When and How to Use Trekking Poles: The Ultimate Guide
If you’re new to using trekking poles, you might have some hesitations. People avoid using trekking poles on their hikes for a variety of reasons: They don’t know how to use them. They think they’ll look funny. They don’t think they need them. They don’t want to carry extra weight. But the reality is that trekking poles can be a truly fantastic trail companion for just about anyone.
If you’ve been curious about them or are simply looking for some tips to improve your trekking pole game, we’ve got you covered below. We’ll discuss everything you need to know, including:
- What are trekking poles anyway?
- Why should you use trekking poles?
- When should you use trekking poles?
- Key features of trekking poles
- How to use trekking poles in different scenarios
- How to take care of your trekking poles
By the end of this, you might just become a hiking poles believer like so many in the outdoor community. When you do, the Gossamer Gear LT5 Three-Piece Carbon Trekking Poles will be waiting to become your new best friend.
What Are Trekking Poles?
Trekking poles are essentially fancy hip- or waist-high sticks that you walk with. You may also hear them called hiking poles, walking sticks, walking poles, or hiking sticks. Or maybe even just “poles,” as in, “Hey, can you grab my poles? They’re leaning up against that tree.”
Trekking poles are a common hiking accessory that you’ll see all the cool kids (and those of us just really, really trying to preserve the knees we have left) rocking on trail. They provide stability and balance, help keep your hiking rhythm strong, and reduce strain and weight on your joints.
It’s important to note that there are a few things trekking poles are not. Poles like our three-piece carbon LT5s are not meant for skiing. You’re going to want to use some ski-specific poles for that to withstand the extra pressure that activity puts on them.
They’re also not an approved medical device. Yes, they can be great for anyone looking for more stability on a walk or hike, but if your medical provider has suggested a mobility aid for you, such as a cane, trekking poles shouldn’t be viewed as an alternative. This is particularly important to remember when traveling, as mobility aids like canes can be taken on an airplane, whereas trekking poles, due to their sharper tip, are not allowed in carry-on bags or otherwise in the main cabin. They must be placed in checked baggage for travel.
Why Should You Use Trekking Poles?
There are many reasons why you should use trekking poles. Seriously. They’re amazing. Here are a few trekking pole benefits to consider:
Using trekking poles distributes your weight, including your pack weight, across four limbs instead of two. The general estimate is that about 20% of your weight gets redistributed from your legs to your trekking poles. This takes excess stress off your knees and back, which can reduce pain and prolong joint health.
Trekking poles can help maintain your balance while hiking, walking, or trail running. They add an additional point of contact to the ground when traveling on uneven or slippery terrain, which can help prevent falls and injury. You can also use the poles with a poncho or other available items to set up a makeshift emergency shelter should you need to wait out a storm or hunker down for search and rescue to arrive.
When using trekking poles like the three-piece carbon LT5s, you don’t need to worry about extra weight. The LT5s are designed with lightweight travel in mind, clocking in at just 4.9 ounces. Trekking poles in general can also be used for multiple purposes when hiking or backpacking. You can use them to set up The One or The Two tents or the Solo Tarp or Twinn Tarp instead of carrying additional tent poles. You can also use them at the end of a long hike as a calf massage tool, rolling them along sore or tight muscles—a true spa experience!
Through different trekking pole techniques, including planting them to push yourself forward, you can add some extra oomph to your stride. This is especially helpful when trying to gain greater momentum going uphill or whenever you want to quicken your pace a little.
Have you ever been on a long hike in the summer and looked down at your hands to find that your fingers have all turned into plump little sausages? First, make sure you’re drinking enough water and include some electrolytes. But also, bust out your trekking poles! Trekking poles keep your arms moving and cause your hands to gently clench and unclench throughout the miles you cover. This helps with blood circulation and, ultimately, sausage finger prevention.
If you have a training or fitness goal of burning more calories during your activities, incorporating trekking poles into your workout has the potential to help you do so. Trekking poles add in more movement and sometimes a faster stride, which can lead to more energy burned.
When to Use Trekking Poles
In short, you should use trekking poles any time your body feels like it could use the support. Don’t be shy about using them! It doesn’t make you tough to not care for your body. Flat walking, uphill slogs, or downhill jogs can all be good situations for hiking poles.
There are also some specific scenarios for when trekking poles are particularly handy:
- When you get tired: Ever heard of “Sloppy Feet O’Clock”? It occurs in the last couple miles or hour of your hike or maybe when you haven’t quite nailed your nutrition or hydration for the day. Basically, your body, especially those fickle ankles, starts to get tired. Remember, trekking poles are a safety tool that can take strain off your legs and prevent falls. Don’t become a victim of Sloppy Feet O’clock.
