Do I Need Trekking Poles?

Trekking poles are standard equipment for many experienced hikers – but do you really need them? The answer is maybe—there are a few conditions that I use hiking poles under and some I do not. Here’s how you should determine whether you need trekking poles or not.

  • How trekking poles can help
  • Do they really save your knees?
  • Why you wouldn’t want to use them
  • Trekking pole recommendations

A trekking pole (also known as a hiking pole) is basically a ski pole with a handle that you use when hiking. Trekking poles are almost always used in pairs. There is also something called a hiking staff (also known as a hiking stick) that is a single pole. Most hikers go with two trekking poles over a hiking staff. I think the pair just provides more benefits.

After years of using trekking poles, this is what I’ve learned about using them (and not using them).

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Why Use Trekking Poles?

  • I use hiking poles when I have a heavier backpack on. There’s no getting around that when you have some serious weight on your back, hiking poles can help keep you stable, especially on a steep incline or decline. Do they take strain off my knees? Not really, but more on that later.
  • If your hike requires stream crossings, trekking poles are great. Having two poles to anchor your way across a series of slippery rocks is invaluable. Even if I’m not using trekking poles on my hike, I’ll usually carry them in my pack just for this reason. Similarly, if I need to test the depth of a stream or see how muddy the bottom is, trekking poles get the job done.
  • If you are hiking in winter conditions, trekking poles are great for balance on a slippery and snowy trail. And when you’re crossing a frozen stream, using the trekking pole to test the ice is a great option.
  • Trekking poles are good to have in bear and mountain lion country. I’ve never actually fought off an animal, but I’ve often thought that if I was attacked, having trekking poles ready in hand would be better than not having them.
  • If you hike in an area with poison ivy, poison oak, nettles, or any other plant you want to avoid, trekking poles provide an easy way to gently push them to side and hike by.
  • If you have a steep downhill, trekking poles can provide good anchor points to balance against as you hike down.
  • Likewise, if you’re on a steep upslope, you can use poles to dig in and pull yourself up on.
  • If you want to make your hike more of a full body workout, there’s no denying that moving your arms back and forth will help you expend a little more energy. It’s also nice to get in a rhythm with hiking sticks.
  • If your hands swell when hiking, using trekking poles will keep the hands closer to the level of the heart, improving blood return to your heart.
  • You can use trekking poles as supports for an ultralight shelter. This will save you some weight in your pack. Even if you’re just day hiking, having a ultralight shelter in your pack (and hiking poles to support it) is a great way to be prepared for a survival emergency

Do Hiking Poles Really Save Your Knees?

trekking poles save knees

Using your hiking poles like this probably doesn’t help your knees much.

Many articles quote a 1999 study that says using trekking poles takes up to 25% of the strain off of your knees. The reality for most hikers isn’t that great. In fact, there studies that show that there’s no difference whatsoever between shock absorbing poles, regular poles, and no poles.

Personally, I’ve had knee pain with and without poles. I stopped my knee pain completely by simply shifting my weight. Instead of heel striking, I now focus on stepping on my fore and mid-foot. This engages the “natural shock absorbers” of my hamstrings to buffer any shock in my step. I think hiking with trekking poles naturally allows people to shift their weight (and foot strike) forward, which is probably a factor in those reduced strain studies. So if you want to help your knees out, I recommend shifting your weight forward when hiking with trekking poles.

When Not to Use Trekking Poles

scrambling without trekking poles

Instead of jabbing down with your hiking poles when you descend, try lowering your body and using your hands to balance and make a connection.

I used trekking poles religiously for years. And then I stopped for a while and it felt great to “just walk” without another piece of gear. Here’s why I stopped.

  • I was hiking to connect with nature, and the poles started to seem like a barrier between myself and the earth. So instead of using a pole to balance when descending, I now reach out and touch trees, rocks, and dirt. It just feels better.scramble down. You’ll feel like a kid again.
  • Ditching the hiking poles was one less thing to deal with. I put my boots and pack on, then hike. Easy.
  • I realized that using poles was not good for my balance and core. When I don’t have trekking poles, I need to stick my arms out and shift my weight to balance. This engages my core and natural balance processes instead of turning them off.
  • On longer hikes, not swinging my arms when I walk saves me energy. It’s not a big deal for shorter hikes, but if you’re doing something like a 22 mile Mt Whitney day hike, having another 1-5% of energy in your tank is a big deal.
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So Should I Get Hiking Poles?

