This week, I’m tackling trekking poles for the third edition of the ‘Beginner’s Guide Series’. When I first learned of trekking poles, I scoffed at them. Surely, a real hiker doesn’t need assistance from fancy canes. Then, I borrowed a friend’s on an intense hike in Glacier and I haven’t looked back since.
Not only do hiking poles help decrease impact on knees, feet, and ankles, they also provide 4 points of contact on the ground, making me feel much more stable. They are especially great when going up or down steep terrain, providing leverage or decreasing impact. I’ve avoided multiple falls and slips by bracing myself with my poles. Now, if I forget my trekking poles on a hike, it feels like a piece of me is missing.
There’s a few things you should know about trekking poles before you purchase them so that you get a pair that will fit your hiking needs.
Choosing the Correct Length
Many trekking poles are sold by length in centimeters. As a general rule, you’ll want to make sure that your arm makes a 90° angle when the tips are touching the ground. This ensures that you will get the most comfort out of your poles. However, with adjustable poles, the length is variable, so choosing the correct length when purchasing isn’t as important because you can adjust to the correct length.
Fixed-length vs. Adjustable
There’s two basic types of trekking poles: ones that are adjustable and ones that aren’t. There are more adjustable poles on the market than fixed length because they are simply more versatile. It is great to be able to adjust poles for the terrain and not worry about buying the exact right length.
Pros of adjustable poles
- People of different heights can use the same poles
- Adjust for long sections of hilly terrain
- 5-10 cm longer for downhill
- 5-10 cm shorter for uphill
Pros of fixed length poles
- Usually lighter in weight
- No possibility of multiple locking mechanisms failing
I have some fixed length poles that collapse down (Black Diamond Z-Poles). I love them because they are lightweight and collapse down pretty small.
Aluminum vs. Carbon-fiber
There are two main materials that trekking pole shafts are made of – aluminum and carbon-fiber. Each has their pros and cons so make sure you get a pole made from a material that suits your hiking needs.
Aluminum poles are the more economical and durable option. They provide a strong trekking pole and will bend (rather than break) under pressure. If you are hiking is very rugged areas where you expect to be putting a lot of stress on your poles, aluminum may be a better option for you. However, poles made from aluminum tend to be a bit heavier than their carbon-fiber counterparts.
Carbon-fiber poles are the lighter and more expensive option tending to run $40-$50 more than aluminum ones. They are a strong pole, but can break under high stress (rather then bend). If you are concerned about weight and aren’t hiking is very rugged areas, carbon-fiber poles are a great option.
Rubber vs. Carbide Tips
Most trekking poles will come with interchangeable tips for different terrain. Use the carbide or steel tips when you want more traction on icy surfaces or to decrease impact the impact to the ground/terrain. But, most of the time, I use the rubber tips, which provide more shock absorption and don’t make a terrible grinding sound on rocky terrain.
Using the Wrist Straps
Many hikers actually use the wrist straps incorrectly. You want to insert your hand from the bottom of the strap, then grab the grip so that some of the wrist strap is against your palm. This provides support for your wrist and hand. The wrist strap should also be adjusted so that the strap rests close to the back of your hand.
Shock-absorption: These types of poles have springs inside them to absorb shock, especially when going downhill. It’s a great feature to have for anyone, but highly recommended for those with knee/ankle issues.
Ergonomic grips: Holding poles on a long hike is much more comfortable when the grips are fit closely to the shape of your hand.
Camera mount: Some poles feature a built-in camera mount under the handle so you can get that perfect, steady shot.
Foldable: Some poles fold down like a tent pole, making them lightweight, packable and easy to stow in the side pockets of a backpack.
Buying Trekking Poles
There’s a lot to consider when buying something as seemingly simple as trekking poles. Some popular brands are: REI Co-op, Black Diamond, Leki, and Komperdell. Unless you are an ultra marathoner or long-distance trail runner, I don’t think the extra money for carbon-fiber poles is necessarily worth it to save 5-6 ounces of weight.
The REI Co-op Passage Trekking Poles are a good entry level pole with a competitive price.
The Black Diamond Distance Z Trekking Poles are a great lightweight and compact choice that come with a higher price tag. These poles also come in carbon fiber (Black Diamond Distance Carbon AR Trekking Poles) if you are looking to decrease weight.
The Leki Cressida Cor-Tec Trekking Poles are a popular choice among women and have a bit more features and comfort.
I’ve only mentioned a few poles by name, but there are so many good options. Also, if you are hiking mostly day hikes in Tennessee, honestly, most any pole will probably do great as long as it is the correct size.
Do you use trekking poles? What are your favorite? Let me know in the comments!