I am a heavy hiker, which means I’m always on the lookout for gear that makes my trek through the wilderness easier. For my money, trekking poles aren’t just a luxury; they’re a necessity.

There are a few immediate uses for trekking poles:

• Better balance
• Crossing streams or rough terrain
• Leverage when traveling uphill

But for the novice, out-of-shape hiker, trekking poles have particular benefits that will not only improve your ability to trek further and higher, they’ll help reduce your early frustrations with the outdoors. This is key. I see too many of my fellow full-figured hikers give up in muted madness because they weren’t outfitted with the right gear. So let’s talk about why you need trekking poles.

Better for Your Body

Let’s be clear, I don’t like to exercise. However, I still have a passion for getting out and seeing nature’s beauty, so I’ve learned how to experience the outdoors while still putting the least amount of strain on my body. Using trekking poles are the best way to reduce the strain of hiking on your lower joints (knees, ankles) and they also lower fatigue on your leg muscles, which is the muscle group we rely most on when we’re outdoors.

They also help keep your body in a natural rhythm by moving your hands and keeping them elevated to more efficiently help blood circulation and respiration. This elevated position of the hands also reduces your overall fatigue and lessens the swelling in your upper extremities. Less blood pooling in the hands, even during a short day hike, is a good thing.

Weight distribution is another physical benefit. Trekking poles can reduce the weight your legs are taking on, especially in an uphill situation. If you’ve cursed as many staircases as I have, you’ll like this feature. By including your arms in the haul you’re likely to take up to 25% of the load off your lower body. I like to think of them as a railing that’s following me every step I take.

Trekking Poles are not Just for Trekking

Some lightweight backpackers (a term used to describe all sizes of hikers that choose to carry as little as possible) shed poles to lower the amount of gear they carry, but I can usually change their mind when they realize how versatile trekking poles can be. There are a number of tents out there that utilize trekking poles in the place of tent poles, like the Scout 2 UL from Big Agnes.

Big Agnes Scout 2

This tent only weighs 1lb 15oz, and is a far cry lighter than some other structures out there on the market. I own an older version of this tent and it’s the first thing I grab when I’m traveling fast and light.

Brandy & Bronko in my Scout

A better look inside, with Brandy & Wrigley

Another tent like this is the Breeze Mesh Tent.

Breeze Mesh Tent

It’s considerably cheaper and weighs an absurd 24oz. But beware: it’s lighter because it doesn’t include a rain cover. So if you’re backpacking through an area that isn’t rainy and you’re like me and you get pretty warm at night, this breezy structure is perfect for you. Both of these tents also take up way less space in your pack than a traditional structure.

Personally, I’ve used my poles to prop my pack upright during a break, making it easier to access items and keep it out of the dirt. I’ve used them to dry recently cleaned clothes when trees for clotheslines aren’t convenient. I’ve even used them to shoo away a curious fox from a campsite (a story for another time). And if you do find yourself doing a bit of potty business in the wilderness, a trekking pole is a great way of indicating to another hiker that you might be around the corner in a “compromising pose.”

Gear Talk

I am a big fan of the Black Diamond Trail Pro Shocks.

My Black Diamond Trekking Pole

These aluminum poles feature shock absorbing cushions that reduce vibrations traveling through your wrists and elbows. They are adjustable for nearly every size hiker and they have a really solid locking mechanism, which is important for strength, longevity of use, and they are easy to operate. I’ve had mine for about three years now and I never leave the gear garage without them.

If you’re not prepared to drop over $100 for your first pair of poles, Cascade Mountain Tech makes a 100% carbon fiber trekking pole with a quick lock.

Cascade Mountain Tech CF Trekking Poles

They’re considerably lighter, but the locking mechanisms aren’t as reliable and you’re giving up some material strength (carbon fiber is weaker than aluminum). But they cost less than $50, so if you’re curious about a lightweight trekking pole this is a cheap way to check them out.

On a humble side note, try not to spend too little on trekking poles. Cheap poles are more likely to fail and they can ruin your trip. Remember, you’re relying on these guys to support your weight from the trailhead and back again. If you’re a hiker on a budget, I can help you find the dollars somewhere else in your pack.

The Summit

I’ve saved the most important benefits of trekking poles for last: rest and confidence. Whenever I’m in the middle of a nasty slag up a series of switchbacks and I need a rest, I stop, step just off trail, lean hard onto my poles, and I catch my breath. When I’m ready, I gather myself up and start back to conquering that hill, because I know that whether I make it to the top, or I turn back and decide to conquer it another day, I gave myself the best chance to see beautiful things. Happy heavy hiking.