Ten Reasons for Trekking Poles

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Article By:
and Max Neale

Last Updated:
Tuesday

Trekking poles are an essential tool for hiking and mountaineering. Here we give ten reasons to use trekking poles and discusses how to overcome their limitations.
  1. Trekking poles, like ski poles, allow your arms to help propel you forward and upward. Whether walking on flat ground or up steep hills, poles can help to increase your average speed.
  1. Poles reduce the impact on your legs, knees, ankles, and feet. This is especially true when going downhill. A 1999 study in The Journal of Sports Medicine found that trekking poles can reduce compressive force on the knees by up to 25 percent.
  1. Trekking poles can be used to deflect backcountry nuisances. They can push away thorny blackberries and swipe away spider webs that cross trails-- which can help to make you more comfortable.
  1. Walking with poles can help you establish and maintain a consistent rhythm, which can increase your speed. This is especially true on flatter, non-technical terrain.
  1. The extra two points of contact significantly increase your traction on slippery surfaces like mud, snow, and loose rock.
  1. Poles help you maintain balance in difficult terrain such as during river crossings, on tree root-strewn trails, and on slippery bog bridges. Staying balanced in turn helps you move more quickly and more easily.
  1. Poles can act as a probe to give you more information than you can get with you eyes. Use them to learn more about puddles, melting snow bridges, and quicksand.
  1. They can help to defend against attacks from dogs, bears and other wildlife. Swing them overhead to make yourself look bigger or throw them like a spear.
  1. Trekking poles help to alleviate some of the weight you carry. For example, if you have a heavy pack on, and you take a short break, leaning on the poles will make you more comfortable.
  1. Trekking poles can be used for things other than trekking. They save the weight of bringing dedicated tent poles; pitching a shelter with trekking poles can save up to two pounds. (Trekking poles are also much stronger and more rigid than tent poles, so they're less likely to break in high winds. This help creates safer shelters.) Poles can also double as a medical splint and can serve as ultralight packrafting paddles.

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Pitching a tent with trekking poles saves you the weight (1-1.5 lbs) of dedicated tent poles.
Drawbacks to trekking poles include increased energy expenditure (you're using your arms more than you would otherwise), they can get tangled in bushes and caught up in rocks, they reduce hand function, they cannot be stored conveniently, and can further impact trails. Some mountaineering guides complain about elbow pain from using them too much i.e., wearing a 75+ lb pack everyday for months at a time. These drawbacks, however, can be mitigated or are negligible. For example, the increased energy expenditure is offset by your increased speed and decreased leg stress. Many hikers prefer trekking poles without the wrist strap because you can quickly transfer both poles to one arm for eating or picture taking, and can drop them quickly in case you fall or need to use your hands for something.

See the best trekking poles in our Trekking Pole Review and helpful tips for selecting the best poles in our Trekking Pole Buying Advice.

Chris McNamara
About the Author
Chris is the founder of OutdoorGearLab and serves as Editor-in-Chief. Climbing Magazine once computed that three percent of Chris McNamara's life on earth has been spent on the face of El Capitan—an accomplishment that has left friends and family pondering Chris' sanity. He's climbed El Capitan over 70 times and holds nine big wall speed climbing records. In 1998 Chris did the first Girdle Traverse of El Capitan, an epic 75-pitch route that begs the question, "Why?" Outside Magazine has called Chris one of "the world's finest aid climbers." He's the winner of the 1999 Bates Award from the American Alpine Club and founder of the American Safe Climbing Association, a nonprofit group that has replaced over 14,000 dangerous anchor bolts. Chris is also the founder and lead author of the rock climbing guidebooks publisher, SuperTopo. He is a graduate of UC Berkeley. You can follow him on Facebook, Twitter or ChrisMcNamara.com. He also has two Lake Tahoe Vacation Rentals here and here.

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Chris McNamara · Founder and Editor-in-Chief, OutdoorGearLab  Jul 21, 2012
12:48am PT
Great stuff. As one friend summed it up to me "Trekking poles take you from 2-wheel drive to 4-wheel drive."

These are essential for steeping hiking with any weight.
bevkA · Backpacker · kelly  Jul 31, 2012
06:11pm PT
agree with above. i have started shortening my poles enough that i swing from the wrist, almost no elbow/shoulder motion, and i keep my elbows in close (this is on ordinary terrain). also, if i use 1 pole, with strip, i can get to my camera/gps/binocs faster than if 2 poles. but on steeper, rougher terrain this all falls apart.
Jane V. Blanchard · Backpacker · Sarasota  Aug 10, 2012
03:53pm PT
Thank you for this article. I recently went on a 500-mile hike, without poles. Using poles throws my cadence off. I did suffer from tendonitis (shin splints). I think that resulted more from starting off with too heavy a pack, going too quickly, and having had a previous injury. Three days of rest and I was again walking.

