Every hiker has their novelty item. Depending on the hike, Kyle and I often have several. In the summer we bring body wipes so that we can have a “shower” after sweating all day. I often bring a journal to write in. I once met a girl who carried a pumice stone for her feet. Anything that is not absolutely essential is considered a novelty item….
Trekking poles are NOT a novelty.
Anyone who uses trekking poles when they hike will tell you that they make a huge difference. I’m always confused when I see people without hiking poles (especially when backpacking). I’ve heard that there is a misconception that trekking poles are for “old” people. It’s true, they are, but only because trekking poles are for everyone: humans of all ages and sizes.
Benefits to using poles:
- Balance: When backpacking, the weight of your backpack will often throw you off balance. Even on a day hike, when packs are significantly lighter, poles will help with rock scrambles or stream crossings with slippery rocks.
- Exertion: Backpacks are designed to distribute the majority of its weight onto your legs by resting on your hips (which makes a whole lot of sense because your legs are much stronger than your shoulders and your arms). Hiking poles give you the opportunity to make hiking a whole body workout.
- Speed: The pace you can generate using only your legs is increased by the use of your arms. During my last trail race, there were quite a few sections that I walked. I found myself missing my poles because I just couldn’t maintain any speed while I was walking. If you want to power hike, poles are a huge help.
- Knees: Poles take a significant amount of strain off your knees while descending.
- Multipurpose: Many ultra lite tents can be pitched using your poles. Tent poles are often the heaviest part of a tent so if you don’t have to carry them, why would you?
If you’re sold on the idea of using poles,
now you need to know what to buy.
There are a few things to consider.
I want to preface this by saying that ANY poles are better than no poles. My first pair came from Wal-Mart, cost me 20$, and lasted 400+ miles before they broke. If you want to get the RIGHT pair for you, consider the following:
- Trekking poles vs. hiking staff: The difference is simple. Trekking poles are a pair of poles and a hiking staff is sold individually (you only use one). I strongly recommend using a pair of poles, but if you are hiking leisurely and only require them for balance, one might suffice.As Jess and I prepared for our 30 day hike on the AT, we purchased a set of poles and decided that we would each use one. Unfortunately, using a hiking staff can create imbalances in the way that you walk. Some muscles are being utilized more than others which often leads to injury. There was nothing leisurely about our hike on the AT–after 3 days of hiking, we were both injured because of imbalances.
Jess and I were trying to “cut cost” when we made the decision to split a pair of trekking poles. What a mistake! I ended up buying a pair anyways, but not before the damage was done. DO NOT make this decision based on cost.
- Weight: As with most things. The lighter the better…as long as it works.
- Aluminum Poles (my recommendation): The less expensive, stronger option. Aluminum poles are typically less expensive than their carbon counterparts. They range in weight from 18-22 ounces.
- Carbon Poles: The lighter, more expensive option. A pair of composite poles typically ranges from 12-18 ounces. Unfortunately, carbon poles are more prone to breaking. Hiking forums are littered with stories about people who have broken their carbon poles mid hike.Sometimes, this might just be a mild inconvenience (an expensive one), but if you plan to use your poles as a support for your shelter, this is more than an inconvenience.
- Locking mechanisms: Almost all poles are adjustable. There are definitely times when you need to carry your poles rather than use them. In order to carry them you’ll want them to collapse.
- Flip Lock (my recommendation): The flip lock design allows you to open up your poles, set them to a desired length, and be certain that they’re going to stay there. In my experience and in everything I’ve read, flip locks simply outlast the other designs.
- Twist lock: The twist lock design allows for your poles to be shock absorbent which is really nice! Unfortunately, it also adds weight to the pole. In my experience, these poles tend to malfunction and break long before poles of a different design. The last thing you want is to be on a long hike and have your poles break. Sometimes, if you push down too hard on your pole, it will collapse in on itself. No bueno.
- Foldable: Foldable poles collapse in the same way that tent poles do. They are typically lighter and they pack down nice and small. Ultra runners and fast packers lean towards this design because they often switch back and forth between packing or using their poles. I’ve never tried this design, but I want to! Here’s more on foldable poles.
- The Handle: Kyle always says that he doesn’t care much about his handles, until he touches the handles on my poles and goes, “dannngg, those are SOFT.” When it comes to handles, it comes down to preference. Pick what feels right!
- Cork: Light weight, repels sweat, contours to your hand, and provides decreased vibration.
- Foam: The comfy kind! Pulls sweat away from skin.
- Rubber: Great for winter as it insulates your hands from the cold, but it does not combine well with sweat (can cause irritation of the skin).
Hopefully this gets you started! If you need more information or want a different opinion, here are some articles that might help!
- Best Trekking Poles of 2017 from Switch Back Travel
- Even MORE things to consider when buying poles from REI
- Someone else’s opinion on the pros and cons from Section Hiker
That’s all for today, friends. Good luck and happy hiking!