Do trekking poles help and other frequently asked questions are answered in detail here from my own perspective after using trekking poles for 15 years already.
About terminology first, if you search the Internet you will see the term trekking poles used as well as hiking poles. Obviously, trekking and hiking are not the same activities but this is about the same type of poles.
The questions listed as titles below are actual questions from real people. I have collected them and gave my answers to have as a reference in one place.
What is the point of a trekking pole? Are trekking pole worth it? Do trekking poles really make a difference?
So these are three questions from real people, their meaning is more or less the same and there is no need to answer them separately. Here is how I would answer these questions.
I have started using trekking poles around 15 years ago, and I have never stopped using them. In my case this is more about mountaineering than trekking and hiking. The top picture above shows my stuff on the summit of Spik mountain in the Slovenian Alps, including a pair of Komperdell poles.
It is fair to admit that in the beginning of a mountaineering season, when I am on the first and second tour, I become a bit annoyed by them.
The reason is that I do not exercise in my usual daily life and my arms are not particularly strong. So after a full-day tour with poles, I feel pain in my arms’ muscles. The poles have weight and you spend energy using them. So you feel this in muscles. But after a few days it is usually all fine.
I do mountaineering tours and this is always on a rough terrain, so there are true benefits of using trekking poles. For me, it is much easier to keep balance with poles than without them. If this is difficult to understand, just look at Alpine goats and you will realize. They have four contact points with the ground.
I have also read somewhere about a big stress difference that the articular cartilage around the knees bears when you walk uphill and downhill. So the role of the poles is to reduce chances for knee injury while increasing strength and endurance. You transfer a bit of body weight to the poles, and this is one of the reasons for the mentioned pain in my arms muscles.
Here is a nice video about trekking poles, please have a look:
Yet another good reason for using poles is that some trail tents are designed to be used with trekking poles. This means you do not need poles for the tent, and this will reduce weight in your backpack.
When you cross a water stream, you can always check the water depth with a pole. In such passages, if you step on one slippery stone after another, the poles will help to keep balance.
Is it better to hike with one pole or two? Can you use just one trekking pole?
It is definitely better to have two poles. From all I described above this should be obvious. In fact, I was forced to test this. It was not on purpose but because a couple of years ago in the Italian Alps, I dropped one pole from a cliff and could not get it back.
So I continued without it and could clearly feel the difference. But even one pole helps, there is no doubt. Yeah, even a goat can manage to walk on three legs. You can switch it occasionally from one hand to another, this in particular if you are on a slope where the trail switches direction and zig-zags.
How long should my trekking pole be?
There are several situations to consider. Ideally, when you keep the pole in hand and its tip is on the ground by your side or in front of your feet, your arm should be close to right angle in the elbow area or it should create an angle of 80-90 degrees. This is not so strict of course, simply try and adjust the length.
This should be good for a flat terrain and also when you walk uphill. This length should be optimal to propel yourself forward with the poles. In the downhill movement, I always extend poles for 10-15 cm or so, dependent on the slope.
Do walking sticks help burn more calories?
In view of what I mentioned about the initial arms muscles pain, it is obvious that the answer is yes. But I do not think that they should be used with this main purpose in mind unless this is about Nordic walking.
If you burn calories this may be a good side effect, but do you really want to burn them on this when you are on a steep and high mountain?
What is the difference between a walking stick and a trekking stick?
As you can imagine, walking sticks are designed for a different population, for senior users in particular. Such users have extra support and balance with a cane.
The handle is normally different when you compare a trekking pole and a walking stick. Trekking poles also have straps that you put around the hand. This is useful on the trail when you want to take a photo. I normally do not put the poles away, they remain hanging attached to the arms.
Walking sticks are usually much thicker and they are also usually more expensive. Their tips normally offer a better traction because of wide non-slippery rubber caps. This is because they are designed to be used on a hard and flat surface.
You can attach rubber caps to your trekking poles as well, they usually come with such an addition, but I use them mostly with their carbide tips only.
Can you use a trekking pole as a walking stick?
I would say yes, you can use it as a walking stick, both trekking poles and walking canes share the same purpose of providing users with extra support.