Some people absolutely love hiking with trekking poles all the time. I used to be that person. But now I mix it up depending on the circumstance. My backpack allows me to attach my trekking poles to the outside. So if I feel like using them, I just take them off and extend them. It takes 2 minutes.

Trekking Pole Recommendations

trekking pole

Most trekking poles that you find at REI are pretty similar. They’re lightweight, strong, and adjustable. Avoid cheap models that you find at mass-market stores like WalMart.

Trekking poles have some features you should look for. These are my recommendations:

Pros and Cons of Hiking With Trekking Poles

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Whether you’re thru-hiking across the country or heading out on a quick weekend jaunt, trekking poles can add a lot of stability and comfort to your hike. Trekking poles shouldn’t be considered essential, but many hikers and backpackers love them for a variety of reasons.

In this article we’ll break down everything you need to know about hiking with poles and what you should consider before buying a pair of your own. If you’re looking for our favorites, check out our Best Trekking Poles list.


Trekking Pole PROS

Trekking poles take stress off your joints – The biggest advantage of hiking with trekking poles is that they absorb some of the shock your joints take when you step – especially on ascents and descents. Have you ever felt pain in your knees while hiking a steep downhill trail? Try using trekking poles to take some of the pressure off of your knees and relieve pain.

Give your arms something to do! – Every day is leg day on hiking trails. Unless your hike includes boulder scrambles or bushwhacking, you may not be engaging your arms much at all. Trekking poles give your arms some exercise and can help to keep your hands from swelling while you’re gaining elevation. Dangling your arms at your sides while you ascend can lead to poor circulation which can cause your fingers, hands, and wrists to swell up. Keeping your arms elevated, combined with the pumping action used with trekking poles, promotes better circulation and can prevent swelling.

Maintaining balance – You know what’s better than two legs? Four legs. Trekking poles act as another set of limbs to give you more stability when tackling tricky terrain. Poles can help you keep your balance when crossing swiftly moving water, traversing snowfields and ice patches, trekking along narrow ridgelines, and when going up or down hill on loose ground like sand or scree. We have also on more than one occasion used trekking poles to remain upright while battling high winds.

Trekking poles can help you maintain a good pace – Using trekking poles can get you walking in a smooth rhythm – foot, pole, foot, pole – and can help you sustain a good hiking pace for longer periods of time. We’ve noticed that we tend to hike a little faster when using trekking poles and the repetitive motion can be somewhat meditative while we hike.

Poles can be used to test ice strength and water depth – It can be hard to determine how deep a water crossing is or how thick the ice on a frozen stream is. Trekking poles can take the guesswork out of it and help you cross hazards safely.

Leave the tent poles at home – We love multipurpose items – some ultralight tents ditch the tent poles and use trekking poles to hold the structure instead. Some of our favorite trekking pole tents are the ZPacks Duplex and Triplex, the Hyperlite Mountain Gear Ultamid 2, and the Tarptent Stratospire 2.

Trekking poles can help keep wild animals at bay – It’s always important to stay aware of your surroundings when in the backcountry. Do what you can to avoid sneaking up on wild animals or encroaching on their territory. Despite our best efforts, sometimes animal encounters are inevitable. If you find yourself too close for comfort to a large animal such as a bear, banging your poles together or against trees and rocks makes a harsh sound that will often scare the animal away. You can also wave trekking poles above your head to make yourself appear larger, which can discourage animals from approaching you.

Trekking poles can help you get a hitch into town – Whenever we need to catch a ride from trail to town or vise versa, we always keep our trekking poles out. Poles signal to drivers that you are a hiker needing to get somewhere, and in our experience they have increased the likelihood of a quicker pick-up.

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Trekking Pole CONS

Trekking poles can be cumbersome – For us, the biggest drawback to trekking poles is that they can be limiting in some situations. On trails where you need to do hand-over-hand climbing or you have to use rope assists, it can be annoying to have to stash your trek poles on your pack, and then get them back out, and then stash them, and then get them back out. Likewise, if you like to take a lot of photos like we do, trekking poles tie up your hands and can get in the way when you need to grab a quick shot.

Weight – Some people like to use their poles only on uphill and downhill stretches of trail. This means that the poles are stashed on their packs in the meantime, which of course is extra carried weight.

