The Advantages of Trekking Poles 101
Since the beginning of mankind, humans have been known to use forms of hand-held stabilization when travelling on foot over difficult terrain (the most common form being a contraption known as the walking stick). When viewed through the eyes of some beginner hikers, it might seem as though trekking poles are an unnecessary piece of equipment, which just get in the way and limit mobility. And besides, aren’t trekking poles just for older hikers with weak knees, who need the assistance to get down steep hills?
As a fit, 20 year old male, I still find trekking poles to be completely invaluable. This is because they do much more than just help with balance and support; they take pressure off the joints in your legs, they help you keep a steady pace when hiking, and they even allow you to hike uphill at less physical expense. Here are some of the most important advantages trekking poles provide over varied terrain:
Trekking Poles on Uphill Terrain
When I first began to use trekking poles, the many advantages they provide while going uphill were definitely not on the forefront of my mind. However, I soon realized that trekking poles provide me with great assistance while traversing steep, inclined terrain. Traveling uphill with trekking poles allows the hiker to utilize their upper body muscles, in addition to their leg muscles, when propelling themselves uphill. As I hike uphill with trekking poles, I use them to give me an extra boost with every step I take. I usually find myself planting the poles into the ground in front of me, and then using them to propel myself forward for the next few strides. This technique does place a significant portion of my body weight under the support of the poles, but after using them for two full summers of backpacking and peak-bagging on the rugged trails of the White Mountains and Adirondacks, I have yet to even come close to snapping my Leki Corklite poles.
The assistance trekking poles provide with each individual step may be minuscule, but by the end of a long climb, the extra help becomes very apparent. To put it into perspective, whenever I hike without my trekking poles (which I must admit, is almost never), I quickly notice that my legs become fatigued at a faster rate. In addition, the added stability that trekking poles provide becomes beneficial during climbs at the end of a tiring day. Maybe it’s just me, but hiking with trekking poles prevents me from tripping over myself as I push through those long, and frequently steep, miles before getting to camp.
Trekking Poles on Flat Terrain
So you’re hiking along on straight, flat, and smooth trail; there’s no protruding rocks to worry about, you’re hiking at a comfortable pace, and there is no mud present for you to slip on. Wouldn’t trekking poles would be entirely unnecessary in this (relatively unrealistic) situation? What benefits could trekking poles possibly have when keeping balance isn’t an issue?
Whenever I’ve found myself hiking on easy, flat terrain, I still use my trekking poles to my advantage. I do this by allowing them to guide my movements forward, and keep a consistent pace in my stride. Now, I will acknowledge that most of the time, the consistency of each stride is probably the last thing running through a hikers mind (especially if dinner time is approaching). However, think of the last time you went for a run or jog. An integral part of the human running technique is that we swing our arms in sync with our legs as we travel forward. This not only helps to keep our balance, but it also helps us keep a consistent pace. This same principal applies to using trekking poles on flat terrain; the extra arm motion helps the hiker stride forward, without any deviation in speed.
Trekking Poles on Downhill Terrain
It’s finally time to shed some light on the most obvious advantage of trekking poles; using them on downhill terrain! It should be no secret that one of the biggest perks of using trekking poles is that they do a tremendous job assisting hikers who are traveling down steep trails. Not only does this assistance come in the form of balance improvement, but it also comes in the form of reduced stress on the ankle and knee joints.
When hiking downhill, I tend to move in increments. I plant my trekking poles out in front of my body, and then use the stabilization they provide to bring myself forward. Then, I usually stop my forward momentum for a split second, and plant my poles out in front of myself again. This technique also requires you to place a fair amount of your body weight on the trekking poles, but not so much that the poles risk losing their structural integrity. I’ve also found that having a pair of poles with a knob at the top of the handle is helpful, as I usually find myself gripping the top of the pole more often while traveling downhill.
Other Advantages of Trekking Poles
Not only are trekking poles useful when hiking over varied terrain, they are also useful for a few other miscellaneous reasons, the first being water crossings. Nothing makes me more thankful to have trekking poles than emerging out of the woods, right at the bank of a wide, fast moving river, with no bridge in sight. Rather than searching left and right to find an appropriate stick to help me across, I can just dive (well, not literally) right into the crossing, and make it through with minimal delay and endangerment to myself. If you’ve ever crossed a fast moving river, there is no doubt in my mind that you understand the importance of having stable footing throughout the process.
