do I need trekking poles

Do I Need Trekking Poles?

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

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.

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?

trekking poles and a heavy pack
Having all this weight on your back is not natural to balance. Having trekking poles helps keep you stable.
trekking poles stream crossing
Trekking poles really shine on stream crossings like this. Having two extra anchor points let’s you feel secure when walking across loose, small, or slippery rocks.
tarp tent trekking pole
An ultralight shelter is a great way to camp without a heavy load. Just wedge your hiking pole in to support the shelter.

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.

If you suffer from heel or knee pain, I’d recommend reading this article on plantar fasciitis.

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.

hiking mt whitney without trekking poles
I did the 22 mile day hike to Mt Whitney summit without any trekking poles. Ditching the poles saved my body some energy when the air was thin and efforts tougher.

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:

You can check out which trekking poles I’m using now on my gear page.

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