- Trekking poles, like ski poles, allow your arms to help propel you forward and upward. Whether walking on flat ground or up steep hills, poles can help to increase your average speed.
- Poles reduce the impact on your legs, knees, ankles, and feet. This is especially true when going downhill. A 1999 study in The Journal of Sports Medicine found that trekking poles can reduce compressive force on the knees by up to 25 percent.
- Trekking poles can be used to deflect backcountry nuisances. They can push away thorny blackberries and swipe away spider webs that cross trails-- which can help to make you more comfortable.
- Walking with poles can help you establish and maintain a consistent rhythm, which can increase your speed. This is especially true on flatter, non-technical terrain.
- The extra two points of contact significantly increase your traction on slippery surfaces like mud, snow, and loose rock.
- Poles help you maintain balance in difficult terrain such as during river crossings, on tree root-strewn trails, and on slippery bog bridges. Staying balanced in turn helps you move more quickly and more easily.
- Poles can act as a probe to give you more information than you can get with you eyes. Use them to learn more about puddles, melting snow bridges, and quicksand.
- They can help to defend against attacks from dogs, bears and other wildlife. Swing them overhead to make yourself look bigger or throw them like a spear.
- Trekking poles help to alleviate some of the weight you carry. For example, if you have a heavy pack on, and you take a short break, leaning on the poles will make you more comfortable.
- Trekking poles can be used for things other than trekking. They save the weight of bringing dedicated tent poles; pitching a shelter with trekking poles can save up to two pounds. (Trekking poles are also much stronger and more rigid than tent poles, so they're less likely to break in high winds. This help creates safer shelters.) Poles can also double as a medical splint and can serve as ultralight packrafting paddles.
Drawbacks to trekking poles include increased energy expenditure (you're using your arms more than you would otherwise), they can get tangled in bushes and caught up in rocks, they reduce hand function, they cannot be stored conveniently, and can further impact trails. Some mountaineering guides complain about elbow pain from using them too much i.e., wearing a 75+ lb pack everyday for months at a time. These drawbacks, however, can be mitigated or are negligible. For example, the increased energy expenditure is offset by your increased speed and decreased leg stress. Many hikers prefer trekking poles without the wrist strap because you can quickly transfer both poles to one arm for eating or picture taking, and can drop them quickly in case you fall or need to use your hands for something.
See the best trekking poles in our Trekking Pole Review and helpful tips for selecting the best poles in our Trekking Pole Buying Advice.