Trekking Poles…Everything You Need to Know (Including Why You Need Them in the First Place)

All right let’s talk about trekking poles. If you’re like most people I know you don’t use trekking poles because you don’t need them.  But trekking poles are one of those things that once you learn how to use them, and start using them, you never go back.

They have so many benefits and there’s so many different styles out there. It’s almost a little overwhelming. So let’s pause, take a step back, and talk about why trekking poles are so fantastic. 

First, they help relieve some of the weight and pressure you have on your knees and your back, especially when you’re carrying a baby. Let’s get some of that weight off your back by putting it into your arms. 

Me trail running with the Black Diamond Distance Carbon Z poles.

Second, they help with balance, another super important thing when you’re hiking with your child. It’s a lot easier to lose your balance when hiking with your baby, and trekking poles can help you maintain your balance. I cannot count the number of times that poles have saved me from falling on my ass or dropping my baby face first down a mountain. Kind of scary to think about, but in reality, it happens. People trip. People fall. Trekking poles can help you to not face plant your baby down the mountain. That, in and of itself, is enough of a reason to use trekking poles when hiking with a child. 

Poles also help give you more of an upper body workout. With trekking poles, you can take a little bit of the workout out of your legs and get more of a whole body workout. The very first time you use poles, do not be surprised if your arms and shoulders are crazy sore and you can’t figure out why. Probably your poles. 

Trekking poles help you to find soft spots in the ground, especially in the winter or after a fresh rain or snow fall. They can keep you from post-holing, whether it’s post-holing into mud or snow. Post-holing, for those of you who don’t know, is when you basically you take a step and your leg goes down and makes a big hole, like you would make if you were digging a big hole for a fence post. Hence, this is why it’s called post-holing. Post-holing is extremely common in the winter. Poles can help you avoid post-holing. Yes, it’s still going to happen in the winter. It’s guaranteed to happen if there’s snow on the ground. But if you live in an area with quicksand, you can avoid post-holing into quicksand. You can also avoid post-holing in soft ground, muddy areas, because nobody wants to post-hole into a pile of mud. So by having poles or you can kind of poke and prod what’s ahead of you. 

Those are the major benefits of poles. There are a few other benefits, but being able to take pressure off your back, maintaining your balance, increasing your upper body strength, and avoiding post-holing are the major benefits. 

Heading down Mt Sanitas in Boulder. It was so windy that day, even with my son on my back, I thought I was going to blow off the mountain.

All right. Let’s talk about the different types of poles, because choosing which poles to buy can be overwhelming. 

There are summer poles. There are walking poles. There are hiking poles. There are ski poles, snowshoeing poles, winter poles, et cetera. 

There are poles that fold down into a three. Those are called Z poles. Those are my all time favorite. We’ll get back to those. There are telescoping poles, which are the most common and least expensive kind that you are going to find out there. For winter poles you’re going to want telescoping. We’ll come back to that one as well.

Poles are made out of different materials. You have poles made out of cork. (Yup, just like your wine corks). You have poles made out of aluminum. You have poles made out of carbon fiber. Carbon fiber poles are my all time favorite, except for in the winter when you’ll want aluminum. 

Poles also have different types of baskets. There are summer and winter baskets, and even different types of winter baskets, depending on snowfall.

So how do you choose a pair of poles?

Start by putting yourself on a budget. Poles range anywhere from about $40 to a $200, depending on what you are looking for.

So, what kind of pole do you need, and what budget do you have? 

Do you want a single pole or a pair? I highly recommend a pair. You can always just use one of the pair. 

And then you want to talk about materials. Aluminum is going to generally be your least expensive. Cork and carbon fiber are going to get more expensive, with cork being the less expensive of the two. Why?

Carbon fiber is super duper light. Carbon fiber Z-folding poles are what I use for ultra running, for when my poles need to fit in my pocket basically. If you’re a super lightweight hiker, where you only like the lightest weight gear, you want carbon fiber. Expect to pay more for carbon fiber. Also consider whether you need a fixed height or if you’ll want an adjustable height. If you’ve never used poles before, I highly recommend you start with an adjustable height. Technically speaking, the handles of your poles should leave your arms at a perfect 90 degree angle, while standing on flat ground in whatever shoes you’ll be wearing when hiking. That being said, you may want your pole height to adjust for different terrains or different shoes. Sometimes you want longer poles going downhill. You may want shorter poles going uphill, especially if it’s super steep. It kind of just varies. I like fixed height because I’ve been using poles for a long time. I know exactly which height works ideally for me, in general, on all terrain, and I know how to adjust my grip if I need to. But this is something that you can only get with practice.

So those are your starting points as you consider which poles are right for you. 

Summer baskets versus winter baskets are pretty self explanatory. Summer baskets are going to be these small little itty bitty things, basically just to prevent you from dropping your pole down into a rock and breaking it. They don’t really do much as far as debris or anything. Snow poles, or winter poles, usually have what we call snow baskets. They’re usually a couple inches around  and have little holes in them. They basically help keep that pole from sinking down into the snow, which is super helpful when you’re snowshoeing or hiking in snow. Even though a lot of times if you’re hiking in the winter your actual trail is gonna be packed, the sides of the trail probably won’t be, so having those snow baskets can help you.

Heading out to a snowy trail in Breckenridge – using my MSR Deploy TR-2 winter poles

If you’ve never had poles before I highly recommend you go with something that has an adjustable height.

Most of those are going to be telescoping, at least partially. You can get an adjustable height aluminum and then get something with interchangeable baskets.

They cost a little bit more but then you don’t have to buy a second pole for winter.

The handles come in different grips. Some of them are what we call a foam. Some of them are cork. Some of them are hard plastic. Winter poles especially are often a hard plastic or even a foam because they stand up longer to cold temperatures and are easier to hold with gloves.

Winter poles are going to be a bit thicker, whereas summer poles can be small and thin.

Basically there’s a whole bunch of variety. So, go to a sporting goods store, such as REI. Ask for some help finding some poles. I guarantee you they will have lots of options and be able to help you find something that you feel comfortable to start with. Also Montem Gear has some decent lighter weight poles for beginners.

Poles can even be used to set up shelters. Some tents use trekking poles instead of coming with pole and any tarp or canvas can be made into a tent with the help of a pole or two. And yes – I slept there completely dry through a rain storm that night.

So, you found yourself some poles. How do you use them? Find your height, where your arms are at a 90 degree angle standing flat on ground, and then you’re going to stick your hand up into the loop and then bring your hand down to the grip. This is so that if you lose your grip while hiking, you don’t lose your pole. You might drop it out of your hands, but that strap is going to keep it attached to your wrist, which means that even though you’ve dropped your pole, you have not lost it. You do not have to bend down to go get it. You don’t have to take five steps backwards to find what your pole just got stuck in. It still attached to you. This is super helpful when you have a kid on your back and you don’t want to bend over.

There are a couple different styles of use. Your ski style usage is where you take both poles forward and then you walk into them. That’s one way to use them. Another way is to use them alternating legs. So your pole hand will go forward with the opposite leg. So if you’re going to go forward with your left arm your right leg is going forward at the same time and you alternate just like you’re walking. For going fast, which is actually what I use the most, you’re going to find what’s comfortable for you. It’s gonna take a couple tries. Both techniques are valid. It just comes down to which way feels most comfortable to you.

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