To carry trekking poles or not is an interesting gear decision to have to make. For most situations, they are far from being an item of necessity on the trail. It really does just come down to personal preference combined with a great deal of trial and error.
At the beginning of my own personal journey into the world of hiking, I did not even know trekking poles were a thing. After a bad knee injury, I found the use of two trekking poles to be invaluable. Now, I am back down to one – sometimes.
So, should I carry one trekking pole or two? If you are hiking over difficult, slippery terrain, or if you need to cross rivers, then carrying two trekking poles can be hugely beneficial. If you are embarking on a shorter hike that is not too challenging, then perhaps just one pole would be sufficient. Others would choose to do the same hike without any poles. It comes down to the individual and the trail you are hiking, combined with your own personal preferences.
Differences between using one trekking pole or two:
If it comes down to personal preference, then we need to highlight the differences so that you can make up your own mind. The biggest advantage of having one pole over two is the weight that you save. You are literally cutting the weight of your poles in half.
The benefits of this may not be obvious to a hiker on a short, easy hike. For those ounce-counters on thru-hikes covering thousands of miles; well, it literally all adds up, and one pole may be the way to go.
Nowadays hiking gear is so well designed. Even backpacks offer useful features, such as Osprey’s signature Stow-On-The-Go. It allows trekkers to store their poles without the need to take off their backpack. These simple things make life easy, and negate the need to choose between one pole or two (if weight is not an issue), because they are both in reach and at your disposal at all times.
How to use two trekking poles:
1. Trek asymmetrically
There are a couple of things you need to know in order to effectively use two poles at the same time. Firstly, you should be trekking asymmetrically, which means that if your right foot is going forward, so should your left arm and pole. When your left foot goes forward, the right arm should be used. And so on.
If you begin using the same arm with the same leg, it will throw your body into an unnatural rocking motion that will put extra pressure on different parts of your body. When you first start using poles, it is important to get your head around this first, and set up a good technique before going gung-ho.
2. Use the wrist straps
Your poles will come with wrist straps. If your poles are standing up the right way, put your hand up through the bottom of the strap from ground toward sky.
This should mean that if you drop the pole, it should fall from your grasp while remaining strapped to your wrist without becoming twisted or tangled around the wrist. Doing this means that you do not need to grasp the pole constantly to keep it where you want it. It gives the muscles in your hands and wrists a chance to recover, otherwise they will be pretty sore come the end of the day.
3. Adjust pole length according to gradient
Next, it is important to know that the height of your adjustable poles will be dependent on whether you are walking uphill, downhill or on flat ground. Going uphill you will want to shorten the poles a little. Keeping them close to the body, the poles will be used to propel yourself upward.
On flat ground the poles can be lengthened slightly. Hold the pole in one hand and lower it until touching the ground. Adjust the height until your arms are bent 90 degrees and your forearms are parallel with the ground.
Using the same left foot, right arm technique, keep the poles at an angle slightly less than vertical (pointing backwards), and use the poles to propel you forward. It is kind of like rowing a boat, one arm at a time, except you are pushing yourself forward on land.
When it comes to downhill, you will want to elongate the poles. Now they will go from propulsion aides to balance stabilizers. Having the poles longer enables you to reach down the slope in front of you without having to bend your back too much. Stick your pole into the ground, make sure it holds, before lowering yourself down the slope.
When you use poles to go downhill it is like you suddenly have an extra pair of legs. Sometimes I even feel like a four-legged spider crawling my way down the mountain.
If you are hiking over terrain that is constantly changing between ascents and descents, you may like to find some happy medium in your pole length. This will save you the frustration of having to continuously adjust on the run.
How to use a single trekking pole:
I will not go into too much detail here, as most of the techniques listed above cover the general use of trekking poles. It is still important to actually engage your arm muscles and use them for forward momentum. I see too many people just lifting and placing the poles, which requires extra effort without the desired forward propulsion.
While the same principles apply in terms of your chosen length of pole, it may differ according to which foot and arm you choose to sync. I stated already that with two poles, your rhythm should be asymmetrical. With just one pole, however, this goes out the window, and using your right arm, for instance at the same time as your right leg is not a problem.
Lastly, it is possible to use both hands on the one pole. This can be used to help drag yourself up a larger-than-normal step.
Or, you can just opt for a good walking stick…
Some people believe that walking sticks can be just as useful as trekking poles. You can buy decent sticks that will do the job just fine. Other people will look for a walking stick in nature before their hike, or during the early stages. Whatever your choice, we will quickly examine the pros and cons of choosing a walking stick over trekking poles.
- Borrow a biodegradable walking stick from nature and return it once you have finished your hike
- Provides adequate support on easy to moderate hiking trails
- They are made of wood and are heavier than trekking poles
- It is a solid stick without suspension
- No wrist straps put extra strain on your fingers, hands and wrists
- You will only have one stick, whereas two poles provide better support
- You may not find an adequate walking stick in nature, depending on the landscape
My recommended trekking poles:
Like most things, trekking poles come with different features and are made out of different materials. But do not fear if you are staring at a $200 price tag on a pair of poles in disbelief, as you will not need to spend this amount of money unless you do some serious hiking over long distances.
I will include two pairs of poles below that come with my highest recommendations. The first one is a money-is-no-object choice. The second is a sturdy pair of poles that is more wallet-friendly.
Leki Micro Vario Carbon Trekking Poles
Made from high quality and ultralight carbon, these poles weigh in at a ridiculously light one pound (for both of them!). They are strong, easy to lock and provide plenty of adjustability for people of different heights. The only downside is the price, but if you can afford it, these pair of poles will last a very long time.
More info: leki.com
Black Diamond Trail Back Trekking Poles
Black Diamond make some seriously good trekking poles (and their Distance Carbon Z model almost beat the Leki Micro for best overall pole). The Trail Back is testament to the fact that you do not need to spend a fortune on poles to get something good. They are light at 1 lb 4 oz, are made of aluminium and come with simple dual FlickLock mechanisms.
I recently chose a pair of these for a hiking trip in New Zealand. It is a place blessed with beautiful hiking and an abundance of mountains and volcanoes. As such, I have been doing a fair bit of volcano scrambling. This involves rapid descents over steep slopes made from loose sand, dirt and volcanic ash.
The surface is sometimes comprised of fine, knee-deep material. It can best be negotiated in a ski-like slalom technique, where jumping and sliding at a 45-degree angle help to quickly descend a slope. Having two trekking poles are invaluable during these descents, and the Black Diamond Trail Back stands up beautifully.
With a pole in either hand maintaining balance, it is up there with the most fun you could have on a trail, and I especially love a descent that is easy on the knees.
More info: blackdiamondequipment.com
Up Next In Trekking Gear:
As a travel writer and photographer, Gordon spent the better part of 2018 visiting 13 different countries as far apart as Chile, Morocco and Vietnam. He is in New Zealand in 2019, writing a third travel book, while exploring pretty much anything that forms a bump on the Earth’s surface.