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.

Bailing on Plans A-Z Part 1 of 3 (Originally Posted on AllWomenAllTrails.com)

90 miles. 5-6 nights/6-7 days. Just me, my wee man, and the dog.

78lb pack: 15-20lbs heavier than goal weight. 22 lb child. Me: 136lbs.

Ambitious. Badass. I was ready – more than ready – mentally.

Playing at a water crossing.

Leading up to the trip I had pneumonia. While I recovered fully and was cleared for the trip it stalled training a good few weeks.

Needless to say things did not go to plan. By 1.5 miles I was needing to stop, drop water weight, shift some things around, and change how I was carrying my son.

Exploring at a “camp” while waiting for help to pack out.

By mile 2.something I was replanting in my head my whole trip. I knew for day one I had to get to the river so I had a water source. But from there I could make base camp, hang out a day or two then continue with a shorter route, or even head back home – I just had to have water to make it the night.

Somewhere in there my son wanted to walk so I ditched my poles and his carrier and packed them up. It was actually easier for me to go slower and give him my hands to hold. He walked a good 2 miles of technical terrain with my help. I was so proud.

The gear …. lots of it.

But that’s his max. He can’t do more than that. He started walking like he was drunk. He was so tired. I tried to carry him some more but realized I really couldn’t do that anymore. I was somewhere between 3.5 and 4 miles in. Still 4-5 miles from camp by the river. There was NO WAY. I made the hardest call I’ve ever made – for someone to come help me pack back out because I couldn’t make it back to the car and I didn’t have enough water to stay put.

I cried. I’ve never made that call.

Riley pup with his gear.

I failed, was all I could think. Not the weather turned. Not my son wasn’t handling it. Me, I, I failed. Or so I thought.

It was the right decision. My man ran in and helped me pack out. Believe it or not this was our first real hike as a family! My man and I haven’t hiked together since one of our first dates! And you know what – it was awesome.

Colorado love.

The ground fell out from underneath me at one point and I landed hard on one leg. I remember ahead of the trip people kept asking, well, what if she falls with her kid – well what if? Quite simply I land in whatever way necessary to protect my son. I’ve fallen 4 times with him at this point and he’s never touched the ground. Some call it Mother’s instinct but I call it practice (martial arts is the best way to learn how to fall safely!).

Anyways, I had literally spent all morning concocting alternative plans. Options that would be more doable, but in the end I just couldn’t. That just sucked.

My leg after the fall (and post ‘shower’).

Layouts and More Layouts (Originally Posted on AllWomenAllTrails.com)

Leaving for CA and then turning around 5 days after we get back to CO we leave for the backpacking trip. 

Yikes.

A lot of the clothes and daily items I need to take backpacking I also need to take to CA. So what do I do about being prepared?

I layout – take a picture- and put it away. LOL This seems so wrong.

But here are some of the pictures:

The start of gear layouts. The guest bedroom is currently my hidden layout area safe from dogs and kid.
Prepping first aid kits including for the pup.
Packing meds. All prescriptions will be carried in their labeled prescription bottles. This helps prevent incidents if there’s an emergency with wrong dosing and makes sure that if you have a controlled substance of any sort prescribed that you won’t get in trouble for carrying them unlabeled or with intent to distribute. That would end the trip horribly.
Little man’s clothes. Everything for sun to snow.
SO MUCH FOOD! When packing for yourself plus a toddler there is so much food to pack. More food than gear! Seven days of 2 very hungry people’s food. This isn’t even all of it. Oh and don’t forget I still have to pack dog food.
My son MUST have Goldfish. I was trying to figure out how to pack enough and not squish them, so in a giant blender bottle whose lid has a loop I can use to clip on, I piled up the Goldfish. Might do this for one of his other favorites too.
My clothing layout – with a wee bit too much Salomon running clothes to get me through!!
Lost Creek engulfed in clouds.

