a conversation with the earth guidebooks + guided hiking

Don’t Hike Empty-Handed

Advice from 30,000 miles on the Trail

Hiking season is here. Got trekking poles? If not, buy them now. They’ll help ensure you cover more ground—more efficiently and comfortably—every precious day you spend hiking this summer. And they’ll add years to your hiking life by significantly reducing impact to your joints.

When Kath and I began working on our first guidebook, we hiked without poles every day for a month. We both developed knee pain. The next summer we used trekking poles every day for three months and our knees were never strained. We felt like four-legged animals. We were more sure-footed. Our speed and endurance increased. Since then, we’ve considered trekking poles required equipment—nearly as important as our boots and packs.

The Benefits of Trekking Poles

Studies show that during a typical 8-hour hike you’ll transfer more than 250 tons of pressure to a pair of trekking poles. When going downhill, poles significantly reduce stress to your knees, as well as your lower back, heel and forefoot. They alleviate knee strain when you’re going uphill too, because you’re climbing with your arms and shoulders, not just your legs. Poles also improve your posture. They keep you more upright, which gives you greater lung capacity and allows more efficient breathing.

The heavier your pack, the more you’ll appreciate the support of trekking poles. You’ll find them especially helpful for crossing unbridged streams, traversing steep slopes, and negotiating snowfields or muddy, rooty, rough stretches of trail. Poles prevent ankle sprains—a common hiking injury. By making you more stable, they actually help you relax, boosting your sense of security and confidence.

Don’t carry one of those big, heavy, gnarled, wooden staffs, unless you’re going to a costume party dressed as Gandalf. They’re more burden than benefit. If you can’t afford trekking poles, make do with a pair of old ski poles. They’re not as effective or comfortable as poles designed specifically for trekking, but they’re better than hiking empty handed. If possible, invest in a pair of true trekking poles.

Even the best trekking poles are not expensive: under $140 per pair. The leading brands are Komperdell, Black Diamond, and Leki. We’ve never found Komperdell poles appealing, so we haven’t used them and cannot comment on them. We relied on Leki poles for many years. We know use only Black Diamond trekking poles and consider them the best available.