Trekking Poles: Get Your Learn On
Over the years trekking poles have become standard equipment for hikers, backpackers, climbers, and snowshoers. The reasons why are easy: they enhance your support and stability across all terrain. There are a lot of different features with trekking poles, so I hope to eliminate some of the confusion.
Why Use Trekking Poles?
There are many advantages to using trekking poles. A short list of these is:
- Poles help provide better balance and footing by giving the user more points of contact with the ground.
- On downhill hikes they take off some of the stress off the legs and joints. Transferring this stress onto the arms and shoulders.
- Going uphill poles can help transfer some of the weight to your arms, shoulders, and back. This can reduce leg fatigue and add some thrust while ascending.
- Trekking Poles can help the user cross difficult sections easier. As mentioned above the stability of having more points of contact with the ground increases confidence and balance.
- Poles can help you establish a walking rhythm.
- Trekking poles can be used for a variety of other helpful activities, including but not limited to pushing back vegetation, probing soggy or snowy terrain for holes, as support for shelters, or warding off wildlife.
There has been several studies in regard to the benefits of trekking poles. According to a 1999 study in The Journal of Sports Medicine, trekking poles can reduce the compressive force on the knees by up to 25%. This translates into literally tons of weight that your body will not have to support during the course of a regular hike. In another study by Northumbria University released in 2010 tested hikers in the true outdoors. According to Dr Glyn Howatson, “The results present strong evidence that trekking poles reduce, almost to the point of complete disappearance, the extent of muscle damage during a day's mountain trek. Preventing muscle damage and soreness is likely to improve motivation and so keep people enjoying the benefits of exercise for longer. Perhaps even more advantageously, the combined benefits of using trekking poles in reducing the load to the lower limbs, increasing stability and reducing muscle damage could also help avoid injury on subsequent days trekking. It is often the reduced reaction time and position sense, associated with damaged muscles that cause the falls and trips that can lead to further injury in mountainous or uneven terrain.”
It should be noted that using trekking poles does not reduce overall energy usage. Actually, some studies suggest it increases calorie burning by activating more muscle groups. Trekking poles allow the user to use their arms to take some of the stress off the lower appendages and therefore, increase their hiking endurance.
Types of Poles
Trekking Poles can be broken up into several categories.
Standard poles – Standard poles are exactly that, they are the standard from all the other poles are based. They do not have anti-shock features and therefore, are lighter and less expensive. They do not absorb as much impact, but they still offer just as much stability and support.
Anti-shock poles – Anti-shock poles have internal spring mechanisms that absorb shock, especially when hiking downhill. Most manufacturers allow the user to turn this feature off as it is not needed while going uphill. The anti-shock function actually can create slightly more resistance while climbing as not all your energy is transferred into helping you climb. While being more expensive the anti-shock function is recommended for those with injuries that can benefit from even less stress on the joints and muscles.
Compact or Women’s poles – These poles are shorter in length and feature smaller grips. They are lighter due to the length making them easier to swing for shorter people. They are more compact for packing. Manufacturers also make youth and kid's poles.
Hiking Staff – Hiking staffs are sometimes called a walking staff or travel staff. It is a single pole which is best used without a load and on flatter terrain. Some of these are adjustable, and some have anti-shock features. Hiking staffs also may include a built-in camera mount allowing it to be used as a mono pod.
Nordic walking poles – much more common in Europe, it is gradually becoming popular in the US. It is a social activity that is a full-body workout with the use of poles. Just as hiking with trekking poles activate more muscle groups, so does Nordic walking over regular walking. These poles are generally lighter as they are not as built up as hiking poles. They also often do not pack away as small.
Anatomy of a Trekking Pole
Trekking poles can be made with a bunch of different attributes but the main parts of the trekking pole are, for the most part, the same. They are, starting from top to bottom:
- Wrist Strap
- Extended Grip
- Locking Mechanism
Anatomy of a Trekking Pole
Trekking poles are generally made of two materials: aluminum and carbon. These materials have a great impact on the weight and the price of the poles. High-grade aluminum is the stronger and more cost effective choice. These poles usually weigh between 510 g – 624 g (18 – 22 oz) per pair. The weight and price can vary a bit based on the gauge (thickness) of the pole, ranging between 12 to 16 mm (0.47 – 0.63 in). Under high-stress aluminum can bend, but it is unlikely to break. Being an alloy aluminum will transfer vibrations up the shaft more than carbon will.
Carbon fiber is the lighter and more expensive option in trekking poles. The poles usually weigh in around 368 g – 510 g (13 – 18 oz) per pair. They are good at reducing vibration and are also quite strong. Under high stress, however, a carbon pole is more vulnerable to breakage or splintering than an aluminum pole. Carbon fiber poles are also vulnerable to blunt force impact. It is quite common to see trekking poles with sections made from carbon and others from aluminum to get the best properties from both materials.
