A few years back a friend and I were planning an alpine expedition on which we’d be accompanied by two first-time mountaineers. While emailing back and forth to assemble a comprehensive gear list, at one point I realized my buddy had not included trekking poles (aka hiking poles) in his notes. When I asked if he thought we should recommend them to the newcomers, his answer was unequivocal: “Yeah,” he wrote, “hiking without poles is like hiking without whiskey.”
You don’t hike without whiskey, FYI. And if you’re headed for any sort of serious trek, you shouldn’t hike without poles, either.
The best trekking poles provide several major benefits to the hiker. First, they give you two more points of contact with the ground, making you significantly more stable and sure-footed even over rough, uneven, or loose terrain. In other words, they reduce your chances of falling over. Which is nice.
Second, hiking poles allow your arms to do some of the work of moving your body along the path and/or up that mountain. If you don’t think they can give you a meaningful boost, just get back to me after you’ve done the 99 switchbacks on Mount Whitney without them. (I’ve been up Whitney four times, so you can trust me on this one — it’s better with poles.) The general expectation is that poles takes about 10 or 15 pounds off your legs with each and every step. Over the course of a long hike, that adds up.
Third, trekking poles greatly reduce the force of impact on your joints, helping prevent both acute and chronic injuries to the ankles, knees, hips, and various other body parts.
Fourth, the poles can be used to push thorny brambles aside, to test the depths of puddles or snow drifts, or to move unsavory whatnot out of the walking path — all things you’d probably rather not do with your hands or feet, no?
And, finally, the poles come in handy in myriad ways even when they’re not in your hands. They can serve as a place to dry out sodden clothes or boots. They’re necessary for the proper pitching of some tents and for many tent vestibules. They make a handy tool for beating back ravenous marmots. (Don’t actually beat marmots, please. They’re feisty, but innocent.)
As for choosing the best trekking poles, that is largely a matter of personal preference and budget, but I’ll go ahead and make a couple of recommendations. Before I do that, though, here’s a quick insider tip: Frankly, I think the best trekking poles are actually ski poles. And whenever I’m headed for an excursion that doesn’t require air travel, I still use my old ski poles. Why? There’s no risk of a pole’s joint failing when no joints exist. But after multiple headaches caused by checking ski poles through as luggage (I don’t know why it’s always such an issue, but it is), I’m happy to grab a pair of collapsible poles whenever I’ll be flying before I’ll be hiking.
My go-to trekking poles are …
Kelty Range 2.0 Trekking Poles, $60
They’re remarkably easy to collapse or adjust, they’re lightweight but sturdy thanks to their tubular anodized aluminum construction, and I love how the cork and foam handles feel — and how they look. There’s a retro charm to a wooden handle that works perfectly with the otherwise advanced design of these poles. While I’ve seen many a hiker cursing his way down the mountain with a bent or snapped pole hanging off the back of his pack, I’ve never felt so much as a wobble out of these babies. The bottoms of the poles have a nonslip carbide tip that digs into rocks, roots, and more, and you can slip on a thick rubber cap for use on easier terrain or for storage or travel.
If you’re going to take it from Amazon’s algorithm for “Best Choice” instead of from little old me, then go ahead and consider the …
Hiker Hunger Carbon Fiber Trekking Poles, $70
As you probably expect from a product made out of carbon fiber, these poles are very lightweight and quite sturdy and durable. They’re also more expensive than the Keltys, though not by much. They use a quick flip lock that allows for single-handed length adjustment or collapsing. While I’ve never used these poles, and while most people who have praise them effusively, I do have to mention that this is much like the type of joint I’ve seen fail from time to time. Just a caveat emptor warning for you. They come with several different tip attachments and baskets that make them suitable for use on snow or ice.
If you’re watching your budget or you just don’t think you’ll use your hiking poles often enough to justify a sizable investment, then take a look at the …
BAFX Products Walking Poles, $20
These trekking poles cost just twenty bucks, so don’t be surprised if they collapse on you some day, but do be surprised by the fact that thousands of satisfied customers have reported using them for hundreds of miles with no problems. The grips aren’t as fancy as the core and foam handles of the options above, and they’re heavier than both of the other brands, … but man, twenty dollars. That’s ten dollars per pole. And they even have carbide tips and anti-shock springs. So are they worth the money? Yes, yes they are.