How to Use Trekking Poles: Learn How to Walk the Walk

By: Ashley Vitiello | Last Updated on May 2, 2024

Trekking poles can be a game-changer for your hiking experience, providing stability, reducing impact on your joints, and enhancing your overall endurance on the trails. Explore our post to understand why these trail companions are more than just walking sticks, but essential tools for every serious hiker’s kit.

Setting foot on the rugged trails, navigating through uneven terrain, and ascending to breathtaking vistas – hiking is an exhilarating adventure that speaks to our primal connection with nature. However, while the spirit of exploration propels us forward, it is crucial to equip ourselves with the right tools to ensure our safety and comfort. Among these tools, often underestimated by beginners, are trekking poles, also known as hiking poles, walking poles, or hiking sticks.

This article is designed to introduce you to the world of trekking poles, those loyal companions that transform your two-legged journey into a more stable, four-legged endeavor. Whether you’re crossing precarious paths, aiming for high peaks, or merely looking for a way to lighten the load on your knees during descents, trekking poles can prove to be indispensable.

We will walk you through the ins and outs of how to use trekking poles correctly, from understanding the mechanics of their design, selecting the right pair, to the correct posture and technique of using them. So, lace up your boots, grab your poles, and get ready to take on your next adventure with an enhanced understanding of the terrain beneath your feet and the tools in your hands.

Why Use Trekking Poles?

Before delving into how to use trekking poles, let’s explore their benefits and why they have become such a popular addition to a hiker’s gear list. They’re ideal for enhanced stability and support, reduced strain on joints, improved balance, and increased endurance.

In a review of studies about the benefits of hiking poles, researchers found that they decreased lower extremity loading, decreased lower extremity muscle activity, and increased balance.

how to use hiking poles
This photo is a perfect example of one of the biggest benefits of hiking poles: stability while traversing difficult terrain.

Enhanced Stability and Support

Trekking poles provide additional points of contact with the ground, reducing the likelihood of slipping or losing balance on uneven terrain. This increased stability is particularly beneficial when navigating steep inclines, declines, or crossing streams.

Reduced Strain on Joints

By distributing the weight load across both your upper and lower body, trekking poles can help alleviate the strain placed on your knees, hips, and ankles. This is especially important for those with existing joint issues or individuals carrying heavy backpacks. We find that our knees feel much better when hiking downhill with poles, so we use them on big hikes like when we do 14ers.

Improved Balance

Trekking poles can act as an extension of your arms, providing extra balance when navigating challenging trails. This can be particularly helpful for individuals with a less-developed sense of balance or those new to hiking.

Increased Endurance

By engaging the upper body muscles, trekking poles help to distribute physical exertion more evenly, potentially increasing overall endurance and reducing the fatigue experienced during a long hike.

Choosing the Right Trekking Poles

Now that you understand the benefits of using trekking poles, it’s time to choose the right pair for your needs. There are several factors to consider when making your selection, including pole type, adjustability, shaft material, grip material, and any additional features.

Pole Type: Single or Double?

Trekking poles are typically sold in pairs and used in tandem, providing stability and support on all types of terrain. A hiking staff, on the other hand, is one pole that is most effective on relatively flat terrain with little or no load on your back.

Ultimately, the choice between a pair of trekking poles or a single hiking pole or staff will depend on your personal preference and the type of terrain you plan to traverse. Most people use two poles to mimic a more natural walking gait, while others prefer to keep it light with only one pole.

Adjustability and Locking Mechanisms

Adjustable trekking poles are ideal for individuals who want the flexibility to adjust the length of their poles based on the terrain or their height. Most hiking poles are adjustable, but there are a few fixed-length poles out there. We personally always recommend using adjustable poles, that way you can adjust the length based on your needs.

Shaft Material

The shaft material is a key determinant of the pole’s overall weight and durability. Most trekking poles are constructed from either aluminum or carbon fiber.

Aluminum poles are known for their durability. They tend to withstand a lot of abuse and can last for years without breaking. If they do bend under severe stress, they’re often still usable. They’re also generally less expensive than carbon fiber poles, making them a popular choice for beginners or those on a tight budget.

Carbon fiber poles are lighter than aluminum ones, which can make a big difference on long hikes or multi-day treks. They also tend to dampen vibrations better than aluminum, offering a more comfortable grip on rocky or hard ground. On the downside, carbon fiber is quite a bit more expensive and isn’t as durable as aluminum.

Each material has its strengths and weaknesses, and the best choice depends on your specific needs, budget, and the type of hiking you plan on doing. Some hikers even choose to have different sets of poles for different types of treks.

Unless weight is a big concern (like if you’re thru-hiking or constantly tackling huge hikes) then we recommend saving the money and selecting an aluminum pole.

Grip Material

Trekking pole grips are available in a variety of materials, including cork, foam, and rubber. Each material offers different benefits in terms of moisture absorption, vibration reduction, and overall comfort.

Cork is our preferred grip material since it’s durable, lightweight, and comfortable. It’s more durable than foam, lighter than rubber, and even has sweat-wicking properties to keep your hands more comfortable. Over time, cork can even conform to the shape of your hand.

Foam is the lightest material, but also the least durable. Our first pair of poles had a foam handle, and it broke within the first couple of years. Foam can wick sweat effectively, but not as well as cork and it’s usually the preferred material for budget-friendly hiking poles.

Rubber isn’t as popular as a grip material, but it is still available. It’s quite durable but heavier and doesn’t absorb sweat as well. The main plus is they are generally quite affordable depending on which shaft material is used.

