I can remember the first time I ever saw someone using trekking poles. It was 2006 and we were hiking in Peru. We had just hiked down from Mount Salkantay and had stopped for lunch when two American hikers came past using trekking poles. My initial thought was what on earth are these people doing – the terrain wasn’t that hard! I didn’t give poles much thought after that, and didn’t for the next six years, persevering with my dodgy knees that punished me every time I walked down hill.
In 2012 after deciding to go hiking in Bhutan I finally concluded that all the mountain descents were going to kill my knees and it was time to bite the bullet and purchase my first pair of poles. While only eight years ago, the range of poles on the market was limited compared to the vast array that assails hikers in retail stores today. At that time there were really only 4-5 brands and Black Diamond was the dominant one, at least in Australia. After much to-ing and fro-ing I splurged out and bought a pair of Black Diamond Distance Carbon Z Trekking Poles. Five years later I still use these poles.
After my initial scepticism of 2006 as well as 13 years of extra age, I’m a believer.
Advantages of using trekking poles
In no particular order:
Use them instead of tent poles for ultralight hikers
Some brands of ultralight tents allow you to use trekking poles instead of tent poles thereby reducing the amount of weight you are carrying
Additional traction and balance provided by extra points of contact
When it’s slippery or you are walking on a narrow pathway or log, having extra points of contact really helps
As a selfie stick
Your arms are only so long and you can tell by the photo if you are holding the camera at arms length. Use the poles in conjunction with some sort of adaptor such as the Stickpic
Reduce the impact on your knees when you go downhill
I have had knee issues my whole life so can’t blame my age for this one. I can walk all day uphill and on flat terrain but my knees complain when I walk downhill. Trekking poles make a huge difference. One of the early studies on pole use found that using poles going downhill reduces the compressive force on the knees by up to 25%. I can definitely vouch for this one
Reduce the load on your legs going uphill
Using poles going uphill reduces the load on your legs by approximately 20%. They also ensure you have a more upright gait which helps the back as well as your breathing
Fend off unruly flora and fauna
Excellent for pushing plants out of the way and fending off animals if there is no other option
Test the ground to see how stable it is
How often have you stepped on what looks like solid ground only to sink ankle deep into mud. I’m sure many of you can relate to this! The poles act as a prod just to make sure
As first aid gear
If you are desperate you have a ready made splint
If you have injured your leg then the poles will take the weight
Zpacks tent with a trekking pole being used instead of a tent pole
Trekking pole being used as a selfie stick. The Stickpic adapter connects the camera to the pole
Trekking poles providing stability on a scree slope
Disadvantages of using trekking poles
In no particular order:
Trekking poles usually aren’t free so they are going to impact your hip pocket. Even if you choose the lightest pole on the market you are still carrying more weight. This weight may be offset if the trekking poles are replacing your tent poles
If you are not using the poles correctly then the benefit is minimised
Wrist straps should be used. If they are correctly set up you will find the poles will swing without much effort
Poles should be the correct length with arms roughly parallel to the ground when standing still
Using poles takes up more space on the trail
Be conscious of other hikers as you pass each other. And keep an eye out for where you are pointing them – they hurt if you jab someone with them
Buying trekking poles
When purchasing trekking poles there are a number of factors to consider.
What will you be using the poles for?
If you are mainly a wintertime hiker then poles that have good snow baskets are needed. A number of poles have the option to remove the snow baskets but usually this means that they are heavier models
Work within your budget. Lightweight is good as long as the poles meet your hiking needs and you can afford them
Poles will vary in weight with the lightest models usually being carbon fibre. While lightweight, these poles aren’t as durable as those models made out of aluminium
In a standing position your arms should be parallel to the ground. This length is going to change going uphill and downhill so adjustable poles are a good choice here although will weight more than fixed length poles
Male or female?
A generalisation I know but poles sold as for ‘females’ will often have smaller handgrips. These poles will also be suitable for smaller males
Most poles are adjustable and often the adjustment mechanism is personal choice. I have always preferred the lever lock system used by a number of companies as I have never had one fail. This is purely a personal choice
Number of pole sections
Again personal choice. Three section poles will fold down to a smaller size and are easier to pack. Two section poles are usually more robust but are also longer which can be an advantage when attaching them to your pack
Carbon fibre or aluminium. Carbon fibre is lighter and more expensive. Aluminium is cheaper and usually more robust
Cork versus rubber or foam. Cork handles tend to mould to your hand but again purely a personal preference – I have always preferred foam handles just from the feel of the material
Black Diamond trekking poles. These poles are a ‘three segment pole’ and also have cork handles
Tips for using trekking poles
Purchase the correct length pole. The pole is at the correct height when your arms are held roughly parallel to the ground when holding them in a neutral position
Use the pole straps for the most effective use
Make sure you stow the poles securely otherwise you may loose them
Basic pole maintenance
Trekking poles don’t require a lot of maintenance. When you get back home from a hike, fully extend the poles and wipe them down with a damp cloth removing any caked on dirt or grime. Dry any excess moisture of the poles and leave to dry for a day or so. This will ensure the poles don’t develop any rust or patina that is likely to cause them to jam.