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You may be using more energy – It’s generally accepted that pumping your arms with trekking poles expends more energy than walking without poles. There haven’t been many studies on this and some people disagree. Our feeling is that a little extra workout for our arms isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and if the stress-reducing benefits of trekking poles are a good fit for you, then the extra expended energy is likely totally worth it.

Expensive – Putting together a good hiking/backpacking kit can be pretty expensive. Trekking poles are not a necessary piece of gear, so the cost can be hard to justify for those starting from scratch with little to no gear or for hikers on a budget. Our favorite trekking poles range in price from around $60 all the way up to $200. If you are looking for a solid pair of affordable poles, we recommend the Montem Ultra Strong Trekking Poles.

Not always LNT friendly – The carbide tips on many trekking poles dig into rock, which will often leave unsightly scratches, gouges, and chips in rock formations on the trail. This can be off-putting to some, especially when traveling over old and pretty granite formations.

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There are so many trekking pole options out there and the subtle differences can be hard to distinguish when you’re first starting out. Here are some things to consider when making your choice.

Pole Material

Carbon Fiber – Carbon fiber is a lightweight yet durable fiber reinforced plastic. Carbon fiber poles are a popular choice among lightweight backpackers and folks who keep their poles stashed until they encounter trickier terrain. While carbon fiber is very strong, it’s less durable than aluminum. If you’re the type of hiker who relies on poles a lot to keep your balance, carbon poles may not be for you. If a carbon fiber pole fails, it will snap. This leaves very little room for regaining balance if one of your poles should fail. Because carbon fiber is ultralight and requires a more involved process to manufacture, it is considerably more expensive than aluminum. Our favorite carbon fiber trekking pole set is the Gossamer Gear LT5.

Aluminum – Aluminum is a super durable and decently lightweight metal that can withstand a lot of abuse. We like aluminum poles because they are reliable and tend to be a lot more affordable than carbon fiber poles. In the rare case of an aluminum pole failing, it will usually bend rather than snapping. That means it can be much easier to regain balance before falling if the pole should give out. Aluminum is slightly heavier than carbon fiber. If you keep your poles stashed most of the time while you’re hiking they may not be your top pick. Our favorite aluminum poles are the Black Diamond Trail Ergo Cork Trekking Poles.

Grip Material

Cork – We think cork is the best material for pole grips. It’s comfortable, durable, and porous so it can wick away sweat from your hands and prevent blisters. The only real drawback to cork is that it tends to be more expensive than other grip materials. One of our favorite cork-handle trekking poles sets are the Black Diamond Alpine Carbon Cork Trekking Poles.

Foam – Foam is a comfortable and generally more affordable grip material. It will break down quicker than cork or rubber, but it is still decently durable. One of our favorite foam grip pole sets are the REI Co-op Flash Carbon Trekking Poles.

Rubber – Rubber grips are very durable and generally affordable, but they tend to be the least comfortable. They can be hard to grip if your hands get sweaty and they are more likely to cause blisters on your hands. We tend not to recommend rubber-gripped trekking poles.

Pole Design

Telescoping – Telescoping poles have the most adjustability making them good for those who like to adjust the height of their trekking poles depending on the terrain. This is also useful if you plan to use your trekking poles as your tent poles. Telescoping poles tend to weigh a little bit more than trifold and fixed poles due to the extra length allowance. This is the most common pole design.

Trifold – Trifolding trekking poles are generally the lightest and most compact design. They have three pieces that are held together by an internal tension cord and held in place by a push button locking mechanism. Trifolding poles are great for those who do a lot of airline travel, because they usually fold down small enough to fit in small luggage. We’ll talk a little more about airline travel with trekking poles later. Our favorite trifolding poles are the Leki Micro Vario Carbon Trekking Poles.

Fixed – Fixed height trekking poles are not very common and we tend not to recommend them because they are hard to stow on your pack when they’re not in use. Fixed design is more typical of ski poles. We don’t recommend using ski poles for hiking because the two styles are held at different heights and have different shapes for their respective sports.


It’s important to have the right size trekking pole in order to fully enjoy the benefits of hiking with them. Poles that are too tall will push your posture back and could cause discomfort in your shoulders. Poles that are too short will cause you to lean forward and could put a strain on your back. When you are holding your poles at your sides, your elbows should be situated at a right angle.This will ensure good posture and will maximize the comfort and effectiveness.

