Do trekking poles (or hiking sticks) really help? Over the years that we’ve done hikes (especially to waterfalls), we have developed a bit of a love-hate relationship with these tools. When we first noticed people using them in our early days of waterfalling, we have often wondered what their benefits were and whether we should even bother with them.
Well, after having owned and used trekking poles for the past couple of decades, we have not only experienced their benefits, but we’ve also experienced their downsides. In addition, we’ve also learned how to properly use them.
So in this article, I am going in depth about the benefits and annoyances of trekking poles from the lens of our own personal experiences. I will also go into how to use trekking poles because I’ve seen too many times how they get used improperly, which undermines the benefits from using them in the first place. After all, we had to figure this out ourselves before we finally profited from their use.
Maybe with this information, you can better inform yourself and draw your own conclusions about whether or not they’re right for you.
What Are Trekking Poles?
Trekking Poles are essentially re-purposed ski poles with features that are geared towards the activity of hiking and overnight backpacking. I tend to think of these poles as highly specialized hiking sticks because they do so much more than a plain random stick that you might find lying around in the bush.
Some people use just one pole, but I’ve found that I get the maximum benefit from using two poles at the same time (with one for each arm).
Just about all trekking poles can be adjusted for people of varying heights. So taller people would want to adjust the pole for a greater length while shorter people would want to compress the pole’s length.
For the poles that we own, the adjustments can be made by twisting the shafts in opposite directions. That said, I’ve recently used a later Z-pole model that employs a snap clamp for an even quicker adjustment without the need for twisting.
Trekking Poles also have a strap at its top, which I think is its most important component (I’ll get into why this is the case later on in this article). In any case, this strap is something that truly differentiates trekking poles from the plain old wooden hiking stick.
The bottoms of trekking poles tend to have a basket to prevent it from going too deep into the ground or between rocks, where the pole could get stuck.
There’s also a very tough metal tip at the bottom for further traction on unpaved surfaces though an attachable rubber tip can also be added to lessen the impact.
Why Use Trekking Poles?
There are several benefits to trekking poles, and in this section, I’ll dive right into them.
In my mind, the main benefit of trekking poles is stability. After all, we typically have two legs to keep us upright and balanced while walking, but there’s so many ways this stability can be compromised in the field.
One such example includes encountering uneven terrain, especially at stream crossings.
Under these circumstances (which we encounter frequently on waterfall hikes), we would have to balance on rocks or fallen logs to try to get across the stream without getting wet (let alone without falling into the water).
With trekking poles, we’d essentially have a third or fourth “leg” (depending on whether we carry one or two of them) to further improve our balance and stability.
Even if we were stream walking and allowed our feet to get wet, the slippery boulder-strewn stream beds (as if we were walking on bowling balls covered with soap) made us appreciate having the trekking poles to remain upright.
Heck, I’ve even taken advantage of the extra legs to “spider” my way down steep downhills (especially if there’s loose gravel making for slippery footing) or rocky declines, where I’d maintain at least two points of contact with the surface at all times.
Weight Distribution and Shock Absorption
In addition to stability, trekking poles can also aid in weight distribution and shock absorption (as well as propulsion).
The weight distribution and shock absorption means that the poles acting as our third and fourth “legs” can help take some of the weight and impact off of our legs. Towards the end of a long hike, we could feel this difference as well as notice the wear-and-tear saved from our legs.
Extrapolating that over several years, it’s conceivable that we may save ourselves from prolonged damage on our legs, which would thus allow us to continue engaging in hiking well into our advanced years.
As far as propulsion goes, the trekking poles can be used to give ourselves a boost on climbs as well as on flat surfaces. Heck, I’ve seen and even tried skipping on flat surfaces to go faster on hikes.
Apparently, they call this technique of skipping with trekking poles Nordic Walking, which is a whole different way of movement that I won’t go in depth on in this article.
Another benefit from using trekking poles is probing terrain or evaluating water depth. This helped to save me from sinking into quicksand or even figuring out how deep a pool was, especially if the water was murky.
I’ve also tried using trekking poles to clear the path of spider webs, but I personally wonder how effective it is at doing this (due to how much I’d have to swing the stick all the while possibly poking other people as I did this).
While the above benefits of using trekking poles can help with hiking, trekking poles can also help with other non-hiking purposes.
For example, some of the creative uses of trekking poles include:
- reaching for things beyond arm’s length (e.g. on a tree or in a deep well or pothole)
- appearing larger in wildlife encounters
- monopod or makeshift dipod for photography
- drying clothes in the backcountry
- search-and-rescue or communications in emergency or survival situations.
Indeed, the sky’s the limit when it comes to creative uses of trekking poles.
How To Properly Use Trekking Poles?
