Do You Need Trekking Poles for Backpacking?

Do You Need Trekking Poles for Backpacking?

You don’t absolutely need trekking poles for hiking or backpacking although many people find them helpful. The most oft-cited advantage of trekking poles is that they take some of the pressure off your legs when descending steep slopes or mountains, thereby decreasing or eliminating pain in your knees and the surrounding cartilage, tendons, ligaments, and muscles.

Trekking Pole Advantages

  • The action of swinging your arms forward with each step can help you establish a steady walking pace, which is helpful on flatter trails or rolling hills. The effort takes more energy because your arms are involved, but many people find they can hike faster this way.
  • Trekking poles can be used to set up trekking pole tents, thus saving you the weight and inconvenience of carrying tent poles. See our post on the 10 Best Ultralight Trekking Pole Tents and What are the Strengths and Weaknesses of Trekking Pole Tents?
  • They can help increase your balance on tricky rock scrambles, crossing rickety log bridges, wading across streams and rivers, vaulting over muddy sections of trail, or for balance when you have to carry a very heavy load.

Trekking Pole Disadvantages

  • They require extra energy to use. That means carrying extra food to make up for increase calorie usage.
  • They break, which can be a real problem if you have a trekking pole tent and substitute tree branches aren’t available to pitch your shelter.
  • Trekking poles are a real pain in the ass if you hike off-trail because they get entangled in overhanging vegetations.
  • Poor posture can be exacerbated by leaning forward on your trekking poles. This also increases energy consumption because you “brake” whenever you place your trekking pole tips in front of your torso, increasing your energy consumption rather than reducing it.
  • Trekking poles can be easy to lose if you don’t train yourself to keep track of them.
  • If you fall with your hand looped tightly in the trekking pole straps, there is a chance you can sprain a shoulder or break a wrist.

For a list of recommended trekking poles, see our 10 Best Trekking Poles for Hiking and Backpacking Guide.

About the author

Philip Werner has hiked and backpacked over 7500 miles in the United States and the UK and written over 2500 articles as the founder of SectionHiker.com, noted for its detailed gear reviews and educational content. A devotee of New Hampshire and Maine hiking and backpacking, Philip is the author of Backpacking the White Mountain 4000 Footers, a free online guidebook of the best backpacking trips in the White Mountains in New Hampshire and Maine. He also volunteers as a 4 season backpacking leader for the Appalachian Mountain Club, a Long Trail Mentor for Vermont's Green Mountain Club, and a Leave No Trace Master Educator. He lives in New Hampshire.
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38 comments

  1. I’ll add an additional advantage. When using trekking poles, my hands don’t hang by my sides all hike long and so my hands don’t swell.

    • Plus one on Sazerac’s remark. Otherwise I’ve found myself hooking my thumbs into my pack straps to let the blood flow in my hands return to normal.

    • Yes. When I walk around the neighborhood I use them for this reason only.

      • Christopher Evans

        Trekking poles are also great for setting up a tarp to get out of the wind or rain. Especially if there are no trees around to tie to. Add some tent pegs, some guy lines and a SilTarp to:your backpack and with a bit of practice, you can set up in minutes. Even better if your hiking partner has a set too! Wouldn’t hike without them…no cons for me,

    • Glenn A Roberts

      Completely agree!

  2. Lying in a hotel bed the morning after 4 days in the mountains, I can confirm they are a godsend! The trick is to get lightweight ones and to use them properly: also fantastic to use them for pushing /(palms on top), to use upper body strength to aid going uphill and faster
    on flats.

  3. Love them for many things. Depends on the terrain. A good place to be careful about their use is a really steep talus field.

    A week ago I was descending from a pass and stowed the poles in my pack. Wanted to rely on my balance over the tali’s and both hands if suddenly necessary.

    In really steep terrain of jagged and slippery granite I didn’t want my only point of balance ever be just the tip of one pole as I reached way down below me. Wearing a 20-25 lb pack, if that pole tip skittered or slipped or knocked over a rock I would’ve face planted for sure. I chose to go without them in this instance.
    .

  4. I’ll add that they’re very useful for self rescue when suffering a sprained ankle or knee……on a couple of occasions I’ve had to hop off the mountain, without the poles it probably would have been an embarrassing rescue callout (PLB).

  5. Pacer poles are a god send, for an old man with dodgy knees.

  6. I thought they looked dumb. Like, I’m a fully capable young lad. I don’t need them!

    Then someone showed me how to use them properly.

    Turns out? Not dumb. Totally awesome. Like having two more legs. Can’t imagine backpacking without them now.