A new advantage to trekking poles has emerged in the past few years, as ultralight backpacking has become more popular. Many ultralight shelters and tents can be set up using trekking poles instead of tent poles. This allows hikers to use their trekking poles as a multipurpose item, thus cutting weight from their packs.
Whether trekking poles are being utilized for extra stabilization, to reduce pressure on leg joints, or to simply propel a hiker over a giant pit of mud, they are a valuable piece of gear that routinely makes it into the gear lists of experienced hikers, both young and old. If you’ve never hiked with trekking poles before, I encourage you to think about them on your next hike, and you may begin to recognize situations where having them could prove to be useful. It is entirely possible to have a safe, successful hike without trekking poles, but I’m confident that once the initial awkwardness of transforming into a quadruped subsides, every avid hiker will eventually recognize the advantages provided by trekking poles.
Check out REI’s selection of trekking poles here.
Can you think of any more advantages to hiking with trekking poles? Leave a comment below!
(heading photo courtesy of Jerome Gagner)
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Thanks for the insight, I am sure I will be bringing a pair of these along with me when I hike the AT. How long have you been hiking, or preparing to hike the AT?
I hiked 12 mountains in the year before I started using poles last August going up the Flume Slide trail. Then two hikes out of three Garfield and Osceola I forgot them. I ended up finding walking sticks for those and now I never hit the trail without them. I think they are great in winter for butt sliding. I shorten them and use to help me steer, brake and push off to keep me going or get sliding again. I’m totally serious.
Other advantages to hiking with poles? Early morning hikes often see face-high cobwebs spanning the trail: a quick swipe of the pole takes care of that. Similarly, poles are useful for brushing aside greenbrier that is close aboard the trail. To be honest, though, I’ve found that one pole works best for me; this leaves one hand free to grab the water bladder nipple, wave away an annoying insect, adjust rain gear, munch on a powerbar, grab a tree sapling or boulder edge to help haul my sorry butt up steep inclines (Stecoah Gap, Lehigh Gap et al.) etc. For many years I hiked w/o poles but later found them to be indispensable.
Neither your nor any of the authors of replies have dealt with the most critical component of using – and gaining the advantage of – trekking poles. And that is the correct use of the wrist straps. If they are not correctly utilized, trekking poles are a dead weight and a strain on the wrists.
Anyone accustomed to cross country skiing knows the correct procedure, but here is a link to a very good YouTube video that discusses the correct procedure: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HOQFPL2lpMY. A glaring error in this video is that she never mentions there is a Left and a Right wrist strap. On some poles the strap is marked with L * R, others not. When correctly oriented, on the right pole, the strap coming from the outside or right side crosses over the strap coming from the inside or left side. The best way to keep L & R straight is to keep you supply of duct tape wrapped around the Right pole making identification very easy
Awesome TicTac! Thank you!
Hi Again TicTac, I watched the video in the link you shared and a couple other that spun of from it and have to thank you again. I never used to use the straps but now I do and with them under my hand supporting my wrist and what a yuge help!
And if you tend to be “directionally challenged” you can always point your poles in the direction you are heading whenever you stop to rest just in case you get disoriented. This just might save you from doing some unintended backtracking.
I picked up my trekking pole among a giant pile of driftwood on one of the lakes in Maine near the trail (or maybe right on the trial, can’t recall which one).
It was big, sturdy and light. Used it on the rest of hike (northbound) and for several hikes later. But it started wearing down. Put a rubber foot on it, which arrested pole erosion, but the footie kept breaking loose.
The Maine walking stick now decorates my wall.
I’ve not used a walking stick/trekking pole since then, but I may get back in the habit.
Question: Why two? Does anyone hike with just one, ala Gandalf?
Thanks, Kyle, for the insight. Never having hiked with two poles, I’m having a hard time with the “propel” part. Mine was mainly to help with balance crossing over stuff.
I may give two a try.
I find one if I use poles, even on a flat surface, that my posture is much better. And I definitely keep up a good steady rhythm.
Nice article. I learned to love my poles when I was dealing with a calf injury last year. The poles got me out in the woods sooner than if I had to wait until the injury had completely healed.