Pole grips vary widely from brand to brand. Even within each brand they can be made of different materials and densities. There are also grips termed as Ladies models, which generally are just smaller, so they are a good option for anyone with smaller hands. Some grips are positioned into the upper pole section, so they are ergonomically at a neutral angle. This can improve the comfort of the poles. Other features are grips that extend down the poles to allow you to grasp the poles easier on short uphill sections or on steep traverses. Many brands designate left- and right-handed poles either on the grip itself or the strap, using the correct hand will also improve comfort. There are several different materials used in grips, often these materials are blended together in some fashion.
- Cork – Cork resists moisture from sweaty hands, absorbs vibration that travels up the shaft, and will conform to the shape of your hands over time.
- Foam – Foam absorbs moisture from sweaty hands and is generally soft to the touch. Foam can be made in different densities changing the feel and texture to the manufacture's specifications.
- Rubber – Rubber material insulates hands from the cold and also absorbs vibration well. It is a popular choice for cold-weather activities. On the downside, it is more likely to cause discomfort in warmer temperatures, causing chafing and blisters. This makes rubber grips less suitable in warm weather activities.
Most trekking poles come with an adjustable strap. The strap helps support the wrist and transfers some of the force from the hand to the wrist. This allows the user to grip the poles with less force. Since the hands and wrists will be in near constant contact with the straps, a comfortable strap is a must. Straps can be made of simple webbing up to fully padded straps. These types of straps help prevent chafing. Proper use of the strap is to put your hand up through the bottom of the opening and then grab the grip with the strap coming up under the palm.
Proper Strap Technique
Baskets can vary by use and season. Fortunately most manufacturers make their poles able to switch out baskets accordingly. Some users like to go without the use of a basket, but the majority uses them. Generally speaking smaller baskets are best for hard dirt and rocks while larger baskets are good for mud and snow. The purpose of the basket is to prevent the pole tip from sinking too deep into the ground. Replacement baskets are normally inexpensive, and it is not uncommon to lose them from time to time.
Trekking poles are identified by their 2-3 piece shafts with locking mechanisms. Trekking pole locking mechanisms come in three main types: twisting, lever, and socket. Each manufacturer may have their own name for each of these types.
- Twisting lock trekking poles lock to the desired length by twisting the lower section while holding the upper section tight. This causes the internal lock system to expand inside the pole and provide pressure to the outside walls. This pressure holds it in place. Twist lock mechanisms have been the most widely used locking mechanism for some time.
- Lever locking poles use a lever on the outside of the poles to clamp down on the poles and prevent slipping. While this locking mechanism is newer to the market, many companies claim stronger locks with this type of mechanism. Lever lock mechanisms support easier adjusting when wearing hand wear.
- Socket type mechanisms are much rarer in trekking poles. The socket type mechanism is similar to what is used in tent poles. What occurs is the one pole insert into the bottom of the other pole and there is a push button for locking the poles. Inside the poles there is an elastic cord to keep the poles together. This mechanism is used on super light poles and is not as strong as the above mechanisms. These pole types are also non-adjustable making the initial purchase length important.
Types of Locking Mechanisms
Fitting Trekking Poles
Trekking poles are made to be adjustable and therefore, tailored to the users height and conditions of the trail. Most trekking poles have numbers on the shaft to help the user set the length. To set the length, loosen the locking mechanism and adjust the shaft up or down to get the appropriate length. For flat terrain with the pole tip on the ground your elbow should be at a 90-degree angle when griping the pole. Pole length can vary by terrain. When hiking uphill you may want to shorten the poles by a few inches to increase load-bearing pressure. When going downhill you may want to increase the length by a couple of inches to increase balance and control. On traverses you may want to have the uphill pole slightly shorter and the downhill pole longer. Some manufacturers have an extended grip to allow you to grip lower down the pole on short traverses where it does not make sense to stop and shorten the pole.
Trekking Pole Lengths
Carbide or steel are the most common tips for trekking poles. They provided a good balance between traction and durability on a variety of surfaces. Most poles come with rubber tip covers that can extend the life of the tips and protect your gear when strapped to your pack. These tips are also good for protecting sensitive areas where you don't want to impact the ground. You can purchase angled rubber tips for use walking on asphalt or other hard surfaces. These are popular with Nordic walkers.
The most common issue people have with their trekking poles is that the pole will slip when in use. This is normally caused by dirt and dust getting in the locking mechanism. With some easy maintenance, your trekking poles can keep performing trip after trip. This maintenance can also extend the life of your poles and prevent internal corrosion.
Here is a general maintenance procedure for most poles. Obviously check the manufacturers recommendations as well.
- Completely separate the poles by unlocking or loosening each section until they can be pulled apart.
- Once the poles are separated, use a damp cloth to wipe down the poles and locking mechanism to remove all dust and dirt.
- Use a soft dry cloth to dry the inside and outside of the poles as well as the locking mechanisms. If needed, use nylon brush to remove any dirt that could not be removed with the cloth. Note: Do not use any lubricant or alcohol-based product on the internal mechanisms as they can cause erosion.
- Check the locking mechanism for damaged parts and replace as necessary.
- Allow the poles to dry thoroughly, preferably by air drying for several hours, before reassembling the poles.