Is there a trick to hiking with poles so that one doesn't loose cadence?
Max Neale · Other · Alaska  Aug 15, 2012
10:59am PT
@Jane: I'm not sure how much you've used poles, but I found them to be awkward for the first few weeks. I didn't know where to place them, would kick them out of my hand, and even tripped over them. After a while I got used to them and they transisioned from awkward poles to an extension of my body. Now we move seamlessly and quickly through technical terrain. Here's an article that describes trekking pole technique, which might help with your cadence problem.
ole'Eagle · Backpacker · Oregon-California  Oct 23, 2012
12:48pm PT
Excellent! But you missed one! On our Mt Ansel Adams, YoSemite, venture this summer on arrival we had four inches of thunder shower moving through Dr Moyle's established (high ground??) kitchen area; and, it was virtually repeated the next afternoon again. We slaved with our walking sticks to trench the water away from the kitchen area and tents :-) !! That is, using the ones that weren't holding up the kitchen fly :-) !! Being longer handled than the pooper-scooper they saved our backs and worked very well :-) !! I am the owner of a first Ski Hut, Trailwise backpack and harness (pre-Colin Fletcher--history) with waist-belt--the harness is STILL in use!! I think the USE of walking sticks (am a skier) for backpacking has been the greatest thing to come along since the creation of the harness and waist belt. With aging the lift and security that comes with their use has lengthened my backpacking possibilities!! ~~Paul P. Clark
Hardrock · Climber · Redlands  Oct 23, 2012
12:59pm PT
Right on! The even help make an extended travois for dragging gear if you can't carry it anymore. The rafting poles is a great use especially when you have to use trashbag aided rafts. For paddle use wrap or bind a T shirt on the pole and it gives you more power than just the pole when paddling.
bobolonius · san francisco  Oct 23, 2012
03:26pm PT
THE TEN THOUSAND DOLLAR TREKKING POLES

My parents have money, maybe because my sweet mom is such a penny pincher. My Dad has made several trips to Nepal and on his first one, he took me and I took my pricey, yet bomber Leki Makalu poles, which he ended up using––having not thought he might ever need a pair.

When he got ready to go on his second trip, he asked my advice on trekking poles and I directed him to the Leki's––my mom however had found a cheap pair in walgreens ot thereabouts, that cost only about fifteen dollars, rather than the one hundred and fifty or so I was trying to get dad to spend.

So he goes to Nepal and while negotiating a steep, wet, trail, the cheap poles collapse and dad tumbles down the cliff, almost to his demise (as in over the edge) . . . first the Sherpas piggy-back him out, then a chopper flies him back to Katmandu and after a week or so, a fractured fibula, big gash in his forehead and a bill for over ten grand, well . . .

If you're going to buy a pair of poles, spend some money––and I would say that poles are worth every dollar.
Alien · Climber · Guangzhou,China  Mar 19, 2013
10:47pm PT
It is a good article! I know more about how to use trekking poles after reading.
laurie · Hiker · santa rosa  Mar 31, 2013
05:34pm PT
thanks so much for this article on poles…my next purchase
one question
am i to assume that cork handles are your handles of choice?
i guess in my shopping so far 'new' they had less comfort
???
thanks
laurie
Seahawksean · Backpacker · Lehigh Acres  Jun 10, 2013
06:52pm PT
Why are you seemingly in such a rush when hiking. The whole point is to slow down and enjoy the scenery. #10 is the most valid argument for using trekking poles in my opinion. Of course a solid tree branch is just as good. That's what I used while backpacking in the Rockies. It did help I will admit.
thielson · Road Biker · jacksonville, or  Jun 10, 2013
09:42pm PT
Click to enlarge
I trek with poles everywhere I go. I agree with everything and how useful poles can be. Please keep in mind though, the carbon tips at the ends of your poles can scar rocks. Placement is not only self control, but also awareness of your impact.
happy hiking :)
pdx13 · Backpacker · Cascadia 3600'  Sep 15, 2013
04:16pm PT
Seahawksean Jun 10, 2013 03:52pm PT said:
"Of course a solid tree branch is just as good."

disagree completely. An engineered pole made of a lightweight material like aluminum, carbon fiber, or titanium is worlds better than a found stick, or even a prepared high-quality wood (filbert, holly?) pole.

The light weight and reliability makes everything hurt less.

Cheers.
seattlenativemike · Backpacker · Seattle  Sep 16, 2014
10:45am PT
Another ten thousand dollar comment ;)

I went out and bought black diamond carbon poles for some hiking in the Enchantments here in WA. I found them pretty useful going down steep slopes.

However, at one point, I planted a pole and then stepped close to it. Misjudging the step, I ended up stepping below the pole and eating one of the poles. Fortunately it only cracked one tooth. A years worth of orthodontia, extraction, prepping for an implant etc is rapidly approaching 10K.

