Is it time to take trekking poles seriously?

(Image courtesy of Black Diamond.)

Maybe it’s a function of age, but every time I contemplate a long hike along rough terrain or a lot of elevation, I reexamine my longstanding prejudice against trekking poles. I haven’t been alone in my suspicion that trekking poles are at worst a gimmick and at best an unnecessary weight to bear. But enough people I respect swear by them that I decided it was time to throw my preconceived notions away and take a fresh look. Even the Appalachian Trail Conservancy estimates that 90-95% of AT thru-hikers — notorious for eliminating all unnecessary weight — carry trekking poles.

For those of us with “experienced” knees, trekking poles can take a significant load off legs and joints — as much as 25%, according to a 1999 study in The Journal of Sports Medicine (oft-cited, but not apparently available online.) They can help avoid injury by improving balance, improve hiking rhythm, and are especially useful on steep downhill trails by transferring impact from legs to body. They can even be used to push away trail-blocking vegetation, test questionable footing, estimate the depth of puddles and streams, and even serve as support poles for a tarp or to splint an injured limb.

Types of poles

Like most outdoor gear, trekking poles come in a variety of styles with a potentially confusing array of features. Basically, the differences break down to weight, grip, adjustment method/locking mechanism, material, wrist straps and tips. And all these factors affect the poles’ price, which can vary from $50 to $200 or more.

Weight and material go hand in hand, so let’s tackle those together. Modern trekking poles are usually made out of high-grade aluminum or some type of carbon fiber. While fiber is lighter (and more expensive), it’s not necessarily the best choice. Aluminum poles are strong, and even if you do manage to bend them, they’re unlikely to break. Carbon fiber poles absorb more vibration, but when they snap, they usually do it in spectacular — and permanent — fashion. If you’re going to be hiking in very rugged or rocky environments, you may be better off with aluminum poles and a few additional ounces.

Grips can be extended (which provides greater flexibility in adjusting the effective length of your poles without having to adjust them); many newer poles have angled grips, which give a more natural feel and placement. Grips come in rubber, foam or cork. Rubber is generally the cheapest and provides insulation against the cold. Barehanded hikers may find they chafe or cause blisters. Foam is soft and absorbent, but relatively fragile — prone to wear and tear. I didn’t encounter many poles with foam handles in my research. Cork is the favorite for many hikers — myself included. It’s soft and absorbent, and feels great on the hands. It also reduces vibration and provides decent insulation from the cold.

Adjusting and locking your poles correctly is crucial; using a pole set to the wrong size won’t provide the benefits you paid for, and a pole that isn’t properly locked can be downright dangerous. The experts we spoke to recommended steering away from the “Z-type” poles that come completely apart like tent poles, kept intact with shock cords. If the cords break, they render the poles useless and they don’t lock as securely as other methods. Twist locks are popular, especially on less expensive poles. Basically, the pole segments are screwed into each other until tight. We found these locks were often problematic — either the segments would slide into each other during use, or one was too tight to be easily adjusted. We much preferred the flip-lock style that acts like a clamp and locks the segments in place. They were easy to adjust, even while wearing gloves.

There’s not much differentiation we could find when it came to wrist straps. Look for wide, adjustable straps with well-placed hardware that won’t dig into your hands. Padded straps or those made with soft material can prevent chafing.

Baskets and tips are largely chosen with your terrain in mind. Baskets prevent your pole from sinking into mud or snow or from getting wedged too deeply between rocks. Tips should be made of a hard, durable material to provide traction on the trail. Softer tips can be used to help prevent damage to paved trails or other sensitive areas.

There’s one more feature that was universally disparaged by every expert we spoke to: Anti-shock systems. You’ll find them on some higher-priced poles and there are some who say they can absorb some additional stress on downhill trails, but everyone we spoke to agreed that the additional trouble of turning off the anti-shock feature on flat and uphill trails and the potential for breaking made them just not worth the extra cost.

Fitting and adjusting your poles

Even the best poles in the world won’t help if you’re not using them correctly. All modern poles have measurements indicated on the shaft. That’s great for quickly adjusting to a length you already know is right for you and your situation, but first you have to figure out what that number is.

On level surfaces, your pole is correctly adjusted if your elbow is at a 90° angle when holding it at the grip. Each section of the pole should be approximately the same length — your pole’s rulers will help you do this. This avoids making any section of the pole too weak because it’s overextended.

When you’re hiking uphill, shorten your pole by a few inches. Conversely, if you’re hiking downhill, add a couple extra inches to the length. This helps keep your arms at the optimal angle and lets your poles do a better job of absorbing pressure and impact and giving you better balance and control.

Here’s a video from REI that demonstrates proper adjustment:

Trekking poles, when properly used, are a great addition to a hiker’s pack. The skeptics I spoke to who gave poles a try are now their biggest advocates. Phrases like “I’ve come to my senses,” “I’ll never go back” were common. As for me, I plan on using them on a hike at West Point next month, where I expect them to be a godsend as I climb (and later descend) the Point’s infamous “Bull Hill.” I’ll be giving Black Diamond’s Trail Ergo Cork (affiliate link) poles a try; look for a review then.

So, is it time to take trekking poles seriously? The short answer is yes. The better answer may be: the smart hikers always did.

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