Using and Choosing Trekking Poles or Hiking Sticks

Back in the Middle Ages, if you were going to walk from, say, Paris to Santiago da Compostela, they didn’t call it a long-distance hike; they called it a pilgrimage. But like today’s long-distance backpackers, yesteryear’s pilgrims were identified by their garb (and probably their smell, too): Long cloaks that could be used as shelters, a talisman (in the case of Santiago pilgrims, it was a scallop shell, symbol of St. James) and a walking stick.

Back then, walking sticks were little more than stout staffs. Indeed, today’s hikers sometimes improvise hiking stocks from downed wood, old ski poles, folding wading staffs sold in fly-fishing stores, or broomsticks with neoprene handgrips taped around the top. More upscale hikers might choose hand-carved poles, available at outfitters in popular outdoor vacation spots, but to be perfectly honest, these make better decorations and souvenirs. And then of course, we have the high-tech option. New metal models are more ergonomically designed, with comfortable handgrips and a telescoping feature that allows the hiker to choose the exact right length, then collapse the poles for easy travel.

Whatever type of hiking stick you choose, its function is the same: Trekking poles help whenever the terrain gets rough. If you’ve got to hop from boulder to boulder, descend steep slopes, and cross streams, you’ll find that a pole makes your hike quicker and more stable.

One Trekking Pole or Two?

While the traditional pilgrim used one walking stick, many of today’s backpackers use two. Two poles are more easily incorporated into a natural walking rhythm, and the arms can actually help propel the hiker uphill. Two poles are also useful for balance, enabling a hiker to plant both poles, then hop down from a high boulder without putting undue stress on the knees.

Overweight hikers, hikers with bad knees, and older hikers (whose balance is affected by the aging process) should consider using two poles.

Some hikers find that using two poles gets in the way of using their hands to scramble up rock slopes, or when taking photographs. Collapsible poles can be temporarily strapped to backpacks to leave the hands free. Or hikers in these cases might use just one pole.

Two poles are essential with snowshoes, useful for crossing streams (especially while rock-hopping), and reassuring on snowy slopes that don’t require full mountaineering equipment, but are slick enough that a little extra help is appreciated.

Features of Trekking Poles

  • Telescoping sections: Most modern trekking poles are telescoping, meaning that a pole can be pulled out to its full length of about four feet, then collapsed into a small package when not in use. The telescoping feature comes in handy when traversing very steep ridges: The downhill pole can be longer than the uphill pole.
  • Packability: Some poles collapse into two sections; some into three. Hikers taking plane flights to hiking destination should check that the length of the collapsed poles fits into luggage: Trekking poles are considered potential weapons by the TSA, and are not allowed as hand luggage.
  • Hand grips: Grips are made of rubber, plastic, or cork. Cork models absorb sweat from the hands and may be more comfortable and less likely to cause blisters.
  • Shock absorbing springs: Springs in the telescoping mechanism absorb shock when poles are planted. This small feature makes a big difference when using poles to help with large downhill steps (for instance, off a big rock or boulder).
  • Material” Traditional staffs were made of wood, modern poles are made of aluminum, and high-end lightweight models are now made with carbon fiber.

More Uses for Trekking Poles

  • Checking for snakes in brush and underbrush.
  • Pitching a tarp (The configuration will determine if one pole or two is required)
  • Waving at barking dogs
  • Poking a bear-bag into place.
  • Pushing gear from one person to another when both hikers are too exhausted to move up at the end of the day.

The choice of one trekking pole or two is ultimately one of function and comfort. But many hikers agree that a trekking pole is one piece of equipment they can’t do without.