A personal preference for some, a polarizing issue for others. Some love their hiking poles and others argue that they’re doing more harm than they’re helpful.
It is often said about trekking poles that they preserve your joints and help you to hike faster and further. I have written about my experience with trekking poles, too (here) and how they make my hiking experience more convenient. But we can actually make this less anecdotic and more scientific by looking at some research that has been done on this. There are a few studies to which I have linked at the bottom of the page that summarize the science behind trekking poles quite well.
The science behind it
In these studies, it was found that trekking poles do indeed take some of the load off the joints and muscles of the lower extremities by redistributing weight and engaging the muscles in the arms, shoulders and back. This, depending on surface and terrain, can reduce the weight on the joints at the time of contact with the floor by up to 26%.
Joints move less through the aid of trekking poles and the forces at work on them are lower. Stride length increases and stride frequency is reduced. Combine this with the metronome-like effect of poles and the rhythm they provide for hikers and people have stated that they are able to hike faster and further than without poles.
Interestingly, the overall energy expenditure is higher than without poles on flat surfaces (other studies have shown that depending on the surface it almost evens each other out that more energy is used in the upper body but less in the lower body). People with very strong legs and comparatively weaker upper bodies might tire themselves out quicker due to incorporating their “weak spot” more than they need to. But incorporating more muscle groups might be what achieves a perceived effect of improved longevity since it works the entire body evenly instead of wearing out an isolated muscle group.
Basically, hiking poles help to turn a very leg-heavy exercise into a full body workout. This increases the heart rate and encourages better circulation in the upper extremities which can reduce swelling of the hands and fingers. They also help to keep the body upright and open when the load of the backpack is pushing it down. Two extra limbs add stability, especially on wet or uneven surfaces, on scree or when crossing water.
What to be mindful of
These benefits, however, only apply if hikers use the right techniques for their trekking poles. Poles that might prevent injury from falling can just as easily dislocate the thumb if held in an unideal way. These techniques have to be learned and are yet another thing that one has to think about on trail.
And even though you can use your poles as limb extensions to safely test the quality of the ground, check for animals or move plants or spiderwebs out of the way, you will no longer have your hands free which makes any quick adjustment, taking a picture or having some water, a little less convenient.
You will also automatically be a little wider on the trail and, especially when you are just starting out with poles, get in the way of others with your two new limbs. Becoming a tripping hazard, hitting or poking someone else with the poles or simply being in someone’s way are certainly things to be mindful of. Also, whether or not trekking poles are in line with the leave no trace policy is discussed among hikers. It has been observed that highly trafficked areas are altered by hiking poles through heavy scratching of or rubbery residue on surfaces and also by fallen off pieces from tips and baskets.
If you keep all these implications, the benefits and the shortcomings of hiking poles in mind, then you might find yourself a useful tool for your hikes in them. And a multi-purpose one as well if you use them as tent poles for your shelter system (or even as a trowel or added stability for your bathroom business…).
What to look for in hiking poles
If you have read all the above and came to the conclusion that you’d like to give hiking poles a try then you might be wondering what to look for in a good pair.
Prices differ vastly between different manufacturers and as always, you need to find what works best for you.
Weight and material are obviously a big concern if you are trying to keep your pack weight down. Most commonly, poles are made of carbon fibre (or a carbon fibre and fibreglass mixture) or aluminium. As a rule of thumb, carbon fibre is most likely to weigh a little less than aluminium, aluminium is more durable than carbon fibre and might bend before it breaks.
Material is also of importance when it comes to the grip of the hiking poles. Foamy grips are softer to grab but don’t absorb as much sweat as for example cork does. Plastic or rubber don’t absorb any sweat which might lead to rubbing. I, personally, find cork to be by far the least irritating on the skin and the most pleasant to hold. Also, pay attention to the material and padding of the straps and see if they feel comfortable for you.
To reap all the benefits from poles, they need to have the right hight for your body. So you either need to find the right size if you go with stiff poles or you find yourself a pair of height adjustable ones. That might also be necessary if you’re using them for your shelter system. It’s also way easier to pack them away when they aren’t in use. If they are adjustable in height, the poles will come with a locking mechanism (clicking together, twisting or similar). Make sure this is sturdy and doesn’t fail you when you put a lot of pressure on the poles for example when going downhill or when you trip and catch yourself with the hiking poles.
Some accessories might also come in handy and it is always good if the poles allow for them to be easily switched out. There are rubber covers for the metal tips and different sizes of baskets for different terrain. The bigger the basket, the more it will help to prevent sinking into softer surfaces like snow or mud. There are also generic four season baskets that work well on most terrains and can just be left on the poles. I also leave the rubber tip on my poles as I find it gives me a better grip. Usually, the rubber cover is recommended for road walking or very hard surfaces, otherwise, the metal tip alone makes for the best point of contact with the ground. Whatever tip or extension you chose, it’s important that they can be switched out when they are worn down so that you don’t need to replace the entire pole if you don’t want to.
I have written a review about the pair that I currently use and that I find to be both reliable and cost-efficient. Check it out here. If you have any questions on trekking poles, leave them in the comments below.
Links to the studies and articles I mentioned