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hiking with poles- The Narrows- Zion National Park

Do you love hiking but sometimes feel a little wobbly and unstable during your hike? Me too. Hiking terrain can be tricky, especially when trekking through rough terrain or wearing hiking sandals while river crossing. Luckily, someone smarter than me came up with the handy idea of hiking with poles. Duh!

The age-old hiking stick hack (called a trekking pole if we’re speaking professionally) comes through to save the day and gets us out of a tough spot so we can quickly move along to add some miles to our boots.

Hiking poles on trail

Think of a trekking pole as a blend of physical exercise, mental relaxation, and a deep connection with nature. While the serene beauty of nature can be enticing, the impact on your joints may leave you with aches and pains. Don’t worry, there’s a simple yet effective solution – hiking with poles.

These unassuming sticks can be incredibly helpful, especially when it comes to safeguarding your knees and reducing the strain on your body. Check out the benefits that these trusty companions bring to your hiking escapades.

Benefits

  • Reduced impact on knees and joints
  • Increased stability and balance
  • More efficient movement
  • Improved posture and alignment

Pros

Variety of features: Hiking poles are available with a variety of features, such as adjustable length, shock absorption, and comfortable grips. This allows you to choose the perfect poles for your needs and preferences.

Durable and lightweight: Modern hiking poles are made of lightweight materials, such as aluminum or carbon fiber, making them easy to carry on your hikes.

Easy to use: Hiking poles are relatively easy to learn how to use and can be helpful for hikers of all skill levels.

Cons

Cost: Hiking poles can be a significant investment, especially if you opt for high-end models; however, the price range varies anywhere from about $20- $100+ so there are cheap options to choose from if you’re a beginner and just want to try it out to see if you like it.

Bulk: Walking poles can take up some space in your pack, so they may not be the best option for ultralight backpackers.

Learning curve: While hiking poles are relatively easy to use, it takes a little time to figure out how to use them without feeling silly and how to use them effectively.

Man with knee pain

Key Takeaways

  • Hiking poles offer a variety of benefits, including increased stability which makes you feel safer, reduced impact on joints, improved posture, and a quicker way to move through the trail.
  • Choose the right trekking poles based on material, locking mechanisms & grip type for the best experience.
  • Proper use and regular care are key if you want your trekking poles to last long and not have to replace them often.
Man hiking with trekking poles

The Advantages of Hiking with Poles

Let’s be honest, a trekking pole is pretty much a ski pole. But, don’t go getting any bright ideas; unfortunately, you cannot double the use of your ski poles and consider them hiking essentials.

A trekking pole is a lot stronger and made of different materials than ski poles. Ski poles are also not flexible which means hiking poles make you feel safe and stable throughout your adventure. So yeah, don’t go trying to save some money and use your ski gear to go hiking.

The use of hiking with poles is kind of like how you’d think of a Swiss Army knife, they prove their worth in a variety of situations. Some benefits of using trekking poles include:

  • Easier for your joints
  • More stability
  • Increased balance
  • Improved posture
  • Reduced strain on knees and hips
  • Increased power and speed
  • Better traction on slippery surfaces
  • Protection against wildlife encounters

With all of these benefits, most hikers include trekking poles on their list of must-have hiking essentials.

Two People Hiking on a Mountain

So what’s the main reason to use them?

  • Avoid having knee problems in the future so you don’t have to go to the doctor and potentially have surgery which takes you away from your hiking hobby.
  • Avoid feeling like you got hit by a truck after just a few miles into your day hike.
  • Avoid falling, scraping your hands, or worse, injuring yourself and not being able to walk further.

Bonus Feature:

Using hiking poles helps with circulation in your arms and hands. Bet you never would’ve thought that as being a benefit!

In my experience, when I’m not hiking with poles, my hands end up feeling all swollen and puffy because well, they’re not doing anything.

My hands and arms are just dangling down and all the blood rushes to them. So yeah, hiking with poles can help with additional movement sort of like being on an elliptical machine.

making with large hiking stick

Joint Protection and Impact Reduction

Every step you take while hiking, especially on uneven terrains or steep inclines, adds a certain degree of stress to your joints.

Trekking poles act like a well-designed shock absorber, reducing the impact on your joints, particularly in the lower limbs.

This is especially important during extended hikes where the pressure on your joints can add up, potentially causing injuries.

Trekking poles reduce the blunt force, making your hiking experience more enjoyable and less painful on your body.

Fun Fact: Research has shown that hiking with poles during Nordic walking (basically a total body version of just regular walking) can lead to a pressure reduction of approximately 50%.

This pretty much proves that trekking poles play an important role in protecting your joints during a hike, reducing the chances of injury, and making your hike a less strenuous yet enjoyable experience.

man hiking with poles

Enhanced Stability and Balance

Wouldn’t you say that having good balance and feeling safe and stable are at the top of the list of having a successful hike? Yeah, that’s an obvious one.

Even an experienced hiker and fit person can come up on uneven terrains that make them uneasy.

Trekking poles act as a third and fourth leg, providing that much-needed extra support. This additional point of contact with the ground significantly improves balance and reduces the risk of falls.

