Gear Explained – Trekking Poles

Hiking sticks. Walking poles. Ski poles. Trekking poles.

Whatever they are called, I want them with me on every trip I take, no matter what.

 

A friend of mine draped over his trekking poles on our climb up Iztaccihuatl (17,159′) in Mexico.

|| Brief Backstory ||

Trekking poles are a fairly recent invention. If your grandfather hiked the Appalachian Trail, you will have a hard time finding trekking poles in any of his photos.

The “history” of trekking poles originates in Scandinavia with cross-country skiing (also known to many as “Nordic” skiing). Cross-country skiers would use long poles to propel themselves across vast expanses and up mountains and passes.

 

Nordic skiers pushing off of their long poles for propulsion.

In the late 1970s, the term “Nordic walking” was coined by Mauri Repo, a coach in the Finnish Sports Federation, to define “a part of cross-country skiing training methodic” (translated from Finnish; paraphrased in English, this means walking with trekking poles with long, rhythmic strides).

See the similarity?

Not long after the term was coined, “Nordic walking poles” were introduced to the sports equipment market, in 1988 by the company Exerstrider. And thus began the development of the “trekking pole.”

I don’t want to make it seem like walking sticks were never used before 1988, however. I am sure we have all seen pictures in ancient art of figures like Moses and others with “staffs”, marching across Europe and Asia. It wasn’t until 1988, however, that a product specifically designed for hiking, however, began to be sold.

They have been around a while.

I have found many reasons to take trekking poles with me on all of my adventures, so I will list a few out in detail:

|| Easing the Load ||

Using trekking poles engages a great percentage of your body’s muscles in propelling yourself forward; in applying force to the ground through your poles, you utilize your chest, arms, shoulders, and back, as well as your core (so basically everything), rather than just your quadriceps and hamstring muscles.

Especially on uphill climbs, I find that using trekking poles reduces the strain I feel on my legs. On some of my hikes, especially when mountain climbing, I have had to manage 40+ lb. loads, which can be uncomfortable without proper support. For me, trekking poles are like another set of legs, and give me a greater endurance on long days.

|| Functional Tool ||

If you have taken a wilderness medicine class, you will understand that in the backcountry, every piece of equipment you bring with you can be used as a resource, a tool in a medical emergency, or as a functional piece of equipment in setting up a shelter. Trekking poles can have multiple purposes on backcountry adventures, aside from their use during hiking or climbing itself

Some leg splints. If you have taken a wilderness medicine course, this may bring back memories.
  • Can be used as part of a non free-standing shelter, like a tent or tarp
  • Can be used to set up a clothesline
  • Can be used in a medical emergency for splinting
  • Can be used for activities around camp, such as:
    • Backcountry Golf
    • Backcountry Volleyball
  • Can be used as an extra stake when you have lost one from your bag and need to set up your tent fast in a rainstorm (sounds like I’ve had this happen once or twice. . .)
  • And many more. . .

|| Choosing Yours ||

There are a few questions you need to ask yourself once you’ve decided to buy your own hiking poles:

(1) Adjustable Length or Fixed Length?

Trekking poles come in adjustable length and fixed length models, and both have their merits. Adjustable length poles give you a great amount of flexibility; you can lengthen them for long downhills, shorten them for steep uphills, use them at different heights for clotheslines, tents/shelters, splints, etc.

If you know exactly what length you need your pole to be and you never intend to deviate from that length, then fixed poles are often lighter, cheaper, and more durable (as one, continuous piece) than adjustable length poles. Backcountry skiers and ultrarunners often used fixed-length poles. Nowadays, fixed length poles often are made in foldable models, like the Black Diamond Z-Pole.

(2) How Often Will You Be Using Them?

If the answer is more than once every 3 months, then you should probably invest in a durable pair. The durability of trekking poles primarily (not entirely, but primarily) varies based on the locking mechanism incorporated into the pole:

  • Twist-Lock
  • Power (or “flick) Lock

Twist-Locking poles are generally less-expensive and operate based on a torsional spring that applies pressure to the different pieces of the pole. The problem with twist-locking poles is often that this spring deteriorates with use, and the more times you twist and untwist the locking mechanism (i.e. how many times you lengthen/shorten your pole), the quicker the spring will stretch and lose its ability to apply appropriate pressure.

 

The twist-locking mechanism. Notice the spring.

Power locking poles are generally more expensive and operate on a hinge that, when closed, applies pressure to the different pieces of the pole. I personally use power-locking poles because I have a tent that relies on my trekking poles and their ability to maintain a certain height; I do NOT want to leave that to chance.

(3) Intended Climate? Extreme Cold vs. Everywhere Else

This might get a little science-y, so bear with me for a second. If you intend to use your poles in extreme cold, I would avoid using carbon fiber poles. Carbon fiber’s molecular structure is such that at extreme cold temperatures it becomes more brittle and more likely to shatter. SHATTER. Not bend or twist. SHATTER. Unlike metal, which bends and warps and deforms under torque and force, carbon fiber shatters into a million pieces. Just something to think about if you are going out into cold weather. I have broken multiple pairs of carbon fiber poles on snowy adventures; don’t repeat my mistakes.

 

Splinting a pole with extra stakes.

(4) Carbon Fiber vs. Aluminum (for everything else)

Now that I have scared you sufficiently about carbon fiber, let me defend its case: carbon fiber is wonderfully light and normally very strong. As I have mentioned, I personally use carbon fiber poles made by Black Diamond, and they have held up on many trips. Carbon fiber is normally more expensive than aluminum as a trekking pole material, but if you are looking to cut ounces, you will have to pay the price.

I will say that not all carbon fiber poles can be treated equally. Before I bought my Black Diamond Alpine Carbon Cork poles, I had a pair of REI branded Komperdell carbon fiber poles. It was only after breaking these poles three times that I upgraded to the BD Alpine Carbon Corks, and I have never looked back.

Some Suggested Models (models that I have tried myself)

Andrew Skurka has written up some great gear reviews of trekking poles, including inexpensive options for those looking to avoid breaking the bank.

|| Purpose of this post and Further Reading ||

This post is NOT intended to teach you everything about trekking poles, or even how to use them. My intention is to introduce you to what they are, why people use them, and what you should ask yourself before buying.

For more information about how to actually use them. . .

How to Use Trekking Poles

Reliable Gear Reviews from Andrew Skurka

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