Out in the country
Out in the country, France, 2005.

Gear ~ Ultralight Trekking Poles

Stick it to me, baby

Most hikers don’t use walking sticks (also called trekking poles). However, many swear by them. I do. Anyone who does, or needs help deciding, should read the travel warning below. If you’re on the fence, here’s some information about the pros and cons.

Why do I like walking poles? Quite simply, it’s because I fall down less often! (Coordination and my name have rarely been used in the same sentence – but hey, maybe that’s just me). Walking with poles adds a lot of stability, particularly on uneven terrain and rough downhills. Rock hopping across streams is easier, too, as is squeezing along a narrow, bramble-bordered bank of a muddy lane.

Another advantage of walking with poles is that they transfer part of the load from your knees and feet to your arms, chest, and shoulders. This is a real advantage for long-distance walking for anyone with knee arthritis or various foot problems. And swinging along with sticks helps you walk rhythmically and power up inclines.

Many wilderness walkers double their use as tent poles. Photographers can steady a shot. They can be used defensively, if needed, in a rare encounter with a scary dog (I’ve never had one in several thousand miles).

The cons include these: They add weight to your total outfit, and they can tire your arms faster than simple pole-free walking does. On the first point – that’s true, but so does everything else; it’s distributed weight and like everything you carry, there’s a cost/benefit ratio. To the second point, you get a better upper body workout, including your core muscles. After a bit of training, the fatigue issue disappears, and however much upper body effort you exert, lessens the work of your legs.

As for the weight of hiking sticks, that varies. For the most part, they are made of aluminum or carbon fiber, or both. Aluminum poles weigh more. Their only real advantage is that if your pole jams into a rocky hole, you are less likely to snap off the tip. You might even be able to straighten it back out if it bends. A carbon fiber pole, if it does break, is useless. They can’t be repaired. But the newest carbon fiber trekking poles are quite flexible and trail breaks are very uncommon.

Poles come as either single length shafts, or collapsible, usually with three sections. Single-shaft carbon fiber trekking poles are generally lighter. The Lightrek™ 3 Custom Trekking Poles from GOSSAMER GEAR weigh less than 154 grams (6 oz.) a pair. The main disadvantage of single shaft walking sticks is they are more cumbersome for traveling in any non-walking mode. They’re over 4 feet long. That’s fine in the forest, but where do you stow them on a train or bus? By comparison, a pair of REI Peak™ UL 3-section poles (made by Komperdell) weighs 361 grams (12.8 oz), and they collapse to 24 inches.

The lightest collapsibles are TITANIUM GOAT Adjustable Goat Poles, at only 192 grams (6.8 oz.) a pair. They pack to 30 and extend to 52 inches.

Some trekking poles have built-in shock absorption, which softens the vibration at the expense of 3 or 4 ounces.

I don’t use the optional baskets for three season walking, but they’re a distinct advantage in snow. I do like the rubber tips, which are much quieter on streets, and are less likely to slip on hard rocky trails. They weigh 24 grams (0.8 ounces) a pair. I find that the carbide tip on the poles eventually wears through the rubber tips, so either keep a spare pair, or pack them in your resupply box. I’m looking for another solution, perhaps a thin strip of metal to blunt the metal tip. If you have a suggestion, let us know.

A final choice is to use a single pole. I did that on one walk, but find I have a more balanced, productive, easier stride with two.

WARNING ~ You CANNOT carry trekking poles of any kind onto an airplane. They must be checked. I’ve met several lamenting walkers who had their walking sticks confiscated at the airport security checkpoint. Unprepared, they had no choice but to leave them behind. I use a square shipping tube, cut down to the proper length. There’s enough room inside to also pack my knife and sharps kit, as well as any liquids, creams or gels that might otherwise stir the interest of the authorities. For some reason, each of these boxes has been opened and inspected somewhere between checking it in and the aircraft, but they’ve always ended up at baggage claim.

Bottom Line

I like a good ultralight pair of walking sticks. I like the optional rubber tips, but not the baskets. On some hikes I use only one. I’ve used REI UL’s with success, but I’ll be testing a pair of Titanium Goat poles this year. On my next longwalk, that’s what I’ll probably use. (I’ll update this article when I’m sure). -Etienne

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