European hikers and trail runners have long recognized the benefits of trekking poles, using them to:

  • Improve stability on uneven terrains
  • Provide stability on loose or steep terrains
  • Reduce strain on the hiker’s body
  • Make the hike safer and more enjoyable
Running

Improved Hiking Efficiency

Trekking poles are not just supportive tools; they are efficiency enhancers. You’ll be high-stepping it through the wilderness like Bambi.

  • Establish a consistent rhythm, which can increase your speed, particularly on flat terrain
  • Facilitate a smoother flow of oxygen to your muscles
  • Establish a rhythm for your feet to follow
  • Generate momentum along the trail

In addition to improving your speed, trekking poles can also significantly reduce your fatigue levels during a hike.

  • Distribute your energy usage across your arms and legs, ensuring that no single part of your body is overworked
  • Reduce your overall fatigue
  • Help you maintain a steady pace throughout your hike
Back view of unrecognizable hikers with trekking poles traveling in green hilly valley

Choosing the Right Trekking Poles for You

Just like choosing the right hiking essentials or pair of hiking boots, selecting the appropriate trekking poles is important to ensure a quality hike.

The right poles can significantly help your hiking experience, while the wrong ones can turn a nice hike into an exercise in meltdown.

Choosing trekking poles depends on several factors such as their material, locking mechanisms, and grip type.

Adjustable poles, for instance, can be folded up to fit conveniently onto your backpack straps, making them a great choice if portability is a concern.

On the other hand, fixed-length poles are known for their lightness, making them perfect if you want minimal weight.

trekking poles

Materials: Aluminum vs. Carbon Fiber

When it comes to the materials of trekking poles, you pretty much have two options: aluminum and carbon fiber.

Each has good and bad qualities, and the choice largely depends on your specific needs and preferences.

Aluminum poles, also known as ultralight poles, are known for their durability and cheaper price points. They typically weigh between 18 and 22 ounces per pair, providing sturdy and reliable support for your hikes.

On the other hand, carbon fiber poles have the following characteristics:

  • They are lighter, weighing between 12 and 18 ounces per pair.
  • They are more susceptible to fracturing or splintering, especially in rugged areas.
  • This may result in a slightly shorter lifespan.

Locking Mechanisms: Twist, Lever, and Push-Button

The locking mechanisms of trekking poles are another crucial factor to consider. These mechanisms play a significant role in the adjustability and overall functionality of your poles.

The three primary locking mechanisms for trekking poles are:

  1. Twist-lock: known for its strength and longevity
  2. External lever (clip-lock): enables quick and convenient length adjustments, even while wearing gloves
  3. Push-button lock: facilitates secure fastening with a single pull and can be disengaged to collapse the poles

Many poles, including shock-absorbing poles and ski poles, have a combination of strength, lightweight, and user-friendly features, creating an optimum balance between all three.

Black Pack and Trekking Pole on Snow Covered Ground

Grip Types and Materials

The grips of your trekking poles are your points of contact with the poles. Hence, their material and design can significantly influence your hiking experience.

Grips are generally made from foam or cork, as plastic does not allow for adequate ventilation and can cause blisters.

Some hiking staffs, for instance, have rubber grips, similar to those of walking canes, preferred by hikers who favor a classic design and feel.

Ergonomic grips, with a 15° corrective angle, keep your wrists in a neutral and comfortable position, potentially reducing strain and discomfort during extended hikes.

hiking pole handles

Proper Use and Technique for Hiking with Poles

Simply put, hiking with poles can make your hike better. But, only if you use them correctly. Proper sizing, holding, and planting techniques ensure that you get the max benefits from your gear.

The first step? You have to size them correctly. The pole should fit comfortably in your hand when your elbow is positioned at your side and your arm is bent at a 90-degree angle.

Once you figure out the right size, then you’ll need to figure out the right holding technique. Using the wrist straps correctly can ensure an optimal grip on your poles so you’re not flailing about down the trail.

Lastly, it’s important to understand the proper planting techniques. These can vary depending on the terrain and the weather conditions.

Sizing and Adjusting Your Poles

The size of your trekking poles can majorly influence your hiking experience. Poles that are too short can cause you to lean forward which can cause strain in your back. On the other hand, poles that are too long can be awkward and difficult to control.

To size your poles correctly, adjust their length until (when held with the pole tips on the ground near your foot), your arm forms a 90° angle at the elbow.

Remember, this length might need to be adjusted based on the terrain you are hiking.

For example, when going downhill, each pole should be lengthened by approximately 5–10 cm from the general- hiking pole length.

Holding and Planting Techniques

Once you feel comfortable about the size of your trekking poles, it’s time to figure out the holding and planting techniques. Proper form can help with stability, make you less tired, and improve your overall hiking vibe.

For the best grip, slide your hand into the straps from the bottom upwards. Hold the handle over the strap.

When navigating steep climbs, plant both poles in front at once, the left pole forming a narrow gate to stride through.

On flat trails, it’s best to plant the pole opposite your footfall to maintain a steady rhythm. During technical descents, use your poles for additional balance.

