anthony I : Mar 20th

    I hiked 12 mountains in the year before I started using poles last August going up the Flume Slide trail. Then two hikes out of three Garfield and Osceola I forgot them. I ended up finding walking sticks for those and now I never hit the trail without them. I think they are great in winter for butt sliding. I shorten them and use to help me steer, brake and push off to keep me going or get sliding again. I’m totally serious.

    Reply
    • Kyle O'Grady : Mar 20th

      Hey Anthony! Thanks for reading, I must say that the art of “butt sliding” is not my specialty, I usually just end up off the side of the trail somewhere when I try it. Perhaps I’ll have to try shortening my poles like you suggested!

      Reply
  • Stu Thompson : Mar 20th

    Other advantages to hiking with poles? Early morning hikes often see face-high cobwebs spanning the trail: a quick swipe of the pole takes care of that. Similarly, poles are useful for brushing aside greenbrier that is close aboard the trail. To be honest, though, I’ve found that one pole works best for me; this leaves one hand free to grab the water bladder nipple, wave away an annoying insect, adjust rain gear, munch on a powerbar, grab a tree sapling or boulder edge to help haul my sorry butt up steep inclines (Stecoah Gap, Lehigh Gap et al.) etc. For many years I hiked w/o poles but later found them to be indispensable.

    Reply
    • Kyle O'Grady : Mar 21st

      I second you on the the cobwebs… When I hiked the Northville Placid Trail in the Adirondacks, we had one day that the cobwebs were so bad that I was hiking with my pole out in front of me for 6+ miles… Not fun!

      Reply
  • TicTac : Mar 20th

    Neither your nor any of the authors of replies have dealt with the most critical component of using – and gaining the advantage of – trekking poles. And that is the correct use of the wrist straps. If they are not correctly utilized, trekking poles are a dead weight and a strain on the wrists.
    Anyone accustomed to cross country skiing knows the correct procedure, but here is a link to a very good YouTube video that discusses the correct procedure: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HOQFPL2lpMY. A glaring error in this video is that she never mentions there is a Left and a Right wrist strap. On some poles the strap is marked with L * R, others not. When correctly oriented, on the right pole, the strap coming from the outside or right side crosses over the strap coming from the inside or left side. The best way to keep L & R straight is to keep you supply of duct tape wrapped around the Right pole making identification very easy

    Reply
    • Anthony I : Mar 20th

      Awesome TicTac! Thank you!

      Reply
    • Kyle O'Grady : Mar 21st

      Good advice. Using the wrist straps properly is very important, and I see people using them incorrectly very often. My poles are marked pretty clearly with an L and R so I rarely mix them up 🙂

      Reply
    • Anthony I : Mar 28th

      Hi Again TicTac, I watched the video in the link you shared and a couple other that spun of from it and have to thank you again. I never used to use the straps but now I do and with them under my hand supporting my wrist and what a yuge help!

      Reply
  • Conrad : Mar 21st

    And if you tend to be “directionally challenged” you can always point your poles in the direction you are heading whenever you stop to rest just in case you get disoriented. This just might save you from doing some unintended backtracking.

    Reply
    • Kyle O'Grady : Mar 21st

      Can’t exactly say that I’m “directionally challenged” (not trying to brag here, but I’ve actually NEVER hiked the wrong way before!), but I see how this technique could come in handy! Just don’t accidentally spin the pole around, or you’ll be even more confused about which direction to head 🙂

      Reply
  • TBR : Mar 21st

    I picked up my trekking pole among a giant pile of driftwood on one of the lakes in Maine near the trail (or maybe right on the trial, can’t recall which one).

    It was big, sturdy and light. Used it on the rest of hike (northbound) and for several hikes later. But it started wearing down. Put a rubber foot on it, which arrested pole erosion, but the footie kept breaking loose.

    The Maine walking stick now decorates my wall.

    I’ve not used a walking stick/trekking pole since then, but I may get back in the habit.

    Question: Why two? Does anyone hike with just one, ala Gandalf?

    Reply
    • Kyle O'Grady : Mar 21st

      I would definitely recommend hiking with two. This prevents you from naturally shifting your weight out of balance due to the assistance on only one side of your body. Generally, when hiking with two poles, they tend to play a more critical role in your motion. Only using one pole limits the amount it can help you; it can provide extra stabilization in some situations, but that’s about it. It would be hard to propel yourself with one pole, which is one of the main advantages of hiking with two.

      Reply
  • TBR : Mar 22nd

    Thanks, Kyle, for the insight. Never having hiked with two poles, I’m having a hard time with the “propel” part. Mine was mainly to help with balance crossing over stuff.