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Our Top Recommendations

We researched and tested dozens of poles to create this list of the Best Trekking Poles. All the poles listed below have a great balance of durability, comfort, weight and value. We hope this list helps you find the ideal trekking poles for your needs.


Airline Travel

According to the TSA website, trekking poles are only permitted in checked luggage. If you know you will be flying with your poles a lot, you’ll probably want to go with trifolding poles because they pack down smaller and can fit better in travel bags. We also recommend using REI Co-op Trekking Pole Tip Covers when traveling to keep your pole tips from tearing through your bag.

A trekking pole with a carbide tip.

A trekking pole with a carbide tip.


TIPS – Many poles have interchangeable tips or can be modified with different caps for various types of terrain. Carbide tips are the standard tips that most poles come with and they are designed for all terrain hiking. They are especially good for gripping rock and ice. You can easily replace them on most trekking poles if they worn down by unscrewing the old ones and then screwing in new ones. Black Diamond and Leki offer screw on replacement tips to name a few.

TIP COVERS – As we mentioned above, tip covers are great for protecting your stuff from damage by the carbide tips during airline travel or if you store your poles in a closet.

RUBBER CAPS – Rubber caps are a great accessory for anyone who uses trekking poles around town or on paved hiking trails. The standard carbide tips that most poles come with will wear down quickly on pavement, so it’s a good idea to use rubber tips to protect them. Most manufacturers make specific rubber tips that slip over the end of their trekking poles; Leki makes a really cool footed rubber walking tip designed for more efficient movement.

BASKETS – Baskets easily screw on to the end of poles and help to keep them from sinking way down into sand and snow; we bring them along for coastal hiking and snowshoeing. Most pole manufacturers make specific baskets for their poles like the Black Diamond Powder Snow Baskets and the Leki Snowflake Baskets.

Do You Need Trekking and Hiking Poles?

First, let me clear out a common misconception about hiking poles. Hiking poles and trekking poles are same but hiking poles and hiking staff or hiking stick is not.

Hiking poles or trekking poles are like ski poles, only with handles. They come in a pair. But hiking staff or hiking stick is usually one pole.

I’m talking about hiking poles today, not staff or hiking stick. And yes, you need hiking poles on a hike.

You don’t want to strain your knees

You don’t want to strain your knees

The most obvious reason to bring a pair of hiking poles with you is to reduce strain on your knees, especially when you have a lot of baggage with you.

The poles will take some of your burdens and help relax your knee a bit.

Balancing on slippery ground

Balancing on slippery ground

When you are trekking in winter, you’ll end up in a lot of slippery places where it is hard to maintain balance while you walk. These poles will come in handy in such slippery places.

To avoid poisonous plants

To avoid poisonous plants

There are thousands of poisonous plants species out there like poison ivy band even worse. You can’t risk getting in contact with those. You must avoid them on your way and to do so, these poles will be of your help. Use it like a stick and remove them from your way.

Climbing up or down

Climbing up or down

In hiking, we often come across with steep roads. Walking through those roads is not easy, especially when you have your bags to carry too. For such situation or to climbing a mountain, the hiking poles can be your support.

Again, when you return by that road, you’ll have to face the challenge to balance yourself while you are running very fast in the downwards slope. In this situation, the poles will help you decrease acceleration and make sure your land on the flat ground safely.

Giving your hands rest

Giving your hands rest

When you walk for a long time, your hands start to swell. This means the blood on your hand cannot reach your hearth properly because the whole time your hand was hanging perpendicular to the ground.

To avoid such swelling, you can use the poles. When you walk with the poles, your hand stay closer to your heart and that means blood flow is normal between your heart and the body.

To Support you tent

To Support you tent

Sometimes your tent can’t hold itself in a crazy northern breeze. In such events, you can use your poles to strengthen its attachment to the ground or tree.

Protection against Wild Animals

Protection against Wild Animals

If you are rambling in a place where bears or mountain lions are a common sight, it is best if you carry these poles. They might not be enough to fight an angry bear but you can easily scare one which was just casually walking around.

Conclusion: These are just a few reasons why I think you should carry a pair of trekking or hiking poles. However, if you are trekking close by and you know the trail is flat, clear and you’ll be returning soon, you can leave the poles at home. Ultimately, to bring them or not, depends on you.




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