The Ins & Outs of Trekking Poles


Over the years trekking poles have become standard equipment for hikers, backpackers, climbers, and snowshoers. The reasons why are easy: they enhance your support and stability across all terrain. There are a lot of different features with trekking poles, so I hope to eliminate some of the confusion.

Why Use Trekking Poles?

There are many advantages to using trekking poles. A short list of these is:

  • Poles help provide better balance and footing by giving the user more points of contact with the ground.
  • On downhill hikes they take off some of the stress off the legs and joints. Transferring this stress onto the arms and shoulders.
  • Going uphill poles can help transfer some of the weight to your arms, shoulders, and back. This can reduce leg fatigue and add some thrust while ascending.
  • Trekking Poles can help the user cross difficult sections easier. As mentioned above the stability of having more points of contact with the ground increases confidence and balance.
  • Poles can help you establish a walking rhythm.
  • Trekking poles can be used for a variety of other helpful activities, including but not limited to pushing back vegetation, probing soggy or snowy terrain for holes, as support for shelters, or warding off wildlife.

There has been several studies in regard to the benefits of trekking poles. According to a 1999 study in The Journal of Sports Medicine, trekking poles can reduce the compressive force on the knees by up to 25%. This translates into literally tons of weight that your body will not have to support during the course of a regular hike. In another study by Northumbria University released in 2010 tested hikers in the true outdoors. According to Dr Glyn Howatson, “The results present strong evidence that trekking poles reduce, almost to the point of complete disappearance, the extent of muscle damage during a day’s mountain trek. Preventing muscle damage and soreness is likely to improve motivation and so keep people enjoying the benefits of exercise for longer. Perhaps even more advantageously, the combined benefits of using trekking poles in reducing the load to the lower limbs, increasing stability and reducing muscle damage could also help avoid injury on subsequent days trekking. It is often the reduced reaction time and position sense, associated with damaged muscles that cause the falls and trips that can lead to further injury in mountainous or uneven terrain.”

It should be noted that using trekking poles does not reduce overall energy usage. Actually, some studies suggest it increases calorie burning by activating more muscle groups. Trekking poles allow the user to use their arms to take some of the stress off the lower appendages and therefore, increase their hiking endurance.

Types of Poles

Trekking Poles can be broken up into several categories.

  • Standard poles – Standard poles are exactly that, they are the standard from all the other poles are based. They do not have anti-shock features and therefore, are lighter and less expensive. They do not absorb as much impact, but they still offer just as much stability and support.
  • Anti-shock poles – Anti-shock poles have internal spring mechanisms that absorb shock, especially when hiking downhill. Most manufacturers allow the user to turn this feature off as it is not needed while going uphill. The anti-shock function actually can create slightly more resistance while climbing as not all your energy is transferred into helping you climb. While being more expensive the anti-shock function is recommended for those with injuries that can benefit from even less stress on the joints and muscles.
  • Compact or Women’s poles – These poles are shorter in length and feature smaller grips. They are lighter due to the length making them easier to swing for shorter people. They are more compact for packing.  Manufacturers also make youth and kid’s poles.
  • Hiking Staff – Hiking staffs are sometimes called a walking staff or travel staff. It is a single pole which is best used without a load and on flatter terrain. Some of these are adjustable, and some have anti-shock features. Hiking staffs also may include a built-in camera mount allowing it to be used as a mono pod.
  • Nordic walking poles – much more common in Europe, it is gradually becoming popular in the US. It is a social activity that is a full-body workout with the use of poles. Just as hiking with trekking poles activate more muscle groups, so does Nordic walking over regular walking. These poles are generally lighter as they are not as built up as hiking poles. They also often do not pack away as small.

Anatomy of a Trekking Pole

Trekking poles can be made with a bunch of different attributes but the main parts of the trekking pole are, for the most part, the same. They are, starting from top to bottom:

The Anatomy of a Trekking Pole
  • Grip
  • Wrist Strap
  • Extended Grip
  • Shaft
  • Locking Mechanism
  • Basket
  • Tip

Materials

Trekking poles are generally made of two materials: aluminum and carbon. These materials have a great impact on the weight and the price of the poles. High-grade aluminum is the stronger and more cost effective choice. These poles usually weigh between 510 g – 624 g (18 – 22 oz) per pair. The weight and price can vary a bit based on the gauge (thickness) of the pole, ranging between 12 to 16 mm (0.47 – 0.63 in). Under high-stress aluminum can bend, but it is unlikely to break. Being an alloy aluminum will transfer vibrations up the shaft more than carbon will.

