Still spurning trekking poles? Pooh-poohing them as clickity-clacking tools for the elderly or unfit?
Get over yourself. That’s like saying bike helmets are for the soft-headed. Or trail footwear is for the tenderfooted.
If you like to hike, there’s no more valuable accessory than a pair of trekking poles. It doesn’t matter how old, young, fit, balanced, or unsteady you are. Nor how heavy a pack you’re carrying. Nor how challenging the trail. Trekking poles are awesome. And if you’re truly concerned about how you look on the trail, well, I contend that trekking poles make you look smart, not infirm.
On any trail, under any load, trekking poles help you drive forward and distribute the impact of your stride so that your knees and quads get a micro assist every step you take. That makes a great difference in the course of a long hike. You’ll feel fresher and less sore at the end of the day.
Poles really shine when the going gets steep, whether up or down. There’s a reason mountain goats and bighorn sheep have four legs. For us bipeds, a couple of extra gams on a steep climb gives us extra traction, a sense of surefootedness, an ability to drive forward with confidence.
As for downhills, who doesn’t dread the knee-pounding impact of those several steady miles back to the trailhead, the car, and the Advil? But properly used—deftly planting your poles just ahead of your alternating strides—trekking poles absorb a great deal of that shock. Again, you return fresher and less sore.
Trekking poles also add an element of safety to a hike. Ever dunked a hiking boot in a chilly river in the middle of a hike? Or performed an endo into the drink with a full pack on? No matter how fit or balanced you are, mossy stones make for terra very unfirma. Keeping three or four points of contact as you make a dicey stream crossing goes a long way toward safe arrival on the opposite bank.
Poles are also great for holding back thin thorny branches, for fending off bears (wave them in the air to make yourself look bigger), and to sub for a couple of tent poles on a backpacking trip.
Here are a few tips on how to use trekking poles properly:
- Adjust the length of each pole so that your elbows bend at 90 degrees when you grip it on flat or slightly sloping ground. (Purchase your poles accordingly; if the shortest permitted length is 90 degrees, the poles are too long.)
- Stride naturally and plant each pole as that arm swings forward. Don’t think. Just do.
- Shorten your poles an inch or two for a steep, steady uphill. If the poles are too long, you’ll fatigue your arms.
- Lengthen your poles an inch or two for downhills. Then plant the poles ahead of you as you descend.
- Use the straps and keep them fairly snug. Pass your hands through the straps from underneath so that the apex of the strap wraps across your wrists. This saves you from having to maintain a death grip on the handles.
- Use the poles in pairs. A single pole served John Muir well, but two poles serve us even better.
Trekking poles are obviously great for aging athletes and sore-kneed hikers, but really, they’re the best investment any hiker can make.
Which poles to purchase? All of the name-brand poles are excellent. REI has a fine selection and excellent prices. Note: If you purchase through our link, we earn an affiliate commission, which helps us bring you content like this.