Though ski poles have been around as long as the sport of skiing has, as they go hand in hand with offering support, a speed increase, and helping with directional changes, trekking poles and walking sticks are a relatively recent development in the hiking and camping industry. A single pole or hiking stick — oftentimes carved from a found stick around the campfire — is synonymous with images of old pioneers and outdoorsmen like John Muir and Henry David Thoreau majestically standing against the backdrop of Yosemite Valley or Walden Pond. Just recently, they have been included in the ever-growing list of must-haves when heading for the hills.
The benefits of using modern trekking poles are many fold. They can help establish a rhythm when walking and that increases your speed, especially on flat terrain. With two extra contact points with the ground your balance is increased as is your traction over slippery surfaces like ice and snow. During river crossings or over loose rocks trekking poles can offer a steady crutch to maintain balance. Just simply having something in your hand can be useful when pushing bushes aside or testing the depth of a puddle or the strength of a frozen stream; they offer protection against animals in the wilderness. Most importantly, they offset some of the weight of your gear to your arms. When pushing down on the trekking poles while walking you take the weight off your legs and back and transfer it to your arms. This was proven in a study by the Journal of Sports Medicine that trekking poles can alleviate pressure on your knees up to 25 percent.
Don’t just think of trekking poles as only an extension of your arms to help you hike but useful equipment around the campsite too. They can be used as tent poles for a makeshift shelter, limb splints for first aid, spear shafts for hunting, fishing poles, and perhaps, paddles in a boat. Since most of the poles come with a variety of foot attachments they have been designed for a variety of terrains from snow and ice to mud, sand and the street.
Buying a Pair of Poles
On the market there are many different styles of trekking poles, several materials, and a host of accessories, grips, materials, attachments, and some even have a compass on the handle. Most all of the poles available have either telescoping sections (two or three pieces) or fold into sections. We avoided testing any of the folding variety as they are not as durable as the telescoping models (although they are typically lighter). They are made from aluminum and carbon fiber; although aluminum is heavier, carbon fiber can’t survive a dent or crack.
The size of the feet (most times referred to as baskets — which are typically used on skis and in snow) can vary depending on what activity you plan to do. Wide baskets work well in the snow and on ice or mud but can get stuck between rocks or hung up on exposed branches. The rubber feet for street and trail use will wear out over time and will need to be replaced.
The latest development in trekking pole technology is the addition of shock absorbers, which are nothing more than springs between two of the sections inside the pole. You’ll have to determine on your own if they are worth it, but of the poles that had them (about half here), we hardly noticed a difference, except for that slightly uneasy feeling you will get when the spring compresses under heavy weight. Additionally, shock absorbers add to the overall weight of the stick.
Speaking of weight, consider a lighter pole, as the less weight on your hands as you hike, the farther you will be able to go without fatigue. Though most of the poles we tested here fall within several ounces of each other, those ounces matter when you are picking them up and setting them down 15,000 times a day.
There are three basic types of handle grip material used on all poles on the market: foam, cork, or rubber. Foam wicks away sweat but will break down quicker over time. Rubber won’t absorb moisture at all, while the other two will soak up water, especially foam. Cork is heavier but it will form to your hand over time. Rubber works well in the wintertime and with wet sports where the poles will see a lot of water; while foam should be used in the summertime because it allows the hand to breathe.
These telescope from 24.5 to 54 inches via a twist-lock mechanism, and the three-part poles are made from 7075 aluminum with tungsten tips. It offers a shock absorber. The handle grips are cork and the padded straps are adjustable. The pair comes with small baskets, snow baskets, and rubber feet. Each pole is only 9.5 ounces.
The carbide tip provides a non-slip point to be used on various surfaces. The poles, made from 6061 aluminum, include a protective cap, trekking baskets and rubber tips for concrete. The wrist straps are padded and the grips are ethylene-vinyl acetate (EVA) rubber. These telescope from 25.5 to 53 inches, and each pole weighs 9.25 ounces.
The single and unique flick lock secures the two-section poles securely (and you can visually see if it is locked or not) and can be adjusted from 24 to 43 inches (ideal for shorter people). The grips are made of rubber and can accommodate smaller hands, while the straps are made from nylon webbing and are easily adjustable. The tip is made of steel but they come with small and large baskets and rubber feet for street use.
With three telescoping sections, these poles can adjust from 26.5 to 54 inches, and the 6061 aluminum poles have a maximum load of 160 pounds per pole (and have shock absorbing springs). The EVA handle grips are large and have adjustable wide neoprene wrist straps. In addition to the carbide tips, they include a removable basket and rubber feet for concrete. Each pole weighs 10 ounces.
Made from aluminum, these poles can adjust from 25.5 to 53 inches and come in three sections. Under a rubber boot is a steel tip for uneven terrain, while a small basket can be added for soft ground or snow. In the upper section is an anti-shock spring adding to the 12 ounces of weight (each). They have firm plastic grips that feature an integrated compass and wrist straps with an adjusting buckle. They come in blue, black, or silver.
They are the lightest at eight ounces each, and these poles come with the most tips: snow basket, mud and sand basket, rubber tip, tungsten carbide tip, and walking boot and can extend via three segments from 27.5 to 54 inches. They feature cork handle grips with a section of softer foam another six inches below the handle. The straps are adjustable and somewhat padded, and the shafts are carbon fiber with an anti-shock spring.
Very similar in size and specs to the Rhyolite model featured here, these anti-shock poles are, instead, made with 7075 aluminum and are wrapped in carbon fiber for additional strength. They extend from 26.5 to 54 inches and weigh 10 ounces each. They have cork grips with six inches of extended foam for additional grip options with neoprene adjustable straps. They extend in three sections and have three tip options: rubber feet, snow/mud basket and carbide tip.
Editor’s note: A version of this article first appeared in the March 2015 print issue of American Survival Guide.