31 Jul 20

Trekking Poles. Do I need them? Which ones should I buy?

Diane McGuinness Training and Preparation

Do I need trekking poles? It’s a good question and one that we get asked all the time. See below essential tips from RAW Travel’s qualified mountain leaders.

If you already use trekking poles, you are probably a fan. If you are accustomed to using them we definitely recommend having a pair with you, particularly in the European Alps.

Not all RAW Travel trips require you to have trekking poles, especially if the terrain is flat. They really come into their own on steep terrain. If in doubt, ask one of our Destination Experts if you need them for your particular walk.

If you have never used trekking poles before, then we definitely recommended them if:

  • there is lots of snow still lying on the cols (ask us for the latest updates)
  • you have or have had any issues at all with sore knees, ankles or hips
  • you are not used to carrying a backpack
  • you are not used to doing the amount of ascent and descent

Trekking poles, used correctly, take between 10 and 15% of the load from your lower body and redirect that load to your shoulders and upper arms. Trekking poles therefore help with provide a more even load distribution over your frame. This is a significant help when it comes to wear and tear on your joints.

If you suffer from arm or shoulder joint issues you may find trekking poles exacerbate these. It’s still worth trying poles as you are likely to find the benefits outweigh the disadvantages.

The one very important thing to bear in mind with trekking poles is that while they do a fantastic job of taking the strain off your lower body, they will not make you fitter – you cannot get 80% physically prepared for your trip and expect the trekking poles to magically make up the last 20% of your fitness for you.

Which trekking poles should I buy?

You can spend a small fortune on trekking poles but unless you’re planning to run ultra-marathons with them, it’s not necessary. Cheaper poles will probably be more robust and if you accidentally leave them behind at a mountain refuge, you won’t be so upset.

In all cases, consider whether you want to carry your poles around Europe of if you would prefer to hire or buy a cheap pair on arrival in the Alps. A decent pair of not particularly lightweight but perfectly serviceable poles can be bought for around EUR30 in Chamonix (at the base of Mont Blanc) and for not too much more than that in the Italian Dolomites. Zermatt (Switzerland), however, is more expensive.

There are 3 main decisions to make when buying poles.

Do I want spring-loaded for shock absorption?

Spring-loaded shock-absorbing trekking poles (such as the original Lekis) are heavier than the ‘normal’ ones and are a little trickier to re-thread if they come undone. They are, however, very useful for people with particularly troublesome knee or ankle issues. Otherwise, just go with ‘normal’ poles.

What type of locking mechanism do I want?

Generally, poles consist of three separate sections that slide down and fit together for ease of carrying, but can be extended for walking.

Metal or plastic lever – Overall, we favour a simple metal or plastic lever at the two pole extension points because they are easier to use with cold/wet/gloved hands and often simpler to adjust if they start to get a bit loose.

Twist Lock – The original twist-lock system shouldn’t be discarded – they are very serviceable trekking poles and once you get used to the twist-lock mechanism they are absolutely fine. There is a reliable method for doing this that your international mountain leader can show you.

Pop-up – We are not huge fans of the pop-up metal stud fastenings. They can be problematic in very cold weather and are a bit fiddly to use.

You will need to adjust the size of your poles when going from uphill to downhill and vice versa. Being able to adjust your poles quickly and efficiently is very beneficial.

How tall am I and how long do I need my trekking poles to extend to?

This is not really an issue for short people, but if you are tall be aware that some lightweight/compact poles only extend to 125cm (or sometimes even less). If you are tall, make sure that your poles can extend to 130 or 135cm.

Happy trekking!

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