Oh and also, why am I packing winter clothes?! Well you see this? This is a photo of the wilderness area we’ll be in completely engulfed in clouds, while my friend joked about needing to be prepared for a hurricane. Oh yea and mid June here in CO and mountain areas got 10-20” of SNOW!! Therefore, we shall be prepared for everything from sun to snow! This is weather in Colorado, extraordinarily crazy and beautiful.

Packing for a Toddler With Special Needs (Originally Posted on AllWomenAllTrails.com)

The packing has begun!

Normally I wouldn’t even start until a week or two out but with a toddler that’s different. With a toddler with special needs it’s extra different. Then there’s that vacation before the vacation (HEY look! I’ll get a vacation from my vacation haha).

The guest room is currently acting as a staging area for gear layouts.

Clothing layouts are being done, taking a picture to remember, and put away. After all I still need those clothes between now and then. 

Working on first aid kit (don’t forget the pup)

Food..well that’s complicated. I have an idea of what I’m bringing, most of which is set aside I packed in a grocery bag. But toddlers are picky eaters. I have a feeling some of his food needs will change between now and then, therefore requiring a last minute grocery trip to get more goldfish (because #dontforgetthegoldfish ) and some other new snack he’s become fascinated with. I also have to consider his drink needs and that he doesn’t do well on just water or electrolyte drinks. He needs milk of some sort. This part I’ve decided to just deal with. They make his favorite almond milk in single serve boxes – so even though it will suck to carry I will bring 1 per day. He also LOVES chocolate milk and requires probiotics and digestive enzymes daily. Bonus my favorite “recovery” drink is essentially all this in powdered form just add water. Even tastes like chocolate milk and his pediatrician and dietician have both said it’s completely fine for him to have (Thank you Skratch Labs !)

Wee man’s clothing layout.

So the other part… the hard part… what do I bring for him? I’m not talking about clothes or food or basic gear, I mean to help with his special needs. My son is autistic. He has a history of self harm – should I bring his helmet which will be awkward to carry, hot to wear, and he’s never worn on the trail before- eh probably not but I’ve thought about it, especially when there’s a meltdown mid hike. Or the weighted blanket he loves – helps him sleep, relatively small, but weighs five pounds all by itself – again maybe not, that’s the weight of my pack and sleeping set combined. What about a chewy, a special ‘toy’ specifically designed for chewing on – DEFINITELY – we have carried one on every hike and he uses it almost every time and it weighs basically nothing. A blanket to cuddle – of course I mean a small blanket isn’t much, he’s only 23 months when we go, plus there will definitely be chilly nights- why did I even query this one?

tart of gear layouts day 1….lots more sitting there now.

The list goes on. And I haven’t even touched on sorting out diapers. We cloth diaper. Which has actually made so many things including hiking better, but I still haven’t quite nailed down how many to bring (I’ll wash daily).

Definitely coming together but time to step it up and sort out the rest of the kinks.

Last major hike before leaving on our pre backpacking vacation.

Facing Fears… Again (Originally Posted on AllWomenAllTrails.com)

Anyone who knows anything about fires, especially in the Rocky Mountains, has heard of the Hayman Fire. 

June 8, 2002 the fire was started due to negligence by none other than a ranger. It burned 138,114 acres and there were 6 fatalities, making it the largest fire in Colorado’s history still to this day. I was 8 years old and remember it vividly. Many of my friends were evacuated. My family built houses extremely near the fire. Even “in town” the smoke dropped ashes.

Burn severity map of the Hayman Fire of 2002.

I’ve visited the area several times of the course of the last 17 years since the fire blazed. The last time I multi-day tripped through Lost Creek Wilderness I was in part of the burn area. It’s the driest area of an entire wilderness that is mostly full of water. Last time I was there was 14 years after the fire and the new trees were only 3-4 feet tall. 

Take that in for a minute. At elevation, AFTER FOURTEEN YEARS, trees are only a few feet tall!

The looming storm. This photo was taken around 9:30 am which is extremely early in the day for storms to roll in in Colorado.

The burn area is still full of many of the trees that burned. Many have fallen in storms, many remain standing dead as lighting rods. The only other thing in the area is large granite formations. They are gorgeous, don’t get me wrong, but also spooky.