In terms of vibration reduction alone, rubber would likely be the top performer, with foam coming in a close second, and cork offering a moderate level of dampening. However, remember that the overall comfort and suitability of a grip material are dependent on a combination of factors, not just vibration reduction.

Consider your personal preferences and the conditions in which you’ll be hiking when selecting your grip material.

Additional Features

Some trekking poles come equipped with additional features, such as shock absorption, foldability, camera mounts, wrist straps, and alternative baskets depending on your typical terrain (like snow baskets for winter hikes).

Consider which of these features are most important to you and your hiking needs when selecting your trekking poles. If you’re going to use your trekking poles as tent poles, make sure they can adjust to the required height for your specific tent pole needs.

How to Determine the Correct Trekking Pole Length

Use the product’s size chart and your height measurement to get the right size when ordering your poles. Once they’re in hand, you can adjust the length to fit your body type. Properly sized poles will put your elbows at a 90-degree bend when the tips of the poles touch the ground near your feet.

For general hiking, adjust the pole length so that your arm makes a 90-degree bend at the elbow when the pole tip is on the ground near your foot. When walking uphill, you may want to shorten the poles by about 5-10 cm to provide better leverage, then lengthen them by the same amount when going downhill for improved balance.

Proper Techniques for Using Trekking Poles

Once you have chosen the right trekking poles and adjusted them to the proper length, it’s time to learn how to use them effectively. Here are some tips for using your trekking poles to enhance your hiking experience.

Alternating Poles and Legs

The most efficient way to use trekking poles is to alternate poles with legs, planting the opposing pole forward in time with the opposing foot (right foot, left pole, left foot, right pole). This natural rhythm mimics a regular walking gait, and will soon become second nature, allowing you to move efficiently and effectively.

Notice how this woman plants the opposite foot with the opposite pole.

Hand Position

For normal walking, thread your hand through the wrist strap and grip the middle part of the pole grip. If you’re going uphill, you can rest your wrist in the strap and use it to take some strain off your grip. When going downhill, you may choose to rest your hands on top of the pole grip.

Double Planting

In some situations, you may want to plant both poles simultaneously, take two steps, and then plant the poles again. This technique is helpful on steep inclines or descents where additional stability is required.

Walking Naturally

Maintain a natural walking stride and arm swing when using trekking poles. Your poles may be angled slightly behind you, allowing you to push off and propel yourself forward with each pole plant.

Negotiating Obstacles

Trekking poles can be extremely helpful when encountering obstacles on the trail, such as stream crossings, puddles, large rocks, or logs. Use your poles for added stability and support while maneuvering around, over, or through these obstacles.

Adjusting Pole Length for Terrain

As mentioned earlier, adjusting the length of your trekking poles based on the terrain can improve comfort and stability. Shorten your poles when going uphill, and lengthen them when going downhill. For traversing slopes, you may want to shorten the uphill-side pole and lengthen the downhill-side pole as needed.

Caring for Your Trekking Poles

To keep your trekking poles in optimal condition, it’s important to clean and maintain them regularly. After each hike, wipe down the poles with a damp cloth to remove dirt and debris. If you used the poles in saltwater or muddy conditions, rinse them thoroughly with fresh water and let them dry completely before storing.

Periodically inspect the locking mechanisms for signs of wear and ensure they are functioning properly. Check the pole tips for damage and replace them as needed.

Trekking Pole Etiquette and Environmental Considerations

Always follow proper trail etiquette and minimize your impact on the environment. Here are a few tips to keep in mind:

  1. Be mindful of other trail users and give them the right of way when necessary.
  2. Use rubber tips or baskets to minimize damage to the trail surface and protect fragile ecosystems.
  3. Avoid using your trekking poles to move rocks, branches, or other natural features.
  4. Do not use your trekking poles to carve initials or messages into trees, rocks, or other surfaces.


What’s the difference between trekking poles and Nordic walking poles?

The main difference between the two is the way they are used. Hiking poles are used in an upright position with arms bent for stability, while Nordic poles rest behind you with straight arms. Nordic walking poles push you forward and mimic a more natural walking movement while hiking poles offer better stability on uneven terrain.

Is it good to walk with trekking poles?

Using trekking poles while hiking has many benefits like enhanced stability and support, reduced strain on joints, improved balance, and increased endurance. They can help you in many different ways and we highly recommend using them.

What’s the difference between trekking poles and hiking sticks?

Trekking poles are typically used as a pair with one in each hand, while hiking sticks are usually used as a single pole. It’s personal preference if you want one or two poles, but we personally like having two.

Final Thoughts

Learning how to use trekking poles effectively can greatly enhance your overall hiking experience. By providing increased stability, reduced strain on joints, and improved balance, trekking poles can help you tackle more challenging trails with confidence.

Take the time to select the right poles for your needs, practice proper technique, and maintain your poles regularly to ensure they serve you well on all your hiking adventures.

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About The Author

Ashley is an adventurous soul who loves all things nature, especially warm sunshine, wildflowers, scenic snacking, and mushrooms. She is an avid outdoor enthusiast who has spent years enjoying time outside doing things like hiking, camping, and rock climbing.
Her goal with Know Nothing Nomads is to make these hobbies easily accessible through knowledgeable content and how-to's based on all the stuff she's learned on her journey. If she isn't writing an article, she's probably in a forest looking at big mountain views and tiny pieces of moss on the side of the trail.

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We are Derek and Ashley of Know Nothing Nomads. Whether it is hiking, camping, or just generally being outside, we love it. We are so happy that you have found our little blog and hope that you stick around a while. Feel free to contact us with any questions or get in touch with us on social media!


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