Trekking poles and hiking staffs are standard equipment for many walkers, hikers, trekkers, backpackers and snowshoers. The reasons why are simple: They enhance your stability and provide support on all types of terrain.
Trekking poles and hiking staffs will not decrease your overall energy expenditure since you’ll be using your arms more than you would when walking without poles. They do, however, help distribute your energy usage in a way that can help your hiking endurance.
Types of Trekking Poles
Trekking Poles: Sold as a pair and used in tandem, trekking poles enhance your stability and can reduce force on your knees while hiking and backpacking. Most are adjustable in length and some include internal springs that absorb shock to further reduce impact.
Hiking Staff: Sometimes called a walking staff or travel staff, this is a single pole that’s most effective when used on relatively flat terrain and with little or no load on your back. Hiking staffs are adjustable and some include a shock-absorbing feature. They may also include a built-in camera mount under the handle so the staff can be used as a monopod.
Trekking Pole Features
Adjustable: Most trekking poles adjust in length to enhance stability on different terrain. They generally adjust from about 24 to 55 inches long. Typically, you will want to shorten the poles when going uphill and lengthen them when going downhill.
Shock-absorbing poles: These offer internal springs that absorb shock when you walk downhill. With most poles, this feature can be turned off when it’s not needed, like when you’re walking uphill. Shock absorption is recommended if you have weak or damaged ankles, knees or hips. It adds a bit to the cost of the poles.
Standard poles: These do not have a shock-absorbing feature and are lighter and less expensive as a result. While they don’t absorb as much impact when going downhill, they do provide a similar level of balance and support as shock-absorbing poles.
Ultralight: Ultralight poles offer the advantage of less swing weight, which makes them easier and quicker to move. Over the course of a long hike, this means less fatigue. Ultralight poles are also easier to pack. The pole shaft’s material is a key determinant of the pole’s overall weight. We classify ultralight poles as those that weigh less than 1 pound per pair.
Accessory mounts: Some trekking poles and hiking staffs include built-in accessory mounts such as a camera mount under the handle, enabling the pole to be used as a monopod.
Trekking Pole Locking Mechanisms
Trekking poles are identified by their two or three interlocking sections that allow for adjustment in length. This adjustability (which typically ranges from 24 to 55 inches) lets you adapt the poles to your height and the terrain. Locking mechanisms are used to secure the poles at your desired length and keep them from slipping while in use.
Most poles use one of these four types of locking mechanisms.
External lever lock: A lever-based, clamplike mechanism that is quick and easy to adjust, even when wearing gloves.
Push-button lock: Poles with this locking mechanism snap into place and lock with a single pull. Press the push button to release the lock and collapse the poles.
Twist lock: Uses an expander and screw setup that is consistently strong and durable.
Combination lock: Some poles use a combination of the other locking mechanisms to achieve a balance of strength, light weight and ease of use. For example, a pole might use an external lever lock on the upper shaft and a twist lock on the lower shaft.
Trekking Pole Shaft Materials
The pole’s shaft makeup is a key determinant of the pole’s overall weight.
Aluminum: The more durable and economical choice, aluminum poles usually weigh between 18 and 22 ounces per pair. The actual weight (and price) can vary a bit based on the gauge of the pole, which ranges from 12 to 16mm. Under high stress, aluminum can bend, but is unlikely to break.
Carbon fiber: The lighter and more expensive option, these poles average between 13 and 18 ounces per pair. They are good at reducing vibration, but under high stress, carbon-fiber poles are more vulnerable to breakage or splintering than aluminum poles. If you hike in rugged, remote areas, this is something to keep in mind.
Trekking Pole Grip Material
Cork: This resists moisture from sweaty hands, decreases vibration and best conforms to the shape of your hands.
Foam: This absorbs moisture from sweaty hands and is the softest to the touch.
Rubber: This insulates hands from cold, shock and vibration, so it’s best for cold-weather activities. However, it’s more likely to chafe or blister sweaty hands, so it’s less suitable for warm-weather hiking.
Other Trekking Pole Considerations
Wrist straps: Most poles allow you to adjust the length of each strap in order to get a comfortable fit. Models with padded or lined straps can prevent chafing.
Baskets: Trekking poles usually include a small, removable trekking basket at the tip end. Larger baskets can be substituted for use in snowy or muddy ground.
Pole tips: Carbide or steel tips are commonly used to provide traction, even on ice. Rubber tip protectors extend the life of the tips and protect your gear when poles are stowed in your pack. They are also good for use in sensitive areas to reduce impact to the ground. Angled rubber walking tips (usually sold separately) are for use on asphalt or other hard surfaces.