    I may give two a try.

    Reply
    • Kyle O'Grady : Mar 28th

      Let me know how it goes 🙂

      Reply
  • Christine : Mar 23rd

    I find one if I use poles, even on a flat surface, that my posture is much better. And I definitely keep up a good steady rhythm.

    Reply
  • Blaise : Mar 26th

    Nice article. I learned to love my poles when I was dealing with a calf injury last year. The poles got me out in the woods sooner than if I had to wait until the injury had completely healed.

    Another theoretical advantage I have thought about is related to self-defense. If you were suddenly attacked by a bear, wolf, mountain lion, or person, hiking poles would be immediately available to help defend yourself. I have heard of hikers (Andrew Skurka’s National Geographic video springs to mind) who throw one pole and then use the other sword-style for defense.

    Reply
    • Pat : Mar 26th

      Hiking poles would be too light to inflict any real damage, and would be much more likely to infuriate the two-legged or four-legged aggressor.

      If you take personal safety seriously, the only proven methods that are effective are Bear spray or a firearm.

      The Author lives in the free state of Vermont, so he should know.

      Reply
      • Kyle O'Grady : Mar 28th

        Yes I do live in Vermont, but I carry neither bear spray or a firearm. On the East Coast, both are entirely unnecessary and just add more weight to the pack.

        Reply
    • Kyle O'Grady : Mar 28th

      I suppose that having trekking poles in one’s hands as they wave them around could potentially deter a bear, as it would make you look even bigger and more like a threat. Perhaps you’ll have to test this out if you ever run into an aggressive bear, Blaise (totally kidding).

      Reply
    • Hiking Crane : Oct 22nd

      I totally agree that the treking poles have a self defense role:I have studied the martial arts for over 15 years,When I mentioned I was hiking with treking poles my teacher and several other advanced students got together with me and we worked out a few techniques designed to slow down and ultimately end an attack. The concept of fighting with a cane length stick is not foreign to several martial arts styles, the difference with poles is their inability to hold up to a lateral striking motion,They are ideal for thrusting however. A little practice combined with knowledge where to target provides an option for defense against two and four footed adversaries In my recent past I found that clicking the poles together in front of the animal will dissuade their advance (I recently encountered an unknown,unleashed ,unatended dog on the trail who gave me a wide berth faced with the poles and a “yo dog”command.

      Reply
  • Trillium 2014 : Mar 28th

    Couldn’t agree more, Kyle! I believed the same myths before I met a 22-yr old thru-hiker in PA (2012) using trekking poles like he was skiing the trail. Having then done the AT myself in 2014, I tell people that my poles were great for all the reasons you mentioned (plus as web-breakers), but that they literally saved my life a thousand times! They quickly became an extension of my body, strengthened my hands, wrists and upper arms, and I simply cannot and will not hike without them now. Sounds like you’re well on track for your thru, and you’ll have a great time!

    Reply
    • Kyle O'Grady : Mar 28th

      Thanks so much! I think the initial learning curve scares many folks off; it does take a bit of an adjustment to get used to hiking with poles. Once the adjustment is made, however, there’s no going back! Congrats on your thru, hope to see you out on the trail someday!

      Reply
  • scott moore : Mar 28th

    By the time I arrived up in New England, I told someone that if I had to choose between my a)sleeping bag, or b) my trekking poles, I would easily take the poles…..
    I didn’t take my first stumble (to my knees) until I was on the way out of Damascus……and I credit the poles for that…..cloroxat 2002

    Reply
    • Kyle O'Grady : Mar 28th

      Thanks for reading Cloroxat! That’s a lot of miles to go without a stumble, but I’m not surprised to hear it in the slightest. From the past 4 summers of regular hiking and backpacking, only one fall sticks out in my mind that I took. I’m sure I stumbled a lot more, but nothing major, and nothing that resulted in anything more than a few scrapes and bruises.

      Reply
  • Karo : May 27th

    My trekking poles are my fav piece of gear – they saved my ass so many times! I never go anywhere without them it’s a must have and since I’m using them I can’t understand how other can do without them.

    Cool article, thanks! 🙂

    Reply
  • Amanda : Oct 22nd

    I’ve used them to keep unpleasant dogs away from me. And to help someone else cross a street (hand them the end to hold on to).

    Reply
  • Julie : Oct 23rd

    They are also useful to aid others who don’t have poles crossing streams. You can cross over a narrow stream, then hold out your stick to them to give them some extra balance as they cross.
    Also when walking along roads you can make your self “bigger ” to encourage traffic to give you more space when they pass.
    I’ve also used them to round up run away donkies?

    Reply

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