Using my Cnoc Cork Trekking Poles to pitch my Zpacks Altaplex Tarp in the Sierra Nevada.
Often enough to leave a lingering impact, someone on trail will drop the well meaning but slightly blistering comment, "aren't you too young to be using trekking poles?" The truth of the matter is that I have a considerable amount of long-term injuries. Beyond that, trekking poles offer massive benefits to my backpacking experience. In a world where bringing the bare minimum means the life or death of your ultralight credibility, why do I carry trekking poles? Here are the five reasons I don’t leave home without them.
To Save Weight on Your Shelter
Carrying a shelter is part of the Ten Essentials. Your shelter is also part of your Big 3, or the three largest categories in your pack that also tend to be the heaviest: shelter, pack and sleep system. As it follows, if you can shave weight in one of these three categories, you can save yourself from being a beast of burden.
The Cnoc Cork Trekking Poles, which extend up to 155 cm, are fantastic for setting up shelters that can accommodate taller folks.
When it comes to shelters, the easiest way to save weight is to transition to using a trekking pole-supported shelter. With proper tension on your guylines, and some practice, your trekking pole shelter will provide plenty of protection from the elements, just like a traditional tent.
To Gain Leverage When Hiking
Whether you're summiting Mt. Whitney from the lowest point in the United States, or gaining 3,000 feet of elevation in under three miles just to sit by an alpine lake, the leverag trekking poles provide make a massive difference.
As humans, we only have two points of contact to drag ourselves up that damn mountain … or out of that canyon that didn’t seem nearly so long on the descent. But what if you doubled that to four?
Proper technique with trekking poles — angle the tips of your poles forward slightly hiking downhill, and angle the poles backward going uphill — gives you extra traction. It also reduces impact on your legs and joints, which in turn reduces the chances of injury; or, if you’re like me, and already experience unstable knees and sore hips, trekking poles help with bracing.
A 2001 study conducted by scientists at the Universities of Massachusetts and Wisconsin and at Steadman-Hawkins Sports Medicine Foundation in Colorado found that: trekking poles reduce loading to the lower extremities, and also allow hikers to keep a more normal stride and a faster pace with less effort.
To Help Scare Off Wildlife
One of my favorite stories that I came across when I first started playing with the idea of ultralight backpacking was Andrew Skurka's encounter with a grizzly bear while on his famous Alaska expedition.
My own experiences with wildlife have been a bit tamer. Just a few squirmish coyotes who scrambled after they saw me, one polite coyote who moved slightly off trail so I could hike past it, and one coyote that stalked me for a few minutes.
When I realized I was being followed, I stood my ground and began to speak loudly at it. “What are you doing, get out of here?!?!” The coyote stood its ground. I began to throw rocks at it, yet still, it only moved just enough to dodge the rocks.
Coyotes are usually skittish around humans, so I was concerned about the behavior this one was exhibiting. It wasn’t until I raised my trekking poles above my head and started banging them together while yelling louder that I finally got the brave coyote to skedaddle.
A Sword Against Spiderwebs
This one is for the morning larks out there. I tend to wake up fairly early in the day. I’ll break down camp under the redlight of my headlamp, then hike for half an hour or so before the stirring twilight of the sun’s rays begin to pierce the sky, making my own light obsolete.
However, when hiking in a forest, this usually means running face first into countless spiderwebs – many of which will still have our arachnid friends or their future meals on them. It didn't take too long before I started to slash the air in front of me with my trekking poles to clear the way.
I love our eight legged friends as much as the next hiker. I know how much they do for controlling the mosquito population and am deeply thankful for their work, but I don’t want one to make my face its new home.
Trekking poles can also break down incredibly small. I was scrambling around some slot canyons in Grand-Staircase Escalante, and just stowed my Cnoc poles in the side pocket of my Dandee Pack.
To Help with Water Crossings
More than anything else in the backcountry, high water crossings scare me the most. I can usually backtrack off a cliff, or find a different route up to a mountain pass. Oftentimes though, when presented with a heavy flowing river, you’re left with few options: scout for an alternative crossing point, losing valuable time and sunlight; wait until morning when the flow might be slower; or simply power through the water.
Whatever the case, trekking poles are beneficial. Before I start a crossing, I gauge with my poles where I can enter the water from the stream’s banks. From there, I use the poles to find stable footing in front of me before taking a step forward. If I have two poles, I always plant one into the riverbed as a point of stability.
I’ll leave you with this closing thought from Amy Hatch, GGG’s co-founder and editor of its magazine. She is highly accomplished across different outdoor sports.
“I originally started using trekking poles when my daughter was a baby, and all of the sudden the cargo on my back was more precious and the consequences of me falling, bigger. Trekking poles help with traction on snow and ice crossings, and help me feel more secure when I’m on an exposed ridge or ledge.”
A decade later, the poles have changed hands.
Rafael is a freelance writer and adventurer based in the Mountain West. You can find him trail running, backpacking, or sampling the best tacos during his free time. Follow all his adventures over on Instagram, or read more of his work over on his website.
Two knees with cartilage damage means I carry trekking poles. (Like Rolf, when I have the dog with me I use just one.) I suck at water crossings, so they’re vital.
I took NOLS’ Wilderness First Aid class — my first aid kit will always be “too heavy” because of that — and that’s another reason I’ll always carry them. They make a great splint, and if they’re the collapsible kind you can shorten them & splint almost anything.
Before leaving home the Good Lord told me to bring my trekking poles with while going for a day hike. So while out on the Black canyon trail in the Phoenix area I was struck at by a rattlesnake that I surprised in a bush right next to the trail. He struck my trekking pole which was in-between my leg and him, saving me possibly losing my leg or life. So it can truly be said they can save a life.
Great article. Even if walking my dog makes using two poles impractical, I almost always carry at least one very lightweight, highly collapsible (5 ounce “z” style) pole inside my daypack just in case I or another hiker need a helping hand.
I always carry poles backpacking (i have a trekking pole tent) and seldom use them hiking, but even so i still carry them on hikes because if something bad befell me and i had to hobble out, they’d make the going a bit easier. so another use case: emergency crutch…?