I have three Enchantments visits planned this fall. I know I need one pole to pitch my tarptent. Not sure if I will bring the other.
Soph28 · Backpacker · Chester, England  Oct 19, 2014
01:04pm PT
This has been really useful, next year I will be trekking the Inca Trail and it's my first proper trek, any training advice would be much appreciated!
RimbaudRambo   Dec 24, 2014
03:17am PT
But they look really silly. And they're burdensome/treacherous to maneuver around when my dog and I inevitably pass people using them (despite supposed increase in speed… and those using them very rarely seem to get the concept of moving over). And if spider webs bother you, and you genuinely think needing to spear a bear (or dog… wtf?) is something to really consider, you probably shouldn't be in the "backcountry" (or anywhere without a paved path and picnic area), anyway (honestly, not nice to destroy spider webs at all - go around, under, whatever - show respect for your surroundings and the creatures who actually LIVE there!). On that note, I wouldn't feel comfortable constantly jabbing a spike into the ground (where snakes, small mammals, etc… burrow) at all, especially off a path (which is the only place I could imagine the extra traction being useful - though I still manage just fine without those silly poles).

I've been seeing them so much lately, and wondering why. They seem like a fad for people who really don't know what they're doing and are too lazy to learn, but with enough disposable income to buy whatever the sporting goods shop is trying to sell. The other day I saw a group of people with trekking poles and huge backpacks in a park where the entire trail length is maybe 10 miles. Why anyone would need backpacks, or trekking poles to help support the weight, for 10 miles is beyond me. Anyway, I hope this fad dies out soon. For #7, pick up a stick. For the rest… learn what you're doing/how to move on different terrains, and stop ripping apart spider webs and hoping to spear bears.
middo · Hiker · Fremantle  Jan 8, 2015
02:01am PT
It's probably very important to mention that hiking with walking poles are only suited to open country.

1) thick tangled scrub,
2) thick rainforest that requires ducking under and over very slippery logs, or
3) where there are deep muddy trails,
are environments where poles should never be used. Open country, great. But try trekking through real thick wilderness with them and they'll be more inclined to tire you out or cause injury.
paulw   Jan 8, 2015
04:02pm PT
Seems like there's a big increase lately in people bringing their dogs along on the trail, and thinking their dogs are people instead of dogs. In other words, little buddies that don't need to be supervised, much less leashed, and that are at least (if not more) important than the actual human beings on the trail. So, when the dogs start growling and approaching people, or digging into their packs, it's all good as far as the owners are concerned. Nope, it isn't all good. Which makes me glad I have poles with pointed carbide tips now.
Happycamper38 · Backpacker · Bellingham, WA  May 8, 2015
12:40pm PT
Good article. One more use of trekking poles: As an emergency anchor if partner falls into a crevasse or needs an assist. Normally, we use our ice axe or picket in a T-slot anchor but if I am traveling light (because crevasse danger is minimal but not zero) and only have an ice axe and trekking poles I would rather place an anchor with the poles and use my ice axe to dig a backup slot and place the axe in that slot as a backup anchor, so the system would be redundant. Another variation: Use your ice axe for the T-slot anchor and your trekking poles at the edge of the crevasse to help prevent the rope from cutting into the lip as you haul your partner up.
Donna Furgeson · Camper · Winnipeg  Jun 21, 2015
09:47pm PT
Great article!

I bought a set of Black Diamond trekker poles recently and they are wonderful.
Having had a hip replacement in April, 2014 and having a knee replacement in July, 2015, followed by a second hip replacement, probably in 2015, the trekking poles make me feel more stable, and reduce the amount of pain.

I have already walked 70 miles since May 31, 2015. I will be a lot stronger when I have the surgery, and rehabilitation should be a piece of cake.
Pauly B · Hiker · Melbourne, Victoria  Jun 30, 2015
07:41am PT
Severe back injury two years ago meant I had to learn to walk again. A pair of trekking poles helped me get back into hiking and I use a pair of poles EVERY time we hit the trail; whether it's 2 miles or 10. Sure I get looks. Some folks smirk and think it's a fad. Frankly, as long as they keep me "out" enjoying my passion I couldn't care less.
GG · Hiker · claremont, ca  Aug 12, 2015
06:16pm PT
Three (3) knee surgeries and destroyed ACLs have made trekking poles a necessity. And now with the poles its possible for me to once again do long hikes with weight and vertical ascent/descent without horrible knee pain.
hartbro · Backpacker · Boston, MA  Mar 28, 2016
03:16pm PT
Great article. The only other "pro" for hiking poles that I'd add would be that they're great for making emergency splints. They're very versatile and useful implements to have in the backcountry.
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