When you hike with a set of trekking poles you are balancing the weight distribution and shock over four limbs, instead of two. People who have used trekking poles discover an almost immediate benefit to their knees, especially on long downhill treks.
Not all poles are created equally. When you are adding trekking poles to your outdoor gear, there are a few key features you need to consider that will have a dramatic effect on your satisfaction.
Look for poles that have a telescopic adjustment. Poles that telescope offer several key benefits. First, multiple people can use the same set of poles simply by adjusting the length. If you are going on a long downhill segment of a trail, you can adjust the poles to be longer and take a lot of the strain off of your knees. Likewise when you are climbing uphill you can shorten the poles and gain more power with each step. Some poles practically collapse, much like an antenna on a portable radio. These poles are ideal if you don't plan to use them all the time and want to stow them in your pack, safely out of the way.
Look for poles with anatomic, soft grips. Grips that have been shaped to fit in your hand comfortably and have some give will be easier to use for a long period of time. Grips that are hard can get wet with sweat and can be uncomfortable to hold. If the grip doesn't fit your hand properly move on to another model or see if they can be changed out. Poles that have some padding below the handgrip should be given special consideration. On a short uphill climb you can grasp the pole below the grip versus taking the time to adjust its length.
Consider poles that have an anti-shock system. Some trekking poles have little shock absorbers built in to them, commonly referred to as an anti-shock system. Some systems are very complex, offering a range of settings depending on your preferences and the conditions you are hiking in. The anti-shock system helps absorb the impact of the pole striking the ground as you walk, easing the strain on your shoulders and arms. This is especially true on a long downhill climb. If the poles you are considering have an anti-shock system, make sure you can lock the system out. When you are going uphill the shock absorbers will actually work against you, robbing you of power each time you plant the pole down.
Make sure you can change out the baskets. The baskets are the round rings at the bottom of the trekking poles. These baskets allow you to maintain, "float," a term used to describe the poles ability not to sink into the snow or ground. Most trekking poles don't come with any baskets, while some come with very small, "summer baskets." Baskets that are cut out like snowflakes are best used in the snow. Large, solid baskets are best when used on soft muddy ground. If you plan to hike in a wide variety of conditions you should go ahead and buy additional baskets with your poles.
"Here is a tip" make sure you look at the tips of the poles. Tips on trekking poles come in three different styles, single point, chiseled, and rubber tipped. Each of these points will work well in certain environments, but not others. The best overall tip is the chiseled point. The tip looks like notches have been cut out of the very tip of the pole, leaving several points sticking out. This style offers traction in almost any condition (from ice to a paved path) it is durable and is safer than a single point when the pole is stowed. Rubber tipped poles work best on hard packed surfaces or boardwalks, while a trekking pole with a sharp point on the end is best for icy conditions. Carbide tips are going to be more durable than aluminum. Regardless of how the pole is tipped, most poles can have a rubber tipped added or removed for use in sensitive areas.
Don't be seduced by unnecessary features. Trekking poles that offer a compass on the top of one of the grips, or grips that can be removed to expose a camera mount may seem attractive, but in the end you won't use these features much. The little compass on the top of the pole won't be very helpful in many situations, and taking the grip off of your pole to take your picture is more of a pain than you may realize. They aren't bad features to have, but don't base your buying decision on these fringe benefits.
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