Trekking Poles: What Are They, Do I Need Them?

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What are trekking poles and do you need them? Trekking Poles: What Are They, Do I Need Them?

During my mom’s recovery from a traumatic brain injury (TBI), I encouraged my dad to buy her trekking poles when she was learning to walk and run again. Since she suffered her TBI as the result of a fall, she was understandably apprehensive about walking and running again and trekking poles offered her some additional support when she needed it most.

So for someone who needs a little extra stability and balance while walking or running, trekking poles are probably a good investment. But are they really necessary if your balance is good and you are successful at scrambling uphill on a trail run or holding yourself back on a rocky descent? Of course, it’s a matter of personal preference but consider the following information to inform your decision.

What are the trekking poles?

Trekking poles are very similar to ski poles in construction and some people even use them interchangeably.

Like ski poles, trekking poles are sold in pairs and are meant to be used that way, one in each hand and most often moving with the opposite leg, just like your arms swing. Trekking poles are sold in a number of different lengths and some are even adjustable. When your trekking poles are the proper length, they should require your elbows to be bent at a 90-degree angle as you hold the poles by the handles and rest the tips on the ground.

Poles are made of either aluminum, which is durable and economical or of a composite material, usually all carbon or partially from carbon. Composite poles are lighter in weight but are generally more expensive. Poles often have handgrips that are made of either cork, foam or rubber and sometimes have wrist straps as well.

Trekking poles also are available in foldable options that operate similarly to tent poles. Foldable poles tend to be very light and are often the top choice of ultrarunners.

Some poles are built with internal springs that act as shock absorbers when you are going downhill. The shock absorption function can be turned off when it is not needed. Shock- absorbing trekking poles are recommended for those who have instability in their hips, knees or ankles or who have had an injury to any of those joints.

Trekking poles also are offered in ultralight versions. Ultralight poles don’t have the shock absorption of other poles but they are easier to swing because they aren’t as heavy. Ultralight poles result in less arm fatigue than from heavier poles.

Do I need trekking poles?

If your training and competition is confined to sidewalks and pavement, trekking poles are not necessary unless you are recovering from an injury that has compromised your balance and stability. Even so, you might only need them until you feel strong enough to run or walk without the extra support.

If you go off-road frequently, train and compete on trails, compete in ultra runs or hike frequently, you might find trekking poles very useful.

A study, reported in the January 2011 issue of Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, found that the use of trekking poles reduces exercise-induced muscle injury during mountain walking as well as the rating of perceived exertion on ascents. The use of trekking poles also aided in muscle function during the days following a mountain trek.

Trekking poles can make uphill climbs or runs, even ones that are really steep, much easier. Planting the poles in front of you and using them to pull yourself up can offer an additional level of balance and stability.

Trekking poles can provide additional balance and stability on rough terrain such as rocky, root-covered or slippery trails as well as during creek or river crossings. And the poles can provide additional traction on snow and ice.

Using trekking poles can take on some of the work of long, hilly runs by engaging your upper body more in the process, and giving your legs a bit of a break which, in turn, can help you go farther and maybe even faster.

Trekking poles can facilitate a smooth rhythm and cadence in your gait as using them requires your arms and legs to work in perfect tandem. This helps you work more efficiently and can even increase your speed.

There also are some side benefits to using trekking poles such as holding back brambles and poison ivy so that you can pass safely, measuring the depth of puddles, mud, rivers, and streams and fending off dogs or other menacing wildlife.

How to use trekking poles

There are three main methods for using trekking poles: coasting, braking, and thrusting.

Thrusting—or gassing—is the most efficient and common method for using trekking poles and involves alternating your legs and hands. So, you plant your right pole and move your left leg parallel to the pole and then vice versa.

Obviously, braking is used when you have the need to slow down, on a steep decline for example. When braking, you always plant your poles ahead of your feet by at least a foot or maybe more depending on the slope.

Coasting, also known as double planting, is best for flat terrain and involves using the poles parallel to each other and planting them ahead of you at the same time and then moving forward.

If you have opted for adjustable poles, shorten them when going uphill as this will give you better leverage for ascending. Conversely, lengthen your poles for heading downhill to provide better shock absorption and a more comfortable posture when descending.

When cutting across a slope, shorten the pole you are holding uphill and lengthen the pole you are holding downhill to maximize stability.

For some, using trekking poles will be a natural extension of what their bodies are already doing instinctively, like shortening their stride going uphill. For others, it might require a bit more practice and experimentation to get used to incorporating them into your trail running/hiking regimen. There are a number of instructional videos on the Internet for those who need visual examples.

For those who are making their first trekking pole purchase, it is recommended that you visit an outdoor specialty store where staff can help you pick the right pole for your height and the type of activity for which you are going to use the poles.













  1. Chris McNamara and Max Neale, Ten Reasons for Trekking Poles, web site
  2. Helen Dixon, Trail Running with Poles: Benefits, Disadvantages and Advice, web site
  3. Will Kuhlman, How To Use Trekking Poles, web site
  4. Megan Green Wells and Erin Halpin, How to Choose and Use Trekking Poles and Hiking Staffs, web site
  5. Glyn Howatson, Paul Hough, John Pattison, Jessica A. Hill, Richard Blagrove, Mark Glaister, Kevin G. Thompson, Trekking Poles Reduce Exercise-Induced Muscle Injury During Mountain Walking, web site
  6. Samuel Funt, How to Use Walking Poles: Detailed Techniques Explained Plus a Few Tips, web site