Carbon fiber is the lighter and more expensive option in trekking poles. The poles usually weigh in around 368 g – 510 g (13 – 18 oz) per pair. They are good at reducing vibration and are also quite strong. Under high stress, however, a carbon pole is more vulnerable to breakage or splintering than an aluminum pole. Carbon fiber poles are also vulnerable to blunt force impact. It is quite common to see trekking poles with sections made from carbon and others from aluminum to get the best properties from both materials.

Grips

Pole grips vary widely from brand to brand. Even within each brand they can be made of different materials and densities. There are also grips termed as Ladies models, which generally are just smaller, so they are a good option for anyone with smaller hands. Some grips are positioned into the upper pole section, so they are ergonomically at a neutral angle. This can improve the comfort of the poles. Other features are grips that extend down the poles to allow you to grasp the poles easier on short uphill sections or on steep traverses. Many brands designate left- and right-handed poles either on the grip itself or the strap, using the correct hand will also improve comfort. There are several different materials used in grips, often these materials are blended together in some fashion.

  • Cork – Cork resists moisture from sweaty hands, absorbs vibration that travels up the shaft, and will conform to the shape of your hands over time.
  • Foam – Foam absorbs moisture from sweaty hands and is generally soft to the touch. Foam can be made in different densities changing the feel and texture to the manufacture’s specifications.
  • Rubber – Rubber material insulates hands from the cold and also absorbs vibration well. It is a popular choice for cold-weather activities. On the downside, it is more likely to cause discomfort in warmer temperatures, causing chafing and blisters. This makes rubber grips less suitable in warm weather activities.

Straps

Most trekking poles come with an adjustable strap. The strap helps support the wrist and transfers some of the force from the hand to the wrist. This allows the user to grip the poles with less force. Since the hands and wrists will be in near constant contact with the straps, a comfortable strap is a must. Straps can be made of simple webbing up to fully padded straps. These types of straps help prevent chafing. Proper use of the strap is to put your hand up through the bottom of the opening and then grab the grip with the strap coming up under the palm.

Baskets

Baskets can vary by use and season. Fortunately most manufacturers make their poles able to switch out baskets accordingly. Some users like to go without the use of a basket, but the majority uses them. Generally speaking smaller baskets are best for hard dirt and rocks while larger baskets are good for mud and snow. The purpose of the basket is to prevent the pole tip from sinking too deep into the ground. Replacement baskets are normally inexpensive, and it is not uncommon to lose them from time to time.

Locking Mechanisms

Trekking poles are identified by their 2-3 piece shafts with locking mechanisms. Trekking pole locking mechanisms come in three main types: twisting, lever, and socket. Each manufacturer may have their own name for each of these types.

Locking Mechanisms
  • Twisting lock trekking poles lock to the desired length by twisting the lower section while holding the upper section tight. This causes the internal lock system to expand inside the pole and provide pressure to the outside walls. This pressure holds it in place. Twist lock mechanisms have been the most widely used locking mechanism for some time.
  • Lever locking poles use a lever on the outside of the poles to clamp down on the poles and prevent slipping. While this locking mechanism is newer to the market, many companies claim stronger locks with this type of mechanism. Lever lock mechanisms support easier adjusting when wearing hand wear.
  • Socket type mechanisms are much rarer in trekking poles. The socket type mechanism is similar to what is used in tent poles. What occurs is the one pole insert into the bottom of the other pole and there is a push button for locking the poles. Inside the poles there is an elastic cord to keep the poles together. This mechanism is used on super light poles and is not as strong as the above mechanisms. These pole types are also non-adjustable making the initial purchase length important.

Fitting Trekking Poles

Trekking poles are made to be adjustable and therefore, tailored to the users height and conditions of the trail. Most trekking poles have numbers on the shaft to help the user set the length. To set the length, loosen the locking mechanism and adjust the shaft up or down to get the appropriate length. For flat terrain with the pole tip on the ground your elbow should be at a 90-degree angle when griping the pole. Pole length can vary by terrain. When hiking uphill you may want to shorten the poles by a few inches to increase load-bearing pressure. When going downhill you may want to increase the length by a couple of inches to increase balance and control. On traverses you may want to have the uphill pole slightly shorter and the downhill pole longer. Some manufacturers have an extended grip to allow you to grip lower down the pole on short traverses where it does not make sense to stop and shorten the pole.