Using Poles for Support and Balance

Trekking poles are not just for walking; they are also a great support system during hikes. They help distribute your body weight across your arms and legs, ensuring an even distribution of effort.

By providing additional points of contact with the ground, trekking poles offer several benefits:

  • Enhance stability
  • Help lighten the load on your legs
  • Maintain a steady gait on uneven terrains
  • Provide uphill support
  • Lessen knee impact during descents

To get the most support, adjust the wrist straps to support the weight of your hands without a tight grip on the poles, and maintain an elbow angle of 90 degrees.

A Person with a Trekking Pole Walking

Additional Uses for Trekking Poles

Can you believe that hiking essentials like trekking poles have even more uses? They can be used in setting up tents, navigating water crossings, and even during encounters with wildlife.

Other key benefits include:

  • Providing stability and structure to the tent
  • Warding off wild animals, maintaining a safe distance, or creating noise to scare them away
  • Assessing water depths during river crossings, ensuring safer crossings.

Tent Setup and Shelter Support

Trekking poles (also known as telescoping poles) can even be helpful when setting up tents or shelters.

Their durability and length make them an ideal support system, especially in situations where traditional tent poles are not available… or, when you’ve lost them… or, when you’ve broken them.

Ya know, the usual mishaps that can happen while enjoying the great outdoors.

Whether you’re using a traditional tent or a tarp, trekking poles can be used as ridgepoles or vertical supports to rig the shelter.

They can be attached to the tent or tarp and secured with stakes or rocks, providing a stable structure that can withstand environmental elements such as wind and rain.

tent with hiking poles

Water Filtration and Depth Assessment

Crossing rivers or creeks can be a challenging part of a hike. However, with trekking poles, you can make these creek crossings safer and easier.

Trekking poles can be used for:

  • Assessing the depth of water during river crossings, ensuring safe navigation (like the one we experienced while hiking The Narrows in Zion National Park)
  • Navigating slippery rocks or obstacles
  • Propping up gravity filters for water filtration in areas lacking trees, providing necessary support for the filtration system.
man using hiking stick to check depth of water

Wildlife Encounters and Trail Clearing

Encounters with wildlife are a part of the hiking experience. While these encounters can be exciting, they can also pose potential dangers. Trekking poles can serve as a useful tool in these situations.

During encounters with wildlife, trekking poles can be used for:

  • Warding off animals and maintaining a safe distance
  • Creating noise, like clapping the poles together, to frighten animals away
  • Clearing branches and vines, aiding in the clearance of a hiking trail.

When Not to Use Trekking Poles

While trekking poles can be extremely beneficial, there are certain situations where they may not be the best idea.

Learning when not to use trekking poles can also help you make the best decision about your particular hiking adventure.

Hiking with poles is very much determined by stuff like terrain (is it rocky, muddy, or steep?), the difficulty level of the hike, and your personal health conditions (knee injuries, problems with balance).

For example, on flat terrains or during short, leisurely hikes, you might find that trekking poles aren’t necessary. Also, if you’re someone who prefers free-hand hiking or who likes to get down and dirty with bouldering, you may feel like hiking with poles is a total waste or more trouble than it’s worth.

man on boulder

Caring for Your Trekking Poles

As with any other hiking gear essential, trekking poles need proper care and maintenance to last longer. Regular cleaning and inspection can go a long way in maintaining the quality of your poles.

To clean your poles, use a small brush to remove dirt from within the poles and around the locking mechanisms. Then, wash the poles under water and allow them to air dry before reassembling.

Regularly inspecting your poles can help identify any signs of deterioration early on, ensuring that your poles remain in top condition for your hikes.

Final Thoughts

Whether you’re a seasoned hiker or just a beginner, trekking poles can greatly enhance your hiking experience.

From providing stability and reducing the impact on your joints to improving your hiking efficiency and even serving as a makeshift tent pole, the benefits of trekking poles go beyond their basic use.

Don’t forget that it’s important to choose the right poles, use them correctly, and take good care of them.

Remember, the best trekking poles are the ones that suit your individual needs and preferences. So, choose wisely, hike safely, and enjoy the great outdoors!

man and women on a hike in Zion National Park

Frequently Asked Questions

How do you hike with poles?

For the best results when hiking with poles, sync your arm swings with your steps and only twist the lock mechanism until finger-tight.

Do you burn more calories hiking with poles?

Using trekking poles can help you burn up to 20% more calories, making it a great addition to your hiking routine.

Is it better to hike with one pole or two?

Hiking with two poles is often the most beneficial choice, as they offer improved balance and stability and can help to reduce stress on your legs.

Additionally, they are useful for those recovering from injuries or suffering joint pain.

What are the cons of using trekking poles while on the trail?

The use of trekking poles can add an extra burden for trail runners, who need to carry them when not in use and attach them to their vest or pack.

Additionally, the extra weight of the poles can tire out arm muscles, leading to fatigue and added stress on the upper body too.

Are sticks good for hiking?

Hiking sticks can increase balance and stability and are especially useful in uneven terrain, steep ascents or descents, water crossings, and treks over loose rocks, wet trails, and snow. Therefore, sticks are a great addition to a hiker’s essential list.

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