You've seen people using them -- walking with "ski poles" through the mountains -- but what are they for? Trekking poles add stability, support and even speed. Here's how.
Wes thinks that trekking poles are for sissies. I'm hardly a sissy, but I use trekking poles whenever I hike. Here's why.
What are trekking poles? Trekking poles are essentially a modern-day evolution of the traditional walking stick. Poles are either telescoping or collapsible (the latter of which collapse like tent poles.) Telescoping poles offer adjustable lengths, which is useful when climbing or descending (which is all the time.) Collapsible poles lack adjustable lengths, but they are often lighter than their telescoping counterparts. Collapsible poles either use twisting locks or flip locks. Flip locks are more secure. Some poles feature built-in shock absorbers. Those don't really help a lot and they tend to add extra weight and mechanical parts - just more pieces to break.
Trekking poles are usually made from either aluminium or carbon fibre with rubber or cork handles. Aluminium poles are sturdier than carbon fibre ones, but they're often heavier. Carbon fibre poles are stronger and lighter than aluminium poles, but they're more expensive. Rubber handles are more durable than cork ones, but they're not as comfortable -- cork handles mould to your hands, but they tend to eventually break up.
Many trekking pole brands, such as Black Diamond, offer interchangeable baskets (the part that prevents the pole from stabbing too far into soft ground) -- small round ones for general hiking, or much larger ones for snowshoeing and skiing.
What are trekking poles used for? There are tons of uses for trekking poles. Here are some of my favourites.
Trekking poles provide extra stability: When travelling over rough or uneven terrain, trekking poles can act as extra legs -- making large rocks, tree trunks, or any other obstacles easier to navigate. They provide extra points of contact when crossing rivers or streams, allowing for more confident foot placement. Misstep? Your trekking poles will be there to make sure you don't fall on your arse, or in the water.
Trekking poles help distribute weight: I make a habit out of travelling as light as possible. However, sometimes (for instance when winter mountaineering, snow camping, or going on extended unsupported trips) a heavy pack is unavoidable. Trekking poles will help distribute some of the weight from your legs to your arms, making heavy loads easier to haul.
Trekking poles can be used to pitch lightweight shelters: Oftentimes, I ditch the tent for a lightweight shelter like the Hyperlite Mountain Gear UltaMid. It pitches using trekking poles instead of tent poles. Trekking poles are stronger than tent poles; since you're already carrying them you don't have any added weight from tent poles.
Trekking poles can help you hike faster: Trekking poles help you create rhythm while hiking by allowing your hands to move in tandem with your feet. With each swing, your arms push back on the ground, propelling you forward with every step.
Trekking poles range in price from $US25 a pair for generic aluminium telescoping poles all the way to $US160 for the Black Diamond Alpine Carbon Cork. I own both pairs. The cheap aluminium ones will get the job done, but they're relatively heavy and the hard plastic grips are uncomfortable. The BD Alpine Carbon Cork, while expensive, are my absolute favourite-ever outdoor gear purchase. The carbon fibre shafts are lightweight and strong. The cork grips have perfectly moulded to fit my hands after hundreds of miles of trekking. Holding them feels like wearing a good, broken-in glove -- an important factor when considering that I hold them for hours every day. I've used them and abused them for hundreds of miles, from the Sierra Nevada to Costa Rica. Iceland to Nepal; they're still going strong.
What are some of your favourite uses for trekking poles? Leave them in the comments below.
Picture: Chris Brinlee Jr