Pole Tips

Carbide or steel are the most common tips for trekking poles. They provided a good balance between traction and durability on a variety of surfaces. Most poles come with rubber tip covers that can extend the life of the tips and protect your gear when strapped to your pack. These tips are also good for protecting sensitive areas where you don’t want to impact the ground. You can purchase angled rubber tips for use walking on asphalt or other hard surfaces. These are popular with Nordic walkers.

Maintenance

The most common issue people have with their trekking poles is that the pole will slip when in use. This is normally caused by dirt and dust getting in the locking mechanism. With some easy maintenance, your trekking poles can keep performing trip after trip. This maintenance can also extend the life of your poles and prevent internal corrosion.

Here is a general maintenance procedure for most poles. Obviously check the manufacturers recommendations as well.

  1. Completely separate the poles by unlocking or loosening each section until they can be pulled apart.
  2. Once the poles are separated, use a damp cloth to wipe down the poles and locking mechanism to remove all dust and dirt.
  3. Use a soft dry cloth to dry the inside and outside of the poles as well as the locking mechanisms. If needed, use nylon brush to remove any dirt that could not be removed with the cloth. Note: Do not use any lubricant or alcohol-based product on the internal mechanisms as they can cause erosion.
  4. Check the locking mechanism for damaged parts and replace as necessary.
  5. Allow the poles to dry thoroughly, preferably by air drying for several hours, before reassembling the poles.

Trekking Poles Reviewed

 

About the Author

I am an avid runner, cyclist, swimmer, hiker, climber, skier and many other activities that would make this list too long. I started Your Mileage May Vary Reviews in Early 2011 to combine two of my passions: sports and gear.

11 Responses to “The Ins & Outs of Trekking Poles”

  1. Sarah Holston

    Hi, I have a pair of trekking poles that has a missing lever lock. Could you suggest a place I can buy replacement parts. I already looked on the companies website and they don’t have replacement parts.

    Thanks,
    Sarah

  2. Richard

    Hi,

    My problem is opposite! Most of my adjustable twist lock poles are jammed/stuck.
    Any suggestions how to un-stick them? One problem is the plastic/rubber sheath with which we are supposed to turn & unlock the section becomes loose themselves….

  3. Hilary

    Hi,
    We have a Komperdell walking stick (from REI) and a part of one of the twist lock mechanisms is needing a new part. Any idea where to find replacement parts?
    Thanks
    Hilary

    • Hello Hilary,

      Sorry it took me a while to reply. It a couple days until I was able to connect with my contact at Komperdell. They do still have the parts for nearly all their poles. All you need to do is send them an email. My contact is Evan and his email is eeves@komperdell.us. He will take care of you. Let me know if you have any other questions. Thanks for visiting the site!

  4. Hi, thanks for getting back to me. I emailed them previous and was told by Evan that since it was purchased via REI (an REI pole basically) that I would have to take it up with them; unfortunately. Thanks for the response however.
    Hilary 🙂

  5. Hi, I am looking for some time for short length adjustable telescopic rods for a specific project. If I want to make one, can you guide me where to look for? If not, where do I get the twist locks?

    Thanks.
    Harinath

  6. Joanna

    Hi, I’m using Leki Makulu Trail, and initially the problem was that they wouldn’t lock, I googled and youtubed and found the solution for that: it worked perfectly for one of the poles, but for the other one, somehow the expander just couldn’t come out with the upper shaft, so I twisted a little more after 2 tries and now, it’s jammed – I can’t get it to open at all – I don’t think I used that much strength to twist it in though! Is there any solution to this problem or do I have to dump that pole? (Please help! Thanks! Hoping I won’t have to dump it because these costs do add up!)

  7. Marion

    Which is the best way to fit the height of walking poles? :
    To extend both parts equally or to extend the middle part with the height markings a bit longer?
    It seems to me the middle part which is fatter should be longer but I’ve heard to the contrary from two different shops, one recommending the bottom part being longer and the other shop recommending extending both parts equally.

    • Hello Marion,

      I am not really sure what is the best way. It may be best asked of the particular manufacturer of your poles. I generally aim to get both sections to be a similar length and therefore not making either too extended. My main poles have measurements on them so I know I want them to be 127cm and put both of the sections to this length. Sorry I can not be more help. Thanks for visiting the site.

      JJ

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