Are trekking poles worth it? As a hiking guide, I’m asked this question hundreds of times every single season I’m in the backcountry. It could be guests asking me before a trip if they should have hiking poles or strangers I meet on the trail who see that I’m a guide and want my opinion on the matter. But no matter the circumstances of the question or who is asking it, there is rarely a straightforward yes or no answer. There are several distinct pros and cons worth discussing to help you decide if trekking poles are worth it.
Therefore, let’s take a moment to go over these pros and cons to see where hiking poles shine on the trail and where they might be a hindrance, and I’ll finish with my own recommendation on the issue. Then, you should have all the information you need to decide if a new pair of hiking poles will make an appearance on your next hike, be it a guided hike in Colorado Springs or on your own.
Trekking Pole Benefits
Trekking poles dramatically increase your overall stability on the trail. Uneven terrain, fatigue, and sneaky tree roots can all play a role in compromising your stability and cause you to lose your balance or even take a tumble while hiking. Trekking poles, however, can dramatically improve your overall stability by increasing the number of contact points you have on the ground from two – just your feet – to four. You can also use those two additional contact points to test water/snow depth, untrustworthy-looking rocks, or mud you might encounter on the trail. In fact, trekking poles are one of our “must-have” recommendations on our list of tips for hiking in muddy terrain.
By doubling your contact with the ground, hiking poles make it much easier to avoid losing your balance, and to recover more quickly if you do.
In addition to upping your stability on the trail, trekking poles also offer the crucial benefit of providing support for your knees and hips. When used properly, they can transfer some of the burden of hiking to your arms and shoulders – allowing you to hike harder and farther without letting achy knees hold you back.
The benefit is especially pronounced when going downhill. The jarring impact of hiking down a steep trail – especially with a fully loaded backpack – can trash your knees in no time. But distributing part of that load to your arms can make a world of difference in your hiking experience. Let’s take a closer look at how your arms can suddenly play a larger role in your hiking.
Let Your Arms Do Some Work
Your legs are working endlessly as you hike, but having your trekking polls in hand allows you to push down on the ground with your arms to propel yourself forward or upward (or lessen the impact of going downward). Therefore, you’re suddenly able to use your arm muscles to improve your forward movement and shepherd in the support we discussed earlier by taking some pressure off your knees and hips.
While your arms can absorb and mitigate that shock of going downhill – thus saving your knees – they can also fully join the hiking effort when going uphill. In this case, using trekking poles and your arms to push down on the ground will help you get a small but noticeable amount of power pushing you upward. Over the long run, during a strenuous or prolonged climb, this assistance can play a prominent role in your hiking endurance. You’ll also get an arm workout during what is predominantly a leg-only activity.
Trekking Pole Downsides
Now that we’ve covered the benefits, we must balance that information by including a few drawbacks that influence the question: are trekking poles worth it?
Additional Weight and Bulk
A common downside to trekking poles is that they add more bulk and yet another piece of gear to your hiking equipment. Hiking is already a gear-heavy enterprise, and adding even more to the mix can be hard to justify. Specifically, trekking poles need to be stashed in or on your pack when you’re not using them. In this scenario, they’re simply more weight you’re toting around and taking up valuable space in your pack.
Next, wielding trekking poles effectively has a learning curve, and they may feel like a handful when you first start using them. Let’s take a look at this drawback next.
They Can Be a Handful
For many hikers, the thought of no longer having your hands free and available for drinking, bracing on rocks, or adjusting your pack is borderline repulsive. Suddenly acclimating to having your hands engaged during your entire activity can feel strange and alien – and many people avoid using trekking poles for this reason.
This downside becomes especially pronounced on narrow or overgrown trails.
Increased Snag Risk
Using poles for balance and support on the trail may work like a charm on open terrain, but it can become a different story in overgrown areas. Thick shrubbery, bushes, and narrow trails are all a recipe for snagged trekking poles, which can quickly turn them into a hindrance. Very rocky terrain also holds the same dangers. Here, gaps between boulders or smaller rocks are the perfect trekking pole traps.
In all these cases, a snagged trekking pole can be anything from a minor annoyance to a more severe obstacle that upsets your balance.
As with many of our trekking pole downsides, this issue can be mitigated with experience and practice. But once again, that learning curve comes into play, and many hikers decide that trekking poles are not worth this effort.
After years of working as a hiking and backpacking guide and seeing the full range of hikers, from trekking pole lovers to ardent refusers, I’ve developed the opinion that just about everyone can benefit from a hiking pole or two in most situations.
For the longest time, I was also highly skeptical of trekking poles even when I was carrying ridiculous pack loads as a guide. But a season in the famously rugged White Mountains of New Hampshire shattered that prejudice, and I now fully appreciate that the benefits of trekking poles far outweigh the downsides for the vast majority of circumstances. I now tell my guests, and about everyone who asks, that you can’t go wrong with at least one trekking pole.
A single pole bridges the divide between pros and cons where you still benefit from increased stability and support while mitigating the downsides by still having one hand free and not trying to learn how to wield two new hiking instruments at the same time. Once you’re comfortable with just one trekking pole, perhaps that’s the perfect balance for you or perhaps you’ll take the next step and use a pair. My recommendation here grows dramatically if you tend to suffer from sore knees or poor balance with hiking – you’ll be amazed by the added support! So, for many folks on the fence about trekking poles – just try one.
That said, there are certain situations where trekking poles may not be worth it. Bushwacking – hiking in dense vegetation off-trail – is a perfect example where hiking poles have the potential the get snagged and become a hindrance. Or if you’re a super lightweight hiker and can’t justify adding additional weight to your gear list.
So in the end, think about where you’re hiking and if trekking poles have a chance of making that hike easier. If the answer is yes, then I wholeheartedly recommend that you take the plunge and give them a try. If you’re hesitant, then just try a single pole to test the waters and find out if trekking poles are worth it to you. All you need to do now is find a trail, and our favorite hikes near Colorado Springs are a great place to start.