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How To Choose A Hiking Stick: The Ultimate Guide

Hiking sticks are the stamp that sets serious hikers apart from the rest. Known by a variety of names including trekking sticks, travel staffs, and walking poles, they are a vital piece of gear that provides support and stability to walkers, so choosing the right hiking stick is key.

To choose a hiking stick, there are three factors to consider. The first of these is deciding whether to opt for a pair of trekking poles or a single hiking stick. You then need to consider the features you’re looking for in a hiking stick. Finally, you must choose what length best suits your body.

While this is the bare bones of what you need to consider, your choice of hiking stick is likely to change depending on a number of elements, including your personal preferences, favored terrain, and the weight of your kit. Let’s take a closer look at all of these things to help you decide.

Trekking Poles Or A Hiking Stick?

There are two main types of poles that provide support for hikers and ultra-runners: trekking poles and a hiking stick. Although both provide extra stability and improve your balance while walking, they serve different purposes, with most hikers opting for a pair of trekking poles.

Bear in mind that what suits one backpacker might not suit another. Choosing between trekking poles and a hiking stick is largely a matter of preference.

Hiking Stick

A hiking stick is a single pole similar to a ski pole, except that it is tailored for hiking. It is ideal for trekkers who hike through relatively flat terrains and those that prefer shorter walks.This is because it better suits those carrying light loads. One pole provides extra balance and stability while still allowing you to keep a hand free should you need it.

PROS:

  • Provide support
  • DIY versions can be found on the trail
  • Can be used on an ad hoc basis

CONS:

  • Suit limited terrain
  • Uneven weight distribution
  • Not good for carrying heavy loads

Trekking Poles

Designed to be used in a pair, trekking poles provide additional support when compared to a single hiking stick. They are more adaptable and can be used across a variety of terrains, making them particularly useful when tackling steep ascents or descents.

As you hold a trekking pole in each hand, they help you to distribute your weight evenly, making them ideal for hikers embarking on multi-day trips. They also help alleviate pressure on your joints, which makes them helpful for those with knee and ankle problems.

PROS:

  • Provide additional support
  • Ideal for hillwalking
  • Lightweight

CONS:

  • Require practice
  • Can be expensive

Features Of Hiking Sticks

Even though hiking sticks are essentially just poles with handles, there is a lot to consider when purchasing a pair. Different types and models come with different features which may or may not be useful to you.To determine which features you actually require, you’ll need to consider the strength of your legs, your desired level of comfort, pack space, and terrain type.

Telescopic Poles

These trekking poles work using two or three telescopic sections which are controlled by a locking mechanism. One of two different locking systems is normally used in telescopic trekking poles: internal or external. The internal tend to work with a twist lock and can slip in wet or cold conditions. External locking mechanisms work with a lever-lock system and tend to be more reliable.

Telescopic trekking poles are highly customizable and can be altered to account for different heights and uses. However, the downside of these hiking poles is that they don’t compress very small,making them harder to pack away.

Foldable Poles

Also known as collapsible poles, these trekking poles assemble similarly to tent poles. The main plus point of these is that they pack down small, especially when compared to telescopic poles.

They are often favored by ultralight hikers as the manufacturers pre-cut them to the right size and use thinner shafts to reduce weight. This does, however, result in foldable trekking poles being less durable than the alternatives. Foldable trekking poles also tend to be fixed in length which allows less flexibility when hiking.

Hiking Stick Shaft Materials

The material used for the pole’s shaft is an important factor as it is the largest weight contributor. The shaft is generally made from either aluminum or carbon fiber.

Aluminum

For hikers on a budget, aluminum is the best choice. Poles made of aluminum weigh on average between 18 and 22 ounces per pair and are very durable. If you fall on the pole, it will bend but won’t snap.

