How to choose a Hiking Pole or Trekking Pole
A hiking pole or trekking pole is now an essential item for any hiker. Hiking poles have the same function as traditional wooden walking staffs, but modern poles are light, strong and durable, with comfortable grips and effective, extremely hard carbide tips. They help with balance when walking (acting as a third or third and fourth point of contact with the ground), they allow your arms to help you when pushing uphill, and they can ensure you avoid slips and falls when descending the trail or the mountainside. They are lightweight, being commonly made of carbon fiber or aluminum, but sturdier than ski poles, which look similar.
Having been in the position of choosing a pole ourselves recently, we thought we would have a look at what types of hiking and trekking poles there are, their advantages and disadvantages, and to offer some tips and recommendations. We will look at the types of hiking or trekking poles which are available, and show you how to choose one which suits your purpose and the kind of hiking you do.
Modern hiking poles are often retractable or extendable, and so can be set to the perfect length, whatever your height. Telescopic poles have another advantage in that they are collapsible and so can be shortened for packing away or hanging on a backpack. This type of sizing option is a real bonus for children or teens who can adjust the length of the pole for their current height as they grow.
A hiking pole, fully extended and fully collapsed
Choosing your pole
When choosing a hiking pole, you have several considerations: to buy and use one pole or a pair of poles; to buy a fixed length or a collapsible pole; to buy a top brand or a cheaper unknown make of pole; to find the best type of grip for your personal use. Some poles come with detachable snow baskets, while most have effective hand straps. Some brands of pole have rubber tips available which can be fitted to lessen the noise on paved trails, so look out for those if you mostly walk on that type of trail.
One hiking pole or two hiking poles?
While the use of two poles at once began as a feature of the sport of Nordic walking, which is a form of simple low impact whole-body exercise, many hikers are now using pairs of trekking poles on their hiking expeditions, as they are thought to improve balance and stability. Another of the benefits of using a hiking pole is that it improves body posture by keeping the back straight and the body upright, especially when carrying a pack; using a pair of poles is thought to be even more effective.
Using two poles is very useful if your trail includes river crossings, as most river beds are very uneven and the poles give extra points of support. (Of course, the poles can also be used to test the depth of the water too.) The same applies to walking on snow and ice – using two poles will help you keep your balance.
If you are concerned about protecting your joints, in addition to two trekking poles at all times you could consider using poles with shock absorption. These will remove some of the power of impacts with the ground, but at the price of reducing your ‘feel’ through the poles.
Should I buy a collapsible pole or a fixed length pole?
The vast majority of hiking poles on offer today are adjustable length, collapsible poles, which are appreciated for their convenience and adaptability. A typical length for a three-section pole fully extended would be 55 inches, and fully collapsed would be 25 inches. Of course, you can set the pole for any length in between.
You can still find a few fixed length poles, which you will find are much less expensive than collapsible poles.
If you never pack the pole away except in the trunk of your car, and go on mainly day trips, a fixed length pole may be suitable for you; otherwise having the convenience of a collapsible or extendable pole is highly recommended. Modern extendable poles, when set correctly, do not ‘collapse’ or telescope down when in use on the trail.
What are the top brands of hiking pole/trekking pole?
The top brands of hiking pole include Komperdell, Black Diamond, MSR and Leki.
What makes these brands worth paying for? They are very strong poles, often with Kevlar reinforced construction, with lockable sections which will extend and retract smoothly and reliably for years, and thoughtfully designed features like lower additional grip sections below the handle, which can be used on steep ascents without having to readjust the pole length. Example: MSR Dynalock pole.
Top brand poles can also be much lighter – some weigh as little as 8oz each, and can be used by trail runners as well as hikers. This may be important on long distance trails – remember you are carrying the pole or poles on your hike, whether you are using them at the time or not. Example: Leki Micro pole.
Hiking poles made by the top quality manufacturers also offer right-angle grips for those who prefer the old style ‘walking stick’ design. These usually also have thicker rubber tips for a more reliable balance on hard surfaces. Search for ‘Leki Wanderfreund’ or ‘Komperdell Walker’ in our search box above for some examples.
Is there a difference in poles made for men or women? Some of the top manufacturers have special ranges for women, with slightly smaller grips and lengths and claims of lighter weight, so if such differences are important you can seek such trekking poles out. To be honest, poles sold for women are often no lighter than ‘unisex’ or unspecified poles, depending on the brand and construction, so take such marketing with a grain of salt.
The main reason to go for a brand name trekking pole is that it is much less likely to break, shatter or let you down on the side of a mountain, and a good quality pole will give you years of good service and support.
Why is the grip on a hiking pole so important?
Most hikers will want to use a grip which is comfortable, which will cushion your hands and arms against the impacts with the ground, and which will wick away sweat. Most trekking pole grips are either formed and ribbed rubber, or compressed cork. We have used poles with cork grips for years, and have been very happy with them – no blisters ever. If you are a high altitude hiker and habitually wear gloves or mittens, choose your grip carefully – heavily shaped grips intended for bare fingers may not be suitable.
A contour grip and a plain grip on hiking poles
Finally, we can recommend some good hiking poles for your next hiking or trekking trip, depending on your preferences. The links will take you to examples of what you need.
- I just need a cheap pole (or two).
- I want a mid price but good quality trekking pole or poles.
- I want a shock absorbing trekking or hiking pole or poles.
- I want a brand name collapsible trekking pole or poles.
- I want a hiking pole designed for women.
- I am a serious hiker, I want to see the very best poles on the market. Black Diamond Komperdell Leki