A Guide to Trekking Poles

I enjoy breaking my leg or twisting an ankle when out hiking. Don't you?

Well, if you don't, then I suggest consider investing in something that is aghast to many hikers—a trekking pole, also known as a hiking staff.

A Leki Anti-Shock Trekking Pole
A Leki Anti-Shock Trekking Pole With "Round Head"

A hiking staff or trekking pole is, to many hikers (including me), an indispensable piece of equipment. Some hikers think trekking poles are just an irritation and yet another item to lug around (or as one old Montana hiker put it, something yuppies use), even though they've never used them before. Whether a hiking staff or a trekking pole is an irritation or a benefit depends on your personality and what types of hiking you enjoy doing.

Yet, I’ve found a trekking pole is indispensable for all but the shortest or flattest hikes. While I left my hiking staff in the when hiking the Ice Age Trail in Wisconsin, I always use it when hiking a mountain trail in Montana or the Sierras.

This article covers the following topics:

The Many Benefits of a Trekking Pole

When it comes to trekking poles, I’ve found one common trait among people who don’t use them—they can’t overcome the “stigma.” For some odd reason, many hikers equate using a trekking pole to being old, feeble or an arrogant yuppie.

Yet, if a hiker can overcome that stigma, they’ll discover a large array of benefits that a pole provides. These benefits include:

  • Pacing - There is no better way to pace yourself, especially when climbing uphill, than with a trekking pole. A trekking pole will easily allow you to set and maintain a steady, non-exhausting pace. As a result, I've found I can cover greater distances and am less tired because of a steady hiking pace.
  • River Crossings - Ever crossed a river carrying a backpack on slippery rocks or over fallen logs? It's a dicey situation, especially while wearing a heavy pack. A trekking pole, in these types of situations, acts as a "third leg,” allowing for much improved balance.
  • Off Trail - When heading off trail, a trekking pole or hiking staff always comes in handy. When hiking off trail, hikers often have to climb over downed timber, traverse rock gardens and pound through dense brush. By using a trekking pole, a hiker will have better balance when they encounter these off-trail hazards. And better balance equates to a far less likelihood of visiting a local Montana hospital.
  • Safety - A hiking staff acts as a third leg and helps maintain balance over on-trail and off-trail obstacles. I can say that my own Leki Trekking Pole has prevented many fall-downs, sprained ankles and one potentially sprained knee. A trekking pole, due to the better balance it provides the hiker, reduces the possibilities of injuries due to falls, bad steps and sometimes bad judgment.
  • Reducing Weight on the Feet – Trekking poles are light, but still weigh something. However, the small extra weight gained by carrying a pole is offset by the reduction in weight on your feet and legs. It is estimated that a hiking staff reduces the load on a hikers' feet by 15%. This happens because part of the hiker’s weight is transferred to the trekking pole instead of their feet. When going steeply uphill, this percentage rises even further. In short, using a trekking pole adds a few ounces in total weight to a hiking outfit but reduces the load carried on the feet. This helps reduce foot soreness and fatigue on longer hikes.

The Two Styles of Trekking Poles

The two major types of trekking poles differ in how the top (or handle) of the pole is designed. For simplicity, I label these different types of hiking staffs as the “Ski Pole Style” and the “Top Ball Style.”

The Top Ball Style

A “Top Ball Style,” which is the style I prefer, has a rounded ball on the pole’s top. Attached to the pole just below the top is a rounded wrist loop. And where the hand grips the pole a generous amount of padding is provided. With a “Top Ball Style” of hiking staff, a hiker can use the pole two different ways. They can rest their hand on the top ball or insert their hand into the wrist loop and grip the pole just beneath the rounded ball.

Also, while I never use it, the ball on most "round ball" trekking poles screws off. Beneath the ball is a mount for cameras, allowing the trekking pole to function as a monopod.

