All About Hiking Poles

When They Help and When They Don't

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Hiking Poles

Just like any other hiking tool, some folks love their trekking poles and others can't stand 'em. Those who love them say they help with balance, reduce stress and load on the knees, and even give you a little extra propulsion. Those who don't like hiking with poles usually say it's because they get in the way or are just dead weight.

Not sure which camp you belong in? Beg, borrow or buy a pair and try them out. With that in mind, here are answers to all the common questions about hiking poles. 

1. How Long Should They Be?

Put on your usual hiking shoes or boots, stand up straight, and hold the pole vertically with the tip on the floor.

When you hold the handle of the pole, upper arm relaxed against the side of your body, your elbow should naturally bend at a 90-degree angle. Get more information on sizing hiking poles.

2. Buying Advice

Here are some of the choices you'll have to make while shopping for hiking poles:

  • Aluminum vs. carbon fiber: Carbon fiber is lighter, but tends to splinter when it breaks. Aluminum is a little heavier but more likely to deform than splinter.
  • Adjustable or not? Adjustable is almost always best; see the next entry in the FAQ for an explanation.
  • Shock absorbers or not? If shock absorption is your primary purpose for carrying poles, get it. Otherwise, they'll negate some of the propulsion power of the poles.
  • What kind of tip? Most poles have metal tips you can slide a rubber cover onto, to protect the ground from scarring. Remember, leave no trace.
  • What about baskets? If you're hiking in snow, soggy mud or (I suppose) deepish sand, wide baskets can help "float" your poles on the surface. Narrow baskets -- or better yet, rubber tips -- will help "float" your poles when hiking on soft ground.

3. Why Buy Adjustable Poles?

Adjustable poles are best because they can be adjusted to fit people of different heights, and you can tweak their length for more efficiency as you go uphill or downhill. You can also collapse them to a short length for easy carrying when not in use.

On the downside, the adjustment mechanisms are a weak point that can slip/fail -- but as long as you have a well-made pole, the benefits outweigh that little risk.

If you're on a budget and don't mind hauling long poles around, you can get away with using ski poles -- as long as they're the right length.

4. How Do I Carry Them?

When you're not actively using your hiking poles, they're nothing but dead weight that keeps your hands occupied. Free yourself up by collapsing the poles and slipping them into the side pocket of your pack, beneath any compression straps. Here are some other ways to carry your poles.

5. How Do I Use My Poles?

Here are the very basics of making those poles work for you:

  • When you're hiking on flat ground, you'll settle into a natural rhythm of opposing pole/leg movements. (Right pole/left leg, left pole/right leg.)
  • Shorten the poles for an extra power boost when hiking uphill.
  • Lengthen the poles for extra support and balance when hiking downhill -- but make sure those adjustment mechanisms are locked and secure!
  • When sidehilling, shorten the uphill pole and lengthen the downhill pole.

6. What Else Can I Use Them For?

Hiking poles sure do have a lot of uses! Here are the high points:

  • Use them for extra points of balance when crossing creeks and rivers.
  • Use them as extensions of your arm to probe for solid ground, check depth on mud/snow/water, or move brush out of the way.
  • Use them to help you get back up if you fall while snowshoeing.
  • If you're hiking for a workout, you can use poles with the right type of slings for Nordic walking.

7. Can I Use Them as Tent Poles?

Yes! As long as your shelter or tarp is made for that purpose. Make life easy on yourself by setting up your poles with the bases angled slightly outward; that way if you need to tighten the shelter up, you can just grab the base of the pull and draw it in.

In a pinch, your hiking poles also make good supports for a makeshift emergency shelter.

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