If you’re planning a hike, making sure that you’re adequately prepared is vital. Having – or not having – the right gear can be the difference between an enjoyable and successful hike and a miserable and failed one.
Experienced and novice hikers alike know that the right pair of shoes and a pack are two of the most essential pieces of hiking equipment, but there’s another piece of equipment that you may be wondering if you should invest in: trekking poles.
Do you really need trekking poles? If so, how do you ensure that you’re purchasing the right type?
In an effort to assist you have the safest, most successful, and most enjoyable hike possible, we’ve put together this guide, which answers the aforementioned questions to help you determine whether or not you should invest in trekking poles, and if so, how to choose the right pair, and how to use them.
Why Use Trekking Poles?
There are a variety of reasons why hikers use trekking poles. Some of these reasons are backed by proven evidence, while others are based on personal preference.
- Increased stability. Hiking poles can help to stabilize a hiker. They provide extra points of contact with the ground, which makes hiking poles kind of like an extra set of legs. As such, poles can help ground you while you’re trekking; especially on rugged, steep, or slippery terrains.
- Support for heavy packs. A lot of hikers say that trekking poles are a lifesaver when they’re wearing heavy backs. They claim that the poles offer a bit of extra support and take some of the strain off the hips and knees when they’re carrying cumbersome packs, especially when they’re going downhill.
- Crossing water. If you’re planning a hike that involves crossing water – a stream or a pond, for example – trekking poles can come in really handy. Not only will they provide extra stability when the ground underfoot is slippery, but they can also help you judge the depth of the water. Fully extend a pole and place it in the water until it reaches the bottom so you can determine whether it’s shallow enough or too deep to cross. Poles can also be used to determine how muddy the surface underneath the water is.
- Bushwhacking. When you come across densely vegetated locations, you can use your hiking poles for bushwhacking. Use one or both poles to push away the vegetation and clear a path that you can safely walk through; this is particularly useful when you come across plants that can adverse reactions, such as poison ivy, sumac, oak (or any other type of poisonous flora), stinging nettles, burrs, thorny bushes, or anything else that could cause a rash or impale you if you come into contact with it.
- Self-help. Lastly, trekking poles can double as a self-help tool. If you sustained an injury on your journey, such as a sprained ankle or a broken leg, you could use a pole as a make-shift splint or cane to stabilize the affected area until you can get proper medical attention. Additionally, if you are encounter a dangerous wild animal – a mountain lion or a bear, perhaps – you may be able to use your poles to stave off the creature.
Reasons to Avoid Trekking Poles
It’s clear that trekking poles can come in handy for a number of reasons; however, some hikers may find that they’re more detrimental than beneficial. Some reasons why this hiking accessory may not be useful include:
- More to carry. When you’re hiking, you want to carry the least amount of gear as possible. While most trekking poles are relatively lightweight, they’re another thing that you have to tote around, and they may, quite frankly, become cumbersome.
- When you need to use your hands. If you’re trekking steep trails or scrambling, your hands – not poles – are better tools for steadying yourself. If you’re using hiking poles, it’s likely that you’ll have a harder time using your hands to assist you; therefore, if you’re going to be hiking a really rugged or steep terrain, you might want to skip the poles.
- They burn more energy. When you’re hiking you want to conserve as much energy as possible. Believe it or not, you’ll actually exert more energy when you use trekking poles because you’ll need to use your arms. On shorter hikes, the increased expenditure of energy might not matter so much, but on longer treks, it can pose a problem.
- They can be a hazard. Hiking poles can become tangled up in rocks, trees, vines, and brush, which could increase your chances of tripping and sustaining an injury.
Should You Use Trekking Poles?
It really depends. Consider what type of hike you’ll be taking and the aforementioned pros and cons to determine if trekking poles will be advantageous or detrimental.
For example, if you’re going to be hiking with a heavy pack, across a landscape that features water, or on slippery terrain, they may be a lifesaver. However, if your trek involves super steep climbs that require the use of your hands or there’s going to be a lot of flora that you could get tangled up in, trekking poles may not be the best idea.
How to Choose Trekking Poles
If you’ve decided that trekking poles are the right option for you, you’ll want to ensure that you’re purchasing the right type to properly assist you.
Before we dive into some of the key factors that you should consider when you’re selecting trekking poles, we first want to mention that using two poles is a lot better than using one. Since you have two legs, you should have two poles to assist each one.
Additionally, you’ll have a lot more traction and stability when you use two poles as opposed to one.
Now, let’s take a look at some of the most important factors that you should take into consideration when you’re shopping for trekking poles.
Obviously, you want your poles to be appropriately sized. If they’re too short, you’re going to be hunched over and if they’re too tall, you’ll need to hold your hands in an unnatural and uncomfortable position.
The goal is to have your elbows at a 90° angle when the poles are set on the ground near your feet. A lot of poles are adjustable, which makes it easier to achieve the appropriate height; however, some are fixed in length.
If you’re purchasing the latter, the following guidelines can help you choose the right length:
- Less-than 5’1” = 39” pole
- Between 5’1” and 5’7” = 43” pole
- Between 5’8” and 5’11” = 47” pole
- Greater-than 6’ = 51” pole
Keep in mind that these are suggested heights for fixed-length hiking poles. You definitely want to make sure that you test the size before you buy.
Adjustable or Non-Adjustable
Should you go with adjustable or non-adjustable poles? It depends on your specific situation. With adjustable poles, you can modify the height to accommodate the terrain you’re traversing; for example, to increase your stability while going uphill, you can set the poles at a lower height, and for better traction when you’re going downhill, you can make them longer.
However, keep in mind that adjustable poles have more parts, which makes them heavier than the fixed-length variety; therefore, if weight is a concern, non-adjustable poles may be a better option.
Some trekking poles feature a shock absorbency feature that can be turned on when needed and off when it isn’t. While any hiker can benefit from this feature, it’s particularly good for hikers whose ankles, hips, or knees aren’t so stable; for example, if you suffer from arthritis or have sustained an injury in one of these joints.
If you’re going for an adjustable pole, you’ll want to consider the locking mechanism. The most commonly used locking mechanisms include:
- Push-button. These poles automatically lock into place when they’re extended. To release the lock and collapse the pole, you’ll need to push the button to undo the lock.
- External lever. This type of lock is self-explanatory. It’s easy to adjust and sets up quickly.
- Twist. This type of lock utilizes a screw-like mechanism to secure the poles in place and is highly durable and reliable.
Most poles are covered with padding to improve the grip and increase comfort. The most commonly used grip materials include:
- Foam. Foam is the softest and most moisture-absorbent of all grip materials.
- Rubber. For protection from the cold and increased shock absorbency, rubber is the way to go; however, if you’re hiking in hot locals or your hands tend to get sweaty, do note that rubber may cause chaffing.
- Cork. Cork is also fairly moisture-resistant; it provides shock absorbency, too. Plus, of all three materials, cork will conform to the shape of your hands the best.
Trekking Pole Tips
Once you have your trekking poles, you’ll want to ensure you’re using them correctly. Using these assistive devices is pretty self-explanatory; nevertheless, here are some handy tips to help ensure you’re using them correctly:
- Alternate your legs and the poles. In other words, when you step forward with your right leg, set your left pole forward, and vice versa.
- In some cases, you may want to “double plant” the poles; set both poles down ahead of you and then step forward toward them. This is particularly helpful when you’re ascending or descending steep hills.
- Maintain your natural gait. In other words, swing your arms as you would when you aren’t holding poles.