Whether you’re planning a weekend backpacking trip or a big thru-hike, you’ll be carrying a load on your back and travelling over uneven terrain. Hiking poles help you stay stable and reduce the impacts to your ankles, hips and knees, so you can arrive at your destination less fatigued and sore. You can also use trekking poles to pitch a shelter, in a pinch.
There are a lot of trekking poles out there – how do you decide which ones to buy? Learn about trekking pole sizes and what to look for, depending on your hiking goals.
- Find the right size: Most are adjustable, but you still need the correct length for you.
- Folding vs. telescoping: Find out how poles compact down, and the pros and cons.
- Different materials: Carbon or aluminum, plus options for the grips you hold.
- Additional features: Other handy things to consider.
Finding the right size trekking poles
Most trekking poles come in adjustable lengths with a locking mechanism to secure the pole at different heights. A trekking pole that’s the right length should create a 90-degree angle in your elbow when you hold it by the grip with the tip on the floor. To calculate the size you need, stand up and make a 90-degree bend with your elbow. Measure the distance between your wrist and the floor – that’s your ideal length of trekking poles, give or take a few centimetres.
On steep uphill hikes, you may want to shorten the poles 5–10cm to help propel you forward. On steep descents, lengthening the poles helps with stability and comfort by keeping your body more upright. If you’re traversing a hillside, you may want the downslope pole to be longer than the upslope one.
Telescoping vs. folding
Many trekking poles are collapsible to easily attach them to your backpack. If you have a specific plan in mind, like winter hiking or fast summits, it’s good to know the pros and cons of how poles compact down.
Telescoping poles: Made of two or three pole sections that fit inside each other, and then extend to lock at the desired length. They’re easy to adjust and are tougher than folding poles. Two section poles are usually for winter use as they’re more durable, but they don’t pack down as short as three-section poles.
Folding poles: Similar to tent poles, they have a cord in the shaft and fold up. They’re usually more packable and weigh less than telescoping poles, but often have less adjustability. They’re best if you’re need poles for fast and light missions, like thru-hiking and trail running.
Collapsible poles also have different locking mechanisms when the pole is fully extended:
- FlickLock lever systems clamp down on the shaft. They’re easy to adjust, even with gloves, which is great for cold weather or when you’ll be changing the lengths often.
- Twist locking systems have a piece that expands within the shaft to lock it in place. This system has easier on-trail maintenance, as you just twist it tighter when necessary.
Carbon vs. aluminum trekking poles
A trekking pole may be lighter or more durable, depending on what materials it is made of.
Carbon: Much lighter than aluminum, but will break when bent past a certain point, which could leave you without a pole in rugged or remote terrain. Carbon poles are great for those looking to move quickly through the mountains without much added weight.
Aluminum: More durable, yet heavier. Aluminum will bend long before it breaks, so you can bend it back into a somewhat straight position should you torque it unexpectedly. Aluminum poles are also less expensive than carbon, making them a great all-around, economic option.
The grip is the section that you hold with your hand. Some materials are softer to hold, perform better in the cold, or are more economical.
Foam: Soft and comfortable in your hands. Since it absorbs water and hand sweat, it tends to break down quicker than the other materials.
Cork: Moulds to your hand and is naturally moisture-resistant, so it won’t stay damp in wet conditions. Great for those with sweaty hands or in hot conditions. Poles with cork grips are often more expensive.
Rubber: Rubber stays warmer in the cold and dampens shock and vibration. The downside is they can cause blisters or chafing to sweaty hands, so are best used for winter travel (less hot and you may be in gloves).
Additional trekking pole features
Consider some additional features when deciding which trekking pole is best for you.
Shock absorption: Some poles have little shock absorbers in the handles that offer some respite when walking down hills, which beneficial for for anyone with joint issues. The downside is that shock absorbers soak up some of the work your arms are doing to push you forward.
Wrist straps: Most trekking poles come with wrist straps that help with stability and ensure you don’t lose your pole if you happen to lose your grip. These straps are adjustable and wrap around your wrist and under your thumb so you keep a relaxed grip on the pole without tiring out your hands.
Different types of tips: Most poles have steel or carbide tips that dig into the ground for traction. These are good on almost all hiking surfaces, except for pavement or slick rock. If you plan to trek over hard ground, consider adding rubber tips that fit over the standard metal tips.
Mud or snow baskets: Small skirts that sit a few centimeters above the tip to prevent poles from sinking into soft surfaces, such as snow or mud. Most trekking poles have small trekking baskets which work fine in spring, summer and fall. For hiking in snow or snowshoeing, swapping in larger powder baskets would be beneficial.