Some people who aren’t used to hiking with poles ask why I use them. It might seem weird to have a pair of sticks in your hands all the time, but I’ve found that poles are versatile tools that help with lots of small jobs along the trail.
The Benefits of Hiking Poles
1. Help you keep your stride or pace
When you’re out hiking on relatively easy terrain, it helps to get into a rhythm. Often your strides and your breathing start to sync up and really help you maintain a good pace. Adding trekking poles to the mix adds another element to the rhythm and helps you stay focused.
2. Give you a boost on uphills
Your quads will start to burn out quickly if you’re doing lots of uphill hiking. Planting your poles and pushing up with your arms helps take some of the stress off your leg muscles and helps you stay fresher for longer.
3. Take shock off your knees on downhills
Before I got poles, long descents meant that my knees and ankles would get sore from constantly absorbing my weight pounding down on them with every step. Using poles allows me to catch some of my weight with my arms, so that it’s not all on my joints. Poles also aid with stability on steep sections or large drops.
4. Great for balance on slippery rocks or uneven terrain
If your hiking takes you through soggy, rocky areas like those around rivers or creeks, you probably know the frustration of stepping on a slick rock and feeling your foot slide when you shift your weight. Sometimes you can catch yourself with your other foot or hands, but sometimes you end up falling on your face and banging your knee or hands in the process. Sticking a hiking pole out allows you to stop those slips from turning into face plants, and saves your dignity in the process.
5. Extra points of contact for river crossings
Even shallow, seemingly slow moving water can make river crossing very difficult and treacherous. One rock sliding away under foot and you’ve fallen in, gotten soaked and maybe find yourself being whisked down stream. Using poles gives you extra points of contact that can keep your upright in the event that something shifts underfoot.
6. Whacking bushes, branches and spider webs out of the way
If you’re on a trail that’s tightly crowded with vegetation, poles can be invaluable for pushing branches and bushes out of the way. You can swing them through spiderwebs so those don’t end up plastered across your face. Not sure if that plant growing over the edge of the trail is poison ivy? Whack it out of the way with your pole and avoid having to find out!
7. Testing a sketchy looking rock before you put weight on it
On tricky terrain, you might see a potential step that looks a little sketchy. Maybe it’s in loose mud or hanging between other rocks, and you find yourself wondering if you should trust it with your weight. Putting your pole on it and giving it a shove is a great way to test a step before trusting it with your full body weight.
8. Fending off animals like snakes or small rodents
If you’ve ever hiked in the desert through low brush, then you know the terror of wondering whether each bush is concealing a snake, scorpion or other pest, waiting to strike. With poles, you can whack at potential hiding places before stepping through them with your legs and risking a bite or sting.
9. Supports for pitching a tarp
Even once you make it to camp, poles can still be very useful. Having strong, lightweight poles can help with all sorts of camp tasks like hanging things to dry, keeping your bag off the ground or pitching a tarp. Even if you aren’t planning to spend the night out, poles can come in handy if you find yourself needing to setup an emergency shelter.
10. For emergency litter or splint construction
Speaking of emergencies, there are lots of emergency situations where having a straight, lightweight brace comes in handy. Poles can be used to splint broken bones, or they can be used to support strained or sprained joints. Even if you don’t end up with a severe emergency, poles can also function as makeshift crutches if your roll your ankle or hurt your knee and need to take some weight off of it to make the hike out more comfortable.
What to Look For When Choosing Hiking Poles
Most poles are made out of aluminum or carbon fiber. Carbon fiber makes the poles lighter, but also more brittle and likely to snap on rugged terrain. Aluminum is more durable, and also significantly cheaper, so that’s what I’d recommend for most people.
Some poles come with a spring-loaded shock absorbing feature, so that the poles essentially shorten an inch or two when heavy weight is applied to them. This feature helps reduce the strain of travelling downhill, by dissipating some of your downward energy into the spring.
If you find yourself on mountainous terrain, this feature can be a lifesaver – just make sure you lock out the spring on uphills so that you can still effectively push on the poles to lift your weight.
Most poles have some sort of collapsing mechanism to make them shorter for travel and storage. If you’re shopping online, it’s good to read reviews from pervious owners to see what people think of the stick’s locking mechanism.
You’re looking for a combination of easy to use and also secure – you don’t want your pole to collapse when you stumble and need it to catch your weight! Also consider whether you’d be hiking in the cold and potentially need a locking mechanism you can adjust with gloves on.
Tooth at the Bottom
The real magic of the pole comes from the tiny little tooth at the bottom that grips even on slippery rocks or uneven surfaces. Carbide and steel are common for rough terrain, whereas you’d want something rubber for softer, more sensitive areas, or when hiking on paved trails or asphalt.
Some poles come with removable trekking baskets near the bottom. These prevent the poles from sinking into snow, sand and wet mud. These are a great extra feature to have when the ground is soft and are worth leaving on, even if they’re removable.
The grip should be something that’s comfortable in your hand for the conditions you’re hiking in. Consider if you’d be wearing gloves in the cold, or sweating a lot in hotter areas.
Cork handles are usually found on higher end models, and proponents say they mold to your hand and help decrease vibration. Foam is more common on entry-level models and tends to be light and soft. Some poles have rubber grips which help insulate in colder weather, but also tend to rub and chafe in sweaty hands.
My Recommendation for Starter Poles
Looking for a good pair of entry-level poles that won’t break the bank?
I bought the REI Traverse Shocklight Trekking Poles a few years ago and they’ve been with me ever since. They’re aluminum sticks with foam handles, so they’re sturdy but cheap – and they also have a shock absorbing mechanism that you usually only see on higher-end poles. A great value for general purpose hikes!
They also have a women’s model with a slightly smaller grip that my girlfriend loves to use. If you don’t want the shock absorbing feature, you can save a bit of money and get the REI Traverse Trekking Poles as well.