Trekking Poles. Certainly you can hike without them, and many folks do. However, if you want to save your knees for many years of hiking to come; are planning a trip that includes lots of rocky, rooty, steep terrain; or are “going light,” you’ll want to get a pair and learn how to use them.
Humans have been using hiking staffs or walking sticks nearly as long as we’ve been walking upright, and though a single walking stick is useful, trekking poles are vastly superior. At first glance they look like ski poles. They have a nylon or leather loop to fit around your wrist, are usually made of lightweight hollow metal alloy, and are typically collapsible and adjustable.
“Put them on” by first sliding your hand through the loop and then clasping the grip handle so that the loop rests against your palm between your thumb and index finger, lying flat between your hand and the grip. Hold the pole loosely, letting your hand hang in the strap. The pole length should be adjusted so that at rest your arm is bent comfortably at a right angle.
Technique for walking on level ground or going uphill: the poles should angle slightly back behind you at all times. Push off the ground lightly with each step forward, either alternating right and left while naturally swinging your arms, or double-poling by pushing off both at the same time. Walking downhill, move the poles out in front of you so that as you descend, they take some (but not all) of your weight, reducing the pressure on your knee joints while providing stability. When moving through very rough terrain, crossing log bridges, and other such places where it might be awkward to use poles, remove the straps from your wrists and carry both poles in one hand.
Jim Parham is the author of more than a dozen trail guides, including Backpacking Overnights: North Carolina Mountains, South Carolina Upstate, from which this blog post is excerpted.