Another theoretical advantage I have thought about is related to self-defense. If you were suddenly attacked by a bear, wolf, mountain lion, or person, hiking poles would be immediately available to help defend yourself. I have heard of hikers (Andrew Skurka’s National Geographic video springs to mind) who throw one pole and then use the other sword-style for defense.
Hiking poles would be too light to inflict any real damage, and would be much more likely to infuriate the two-legged or four-legged aggressor.
If you take personal safety seriously, the only proven methods that are effective are Bear spray or a firearm.
The Author lives in the free state of Vermont, so he should know.
I totally agree that the treking poles have a self defense role:I have studied the martial arts for over 15 years,When I mentioned I was hiking with treking poles my teacher and several other advanced students got together with me and we worked out a few techniques designed to slow down and ultimately end an attack. The concept of fighting with a cane length stick is not foreign to several martial arts styles, the difference with poles is their inability to hold up to a lateral striking motion,They are ideal for thrusting however. A little practice combined with knowledge where to target provides an option for defense against two and four footed adversaries In my recent past I found that clicking the poles together in front of the animal will dissuade their advance (I recently encountered an unknown,unleashed ,unatended dog on the trail who gave me a wide berth faced with the poles and a “yo dog”command.
Couldn’t agree more, Kyle! I believed the same myths before I met a 22-yr old thru-hiker in PA (2012) using trekking poles like he was skiing the trail. Having then done the AT myself in 2014, I tell people that my poles were great for all the reasons you mentioned (plus as web-breakers), but that they literally saved my life a thousand times! They quickly became an extension of my body, strengthened my hands, wrists and upper arms, and I simply cannot and will not hike without them now. Sounds like you’re well on track for your thru, and you’ll have a great time!
By the time I arrived up in New England, I told someone that if I had to choose between my a)sleeping bag, or b) my trekking poles, I would easily take the poles…..
I didn’t take my first stumble (to my knees) until I was on the way out of Damascus……and I credit the poles for that…..cloroxat 2002
My trekking poles are my fav piece of gear – they saved my ass so many times! I never go anywhere without them it’s a must have and since I’m using them I can’t understand how other can do without them.
Cool article, thanks! 🙂
I’ve used them to keep unpleasant dogs away from me. And to help someone else cross a street (hand them the end to hold on to).
They are also useful to aid others who don’t have poles crossing streams. You can cross over a narrow stream, then hold out your stick to them to give them some extra balance as they cross.
Also when walking along roads you can make your self “bigger ” to encourage traffic to give you more space when they pass.
I’ve also used them to round up run away donkies?
Got my first set of poles for the hike down the Bright Angel trail at the Grand Canyon. The poles were equally invaluable for going down the 15% grade as they were climbing back up that same day. We also used poles to do the 500 mile Camino Frances pilgrimage across northern Spain. Many parts of that trail are very steep and full of ruble with frequent stream crossings over slippery rocks and bridges. The poles kept us safe from falling and saved our ankles and knees from injury. Most recently we’ve used our poles on the many hilly hikes around Sedona, Palm Springs and the Atlantic provinces of Canada—wouldn’t leave home on a hiking holiday without them!!
I’m always disappointed when I read articles like this that the author never brings up what I think is the biggest disadvantage – the impact on the environment. If you follow Leave No Trace (LNT) practices, and _everyone_ on public trails should, then you should consider the impact of your poles on the trail surroundings – churned up dirt, torn up ground vegetation, increased erosion, pock-marked (vandalized?) logs and stumps by the trail, etc. While on many trails this is minimal, on popular, erosion-prone, or steep cross slope trails it can be significant. Doing the GA section of the AT really brought this home to me – there were sections of trail I’d just about call devastated. LNT says you should remove the basket (don’t tear up foliage) and put the rubber tip on (minimize ground churn). I would add to be aware where you place your pole tips, and don’t use them on more damaged or easier parts of the trail / if you don’t need them.
I do carry and use poles, and absolutely enjoy the benefits, but about 1/2 the time they are hung from a pack strap – partially so I have hands free for camera, drink, snacks, etc, but partially because I enjoy the natural rhythm of walking without them, and, … LNT. They are also my tent poles these days.
I also sometimes wonder if folks get to relying on them too much, especially during casual hikes and training – if you _always_ walk with poles, do you end up negatively impacting your natural walking coordination so that you end up needing the poles even more? I have no data whatsoever to back up this thought, though.