What are trekking poles and why should you use them?

REI already has a great blog post about how to use and buy trekking poles, but the true beginners out there may be wondering:

1) What even are trekking poles?

2) Why on earth you would want them when they look so dorky?

Let’s start with the first one. Hiking poles, walking sticks, hiking staff, trekking poles, etc are all the same thing. A stick (often carbon-fiber) or a pair of sticks to use while hiking.

So why would you want them?

I certainly thought hiking poles were just for the olds, and initially turned my nose up at them because I thought they looked super dorky (the poles, not old people). There is also a bit of a learning curve to making them work efficiently for you, so at first I didn’t think they were actually helping me that much.

But then I started some hillier hiking.  Hiking poles make uphills easier, save your knees on downhills, and help you balance better.

Going downhill was actually the original reason I started using them. I have bad knees thanks to riding horses (and getting kicked by one), and I used to absolutely dread going downhill on hikes because my knees would be screaming after a mile or so. This is how Billy originally talked me into using them – to save my old lady knees.

Once I got the hang of pairing the poles’ movement with my steps, I realized that uphill was suddenly a lot easier too.

I could use the poles to hoist myself up steeper inclines and any slope was suddenly much more pleasant with the extra assistance. When I was in Telluride with the altitude kicking my butt, hiking poles got me up the Jud Wiebe Trail for some of the most beautiful views I’ve ever seen, and I would have never gotten there without their help.

Since starting my outdoors ~journey~ I’ve done two big hikes that have felt like a bit of a stretch. The first was a 12-miler in 2015 and the second was a 10-miler this summer (notice it took me two years to want to do a big hike again). Sure, maybe if I was used to long-distance or in better shape, I could do it without poles. But I’m a beginner, and I realized how much easier hiking poles made life, so why wouldn’t I use them?

On that aforementioned recent 10-mile hike, a lot of the trail was also mucky, stinky mud. BUT that gross ass mud (and this is coming from someone who shoveled horse sh** for a living) had some rocks peeking out of it. And those rocks were juuust about the size of my feet. If only I had something to balance on.

OH WAIT. I did. My hiking poles.

They are much easier to wash off in a creek than my hiking boots, and it was super easy to use them as two extra legs stuck in the mud while I stayed dry on the rocks. The poles also helped me feel safe going down super steep hills that were more rock than trail.

Trekking poles also made it possible to keep hiking while I was pregnant. We booked a trip to Alaska before I got knocked up, and while I was finally starting to feel better right before we left, I certainly wasn’t my normal level of fit. Hiking poles made things much easier on me when I was getting tired much quicker than normal. Later on, they helped me keep hiking throughout my third trimester because I felt much safer and more balanced with them, plus I could walk more normally instead of leaning way back to offset my belly weight.

I don’t mean to be overly dramatic about the life-changing world of walking with fancy sticks, but in all seriousness, I would have never made it on many of my favorite awesome adventures without hiking poles.

I would have turned back early on so many hikes, and certainly never would have made it up some steep ones. I probably couldn’t have even handled the downhill on tamer ones. Hiking poles have been an investment in adventure that I would make a hundred times over, so brush off the fact that you may be the only person under 60 with poles and simply let them help get you where you want to go.

(One last thing – Wilderness Exchange or other second-hand shops are a great place to get poles for cheap!)

Published by Laura Cardon

Laura Cardon moved to Colorado as an adult and quickly realized how difficult it was to get started exploring the outdoors in a state full of experts. She founded Outdoor Beginner in 2014 to fill the gap in beginner-friendly content for camping, hiking, skiing, and other outdoor activities. In addition to Outdoor Beginner, she coaches beginner trail runners and works at Runners Roost in Golden, Colorado, where she lives with her spouse and toddler.

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