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Should I use one or two trekking poles?

Last updated January 12, 2022| Hiking

Few things are better than more things. There are of course exclusions. More Sour Patch Kids are always safer than fewer Sour Patch Kids after a 15-mile day on the trail. That might be the only exemption now that I think about it. So, yeah, normally, you are going to want to avoid doubling up on things you really only need one of.

Alongside these lines, a recent discovery is cutting down trekking poles to just one pole when you are on a backcountry trip. This is obviously a concept as old as walking itself, but it is also one that many backpackers have seemingly forgotten or ignored. At least young-ish, gear-obsessed backpackers. I am not talking about hauling along a knotted wizard staff like Gandalf on the trail although that is very cool if you want to or even buying a fancy carbon hiking staff. You even then have what you need.

The concept is pretty simple. As you are packing for a backpacking trip, pull out your trekking poles and then—there comes the crucial part—put one of them back. Just bring the other one. isn’t it Easy?

This made far more sense than bringing two on a backpacking trip last summer when I broke one of the nuts that tightens the telescoping action on one of the poles midway through the first day’s hike. At first, I was exceptionally bummed that my pole was broken and for a time I tried to use a branch as a substitute so that I would still have the solidity of a four-legged animal that two poles provide. But that quickly got old, and I pitched the branch.

Turns out though, one pole is enough. Unless you are balancing 70 pounds on your back while walking over loose scree, not really sure why you would ever actually need two poles. One provides plenty of support and stability. So that is the main focus point in this case.

River crossings are almost as easy with just one pole. In fact, fly anglers carry only one to keep themselves upright in thigh-deep, fast-flowing rivers and they are just fine. When mountain climbing or descending steep rocky sections of a trail, you can use both hands as influence on the one pole and it works nearly as well as having both. Plus, you have one hand free to grab your phone for a photo, to pull out a map or GPS, to bandana sweat off your brow, or to stuff your face with a Sour Patch Kid. It is also easier to make-believe you are a foil-wielding fencer with just the one.

If you are using a tent that requires two trekking poles to set up, you can just bring a small tent pole, like this lightweight carbon fiber pole from Easton, that can fold up in your bag. Or transition to a tent that requires just a single pole. Or, if you are hiking with two, either use your partner’s poles if they are obstinately claiming on using two or transfer them to the Church of the One Pole and combine your poles to erect the tent.

As great as trekking poles can be it is pretty great to have one hand free on the trail. Whether you just stick it in your pocket or gesticulate wildly at the beauty of nature, you will be stoked at the freedom and unburdened of one additional piece of fancy camp gear.

What actually are trekking poles?

Trekking poles are basic equipment for many skilled hikers – but the question here is, do you really need them? The answer is maybe, there are a few conditions that people use hiking poles under, and some do not. Here is how you should find out whether you need trekking poles or not.

A trekking pole (also known as a hiking pole) is basically a ski pole with a handle that you use when hiking. Trekking poles are almost always used in pairs. There is also something called a hiking staff (also known as a hiking stick) that is a single pole. Most hikers go with two trekking poles over a hiking staff. I think the pair just provides more benefits.

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Why Use Trekking Poles?

Here’s why you should use trekking poles.

  • People use hiking poles when I have a heavier backpack on. There is no getting around that when you have some serious weight on your back, hiking poles can help keep you steady, particularly on a sharp incline or decline. Do they take strain off my knees? Not really, but more on that later.
  • If your hike needs stream crossings, trekking poles are great. Having two poles to anchor your way across a series of slippery rocks is important. Even if you are not using trekking poles on your hike, you usually carry them in your pack just for this reason. Similarly, if you need to test the depth of a stream or see how muddy the bottom is, trekking poles get the job done.
  • Trekking poles really glow on stream crossings like this. Having two extra anchor points let you feel safe when walking across loose, small, or slippery rocks.
  • If you are hiking in winter conditions, trekking poles are great for balance on a slippery and snowy trail. And when you are crossing a frozen stream, using the trekking pole to test the ice is a wonderful option.
  • Trekking poles are good to have in bear and mountain lion country. Having trekking poles ready in hand would be better than not having them in case you need to fight with an animal.
  • If you hike in an area with poison ivy, poison oak, nettles, or any other plant you want to avoid, trekking poles provide an easy way to gently push them to side and hike by.
  • If you have a steep downhill, trekking pole can provide good anchor points to balance against as you hike down.
  • Similarly, if you are on a steep upslope, you can use poles to dig in and pull yourself up on.
  • If you want to make your hike more of a full body workout, there is no refuting that moving your arms back and forth will help you expend a little more energy. It’s also nice to get in a rhythm with hiking sticks.
  • If your hands swell when hiking, using trekking poles will keep the hands closer to the level of the heart, improving blood return to your heart.
  • You can use trekking poles as supports for an ultralight shelter. This will save you some weight in your pack. Even if you’re just day hiking, having a ultralight shelter in your pack (and hiking poles to support it) is a great way to be prepared for a survival emergency

Do Hiking Poles Really Save Your Knees?

Many articles quote a 1999 study that says using trekking poles takes up to 25% of the strain off of your knees. The truth for most hikers is not that great. In fact, there studies that show that there is no difference whatsoever between shock absorbing poles, regular poles, and no poles.

If you ever have knee pain with and without poles. you can stop your knee pain completely by simply shifting your weight. Instead of heel striking, you can then focus on stepping on your fore and mid-foot. This engages the “natural shock absorbers” of your hamstrings to buffer any shock in your step. Hiking with trekking poles naturally allows people to shift their weight (and foot strike) forward, which is probably a factor in those reduced strain studies. So, if you want to help your knees out, I recommend shifting your weight forward when hiking with trekking poles.

When Not to Use Trekking Poles

Here is when you should stop using trekking poles.

  • If you are hiking to connect with nature, and the poles started to seem like a barrier between yourself and the earth. So instead of using a pole to balance when descending, you should reach out and touch trees, rocks, and dirt. It just feels better. Scramble down. You’ll feel like a kid again.
  • Ditching the hiking poles was one less thing to deal with. Put your boots and pack on, then hike. Easy.
  • Realizing that using poles is not good for my balance and core. When you do not have trekking poles, you need to stick your arms out and shift your weight to balance. This engages your core and natural balance processes instead of turning them off.
  • On longer hikes, not swinging your arms when you walk saves your energy. It’s not a big deal for shorter hikes, but if you’re doing something like a 22 mile Mt Whitney day hike, having another 1-5% of energy in your tank is a big deal.

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