Carbon Fiber

These are the most expensive type of hiking sticks you can buy. They are made partially, and sometimes entirely, from carbon. Carbon fiber poles are often favored by ultralight hikers as they weigh an average of between 12 and 18 ounces per pair. The downside of carbon fiber poles is that they are much more likely to splinter and break when under high stress.

Trekking Pole Grip Materials

Although the pole shaft material primarily impacts durability and weight, the material used for the grips will affect the hiker’s comfort levels. A variety of grip materials can be used in trekking poles but the most popular are cork, rubber, plastic, and foam.

Cork is ideal for those hiking in hot climates as it doesn’t retain much moisture, keeping your hands sweat-free. Cork grips are molded with a polymer, making them cool to touch. This also means that they will shape to your hand over time. They are generally the most expensive type of grip.

Grips made from plastic or rubber become slippery when wet, making them unpleasant to hold in bad weather. As a rule, you are more likely to find plastic or rubber grips on lower-quality hiking poles.

Foam is a good all-around material that is well suited to winter hiking. This material retains heat so it helps to keep your hands warm while you walk. Out of all the grip materials, foam is the softest to the touch.

Hiking Pole Locking Mechanisms

Regardless of whether you opt for a fixed length hiking stick or one that is adjustable in length, all trekking poles feature locking mechanisms to keep them from changing length.

In non-adjustable sticks, the locking mechanisms are used to extend the poles and then fold them away when it comes to packing them up. In adjustable poles, the locking mechanisms allow you to customize the length of each pole section, meaning you can adjust them to your height and the gradient of the terrain. There are four main types of trekking pole locking system.

Twist Lock

Perhaps the most common type of lock on basic hiking stick models is the twist lock. Although it was once very popular, it has fallen out of favor because it performs inconsistently. The adjustable sections are prone to slipping, especially in wet conditions.

External-Lever Lock

The external-level lock system works like a clamp. Although hikers may need to tighten the lever by hand or with a screwdriver as it loosens over time, external-lever locks are more reliable than the twist lock mechanism. External-level lock poles are great for hikers tackling alpine conditions as they are easy to adjust while wearing gloves.

Push-Button Lock

Push-button locks are commonly seen on non-adjustable poles and also on the lower sections of hiking sticks. Simply snap the poles into place and press the button to release the lock to collapse the poles. Push-button locking mechanisms tend to be more reliable, but this is dependent on the hiker keeping the lock and hole clean.

Combination Lock

Offering the best of all worlds, some trekking poles use a combination locking system.This mixes a couple of the above locking mechanisms to provide ease of use and reliability.

Other Hiking Stick Features

Wrist Straps

It’s easy to pick out the hiker new to walking poles out of a crowd. This is because they usually have blisters on their hands from incorrectly using the attached wrist straps. The wrist straps mean that you can easily make quick movements such as snapping a photo or grabbing a snack without dropping your poles.

This is particularly useful if you are trekking in mountainous conditions where a dropped pole could cascade down a hill! To use your wrist straps properly, insert your hands through the bottom of the strap and grip the pole as normal. You should find that you’re able to press your wrists down into the strap for extra support.

If the straps are dangling a long way from your wrists, consider shortening them. Likewise, if they feel too tight, loosen them off a little. Look out for lined or padded straps as these are the most comfortable to hold and help prevent rubbing.

Baskets

Most hiking sticks will come with baskets attached at the bottom of the shaft. These are designed to stop your poles from sinking too deep in the ground. There are summer and winter baskets, with the latter being wider to suit snowy terrain.

In rocky areas, it is easy for the baskets to fracture and break if left on. Only a select few hikers will actually require the baskets, so if you are hiking in an area where they are not required, remove them to avoid littering tiny pieces of broken plastic along the trail.

Pole Tips

When walkers first invest in a hiking stick or a pair of trekking poles or a hiking stick, they are usually unsure of whether to keep the rubber tip protectors on the bottom. These extend the life of the tips which are usually made from steel or carbide.