With all the benefits mentioned about trekking poles, you won’t realize most of these benefits if the poles are improperly used, especially from a hiking standpoint.
We learned this firsthand when our hands would get tired from gripping the poles on longer hikes. In fact, the truth is that you hardly need to grip the poles to take advantage of their benefits provided you use them properly.
How is this, you might ask?
Remember how earlier on in this article I had said that the most important thing about trekking poles is the strap? Well, wearing that strap the right way is the key to using the trekking pole properly and getting all the benefits that come with it.
In order to use those straps properly, you follow these steps.
- Put your hand through the bottom of the loop of the strap
- Once the top of the strap is behind your hand and the bottom of the strap is under your palm, tilt your hand forward to lightly grip the pole
- You are now ready to use (and put weight on) the pole without gripping it
By gripping the pole the right way, you may notice that you don’t even need to squeeze the pole to keep it upright and maintain control of it. Even with a loose grip, as long as the straps are used correctly, you can even push off with the pole or land with the pole.
When I need a little bit of a break where there’s nowhere to sit, proper use of the wrist strap would allow me lean on the stick so not all the pack weight would go on my legs.
The second thing to remember about the pole is to adjust its height to what’s comfortable to you. A general rule of thumb is to adjust the height of the trekking pole such that your arms would make a 90-degree angle when your arms are by your side.
I’ve seen some people prefer a greater-than 90-degree angle to perhaps better “relax” the arm. Personally, I find this to be a matter of preference, which you may have to experiment with to see what’s right for you.
That said, if your shoulders or some other parts of the arm feel sore, then you might consider tweaking the height adjustment.
For the record, I’m pretty comfortable with the 90-degree angle or a slightly greater angle than that. There’s no hard-fast rule, really.
Finally, when you use the trekking pole in the field, it’s important to swing your arms opposite that of your legs.
If you end up with your arms swinging on the same side as the legs, you’ll feel that it’s both awkward and unbalanced.
The next two photos illustrate this point.
With the proper swing of the arms opposite the legs, you’ll find that you can start leveraging additional trekking pole benefits.
For example, I’ve been able to push myself up on inclines, stabilize myself on declines, and even give myself a little boost or propulsion on flatter parts of the trail.
What Don’t We Like About Trekking Poles?
At the beginning of this article, I mentioned that we don’t use trekking poles all the time (though my attitude has changed after buying a Z-shaped trekking pole). In this section, I will explain why that is.
They Occupy The Hands
First, the biggest hinderance of using trekking poles is that they occupy my hands, especially if I use two poles. Personally, I like to take lots of photographs while out in the field as I generally don’t like to miss fleeting and precious moments.
For example, I might unexpectedly have a wildlife sighting or chance upon some gorgeous scenery just as the sun was setting.
However, whenever I brought trekking poles in those moments, I’d have to take the time to grab my camera and take the photo, which can be really awkward to do with trekking poles already attached to my hands via the wrist strap. It can also be a hazard to nearby hikers as the stick would be wildly flinging around while I would try to take a picture.
So what I’d have to do is to remove the poles then prop them somewhere before reaching for the camera. More often than not, the trekking poles would fall and I’d have to bend down to pick them up.
If there was a wildlife sighting, the falling pole might startle the wildlife and either compel it to run away or possibly induce an attack.
Furthermore, all this time spent removing the pole and reaching for the camera meant that I could miss the magical and fleeting moment during all this fumbling to get the camera and be in position to take the desired photo.
They Get In The Way
The next annoyance about trekking poles is that they get in the way especially where the trail gets very steep, very narrow, and overgrown.
Where there’s overgrowth, the poles can easily get caught and stuck in the foliage, which would break the forward momentum (or even pull you back, which is what you don’t want to happen around a cliff ledge).
On steep inclines or declines, we’ve often needed free hands to grab onto something.
Trekking poles in this circumstance only get in the way, and we’d need to stow it on our day pack or backpack, which can be non-trivial to do depending on how well-designed the packs are.
We’d also have to take the time to compress the sticks for storage and re-adjust them when we’d need to use them again. This added delay to manage the trekking pole to free up the hands further adds to the nuisance factor.
Extra Pack Weight & Bulk
Third, bringing trekking poles means we’d have to carry around extra weight not to mention additional items in our travels, which would be yet another opportunity to be potentially forgotten or lost.
On trips involving air travel, they are particularly a nuisance because they don’t fit in the smaller luggages and they’re prone to wasting luggage space and bending in larger luggages. Even if they could fit, I doubt TSA would allow you to carry them on the plane as they could be looked upon as weapons given the tips at the bottom of the poles.
Moreover, on our international trips, we’ve found that trekking poles weren’t necessary anyways on almost all of our hikes because the trails there tend to be better developed and less rugged, especially in Europe.