The advantage of the “Top Ball Style” isn’t especially apparent—until walking downhill. When walking downhill, by gripping the pole from the top (by resting the hand on top of the rounded ball), a hiker gains much more balance than if they used a “Ski Pole Style” handle. In addition, the “Top Ball Style” doesn’t stress the wrists when walking down steep hills. Hikers who use “Top Ball Style” hiking staffs generally only use one pole—and typically carry it in their dominant hand (I’m right handed, so I carry the pole with my right hand).

The "Ski Pole Style"

By contrast, a “Ski Pole Style” top resembles a handle found on downhill skiing poles. Typically, hikers who use “Ski Pole Style” hiking staffs use two of them—one for each hand.

For uphill climbs, “Ski Pole Style” hiking staffs are superior to “Top Ball Style” staffs—especially when two poles are used. By using two poles, a hiker reduces the stress on their legs substantially. Moreover, for uphill climbs, the grips on “Ski Pole Style” hiking staffs provide more power.

Which Style to Choose?

I have found “Ski Pole Style” hiking staffs to be awkward and sometimes even dangerous to use on dowhill climbs, especially on steeper slopes. Since they aren’t designed to be gripped from the top, the hiker often needs to squat and reach forward to use them—which isn’t a desirable position to be in when walking down steeper slopes. Additionally, significant strain is put on the hand and wrist during downhill climbs using the “Ski Pole Style.”

Which style of pole a hiker chooses depends on where they hike—and how. I’ve used the “Ski Pole Style” hiking staff many times and came away disliking them, as I found them uncomfortable and even a bit dangerous on steeper downhill slopes—especially off-trail. Still, I can see where using two “Ski Pole Style” hiking staffs is worthwhile, especially on trails that lack steep downhill slopes.

But I'll leave that choice up to you.

Trekking Pole Shopping Considerations

While not the fanciest pieces of equipment, there's still a number of considerations anyone shopping for a trekking pole should consider.

Length & Weight Considerations

Most hiking staffs are either collapsible or foldable, and allow ample adjustments to meet the hiker’s needs. However, some poles, even when fully collapsed or folded, are still rather long—sometimes exceeding three feet long. Better trekking poles typically collapse/fold down to around two feet long. For traveling, a fully collapsible or foldable hiking staff makes it simple to stuff it in a suitcase or small daypack.

Then there’s the weight of the hiking staff. To put it simply, always buy the lightest pole. Remember, one of the big benefits of a trekking pole is the ability to transfer weight off the feet—especially on uphill or downhill climbs. By carrying a heavy hiking staff, the hiker reduces this large benefit. On longer hikes, those extra ounces start to feel like many pounds as the day wears on.

Anti-Shock Feature

One high-tech feature of quality hiking poles is “anti-shock.” Anti-shock hiking staff’s have internal suspension systems which reduce the jarring hit that happens when the hiker plants the pole in the ground.

While I was skeptical about anti-shock poles at first, after the first mile of using my Leki Anti-Shock Pole I became a full convert. The anti-shock feature of a hiking staff reduces stress on the hand and wrist. In general, an anti-shock hiking pole makes it much more comfortable to use a hiking staff on longer hikes.

While anti-shock trekking poles cost about $20 or so more than poles that lack anti-shock, the extra money spent is well worth it. After using an anti-shock pole, a hiker will wonder how in the world they hiked without one.

Suggested Trekking Pole & Where to Buy It

Offline, many outdoor retailers that sell technical gear—particularly REI—sell a nice selection of trekking poles. However, at REI stores (compared to their website) I’ve found the selection of poles often lacking. In particular, I’ve had a difficult time locating the “round ball type” of trekking poles at REI retail stores.

Online, Amazon has by far the largest selection of trekking poles available. Amazon should definitely be the first-stop when shopping online for a trekking pole.

Browse Selection of Trekking Poles at Amazon

For those who want a suggestion, go with an Leki Anti-Shock Trekking Pole. It is what I use and I have had no complaints. The pole is durable, compact, ultralight in weight and the anti-shock feature is a gift that keeps on giving every step of a hike.

Other online retailers that have a good selection of quality trekking poles, including those from Black Diamond, include: