Four Wheel Drive—The Case For Trekking Poles

If you're a young 20-year-old squirt with excellent balance, you probably won't find trekking poles as useful as I do.  But I haven't been 20 years old for quite some time now. . . .

—unknown backpacker

My poles have extended my hiking day significantly, on the order of 5 miles and 3 hours. I'm talking about a reduction in overall fatigue, back strain, sore feet, and lactic acid build-up, a.k.a. 'the burn'. When my days used to wrap up at 2pm after 10 miles, I'm still going strong at 6pm after 15 or more. That puts more real estate within my range, allowing me to venture further off the beaten path and leave the heavily impacted frontcountry trails for the slackpackers. Poleless hiking is great for the slackpacker, the guy who keeps his days short and rushes to get to his SUV when the sun starts to go down. But the hiking community actually consists of a wide range of outdoorsmen, some quite capable and dedicated, . . . [who desire] the comfort, safety and versatility of their trekking poles.

—MacPhail, veteran outdoorsman, guide and

instructor,, June 2006

Central Issues Addressed in This Article 

What are the advantages and disadvantages of using trekking poles for hiking, backpacking and climbing? Assuming trekking poles are used, what style and design is best for me? Should I use one or two poles? Collapsible poles? Poles with or without wrist straps? Use pole baskets? What is unique about Nordic Walking with specially designed Nordic poles compared to standard hiking with trekking poles?


Foot travel with poles and staffs is not a recent phenomenon. Humans have been using various types of support in their travels probably forever, especially when skiing, traversing rough terrain, if old and frail, if disabled or carrying a heavy burden. What is relatively new is the use of specially designed lightweight “trekking” or “Nordic Walking” poles for general recreation and exercise. This phenomenon has gained popularity in just the last decade or two. For example, there now are Nordic Walking associations and clubs throughout the world. [Note: The difference between Nordic Walking and hiking with trekking poles will be explained later in this article.]

There are many different designs and types of poles. Check out the short article on this website “Pole Styles and Designs” for a comprehensive list of current options. There are also many phrases used to refer to this topic:  Nordic Walking poles, fitness poles, hiking poles, trekking poles, ski poles, wooden staffs, alpine stocks, walking sticks and canes. In what follows, the phrase “trekking poles” or simply “poles” will be used to reference all of these phrases, except when noted.

The main thrust of this article is to examine the pros and cons of pole use for hiking and backpacking with an obvious bias in their favor. After discussing the advantages and disadvantages, some issues connected with their use will be examined.

Arguments in Favor of Trekking Poles

Poles are an interesting piece of hiking equipment: many love them and many hate them. There is often little space in between. For those who haven’t formed a solid opinion, here is a comprehensive list of arguments in favor of trekking poles. The first list is a summary of high priority uses (arguments based upon personal experience and research). The second list is a summary of other uses suggested by other pole users. After sharing these two lists of pro arguments, a critique of common arguments against poles will be offered for your consideration.

Highest Priority Uses for Poles (PRO Arguments)

Four Wheel Drive: Poles add traction and power by getting both the upper and lower body involved in ascending and descending both trails and off-trail slopes. It is like having four-wheel drive as opposed to just two-wheel drive. Human use of poles mimic mammals that travel on four legs, not two. 

Increased Stamina: By using my whole body, I hike more efficiently and with less whole body fatigue. This efficiency comes partly from alternately using the upper body more going up and down hills, with the lower body used more on the relative level. Though I expend more total energy with this whole body technique than someone without poles to go the same distance (all else being equal), I will usually have more stamina, especially towards the end of a long hiking day.

More Efficient Breathing: Proper pole use maintains a more upright posture while carrying a pack, resulting in more efficient breathing and improved circulation.

Balance and Stability: Poles improve my balance and stability thereby preventing falls, especially in steep terrain and on slippery logs and rocks. By providing better balance and stability, poles further reduce fatigue and increase stamina.

[Note: Above is the first four of 12 different arguments presented in favor trekking poles.]

The above paragraphs provide a preview of the complete article (approximately 14 pages) available as a free download.  Click on one of the following to download in either a Word or PDF format.

Four Wheel Drive—The Case For Trekking Poles – Word Format

Four Wheel Drive—The Case For Trekking Poles – PDF Format

The following sub-topics are developed in the complete article:

 Arguments in Favor of Trekking Poles

Additional Uses Suggested by Pole Users

Arguments Against Pole Use

Reader Participation: Advantages and Disadvantages

Nordic Walking Techniques Applied to Hiking 

Author’s Experience Using Trekking Poles

Some Issues Regarding Pole Design and Use

Additional Issues For Reflection