As a result, we’ve learned to live without them on our international travels, and I guess it kind of carried over to our domestic hikes where we don’t bring them along unless we absolutely feel like we have to.
When To Use Trekking Poles?
So with all that we like and don’t like about trekking poles, we often ask ourselves: When should we use trekking poles?
If The Excursion Has Stream Crossings
I generally bring trekking poles on hikes where I anticipate many stream crossings (and I don’t want my feet to get wet) or on long hikes where I have to carry a backpack or even a child in a carrier. That said, our daughter has grown well beyond having us carry her in a frame pack so thankfully that’s one less reason to use trekking poles.
For the stream crossings where I desire to keep my feet dry, we’d take advantage of using the extra pole or two to maintain our balance and avoid steps that would inundate our feet in the water.
Long Hikes And/Or Overnight Treks
For the full-day hikes and overnight backpacking treks, I primarily bring the poles for the weight distribution and propulsion. Basically, I seek to maximize my comfort and minimize the pain of carrying so much weight in the backcountry.
However, then I’d have to put up with the annoyances of consuming more time to get ready to take photos on the spot.
At all other times, we’d generally not bring the trekking poles, especially since most of our excursions are waterfall hikes lasting no longer than a half-day, but we have been caught in unexpected situations where not having the poles made the hiking more difficult.
That said, I might change my mind as I continue to age and seek to preserve the function as well as the inevitable wear-and-tear on my knees, feet, and legs.
In the end, it comes down to my evaluation of whether the benefits of using trekking poles outweigh the annoyances, which you can see is something I evaluate on a case-by-case basis after being informed from my trip research.
Lately, after buying a pair of Z-shaped trekking poles, it has managed to overcome most of our grievances with the traditional trekking poles that we’d been using, and now I favor bringing them along with me everywhere I go, especially as I seek to preserve my knees, feet, and legs as I age.
Final Thoughts / Conclusion
In this article, I went over a lot of the benefits that we’ve encountered upon years of using trekking poles, which we’ve employed on a lot of our waterfall hikes.
These benefits ranged from stability, weight distribution, shock absorption, and overall saving the knees and feet from wear and tear.
Of course, these benefits would only be realized if we used the straps properly.
I’ve also highlighted the key annoyances of using trekking poles, which caused us to only selectively use them on a case-by-case basis.
Ultimately, whether or not you want to use trekking poles comes down to what your threshold of annoyance versus the benefits are, which is different for everyone.
It’s why I can’t definitively say if you need it or not as part of your hiking equipment arsenal.
That said, you at least know where we stand, and you can extrapolate from there whether or not to use them.
If you do decide to get a trekking pole, here’s a reference point for you.
I own the Leki Super Makalu Cortec and the Leki Makalu Ultralite, which I bought back in 2003 and 2005, respectively. The fact that we still have these poles and they’re fully functional tells you how durable they are.
That said, the trekking poles weren’t indestructible as they can bend, especially with a slip and fall along with an awkward planting of the pole.
This happened to my Leki Makalu Ultralite pole. Fortunately, the bend wasn’t so severe that I can’t collapse it anymore. However, I definitely feel the resistance as a result of that bend when making adjustments with it.
I’ve also tried out a Black Diamond Alpine Carbon Cork pole in 2017 because I had forgotten to bring my Leki pole. The Black Diamond pole had a flick lock to help secure the adjustment without the need to twist the poles like on my Lekis.
I used the Pro Shock pole on long hikes in both Glacier National Park and Yellowstone National Park so I definitely had a good sense of how well it worked.
However, I ultimately returned it because there wasn’t anything about the poles that made me want to ditch my old ones. So that’s really a personal choice, and there was nothing wrong with that Black Diamond pole.
Recently, I’ve bought the Black Diamond Distance FLZ Trekking Poles and I’ve stopped using my older telescoping (or twist) poles since.
By the way, both Leki and Black Diamond are the two leading brands as far as trekking poles are concerned (at least in my humble opinion). I would try to steer clear of the knockoff poles that they might sell in Walmart or some sporting goods store.
I generally feel more confident buying from REI thanks to their generous 1-year return policy, which is ample time to figure out if you’ve made the right purchase or not.
That said, you might save a little money buying from Amazon, but if you go that route, you better know what you’re buying because you have a shorter return period with them.
Anyways, if you’re still not sure what to look for when you’re considering whether or not to buy a trekking pole, perhaps this guide might help you further.
Regardless of whether you find trekking poles useful or not, I hope that this article gives you the information you need to made an educated purchasing decision, which will ultimately go towards having a good time in the outdoors. Let me know what you think by leaving your comments below!
If you’d like to learn more about how to select trekking poles, click on the REI button below, which takes you to an article that their experts have written about the types of poles that exist as well as how to use them.
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