New trekking pole users might find themselves wondering, “Should I use one trekking pole or two?” The answer depends upon what type of terrain you’ll be hiking. Single trekking poles, also sometimes referred to as a hiking staff, are great when hiking on relatively flat terrain with little to no weight on your back. On most other terrains I’d suggest using two poles, and here’s why:
Trekking poles improve stability and reduce the amount of force on the knees when hiking downhill. Using two poles allows you to maintain a straight, upright stance and reduce force on both knees, whereas using one pole usually causes the hiker to twist slightly, which can cause discomfort over time and increase the chance of injury to the back. If you do choose to use one trekking pole, as some people do, it’s a good idea to switch the pole between hands every once in awhile to prevent undue fatigue on one side of your body.
Read on for the answers to more common questions about trekking poles.
What are the benefits of using trekking poles?
The most obvious benefit of trekking poles is that they increase stability and reduce the impact on your knees and other leg joints, but there are also a ton of more subtle benefits to hiking with trekking poles. First of all, studies suggest that using trekking poles on flat ground reduces the weight carried by the legs by about ten pounds, and the weight reduction is even greater on an incline, which makes a huge difference over the course of a long hike, especially if you’re carrying a backpack. In addition, the poles keep your hands at about heart level, which improves circulation, reduces heart rate, and can help prevent you from getting the dreaded sausage fingers that often result from backpacking for hours with your hands swinging by your sides. Poles also improve balance, which allows you to walk in a more relaxed way, getting into a rhythm that allows you to hike faster, longer.
It seems counterintuitive, but while trekking poles make hiking feel easier, they actually enhance the aerobic benefit of hiking: studies suggest that using trekking poles can increase the number of calories burned on a hike by up to 20%. (This is a great benefit if you’re hiking to get in shape, but on a longer backpacking trip or through hike this might be a negative, as 20% more calories burned means 20% more calories must be carried.
Trekking poles can also be great for navigating tricky trails or when hiking off trail. They’re great for sweeping away spider webs so you don’t have to walk into them face first, and they’re also great for navigating slippery rocks or stream crossing, as they give you two extra points of contact as well as giving you a tool to test rocks before stepping on them. Finally, trekking poles can be used around camp once you’ve arrived at your destination. Some backpacking tents can be pitched with trekking poles to save weight, and they can also be useful in fashioning a makeshift gurney or splint in the event of an injury. You may even be able to fashion your trekking pole into a selfie stick to capture epic photos of your solo trip!
What are the drawbacks to using trekking poles?
One of the major drawbacks to hiking with trekking poles is something that we already discussed because many people actually consider it a benefit, and that is that trekking poles can enhance the aerobic aspect of hiking, causing the hiker to use more energy. If you’re hiking to improve your fitness, then this would certainly be a benefit, but on a longer backpacking trip or a through hike it can be a serious negative as using trekking poles may cause you to fatigue faster and limit how much distance you can cover in a day.
One way that hikers cope with this is by using trekking poles on steep, technical terrain and then putting them in their packs when hiking on a more moderate terrain. This technique works well for some people, but it brings us to the second drawback of using trekking poles: extra weight. If you put your poles in your pack for half the day, then you’d be smart to consider that you’ll be putting your legs and spinal cord through an even bigger workout by adding extra weight on your back.
The third major drawback to using trekking poles is that your hands are occupied. While, yes, it’s possible to stop at any time, lean your trekking poles against a tree, and do whatever you need to with your hands, it can come to feel somewhat frustrating if you’re the type of person that uses their hands a lot while you’re hiking. If you like to take pictures while you walk, munch on trail mix, check the map, or if you’re an amateur geologist who enjoys inspecting rocks, then you might find that trekking poles are annoying since you will have to ask either ask someone to hold them or stop and put them down whenever you want to use your hands.
So, how do I decide whether or not to use poles?
You can do all the research in the world but the only way to make a truly informed decision about trekking poles is to buy a pair and try them out for yourself. If you’re not sure about whether or not a set of poles is right for you, try to buy a set from a store that allows you to return them (Amazon is one of the best for returning product with which you’re not 100% satisfied), or if you happen to know someone with a set, borrow them from a friend before you buy.
How do I fit my trekking poles?
When deciding on which poles to buy, your best bet is to buy height-adjustable poles. Adjustable poles work great because you can quickly adjust the height depending on your terrain. You generally want your elbows to be bent at a ninety-degree angle when your poles are planted, so you’ll have to shorten your poles by about 5-10 centimeters to maintain this angle when hiking uphill, and likewise, you’ll have to lengthen them by 5-10 centimeters for descents.
How much do trekking poles weigh?
Trekking poles typically weigh between 12 and 22 ounces per pair, though some claim to be lighter. Aluminum trekking poles are the most common type of pole as they are durable and economical, and tend to weigh between 18-22 ounces. They have been known to bend under higher stress, however. Composite poles are lighter and more expensive, as they are made partially or entirely of carbon and can weigh as little as 12 ounces per pair. While these poles are significantly lighter, they are more vulnerable to splintering or breaking under high stress, which is an important consideration if you will be using them on very steep or technical terrain.
What other pole features should I consider?
Some other features that can affect the weight and performance of your trekking poles are the grip, basket, and tips. Most trekking poles have either cork, foam, or rubber grips. Cork is best for hikers with sweaty hands, foam tends to be most comfortable, and rubber is best for hiking in cold temps, so choose the grip that fits your hiking preferences best. Baskets are the small plastic pieces that sit above the tip of the pole and keep the pole from sinking too deeply into mud or snow. If you’re hiking on dry, dirt trails then you may not need baskets on your poles, so you can choose to take them off if they are removable, or you can replace them with bigger baskets for muddy or snowy conditions. Most poles have steel or carbide tips. Some poles come with rubber tip protectors or you can buy them separately to extend the life of your poles or to prevent your poles from scratching up rocky trails or puncturing the ground in sensitive areas.
How do I walk with poles?
The final and most important thing to consider before hitting the trail with a new pair of poles is walking technique. When walking with trekking poles, make sure you maintain a natural gait, as if you weren’t carrying poles in your hands. This means planting the opposite pole with the opposite foot, so when your right foot is forward your left pole is planted, and vice-versa. On steep climbs or descents, you may find it helpful to plant both poles, take two steps, and repeat. Try out different methods and experiment with placing your poles further forward or further back until you find a style that suits you. Most importantly, if you start to feel any unusual discomfort try adjusting your poles. If the discomfort persists, it’s probably best to put the poles away until you can figure out what is causing the discomfort.
If you’re interested in seeing our team’s top trekking pole choices, check out our recommended products page!
For more information about trekking pole use, check out the following resources:
Selecting Trekking Poles (video)