You see big cats live there. One of two mountain creatures I’m truly afraid of. The last time I was in the area there was cat scat on the trail, fresh, and a looming storm. It was dead silent. No birds chirping, no squirrels bickering, no hawks screeching…NOTHING…not even a breeze. I found myself in the midst of what became a massive thunderstorm and the only place for shelter is where the cats live…and I knew for sure one was in the area- probably watching me.

The burn area after 14 years (2016)

Thinking about it gives me the creeps. This year I will be spending a lot more time in the burn area. At lower elevations you almost can’t see the remnants of the fire and it’s not really that big a deal. At higher elevation it’s definitely still noticeable and I’ll have my precious wee man with me.

So as creepy as it was, I keep hoping those days will be sunny and full chirping birds and bickering squirrels and go on knowing I will just have to face that fear…again.

The storm rolled in within 20 minutes, bringing lightning, thunder, and over 5 hours of torrential downpour.

Planning Through Set-Backs (Originally Posted on AllWomenAllTrails.com)

This trip is HUGE. 90 miles with a kid and a dog. 6-7 days carrying 60% of my body weight. You don’t just go do this without some prep. 

Your body needs some training. You need to plan food. And make sure you have all the gear you need. 

Hospital with pneumonia sucks.

So what happens when you hit a major set back?  Out of the blue I got pneumonia and became septic less than 2 months out from this trip. Was in step down ICU and told to expect 3 WEEKS of recovery. I am missing my race that would’ve been epic and fun. I’m on oxygen support and needing extra physical and occupational therapy. That’s a lot. I need a walker to walk. I have 1 month before we leave for CA. 

I have 1 month to bounce back so to speak. In the next month I need to get back to where I was a week ago before this stupid illness left me in bed hacking up a lung. 

So I how do I keep planning?

I work with my therapists diligently and do ALL my homework. I force myself to eat so my body can find strength. And I work on the rest of the planning that isn’t really physical. 

At least I’m home but still need O2 and a walker.

That is, finalize:

-packing lists

-food plans

-routes

-emergency prep

-pack fitting 

And making sure my son still stays active and gets in his work.

Set backs happen. You have to try to stay positive. It’s hard but you have to or you won’t get there. 

A glimpse into food prep from my last trip.

Miles and Miles of Trails (Originally Posted on AllWomenAllTrails.com)

I’ve had my route planned out for some time now. I’ve requestioned it about a thousand times and I still like it!

I’ll be hiking approximately 90 miles in the course of 6-7 days with my then 23 month old autistic son! That means carrying all the gear. It’s officially been decided my four legged, Riley, will be joining us too. He will love this adventure and knows these trails just as well as I do. Our last trip was just us two, now I get to share it with my son. 

The idea of taking a small, young, autistic child with me is daunting. But it’s also so exciting. The outdoors are his favorite and we’ll be getting away from the city and a lot of the things that set him off. More to come on planning with a special needs kid later.

For now the route. 

This is how I have it typed up…which looks kind of silly when you take it out of context.

Route

Payne Creek/Brookside 607
8 miles To Craig Creek 608
#1 camp 4 miles down Craig Creek day total 12

2 miles To Ben Tyler 606
5.5 miles To CO trail set 5
#2 camp 7 miles down CO Trail Seg 4/5 meet day total 15

8 miles Brookside McCurdy 2 miles to lost park
#3 camp 3 miles down Brookside day total 13

Take 607 3 miles to Bison
4 miles To Lake Park 639
7 miles To Hankins Pass 630
#4 camp near Hankins Pass day total 14 miles

4 miles To Goose Creek 612
9.5 miles to Wigwam trail 609
#5 camp near Wigwam merge day total 13.5

1 mile To rolling creek 663
6 miles To CO Trail
3 miles To Payne Creek 637
#6 camp or push to home day total 10

9 miles To 607 then 3 miles to home

Total approx 90 miles

This will to some extent be an outer loop of the wilderness area. I’m getting super excited as the day draws nearer.

Map needed for this trip. This time I’ll actually need both sides!