What to Bring – Hiking Poles
When I first began seriously hiking in the Catskills around 2005, I was 53 years old and was puzzled by the number of people who were walking on the trails with sticks. I soon found out that many people considered hiking poles an essential part of their gear and I began to us them on every hike. I found that the poles enhanced my stability, provided support on all types of terrain, gave me an upper body workout and prevented “sausage fingers”.
Choosing a Pole
- Single or double? Some people prefer a single hiking staff over a pair of poles. I tried both options and am firmly convinced that two is better than one.
- Find the right length: Most poles can be adjusted in one or more ways but there are some that are fixed-length. When your hands are on the grips and you hold the poles vertically in front of you, your elbows should bend at about 90-degrees. This is a general guideline and a matter of personal preference. The measurement of length is usually in centimeters.
- Choose a material for the pole: The choice of material for the poles will determine the price of the poles and their weight. Prices can vary from $50 for generic aluminum poles to over $200 for name brand carbon fiber ones. Weight may not seem important if you are hiking 6 miles or less but weight can be a big factor on longer hikes. The material also affects the strength and durability of the poles.
- Choose a grip: This choice may not be as important and I have never worried much about grip material. Some people have a definite preference for natural cork or for synthetic materials.
- Choose features: Most pairs of hiking poles are adjustable to some degree. The type of locking mechanism can be very important. For most hikers an option to fold or collapse the poles is desirable. Some poles even have built-in shock absorption.
When poles are properly sized, they will put your elbows at a 90-degree bend when you place the pole tips on the ground near your feet. Many trekking poles come in adjustable lengths but some are sold in fixed lengths. The best way to determine your size is to go to a store and try out different poles. There are many guidelines for pole length but the most important is your personal comfort.
Adjusting Pole Length
The most important reason to buy and use adjustable pole is…they are adjustable. This means other people can use them and you can change the length for different situations. I have to admit that I seldom change my pole length and I have hikes thousands of miles over varied terrain but it is nice to have the option. Pole that are improperly adjusted can cause discomfort and pain to your arms, shoulders, back and neck.
For long uphill sections that are moderately steep to steep, many people like to their poles to get more leverage and more secure pole plants. The steeper the slope, the more you shorten your poles. Make sure the pole is helping you as you climb uphill.
For long downhill sections, you may want to lengthen your poles by to keep your body more upright for better balance.
If you’re on a long section along the side of a hill, you can shorten the pole on the uphill side and lengthen the pole on the downhill side to improve comfort and stability.
Adjustable vs. non-adjustable: Many trekking poles adjust in length to enhance stability on different terrain and to fit different people who may be using them. I would not buy a pair of poles that did not have some length adjustment. These poles tend to be lighter overall and since they have no adjustment hardware are lighter.
Foldable or collapsible: Collapsible poles telescope into a shorter length once the adjustments are loosened. These poles must be adjustable. Foldable poles break down into section which can be folded onto each other. These poles may be adjustable or fixed length. Both types of poles allow hikers to stow the poles in packs.
Shock-absorbing poles: These models have some sort of internal springs that absorb shock when you walk downhill. I wasn't even going to mention this “feature” as I have never found it useful. The poles that I did have with shock absorption failed to work after a short time.
Pole Locking Mechanisms
Locking mechanisms are a source of much debate in the hiking community. Most people who use poles have strong feelings about the best type to use.
Whether or not the poles are adjustable there must be some locking mechanisms to keep the poles at the desired length.
Twist lock: The first sets of poles I bought were all of this type. They have an expander and screw setup. As you twist the pole the expander becomes larger in diameter to lock the pole in place. I have found that after storing the poles for a long time the expander may not work correctly. The bigger problem is that many of these poles slip and change length no matter how much you twist them. Other poles are difficult to untwist when necessary.
External lever lock: After having trouble with the twist lock mechanisms on poles, I switched to ones with external locks. The have a lever which actuates a clamping mechanism that I have found is quick and easy to adjust. Many have a screw near the clamp that can be used to adjust the tightness of the clamp. I have never had problems with this type of pole shortening or becoming “frozen”.
Push-button lock: I have a pair of these poles with a locking mechanism that snaps into place as you pull the pole sections apart. Pressing the push button releases the lock and allows the poles to collapse. I have found these poles “rattle” and feel “cheap. I do have a pair of poles that have three sections with a stretchy cord running through the center of the poles. Once the section are seated, a pull on the upper section engages a button that locks the poles in place. These are fixed length but are very light and collapse easily for stowing in my pack. They have become my preferred poles from late spring to early fall.
Pole Shaft Materials
Since most of a hiking pole is shaft, the material used for the shaft construct determines most of the weight of the pole.
Wood: The original material for hiking staffs was wood and some people still prefer a wooden staff. Wood has many disadvantages and I cannot recommend it
Steel: The next material that was used for hiking poles was steel drawn into a tubular shape. The poles were strong abut heavy. No poles today are made from steel.
Aluminum: This became the preferred material for the construction of hiking poles and is still popular today. It is durable and more economical than some of the newer materials. The aluminum is drawn out into hollow tubes which makes them very strong but lightweight. I have caught aluminum poles between rocks on a descent and bent them slightly but I have never had one break.
Composite: These poles feature shafts that are made either entirely or partially from carbon fiber. This material is very light but more expensive than aluminum. Their construction does reduce vibration. Modern carbon fiber is not as brittle as it once was but still can splinter or break under stress. I have had no problem with my carbon poles.
Pole Grip Material
Grips come in a variety of materials that affect how the poles feel in your hands. On some poles the grip is straight while other poles have ergonomic grips that have a 15-degree angle. This is supposed to keep your wrists in a more neutral and comfortable position. In addition, some grips are indented and have ridges that may offer a better grip. Other handles have a smooth grip surface.
Cork: Natural cork resists moisture from sweaty hands, and decreases vibration. Over time it will conform to the shape of your hands. This material offers the best grip when the weather is wet or heat causes excessive sweating.
Foam: Medium density foam absorbs moisture from sweaty hands and is also softest to the touch. The ridges and valley on some of these handles do not match all hand sizes.
Rubber: Neoprene is the most common “rubber” used. It insulates hands from cold, shock and vibration, and is best for cold-weather activities. It may be more likely to chafe or blister sweaty hands, but I have not had these problems.
Other Pole Considerations
Wrist straps: I seldom use the wrist straps on any of my poles while my wife always uses hers. This is a point of personal preference. I will admit that I have, on more than one occasion, had poles come out of my hands at inopportune times. Many poles have right and left hand straps that should not be interchanged, Some poles have padded or lined straps to help prevent chafing.
Baskets: Poles usually include a small, removable disk at the tip to prevent them from sinking too far into soft ground. Larger baskets can be purchased to replace the smaller disks or use in snow.
Pole tips: The tips on most hiking poles are carbide steel and are commonly used to provide traction. Rubber tip protectors extend the life of the tips and protect your pack when your poles are stowed. I can never remember to bring them! One pair of poles I owned had a permanent rubber cap which neither provided much protection nor lasted very long.
Poles I Own: A Brief Review
Seriously consider purchasing a quality pair of hiking poles from a well-known manufacturer. Although most poles come with a one year warrantee, many manufacturers will replace sections or entire poles even if the damage is your fault. Consider going to a local store to try out different poles. Some local stores will let you rent poles to try them out. This allows you to see if you like poles in general and which ones may be the best for you. If you are working with a local store, please make sure you purchase at that store. The poles may be a bit more expensive but the advice and personal attention is worth the extra cost.