  7. Sometimes they are great (rivers), sometimes they are not good at all. Nice that you mention both pros and cons.

    A disadvantage in rougher terrain can be (somewhat counterintuitively) worse balance with poles. Like hopping around a boulder field, you can’t naturally counterbalance with your arms. The single point of contact is unreliable on rock. Same on scree or talus. People tend to put all their weight onto them as well, which makes it even worse when the point slips.

    Second disadvantage is that relying on them too much can screw up your natural sense of balance long term. Just like going scrambling or climbing after a long absence, you will be less sure-footed on harder terrain, and that can actually cause accidents.

    Third disadvantage is in a group or overtaking somebody on the trail – people just flail them too much behind them without a thought!

    There is a nice UIAA paper that summarises it all:

    https://www.theuiaa.org/uiaa/advantages-and-disadvantages-of-using-hiking-sticks-in-the-mountains

    (I hope links to UIAA are not against comment policy, since it is THE definite mountaineering source)

    Although obviously as my body ages, I am seeing more and more pros, especially on the downhill :)

  8. I used to think they were a marketing gimmick, that an artificial “need” was manufactured just so they could sell them. I thought that way until my brother and I hiked for five days on the CDT in Montana about fifteen years ago. He had two hiking poles and I quickly became a convert. They were so useful on stream crossings, steep slopes, etc.

    That hike was also a watershed for us because we met a thru-hiker who was carrying less than 40% of our load. We spent several hours grilling him… well… not in the literal sense!… and learned a whole new way of backpacking, which turned it into an activity I crave, rather than just something to be endured so that I could see some beautiful places.

    Hiking poles have become an integral part of my being able to enjoy backpacking even when dealing with the pain of severe arthritis and many herniated discs.

    • The above was an attempt to reply to Tim M.

      • I’m with ya, Grandpa. Once I had any poling experience, I couldn’t deny the awesomeness.

        I still prefer going without if I have no pack, or if a very, very light day pack.

        But yeah. The stability and avoided falls alone are great, let alone the ease on the knees and the rhythm of stride.

    • Not so sure about some of these disadvantages.

      1 and 4 talk about pole make you burn more calories. Is like to see some data. I am skeptical on the significance of this

      Item 2 is about breaking. Those long fiberglass tent poles also break an they can no be replaced with a stick. I would have to break both poles to be tentless and a bent pole that can’t be used for hiking can still support a tent.

      Item 3. My poles can store inside my pack. Off trail use not really an issue.

      Item 5 I am more likely to loose tent pegs and water bottles so should I leave those at home.

      Item 6. This is a concern but to what degree is it offset by poles preventing falls?. Maybe there is a net benefit.

      • Todd, see the UIAA report I linked above for a source regarding energy expenditure. After all, it makes sense – the heart has to pump more blood against gravity when your arms are up and you use more muscles (and ones not so strong as your leg muscles, unless you are a peculiar type of boulderer!). You can probably find plenty of studies about it, but I can corroborate it myself. I remember seeing something like 10-15% more with poles. Otherwise, Nordic walking wouldn’t even exist as a form of excercise :)

    • When I began backpacking, in the early 1980s, I used a single pole (because that’s what Colin Fletcher used, except that mine was a “utility” handle from the garden department of the hardware store instead of his agave staff.) I found it great for keeping rhythm, braking myself going downhill, and leaning my external frame pack against to make a chair (again, like Colin; back then, packs used what was essentially electrical conduit welded together as a frame instead of the arrow-shaft frames of today.)

      Eventually, I switched to the two-pole set, which had several advantages over the single pole, the biggest being that my left hand didn’t swell mid-afternoon (I used my right hand for the single pole.)

      Recently, I thought it was odd that, with a 40+ pound load, I used one pole, and with a 15-20 pound load I used two poles. So, I tried using only one pole, like the good old days, on a couple of recent trips, and found that I missed the second pole. Go figure.

      I’m ambivalent about getting a trekking-pole tent (Tarptent, Gossamer Gear or Six Moon Designs.) The Nemo Hornet 1 I’m using is only 28 ounces, including the pole set, but it just seems a bit inconsistent with the ultralight philosophy not to get multiple use from the trekking poles. I think that, in the back of my mind, there’s the disadvantage noted in the article: if you break a trekking pole, you may have a hard time improvising a support for your tent. Any thoughts about the risk/reward balance on this? Also, any thoughts on using one versus two poles?

      • I languished about going lighter and lighter with tents, and also landed on the Nemo Hornet, but the 2P. This was already a huge improvement over my first, heavy tent, and still very comfortable for sitting out bad weather.

