These days, trekking poles are more and more ubiquitous out on the trails, though a few diehards still use good old-fashioned hiking sticks or eschew such supports entirely. More often than not, a hiker or backpacker who gives trekking poles a trial run in the backcountry quickly becomes converted to their all-around usefulness. They take away some of the considerable strain hiking imposes on your lower body, boost your balance on tricky substrate, and offer themselves as secondary tools for a variety of miscellaneous tasks.
For those dedicated hikers who find winter an exceptional time to roam the wilds, trekking poles—which, mind you, serve ably as snowshoe poles—prove themselves all the more invaluable. Let’s explore how to use trekking poles for off-season hiking, after a brief overview of their design and general purpose.
The Benefits of Trekking Poles
Trekking poles can reduce the strain on your knees and overall leg exertion, not least on those demanding downhill descents or seemingly endless switchback climbs. (This Trail Walker writeup delves into some of the studies looking into trekking-pole effects on the body; here’s a more recent paper as well.) You’re essentially treating yourself to an extra pair of feet—ala a four-legged critter—and transferring some of the muscular load from your legs and hips to your upper body. Trekking poles can help you adopt a more sustainable style of hiking, in other words: reducing aches, pains, and fatigue on a long dayhike or backpacking trek and perhaps diminishing some bodily wear-and-tear on the longer term. Certainly many hikers contending with cranky knees or other physical complaints often find trekking poles a welcome aid.
Some of the research suggests hikers who use trekking poles take longer strides than those without, which—combined with the possible energetic savings—may equate to hiking faster and farther.
Besides giving a bit of relief to your lower body, trekking poles serve as stabilizers on uneven, slick, or otherwise challenging terrain. (And, as every hiker knows, on certain days gravity seems to pose a challenge even on a completely smooth and level trail.) Winter, of course, can serve up a lot of gnarly substrates, from thick-crusted snowpack and slushy melt-scapes to icy paths and swollen streams. We’ll consider some trekking-pole strategies for a few terrain scenarios later in this article.
Secondary Uses of Trekking Poles on Winter Hikes
Trekking poles may come in handy on winter outings in the wilderness beyond their obvious service as hiking sticks. You can use them to erect an emergency or ultralite shelter, for example, or conduct simple “ski-pole” tests of a snowpack’s strength when traveling avalanche terrain. (In a pinch, you can also use a trekking pole to search for buried avalanche victims, though an avalanche probe is far superior for this task.)
Choosing a Trekking Pole
From the material used in construction to the mechanisms used to adjust length, there’s definitely some variety to parse through when you’re in the market for trekking poles.
In terms of construction, modern trekking poles are generally made from either aluminum or carbon fiber. Aluminum poles tend to be the most affordable option, and also can withstand quite a bit of abuse over time. Carbon-fiber poles, in turn, are usually lighter—a plus for ultralite backpackers and other weight-conscious trekkers—while typically costing more; they’re also more brittle, potentially breaking where an aluminum pole might merely bend.
Design: Fixed-Length, Telescoping, Folding, and Shock-Absorbing Trekking Poles
Design is as important a consideration for trekking poles as construction. While some hikers prefer the comparatively lightweight fixed-length trekking pole, most gravitate toward adjustable models. The ability to shift the length of these poles to match the grade is their chief advantage compared to your traditional hiking sticks (and many, though not all, ski poles).
Telescoping poles come in two or three tapering segments. Two-section poles tend to be stronger, if less compact, than the more widely used three-section ones. If you’re planning to do a lot of major winter hiking and snowshoeing—and/or heavy-duty backpacking or extensive cross-country travel—that strength may tip the scales in favor of a two-section pole, though, again, the three-part pole is the most popular choice and plenty of very active hikers get by fine with it.
Ultra-lite trekkers might consider an alternative to the telescoping design: foldable trekking poles. These segmented poles break down in similar fashion as a typical tent pole. They tend to be featherweight and highly compact: the most totable and stowable options, in many cases, though offering less flexibility in length.
