Trekking poles and hiking staffs are useful additions to your backpacking and hiking arsenal. They minimize stress to the quads and knees, especially when hiking on steep or rough terrain (even more if you are carrying a heavy pack).
A 1999 study published in the Journal of Sports Medicine demonstrated that using trekking poles reduce stress on the knees by up to 25%. Reducing stress and exertion allows you to travel farther more efficiently, making trekking poles or a hiking staff a great investment for any backpacker or avid day-hiker.
Trekking Poles or Hiking Staffs: What’s the Difference
Trekking poles are usually sold (and are intended to be used) in pairs. Most are adjustable to different heights and come with a variety of features to choose from. Poles are useful over a variety of terrain and distances.
A hiking staff is used alone and is most helpful over relatively flat terrain and when you are not carrying a heavy load. Some hiking staffs are adjustable and many include a camera mount to double as a photography monopod. Staffs are generally less versatile than trekking poles, making them less popular among backpackers and hikers.
There are a variety of features to consider before you invest in trekking poles or a staff. Some will depend on where you plan for your adventures to take you.
Adjustable: Most trekking poles and some staffs are adjustable to fit your height and to be more effective over different terrains. Most adjust between 24 and 55 inches long.
Poles and staffs that don’t adjust are usually lighter because there are fewer parts. These are most popular among ultralight hikers and backpackers who are focused on keeping their gear as light as possible. However, non-adjustable poles are less versatile over different terrains and activities.
Foldable: These trekking poles work a lot like tent poles. Foldable poles are not as adjustable in length but are lightweight and easiest to pack. These are especially popular among ultrarunners and hikers intent on going fast.
Shock-Absorption: Some high-end models of trekking poles or staffs have an internal spring in the shaft that absorbs the vibrations rather than allowing them to travel up the pole to your arms. These springs may also help with energy transfer—helping the pole to spring forward rather than relying entirely on your arm to lift and swing the pole (but this would be a very minor help, if any).
Pole Materials: Most poles and staffs are either aluminum or carbon (though some fancier walking staffs are made of wood or other materials). Carbon fiber is lighter but aluminum is far more durable. Your intended activity will determine how much of a factor weight should be but most experts recommend that pole and staff weight should be a secondary factor for most hikers and backpackers as the weight difference between carbon and aluminum in this situation is small.
Grip Materials: Some trekking poles have ergonomic grips that help keep your wrists in a neutral position. The grip itself comes in a variety of materials and is really a matter of comfort and preference.
Cork helps absorb vibration and conforms to the shape of your hand over time. Additionally it is moisture resistant, making it ideal for warmer climates.
Rubber grip material offers insulation from the cold and also absorbs vibration. However, rubber is more likely to cause blisters and chafing in warmer climates.
Foam is the softest to the touch and absorbs moisture.
Pole Tips: Most poles come with steel or carbide tips that are ideal when you are looking for added traction. You can add rubber tip protectors to extend the life of your poles and keep them from puncturing your other gear when stowed away.
If you plan to use your poles on very hard surfaces like asphalt, consider purchasing after-market angled rubber walking tips.
How to Adjust Your Trekking Poles
Adjust the wrist strap: When this strap is correctly adjusted, it helps prevent hand fatigue and sprained wrists. Open the strap all the way and put your hand through from the bottom so the strap rests comfortably around your wrist. Put your hand around the grip on the pole and the top of the strap. When properly adjusted, the wrist strap should be tight enough to help support the weight of your hand on the pole but not too tight that it is hard to get your hand out.
Adjust the Length: Next, extend or shorten the poles until your elbow is at a 90 degree angle and your wrist and elbow line up. As you adjust the length, make sure the measuring numbers are the same on each section of the pole. This will make it easier to make adjustments for different terrain. Don’t extend any section past the stop line when you are adjusting the length.
Test It: Make sure the clasps that connect the sections of the pole are tightened enough that when everything is clasped the pole supports your weight. If necessary, tighten any screws in the clasps until they clasp shut and don’t slide.
How to Use Trekking Poles
Fortunately, it is very easy to learn to hike efficiently with trekking poles. It might take a bit of getting used to, but it should feel comfortable and you should be able to find a natural rhythm.
Uphill: When hiking uphill, it’s best to keep your trekking poles short. Keep the poles close to your body and use them more to push off of rather than to pull yourself up. For best form, make sure the tip of your pole is not in front of your lead foot.
Downhill: If you are heading down a long descent, extend your poles until you can stand upright with your poles planted in front of you and your arms at a 90 degree angle (to adjust for the hill). If you are hiking a switchback or an angled trail, you may need to adjust one pole longer than the other and switch hands as you go through each switchback.
Walk Naturally: Think about how you walk normally without trekking poles. When you take a step forward with your right foot, your left hand swings forward for balance and stability. When your left foot goes forward, you swing your right arm forward. Try keeping this rhythm with your trekking poles so that each pole moves forward with the opposite leg.
Some people find other rhythms more comfortable, and that’s just fine. Over time, your trekking poles should feel like a natural extension of your arms, helping propel you forward and maintain balance.
- Streams: when using trekking poles to cross streams or rivers, make sure each time you plant a pole it won’t move as you lean on it. If the water is deep, lengthen your poles for more stability.
- Ledges and Large Rocks: Plant both poles in the ground as you step up on the ledge or rock. Push on the poles until you are all the way up. Be mindful that a large pack will impact your center of gravity and balance.
- Crossing Logs: If you need to navigate walking on a log across a stream or over a ditch you can use your trekking poles for balance by holding them out to both sides like a tightrope walker uses a large pole for balance.
If your trekking poles fit properly and with a little practice, you should notice an improvement in fatigue levels after long hikes. Over time, your confidence and comfort will increase and your trekking poles or walking staff will feel like an extension of your arms.
What are your favorite hiking staffs or trekking poles? Share in the comments.