        So to your question I would ask, at what point is it good enough? XD Only you can say.

        These tents are so dang light now, do you need to worry about a few ounces? To me, the ability to set it up without stakes (using one pole to stay out the foot end) is worth the slight weight hit since I often camp on bedrock.

        So I’m done driving myself crazy about ounces. I like what I have and it gets the job done.

        But also I’m a weekend warrior most of the time. Other’s mileage may vary.

      • I hear you. Gear has gotten lightweight enough that you don’t have to sweat bullets and obsess over spreadsheets to carry a comfortable backpack weight.

      • Wouldn’t it be a fair argument to say you could, depending on the tent, use a stick to prop up your tent? And, if you damage the Nemo tent poles, or any other brand, it may be difficult to repair them in the field, thus rendering your tent useless?

      • Yes you could use a stick. But I’ve broken tent poles and it’s really not that hard to fashion a splint to bridge the break with a tent stake and tape or cord on a temporary basis.

  9. I think that a lot of this depends on what you have learned to work with. I remember my father suggesting that I use a walking stick when I was about 8. He cut it on the spot. I still remember where (more or less) we were. It was a trail that crossed the stream that it followed many times. He was showing me how he used his stick to have three points of contact with the ground when he needed them while crossing the stream by stepping/jumping from rock to rock.

    I don’t remember him teaching me any more than that about how to use it. We lived in the Berkshires (of Massachusetts) and went on a weekend day hike more often than not during the warmer eight months of the year. Perhaps I learned more from watching him than I remember. The most important use for me was going down a steep slope; I learned to have two appendages on the ground at all times when slipping or falling was a risk. I don’t remember having the stick slip ever being a problem. I don’t remember any time when I didn’t choose the placement of my stick as carefully as my foot placement when slipping was a risk — mostly when going up hill or down.

    At the time I was not aware of getting any value out of a stick while walking on an easy, level trail. I knew that I needed to have it along so I developed a style of walking that involved a relaxed swing of the stick every couple of steps. However I do remember doing what Seth talks about: putting my thumbs behind my pack straps for a while sometimes. That had to be when I wasn’t carrying a stick. So with hindsight I can guess that it had some of the benefit that Seth refers to. I know that I would change hands every once in a while. I always thought that this was because it was heavy enough that after a while an arm would ask for a break.

    I never found bushwhacking with a stick to be a problem, but after reading Philips recent article about is experience with bushwhacking I have to say that what I did from about the time I was 5 (in the overgrown pasture next to the house at that age) has to be called “off-trail exploring”. Since I was using only one stick I had one hand free to hold a branch out of my face — or the face of the person I was with. In the types of open woods that I still like to explore in that I all that I needed 98% of the time.

    When I first used a trekking pole it was amazing. I was still to young to be unaware of the weight savings (until I used my old wooden stick for some reason). But that little carbide tip!! Suddenly finding a secure place on a rock — rather than beside it in the dirt or on a root — was a reasonable possibility. It is a huge improvement. On the other hand they are awfully short. When my father was trimming that first stick to length for me he held it up beside me and said “shoulder high”. Crossing a stream that extra length makes it easier to find a spot on the stream bed when standing on a rock. The length is even more useful going down a steep slope. The carbide tip does a lot to make up for the length, but I still miss it sometimes when the rock I’m on is so smooth that a secure notch on the rock surface for the carbide tip is hard to find.

    So I guess that the summary of my experience is that I have used a stick or pole for so long, and from such a young age, that going without is not even a realistic option. Walking that way would just be too awkward and uncomfortable. Philip’s list of negatives seem to have potential validity (except perhaps the energy issue), but for the type of walking that I do I have been able to make them so unimportant as to be unnoticeable. I love having a third leg when I need it.

  10. The older I get the more I need poles or a stick. Poles of a staff are useful for pushing aside nasty things — snakes, spider webs, poison ivy etc. Copperheads are fairly common here. My dog stepped on a copperhead in there middle of a grail hidden a few leaves. Neither of us saw it. Scared me! She wasn’t bit but it could have been very bad.

  11. Hmmm…

    “They require extra energy to use. That means carrying extra food to make up for increase calorie usage.” is dubious. It is only definitely true if you only ever carry them on your pack.

    It also does depends how you use them.

