Trekking poles should be an important part of your equipment whether you are hiking or mountaineering. They can enable you to travel faster and more safely. Here are 10 reasons why:
- Trekking poles work much like ski poles, letting your arms help propel you forward and upward, and also controlling downward motion. This is the case on flat ground or up steep hills, helping to increase your average speed.
- Poles reduce the impact on your legs, knees, ankles, and feet, especially when going downhill. A 1999 study reported in The Journal of Sports Medicine described how trekking poles can reduce compressive force on knees by as much as 25 percent.
- Trekking poles can deflect backcountry nuisances, pushing away thorny blackberries and spider webs — which can make your travel more comfortable.
- Using poles can help establish a consistent rhythm, which in turn can increase your speed. This is especially true on flat terrain.
- Poles provide an extra two points of contact, which improves your traction on surfaces like mud, snow, and loose rock.
- Poles help with your balance when dealing with difficult terrain such as river crossings, root-strewn trails, and slick log bridges. Staying balanced helps you move more quickly and more easily.
- Poles can be used as a probe, providing more information than is available just with your eyes. Use your poles to learn about puddles, melting snow bridges, and quicksand.
- 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.
- 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.
- Trekking poles have uses for more than trekking. They save the weight of having 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.
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 every day 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.