Trekking poles can be your best friend or a pain in the butt. Most hikers consider them to be part of every trek they go on. How do we assess whether we really need them? The answer lies in the conditions and terrain of the hike you are taking. Do you need help determining whether you need trekking poles or not? If so, I can help.
Trekking poles can also be known as hiking poles, walking sticks or hiking staffs, depending on whether you are using a pair or one single pole. A trekking pole is basically a ski pole with handles, and is always used in pairs. A hiking staff is also known as a hiking stick and consists of a single pole. Most hikers go with two trekking poles over a hiking staff.
Conditions That Require Trekking Poles
When you are trekking with a heavier backpack, a pair of trekking poles can help your balance and keep you stable, especially on a steep incline. While hiking upslope, you can use the poles to dig in and pull yourself up. When you are descending, the poles will provide good anchor points to distribute your weight with balance against them as you hike downward.
If you are uncertain as to the specific terrain of the territory you are hiking in, or if unexpected conditions arise, it's best to be prepared with a set of trekking poles attached to your hiking backpack. Creek and stream levels are not always obvious, so measuring the water depth or determining how soft the muddy bottom is can be helpful with a hiking stick or trekking pole. While hiking, having a set of trek poles readily available to you can be invaluable if slippery rocks or wet leaves make walking difficult.
Trekking poles are good to have in bear and mountain lion country. Hopefully, you'll never have to fight off an animal, but having trekking poles ready in hand to ward off any interaction would allow you to be armed somewhat for defense.
A hiking staff, which is sometimes called a walking staff or travel staff, consists of a single pole that's most effective when used on relatively flat terrain and with little or no load on your back. If you're taller than about 6 feet, you should choose a hiking staff or trekking poles that have a maximum length of at least 51 inches. If you are shorter than 6 feet tall, most trekking poles are adjustable.
Trekking poles have handle grips that come in a variety of materials and will affect how the poles feel in your hands. Cork is a desirable material because it resists moisture from sweaty hands, decreases vibration and best conforms to the shape of your hands. If you sweat a lot and will be hiking in hot weather, go with cork grips.
Rubber insulates hands from cold, shock and vibration, so it's best for cold-weather activities. However, it's more likely to chafe or blister sweaty hands, so it's less suitable for warm-weather hiking.
Foam absorbs moisture from sweaty hands and is the softest to the touch. Avoid hard plastic grips, they aren't comfortable at all.
Trekking Poles - Handy Uses
If you hike in an area with poison ivy, poison oak, nettles, or any other plant you want to avoid, trekking poles provide an easy way to gently push them to the side and hike on.
Use of trek poles can give you a full body workout as your arms move back and forth. This helps you expend a little more energy, which is great on shorter hikes. On longer hikes you will want to save energy. If you're hiking 8-10 miles a day, having another 1-5% of energy from not swinging your arms with poles can make a big difference in your fatigue level.
If your hands tend to swell when hiking, the use of trekking poles will keep hands closer to the level of the heart, improving blood return to your heart. Correct use of hiking poles is when your elbows angle at about 90 degrees when the pole tips touch the ground.
If you were to get caught in a sudden rain shower, the poles can be used as supports under a tarp for an ultralight shelter. Even if you’re just day hiking, having a tarp in your pack, with hiking poles to support it, is one way to be prepared for a survival emergency.
Are you subject to knee pain while hiking? When you hike with trekking poles, you naturally shift your weight and foot strike forward, which has proven to reduce strain. Instead of heel striking, focus on stepping on your fore and mid foot. This engages the natural shock absorbers of your hamstrings to buffer any shock in your step. Shifting your weight forward when hiking with trekking poles benefits strain to the knees.
When you descend on your hike, instead of jabbing down with your hiking poles, try lowering your body and using your hands to balance and make a connection. Most hikers want to connect with nature, and find that the poles may seem like a barrier between themselves and the earth. Another option would be to not use the poles for balance when descending. Go ahead and stretch out your arms. Touch the trees, rocks, and dirt for a more natural experience and to strengthen your core balance rather than depending on the poles.
Trekking Poles - Good Sound Advice
Don't compromise on price when buying trek poles by choosing a cheaper style. Your poles should be lightweight, strong, and adjustable. Carbon fiber and aluminum are both really light and work well. If you’re going to use them hard with rough terrain, go with aluminum. Carbon offers a little more shock dampening, but can shatter if you smash them around.
Carbide or steel tips are commonly used to provide traction for trek poles even on ice. Rubber tip protectors extend the life of those tips and protect your gear when poles are stowed in your backpack. They are also good for use in sensitive areas to reduce impact to the ground. You can purchase angled rubber walking tips separately for use on asphalt or other hard surfaces.
If you are new to using trekking poles and you find yourself out of rhythm now and then, lift your poles off the ground for a moment so you can reset. Start using the poles again as soon as you’re ready. After awhile you will feel completely natural using them and you won’t even have to think about your rhythm.
The best rule of thumb is to attach them to your hiking bag on the outside and have them for use if and when needed. They won't add much weight to your cargo and circumstances may warrant their use, so be prepared is smart thinking. Happy hiking!