    Studies show mixed results but seem to indicate significant (~10%) increased efficiency up hill, minor decreased efficiency down hill and possibly neutral efficiency on the flat as measured using the Heart Rate-Running Speed Index

    It seems reasonable to suppose that increased efficiency, stability and more distributed fatigue compensate for the added metabolic effort of carrying the extra weight with the positive side effects of less wear and tear on the joints and a decreased number of injurious stumbles. From this we might infer that there may be no extra energy required as an average or at least it is not significant.

    Certainly I have never heard of anyone recommending that you had better increase rations if you decide to take trekking poles…Typical trekking poles weigh about 1lb a pair same as a pint of water…

    “Poor posture can be exacerbated by leaning forward on your trekking poles.” is also dubious since posture can also be improved by using trekking poles.

    “If you fall with your hand looped tightly in the trekking pole straps…” can just be reduced to “If you fall…”. Such injuries from falls are not exclusive to using trekking poles. The main danger that trekking poles add to falls is the possibility if being impaled if a pole breaks. However since it seems likely that the use of trekking poles reduces the number of falls there is probably no more of a risk than just falling and being impaled on some obstacle.

    A better point is that on some surfaces a trekking pole may get stuck and become a tripping hazard.

    Hiking poles can give you a false sense of security which may lead you to take risks you might not otherwise take…like not really paying attention to where you are walking.

    Another point that they do require some coordination to use properly which some people find frustrating. For those people two poles may be dangerous and one pole may work better.

    Lastly the main hazard is that you can use them as a selfie stick, one of the more embarrassing ways to fall off a mountain…that one while true is a bit tongue in cheek.

    In my view if you are in excellent shape and carry a lightweight load then they may be optional. Otherwise at least one is mandatory and for most people, two is preferred.

  12. When I got my first pair of poles I was not impressed. While hiking rocky trails the poles slipped all the time. Then I got rubber tips and no more slips. Now I won’t hike without poles.

  13. I see a lot of people carrying their poles, either in their packs, or in their hands. And I see that too many poles are too short to provide much benefit.

    We do nothing but ‘raw bush pushes’ here, no trails whatsoever. We have been using staffs, up to our shoulders, for over 5 years now. They help in covering very uneven ground and steep slopes, they help in stream and creak crossings. They’re particularly helpful when crossing open ground because you can get the tips way behind you, and push yourself forward with your arms.

  14. Mr Andrew Choffin

    Other advantages:
    1. At the end of the day when you’re tired, they really help in stability if you stumble, slip, etc.
    2. Crossing streams and rivers. Sometimes you can pole vault over.
    3. Stability in muddy, ice, loose conditions.
    4. I’ve used a heart rate monitor with and without. And given same speed, the heart rare goes down.
    5. If the poles are the correct height, there is absolutely not ‘braking effect’ involved.

  15. I’m a fan. Having only used poles for the past five years as I get older I find they really do help with balance when traversing streams, dodgy ground etc. I also lean on them when I stop for mini breaks, like I said I’m getting older. I use a trekking pole supported 1P shelter and use the Black Diamond Distance FLZ Trekking Poles which are strong enough for the job and packable when not needed or when in transit. I had the Fizan compact poles but found they became increasingly difficult to un-twist as the aluminium began to wear/corrode till they failed.

  16. I’ve just returned from a multi day walk in the U.K. I was using pacer poles each day. They were essential giving me a huge amount of confidence on the very slippery clay surfaces. They were really useful for checking the depth of puddles and streams, again giving me confidence and extra support just when I needed it the most. I used them with my trekker tent as tent poles without any issues.

    The big surprise was an ache n my shoulder muscles which were not used to the extra work. With hindsight I think that I used more of my muscles to walk more efficiently.

  17. I backpacked as a youth (1970s) and no one used trekking poles. Sometimes you would see a walking stick. When I took up backpacking in 2005, I did not use poles at first. But I became a convert on a hiking trip to Colorado in 2008. We hiked four 14,000 foot peaks and the added stability coming downhill was dramatic. I have use them on every hiking and backpacking trip since.

    There are two main benefits for me. They add stability and confidence while descending, and have prevented many a fall. I am also convinced that they transfer some of the workload to my upper body while climbing a hill, and I end up less fatigued at the top of the hill than I would be without them. I’ve tried it both ways in training and although I don’t know if there are any studies confirming my personal finding, the experiment has convinced me that the poles are a real benefit while climbing uphill.

    The poles can be a nuisance in a few instances, as when I am scrambling or down a boulder field and I need both hands and both feet. But I can lash them to the outside of my pack in those circumstances.

    I also bought a silnylon 2-person tent that requires poles to pitch.

    All in all, trekking poles are essential gear that I won’t leave home without!

  18. and if you get attacked by a bear you can poke it in the eye !

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