- For checking water or snow depth: It’s not always easy to eyeball how deep a section of snow is or the next step in your river crossing. Trekking poles can navigate those spots before your feet to provide crucial information for your next step.
- In slippery or uneven conditions: When walking through rain, snow, ice, rocky areas, or other uneven terrain, trekking poles can provide added stability to your stride.
- For navigating overgrown trails: If you need to do some light bushwhacking through briars that have grown feral across a summer trail, use your hiking poles to reach ahead and push them aside. This prevents them from snagging your skin, clothes, or gear.
6 Key Features of Trekking Poles
Here are the different components of trekking poles and how to consider them when selecting the right poles for you.
1. Tip Types
There are two main tip types on trekking poles—i.e., the bottom end of your pole. The first is rubber tips, which are meant for hard surfaces like asphalt, concrete, or bare rock. They reduce damage to your poles and the ground. Gossamer Gear’s LT5 Three-Piece Carbon Trekking Poles come equipped with removable rubber boots that let you easily switch between extra support for hard surfaces and the pointy tips underneath. The boots also allow for safer transport of your poles when off trail.
Hard, pointy tips on trekking poles are meant to provide traction on trails with roots, mud, snow, ice, or other surfaces beyond solid rock. These tips are often made of some type of metal. Our LT5s use carbide for the tips, as this material is light while also being super durable for many, many miles. Just be mindful when using the carbide tips of your trekking poles, as the material is sharp and not meant for poking humans or gear.
2. Basket Types
Trekking poles come equipped with removable plastic disks that sit above the tip. Their purpose is to prevent your pole from sinking too deep into the ground, especially if you’re in mud, snow, or other soft terrain. Essentially, the wider your basket is, the more support you have against sinking into the ground. Think of trekking pole baskets as snowshoes for your poles. They transfer the force of your weight across a wider surface area to prevent digging in too far.
Our three-piece carbon LT5s come equipped with baskets that weigh just 7.0 grams. If you don’t need them for the type of trek you’re on, you can easily unscrew them and store them for another time to reduce weight. However, we do recommend keeping them installed for any rocky adventures, as they help prevent your poles from getting wedged between rocks or other hard surfaces.
3. Adjustable Poles
Some trekking poles are sold as a fixed length, while others, like our three-piece carbon LT5s, have an adjustable length and can collapse down to a smaller size for easy transport or to strap onto the outside of a pack when not in use.
Our LT5s use three pole sections to achieve this. The sections attach in two spots using a simple, secure twist-lock mechanism. Just turn clockwise at each lock. Fully collapsed, the poles measure 23.5 inches in length. Overall, they can be adjusted between 41 to 51 inches to accommodate a variety of hiker heights and trail conditions.
4. Pole Material
Trekking poles are sold in a variety of materials, typically some type of metal like aluminum. Gossamer Gear’s trekking poles are made of carbon fiber. This material is incredibly lightweight, allowing us to keep the LT5s as some of the lightest trekking poles on the market.
At the same time, carbon fiber is a strong, durable material that can withstand many years and miles on trail. Fans of carbon fiber trekking poles also note that they’re a little quieter on trail and reduce vibration running up the pole from contact with the ground.
5. Grip and Strap
The top of trekking poles include a grip for your hands and often a wrist strap. Grips can come in a variety of materials, such as rubber or cork.
Our three-piece carbon LT5s have grips made from EVA foam, which keeps them lightweight and extremely comfortable on the hands. They handle getting wet well, move easily in your hands, and don’t lead to blisters like some other materials often do.
The wrist strap is simple and adjustable (just give the webbing a little tug), which allows you to keep your trekking poles secured to your body, but able to move freely with your gait.
How to Use Trekking Poles + Special Trekking Pole Techniques
Above all, using trekking poles should feel natural. There’s no need to overthink it. Allow them to move with your body in a way that feels supportive. Hike your own hike. Below are some tips, however, to help you get your trekking poles set up just right and some techniques that might work well for you.
Set Your Poles to the Proper Height
When you hold your trekking poles while standing on a flat surface, the proper length should create a 90-degree angle at your elbow when the tips of the poles are touching the ground near your feet. This changes a little if going uphill or downhill, which we’ll cover more below. Here are general suggested pole lengths based on height:
- Shorter than 5 ft, 1 in tall: 100 cm
- 5 ft, 1 in to 5 ft, 7 in: 110 cm
- 5 ft, 8 in to 5 ft, 11 in: 120 cm
- 6 ft or taller: 130 cm
With three-piece adjustable poles, there are two schools of thought on how to set the height. Keeping the bottom and mid sections about equal in length can add more stability to your poles by giving equal weight to each section.