Rubber tips are ideal for use on flat, road surfaces and also rocky surfaces.This is because they help to reduce impact to the ground. You shouldremove the tip protectors to provide extra traction when hiking through mud, sand, gravel, ice, and densely packed dirt.

Ultralight

For some hikers, their most important consideration when buying a hiking stick will be weight. Ultralight runners and hikers tend to opt for carbon fiber poles for this reason. Generally, ultralight poles will weigh in at less than one pound per pair!

The advantage of selecting ultralight poles is that they provide less swing weight, making them quicker and easier to maneuver. This equals less fatigue in the long term and helps runners maintain their speed across challenging terrain.

Although ultralight poles are ideal when it comes to packing for a multi-day hike, the additional cost and reduction in durability mean they are only really worth the investment for very serious hikers.

Shock Absorbing

Shock absorbency is another thing to consider when investing in a hiking stick. A high-quality anti-shock system will allow you to protect your knees, legs, hips, and back from extra impact as you walk. Poles with shock-absorbing features also help you to move through varied terrain, whether it be hard or soft.

Choosing The Right Size Of Hiking Stick

As already discussed, there are two types of hiking sticks: telescopic and foldable. The first of these is always adjustable in length whereas the latter is more likely to be of a fixed length.

Choosing trekking poles that suit your height is one of the key considerations for walkers, as getting this wrong can cause discomfort and back pain. Suitably sized poles should position your elbows at a 90-degree angle when holding the poles.

Think About Your Height

If you are over six feet and plan to purchase an adjustable hiking staff or trekking poles, opt for something with a maximum length of 51 inches at least. Those under six feet tall will find that most adjustable poles are suitable as they can easily be shortened to suit your height.

When choosing fixed-length poles, hikers will need to look at the specific brand of stick and follow the manufacturer’s guidance.

Sometimes you will see gendered trekking poles on the market. However, there is nothing to indicate that men and women need to opt for different types of hiking stick. The only difference between gendered poles is likely to be the color and length. As a rule, female-specific poles tend to be shorter in length and there is no guarantee that they will suit taller women.

Adjusting Your Trekking Poles Or Hiking Stick

If you decide to opt for adjustable length poles, you will need to know what height to set them to. This is of paramount importance because poles of an unsuitable length can cause injury and force you to pull off the trail early.

For everyday hiking on fairly even or gently undulating surfaces, you’ll want to aim for the 90-degree bend in your elbow. To do this, place your pole on the ground next to your foot. To get the measurement right, you’ll need to decide whether you are going to walk with the tip protectors and remove them if not. This will impact the pole length.  

More Speed And Energy

Using hiking poles when going uphill allows your upper body to take some of the additional pressure off of your legs.This will enable you to power up the hill at a greater speed while saving some of the energy in your lower body.

If you are hillwalking and frequently tackling long ascents, you will want to shorten each pole by around 5-10cm, depending on your height. Take time to practice adjusting the poles to find out what works for you.

Shortening the poles on uphill sections will help you to get a better grip. A general rule is that the steeper the slope, the shorter your poles will need to be. If you feel like your shoulders are being pushed up too high or your arms feel too lifted, you will need to continue reducing the pole length until you are comfortable.

Staying In Control

When you are headed downhill, your hiking poles will act as a primitive kind of braking system, allowing you to adjust your speed and keep control of the descent. A hiking stick or trekking poles also help to take the pressure off of your quad muscles, helping you stay energized.

If you are embarking on longer descents, it helps to lengthen your sticks by around 5-10cm. This will help to keep your body more upright, helping you maintain your balance. Being flexible with the length of your hiking staff or pair of trekking poles will keep you comfortable, no matter the terrain and gradient.

Final Thoughts

To choose a hiking stick, you first must decide if you want a single hiking stick or a pair of trekking poles. Then, you also need to consider the specific things you’re personally looking for in a hiking stick, before finally choosing a length that suits your body and height.