While a major facet of hiking is the positive impact the activity has on one’s overall health, including endurance, muscle tone, and overall fitness, the sometimes rugged terrain, along with the added strain of carrying a fully loaded backpack, can wreak havoc on your bones and joints. Products associated with hiking, such as boots and backpacks, compensate for this by implementing features such as shock absorption and lightweight composite materials. Also, there are products specifically designed to help avoid long-lasting discomfort that can result from a consistent schedule of active hiking, like trekking poles.

Not only will a set of trekking poles improve your balance on the trails, but they’ll make walking easier during those long hikes. They accomplish this by establishing a walking rhythm and acting as extra points of contact to keep you centered on uneven terrain.

Most poles are either comprised of aluminum or carbon fiber. Both materials are effective, but carbon fiber is much lighter and stronger. It is, however, more expensive. Whichever material you choose, I’d advise going with poles that are adjustable, as they are more easily packed and carried and can be adjusted to suit your height. Some models offer an anti-shock feature, which is a spring that absorbs the shock of each step. Whether or not this feature is a necessity is completely up to your personal preferences.

Grips are an important feature of trekking poles. Most models use plastic, foam, or rubber handles that are ergonomically molded to optimal shape. When testing trekking poles—and using them—it’s important to first fit your hand through the wrist strap. These traps take the majority of the weight off your hand and disperse it evenly throughout your wrist as well. Make sure the handle of the model you’re looking at isn’t too big, as well, as this will hinder your ability to effectively grip it and in hairy situations, you want the comfort of a secure grip.

If you plan to do some winter hiking, try to find ski tips for your trekking poles. Most types are removable and help prevent the pole from sinking into the snow. Ski tips often fall off, however, so it’s important to keep a spare set handy if you plan on using them in the first place.

Trekking poles can be a bit expensive, especially since many hikers don’t consider them to be a necessity. However, the protection against potential injury due to a loss of balance, as well as the comfort they allow your ankles and knees, can be a lifesaver to some. Furthermore, they can help you reach areas you might have otherwise missed by allowing extra support when crossing shallow rivers. If joint discomfort or balance is an issue for you, I suggest heading to your local retailer and checking out some of the quality trekking poles from companies such as Black Diamond or Leki. Try them out in the store and get a feel for them. Your joints will thank you.