Shock-absorbing trekking poles include an internal spring that cushions the press of the pole on the ground—particularly useful on those jarring descents. The shock-absorbing feature can usually be turned on and off so that you’ve got a firmer pole for, say, uphill climbs.
Locking Technology for Trekking-Pole Shafts
Another important feature to evaluate when shopping for trekking poles is how the segments of a pole shaft, whether adjustable or not, lock in place. One common design is a twist lock, in which you rotate one way to extend the shaft and the other to collapse it. Some trekking poles use a push-button lock, others a clip-like lever.
Trekking Pole Grips/Handles
The handles of trekking poles tend to be either foam, cork, or rubber, each material offering its own advantages and disadvantages. Cork molds to your specific grip and resists moisture, foam also handles sweat well, and rubber insulates (a plus for winter hikers) while weighing more and potentially chafing in warmer conditions when your hands are perspiring.
The Wrist Strap
Most modern trekking poles (and hiking sticks in general) come with wrist straps to provide added support to the hand and wrist and a surer grip on the handle. They tend to be an afterthought for many trekking-pole users, but it’s important to wear the strap properly and adjust it to the right length, as an incorrectly used strap can translate to discomfort and strain after hours on the trail. Slip your hand through the bottom of the strap and then grasp the handle. You can adjust the size of the strap’s loop: You want a strap tight enough to support your relaxed hand’s grip on the handle, but not so tight that you can’t easily pull out of the loop, or that your circulation’s impaired.
One very important safety note: If you’re trekking in avalanche-prone terrain, avoid putting your hands through the pole straps. In the event you’re swept up in an avalanche, you want to be able to jettison those poles immediately so your arms aren’t wrenched around and, if you become buried, so you can nook one arm around your face to create a breathing space and reach the other toward the surface of the snow to make it easier for rescuers to find you. Needless to say, those are vital actions that’ll be very difficult to execute if your hands are attached to trekking poles when the snow slide comes to rest and quickly turns rock-hard.
Trekking Pole Tips & Accessories
The carbide tips of a trekking pole provide good gripping power, excellent for negotiating your way over ice or a hard-crusted snowpack. A variety of tip accessories allow you to adjust to different substrates: Baskets improve trekking-pole performance in softer snow, while rubber attachments protect the tips from scraping on hard rock or pavement.
Proper Trekking Pole Length
The general rule of thumb is that your elbow should be at a 90-degree angle when you’re gripping your trekking poles. That helps you size a fixed-length pole based on your height, and set the length of an adjustable pole.
If you have an adjustable pole, you can shorten it for uphill hiking and lengthen it on descents to roughly maintain that 90-degree angle. On steep terrain, though, this may well vary: when you’re “double-planting” your poles to help pull yourself upslope, for example.
Setting a Hiking Rhythm With Trekking Poles
In most situations, you’ll probably find reaching the right pole forward as your left leg takes a step, and vice versa, is the most natural way to hike with trekking poles. You’ll likely adopt this alternating pattern naturally, without really thinking about it: It’s the way our arms and legs swing in a normal walking gait anyhow, harder to describe than to simply do.
But, as with pole length, you’ll want to adjust that pattern based on the lay of the land. When climbing or descending a steep slope, snowy or otherwise, you may want to extend both poles forward together, plant them securely, then take your steps. Some version of this double-planting movement may also feel most comfortable in deep and/or soft snow.
It’s also entirely possible you’ll develop a different kind of pole-wielding gait. What matters is that the pattern works for you: that it makes you feel well balanced and stabilized on the trail, and that it doesn’t leave your hands or arms excessively sore.
One Pole or Two?
Trekking poles are sold in pairs and confer their maximum benefit in tandem, but that’s not to say you can’t use one alone in the manner of a walking staff if you want the other hand free to carry something, or to give the old palms a break from gripping where the terrain allows.