The way we recommend adjusting the height on your three-piece carbon LT5s is to set the bottom section as far out as possible before seeing “STOP” written on the pole. You can then set the middle section to anywhere between 105 cm and 130 cm using the measurement guide markers printed on the pole. This way, it’s easy to make adjustments along the trail and always get your poles set to where you like them.
Relax Your Grip and Strap In
To hold your trekking poles, first slip your hand through the wrist strap from below and then grab onto the handle. The strap should pass between your palm and the foam grip. The wrist straps provide for extra security and allow you to keep a fairly loose hold on the trekking pole grips.
There’s no need to hold on tightly to your trekking poles. This will tire you out and reduce your natural movement on trail. Keep a loose enough hold on the poles so they can swing effortlessly between your thumb and index finger.
Move Your Arms, Legs, and Poles
On flat terrain, you’ll typically have asymmetrical arm and leg movement. So, when your right leg takes a step forward, for example, your left arm and pole swing back. When your left leg moves to the front, your right arm and pole swing back.
This should feel pretty natural, but can easily get funky if you think about it too much. If you find yourself falling out of the rhythm, just lift both of your poles up and keep walking for a few steps before letting your poles rejoin the natural movement.
As you plant your pole on the ground, you may think about gently pushing it to propel your motion. Plant, push, plant, push.
Consider Your Terrain and Goals
There are a few adjustments you may want to try in specific situations:
- Going Downhill: Consider loosening your wrist straps a bit or taking your hands out of them to accommodate the wider swings your poles may make. You can also lengthen your poles a little to account for the increased angle of planting them ahead of you instead of more parallel to your steps. This creates a light braking action. You may also find that you plant your poles a little wider or at varying angles to account for downhill terrain that changes more quickly.
- Going Uphill: You may find it easier to shorten your pole length a little to account for a smaller angle of movement when going uphill. You may also choose to double-pole your way up the hill, meaning moving both poles forward at the same time. This creates a little more power in your steps. Keep your poles closer to your body and aim to push rather than pull yourself up the hill.
- Moving Faster: If you want to increase your speed while hiking with trekking poles, try swinging them forward a little extra on each step to emphasize the dynamics of light, quick, forward motion.
How to Take Care of Your Trekking Poles
There are a few simple steps you can take to prolong the life of your trekking poles. For Gossamer Gear’s LT5 Three-Piece Carbon Trekking Poles, you want to make sure to not extend the middle or bottom pole sections past the “STOP” label when hiking—i.e., this label should not be visible when hiking. It’s also best to keep the baskets installed when hiking in rocky terrain to prevent catching your pole between two hard places, potentially bending or snapping it.
Another important tip is to always separate the pole sections, wipe them clean, and let them dry after use and before storage. If you find that the inside of a pole is full of grime, you can clean it with something like a gun cleaning rod and pad. You can clean off the locking mechanism with rubbing alcohol and insert it after slightly tightening it ahead of time.
Plan to test and inspect your trekking poles before each use. On the LT5s, make sure the red locking mechanism is not pinned to the top of the screw on that pole segment. It works by expanding when traveling down the screw during twisting, so if it is pinned to the top, it cannot expand.
Use Trekking Poles for Better Hikes and Happier Joints
We hope by now that you’re well on your way to becoming a trekking poles believer. Their benefits on trail are immense, from multi-use functions like serving as tent poles to preventing falls and taking stress off your knees, trekking poles can quickly become your trail bestie.
Our three-piece carbon LT5s strike the perfect balance between lightweight, durability, and comfort for your many miles ahead. Plus, all of the parts are fully replaceable, so if you ever manage to wear something out, you can snag a new part on our website. If you take the LT5s out on an adventure, make sure to share the fun with us by tagging Gossamer Gear on social media (@gossamergear) and using the hashtag #takelessdomore.
Hungry for more backpacking gear and planning knowledge? Check out some of our other articles on the Light Feet blog:
- How To: Tips & Tricks for Alleviating Condensation in Your Tent
- How to Take Care of Your Gear Post-Hike (And Get Motivated to Do It)
- 6 Shelter Tips for Camping in Windy Conditions
- Hydration 101: Your Guide to Water While Hiking
- Cold Weather Layering for Hikers: The Ultimate How-To Guide