Bridger-Teton National Forest

Trek, Trek Trekking Poles: Top 5 Reasons to Use ‘Em

I adore my trekking poles.  I can’t imagine any backpacking trip without them.  I don’t always use them on day-hikes (unless the hike is very long and very hilly), but I would certainly shed more than one tear if I forgot them at home during a backpacking trip.

Not all backpackers agree about poles. Some backpackers find them to be an unnecessary, useless item.  I think that’s either an ego thing OR it’s because the nay-sayers don’t actually know how to use them properly.

There is a right and a wrong way to use poles. They have wrist straps and I see those straps dangling and unused more often than not.  Or I see them causally looped over the hiker’s wrist as if to just ensure they won’t somehow drop a pole without realizing it.  When used in such a way, yes – trekking poles are pretty useless. And dangerous.  If you fall forward and use your hands to catch yourself, having the wrist straps on wrong can actually cause you to break or dislocate your thumb.  Right is right.  Wrong is wrong.

But when used properly, with the wrist securely “locked” in to the wrist strap with the strap properly tightened, poles become part of your body and assist you in many ways.

Another thing I see somewhat commonly is ONE pole.  Using one trekking pole will ensure that your body eventually becomes unbalanced.  Sure, it might make you feel more confident going down steep terrain, but only on one side!  Is it better than nothing, sure, but in order to get the full benefits of poles, your left side and ride side both need one.

Top 5 Reasons to Use Trekking Poles:

  1. So that you can still be hiking and backpacking when you are 60 (or 70, or 80): Backpacking is tough on your joints, especially if you are backpacking in hilly or mountainous terrain.  Remember, it’s not just your body weight putting stress on your knees, it’s also the 30-40 lbs of extra weight in your pack that your body isn’t used to. Even if you are young and strong with no aches or pains in your joints now, think long term.  Trekking poles will increase the life of your body.
  2. So that you can still hike tomorrow: Backpacking can be so strenuous and tough on your joints that you can get an injury suddenly.  One minute you are galavanting down a mountain, singing the Sound of Music soundtrack in your head (or out loud).  The next, it hurts to tack a single step.  Or, you have a great day going up and down, up and down, only to wake up the next morning wishing your trip was done already and dreading the hills ahead.  Trekking poles not only protect your joints for the future, they protect them now! When I abandoned my JMT thru-hike attempt at mile 105 due to smoke, a strong, fit, young man in his 20’s was experiencing knee pain and was using KT tape to wrap them each day.  He had no poles.  I sold him mine so that he could actually finish the trail. Which he did, thanks to the poles.  He later told me he didn’t think he would have made it without them.  I’m such a hero 🙂
  3. Efficiency: When used properly, trekking poles actually assist you on the uphill sections by allowing you to “push off” with the poles behind you as you walk.  When going downhill, the poles are out in front of you, taking on substantial weight as you head down steep terrain.  You will be able to hike longer and more comfortably if you use poles.  It’s not cheating, you young folks, it’s just smart!
  4. Water Crossings: When you use trekking poles, you essentially shape-shift into a four-legged animal.  You have three points touching the ground at all times as you walk.  When crossing rivers, streams and creeks, this four point system can literally save your life.  You are more balanced and have more points securing you to the creek bed.  Without poles, each step you take means you have literally one foot on the ground, and nothing else.  You could easily get swept away, even in water that doesn’t seem that strong.  But with poles, each step you take allows for one foot and two poles to continually, securely keep you facing upstream.  If you are crossing on rocks or a fallen tree, you can use the poles to help balance you by finding a secure place for them to dig in on the river bed before taking your next step or by using them as balancing poles as you walk the seeming “tightrope” of a log high off the river.

    Using poles for balance on a creek crossing.
    Using poles for balance on a creek crossing.
  5. Tents and Tarps: Some lightweight tents and most tarps allow (or require) poles for setup.  While I don’t recommend that new(ish) backpackers forgo a tent in favor of a trap (think: complicated and less “homey” at night), I do highly recommend the Henry Shires Tarptents for beginners.  These tents work with tent poles and stakes, like traditional tents, but also can work with tent poles and your trekking poles! Last August, I left my tent stakes behind at a campsite.  Ten miles later (most of them uphill), I realized my mistake as I wearily went to setup my tent for the night.  Thankfully, I had two spare stakes in my Ten Essentials Kit and my trekking poles, because going back wasn’t an option! I was able to erect my tent each night of the trip using my trekking poles and my two spare tent stakes.  Some people like bringing a dining tarp with them backpacking.  A dining tarp is a small, ultra-lightweight tarp used for cooking/eating under when it’s pouring rain.  Or just as an easy-to-setup dry place to sit while waiting for bad weather to pass.  These dining tarps require trekking poles.
  6. Bonus Tip — Safety: In a pinch, a trekking pole is a weapon. ‘Nuff said.

Want to SEE how to wear your poles properly?  Check out this informative video from the knowledgeable (and handsome!) Chase Tucker.

So, now that you’re convinced, what poles should you buy?

If you’re backpacking, you want them to be STURDY!  Yes, you want lightweight poles, but sturdy is most important.  Ultra-lightweight poles (carbon composite) were designed more for fast-packing (going as fast as possible or even running with very little weight in your pack or no pack).  Backpacking poles need to hold your weight with your pack should you stumble (and you will).  They need to get you cross that raging river.  You need to be able to accidentally drop your pack on them and not have them bend.  So look for durable poles.  Aircraft aluminum is best.

You also want them to be adjustable and collapsible so that you can lengthen and shorten them as needed based on the ascent or descent and so that you can collapse them down and stow them away in or on your pack when you don’t want to use them.  There are two main types of locking mechanisms that allow you to adjust and collapse your poles: twist locks and lever locks. I prefer lever locks.  I know too many people who have had their twist locks fail.

And what about the grip? Cork? Foam? Rubber? Unless you plan to backpack in the snow, don’t get rubber.  Stick with cork or foam.  Each has their advantages and most backpackers would be happy with either.  Cork tends to be more expensive and can “form” to your hand shape.  But some foams are becoming more “advanced” and claim to absorb sweat better.

Either way, I highly recommend sun gloves!  Sun gloves protect your hands from the sun and absorb sweat and prevent chaffing from your pole grips.  If you visualize using poles all day long, you’ll realize that your hands will have constant exposure to UV rays.  Do you want to apply and re-apply gross, slimy sunblock in SPF 1,000,000 five times a day? Sun gloves will protect your skin beautifully and are fingerless, since you don’t need the material on your fingers.  There is something so gross about sweaty hands on sweaty grips, even if the grips are cork and are supposed to absorb all that sweat.  Sun gloves wick all that moisture away from your skin and it evaporates out of the gloves quickly.  I recommend Outdoor Research’s ActiveIce Spectrum Sun Gloves, but any glove meant for the sun will do (especially if it has little grippy bits on the palms to help you grip your poles).

Sun gloves and my trusty poles.
Sun gloves and my trusty poles.

Now you know everything there is to know! Get your poles and get out there – you won’t be disappointed.

In skating over thin ice safety is in our speed. — Ralph Waldo Emerson