Stowing Trekking Poles When Not in Use
There are many situations on a winter hike in which you may not need or want to use trekking poles: say, when traversing a stretch of heavy deadfall, or perhaps a steep, snowy mountainside where you’re opting for an ice axe. When you aren’t using your trekking poles, collapse them and strap them as low-profile as possible to the outside of your pack, or stick them inside (with tips facing up, ideally).
On a level, well-groomed trail, the advantages of trekking poles may be less obvious (though, again, they’re there); it’s when you confront rougher ground or all-out obstacles that these hiking aids truly prove their worth. From traversing icy or snowy slopes to river- and talus-crossings, let’s take a look at some specific trekking-pole techniques in different terrain situations.
Among the most hazardous hiking obstacles any time of year are creeks and rivers, and certainly winter can make fords all the more fraught. Trekking poles serve as essential river-crossing aids, particularly for solo hikers; often the safest way to cross a flow in a group is by bracing against one another and moving in tandem.
(We don’t have the room here to get into the nitty-gritty of stream crossings—not least the all-important initial assessment of whether or not to even cross a channel in the first place—but needless to say every hiker should be well versed on the topic before venturing into the backcountry.)
Cross a river you’ve deemed safe to attempt—and where you’ve scouted the most secure-looking entry and exit point and most promising reach—by facing upstream and using your poles as additional braces as you take small, sideways steps across at a slight diagonal. You can also use your poles to gauge the depth of the flow and the substrate to avoid holes and any tripping or snagging hazards.
Ideally you’ll use both poles, thereby maintaining three points of contact—both pole tips and one foot—on the streambed at any given moment. Sometimes, though, a current is too strong to securely plant poles one-handed. In that case, use both hands to wield a single pole, or hold both poles together.
In winter, the broad logs you might otherwise use to cross over a river instead of wading may be too slick and icy. If not, however, trekking poles again can help you keep your balance and footing above the wildwater.
Talus & Other Rocky Ground
Talus and other blockfields sometimes offer easier going than adjacent woods or thickets, but also pose some obvious ankle-twisting and shin-bruising (or worse) potential. While trekking poles provide excellent support as you step or hop your way across boulders, you need to pay more attention where you’re planting them, as it’s easy to wedge a tip in a crevice and have the pole jerked from your hand—and maybe take a painful tumble in the process.
It goes without saying that boulders may be especially slippery in winter when glazed with ice or lightly sprinkled with granular snow, so proceed slowly and use your (well-placed) poles to give yourself three points of contact with rock when taking a step.
On very steep talus aprons—and any scrambling situations in general—trekking poles may be too awkward and obstructive; don’t hesitate to stow them and use your hands directly instead.
Logs & Deadfall
Use trekking poles for balance stepping over smallish logs across the trail. Where you’re forced to clamber over big logs, secure your poles to or inside your pack, or slip them to the other side before you cross.
Along a little-used or poorly maintained trail heavily impacted by blowdowns, or when traveling cross-country through any deadfall-strewn landscape, be careful (as on a talus field) of getting your pole tips stuck or snagged. It may be easier to forego using the poles at all through such stretches.
Steep Winter Slopes
Ascending, descending, or traversing steep, snowy hillsides or mountainsides in winter, an ice axe will generally be the tool of choice over trekking poles. Nonetheless, poles are better than nothing. Going uphill or downhill, the double-planting method often works best. Crossing a slope, you’ll want to extend the downhill pole and shorten the uphill one. If going cross-country, favor a diagonal route across the slope instead of the more awkward and taxing horizontal straight-shot.
Shop Trekking Poles & Accessories at VPO
Here at Valhalla Pure Outfitters, we stock a wide selection of the best trekking poles around, including Black Diamond trekking poles and Leki trekking poles , plus baskets, rubber pads, and other pole accessories. Arm yourself with a reliable pair of hiking poles and embrace the rich adventure of winter trekking!