But trekking poles are thinner and they are not as strong as a true walking stick. Imagine an elderly person using a trekking pole to get up from a low bench in the park. He or she will transfer most of the body weight to the pole. A thin trekking pole might break. Its locking mechanism may fail, this holds in particular for the telescopic poles with a lever-lock or twist-lock mechanism.
Such locking mechanisms can loosen over time, this has happened to me a number of times. This is not so with the poles with a push-button lock.
On the other hand the shape of the handle is also different. All in all, a trekking pole is not a perfect substitute for a walking stick.
Can you bring trekking pole on plane?
From what I know, it is not permitted to bring trekking poles in carry-on bags, no matter if they are extendable or not. But you might want to check this with your flight company.
How do you hold trekking poles?
Here is what I do. When the pole is in front of me kept with one hand, the strap loop hangs down, I pass the hand directly through the loop and grab the handle.
With this you will have the strap loop below your hand and you can press down and have support even if you do not keep the handle with fingers at all, or you keep it very loosely.
This is something that I use a lot, sometimes after hours of walk up, the fingers do not have enough strength to grab the handle and support the body. In such situations the arm muscles will do the job when you transfer the weight to the strap.
I hope I have made this clear, try it and you will see what I mean.
I have seen some suggesting doing this differently: Pass the hand through the loop from below and then grab the handle. This does not work for me because with this you will have the strap in contact with the hand on two sides and it will be between your hand and the handle.
This may create blisters, and you also do not have the mentioned support when you do not keep the handle with fingers.
Should you use rubber tips on hiking poles?
I usually leave the rubber tips in the car. The problem with them is also that it is easy to lose them. But they can indeed be useful if you are on hard and smooth surface, carbide tips can make lots of noise and may not work well in such situations.
Why do trekking poles have carbide tips?
This is because carbide is ultra-durable. Having such tips is the best option for a rugged terrain, they will provide the best possible traction. They are also great for a hard-crusted snow, and for mud and dirt.
What are the parts of a trekking pole?
From the top to the bottom you have the following:
- A handle.
- A strap.
- A shaft with its segments and locking elements.
- A basket.
- A tip.
Some poles may also have shock absorbers but this is a part that you do not see from outside.
What is the purpose of baskets on trekking poles?
The basket is normally removable. It is added to allow for floatation when you use the pole on snow passages and other loose conditions underfoot. Otherwise, with its sharp tip, the pole will have no backstop, it will sink into the loose ground and you will not have support.
How do you lock hiking poles?
There are several locking mechanisms around, I have used them all.
- External lever lock, here you have a clamp that allows you to adjust the length easily. One excellent example of this type you have in these LEKI Black Series Carbon Poles.
- Push-button lock is typically in collapsible poles. I had a pair of shock-corded poles with such a mechanism. It snaps into place in a simple move when I push the top segment in place. To release, you simply press the button in. Such poles are usually with a fixed length. But there are poles that combine the lever lock with the push button lock, and those allow for the length adjustment.
- Twist lock is the classic one, my first poles had this system, and the ones shown in the top picture above are the same. Here you have an inner expander and an outer screw which you turn around. This is a system used in telescopic adjustable poles.
What is the difference between trekking poles and snowshoe poles?
Trekking poles can be used on snow passages and then you attach baskets as mentioned above. But the baskets on trekking poles are usually smaller in the diameter as compared with snowshoe poles baskets.
Can I use my trekking poles for skiing?
The answer is yes, and this holds in particular for on piste skiing.
How light should trekking poles be?
The rule is simple, the lighter the better, but this should not compromise their strength. You will see this easily if you compare prices, those ultralight are usually very expensive.
Are aluminum or carbon fiber hiking poles better? Are carbon poles worth it?
So this is about the pole shaft’s material. Carbon or composite poles are a fiber type, they are strong and light, but more expensive and less durable than aluminum. If a carbon pole fails it will snap or splinter. You can throw it away in this case.
Aluminum trekking poles usually have a longer lifespan, and they perform well in any weather conditions. But if you are an ounce counter, you will go for carbon poles. These Cascade Mountain Tech Trekking Poles are one example.
So in summary, do trekking poles help and are they worth it? My answer is yes, and I do not plan to stop using them. But this is how I see them, I know that there are people who do not use them and this is fine. As for you, try some and see how this works for you. Then you will know.
Thank you for reading. Please look around in the site, it is all about outdoor questions and answers, check in particular in the Trail Gear category.