For as long as humans have been pounding the trails, they’ve been using trekking poles. What were once whittled sticks — perhaps with a polished bone handle — have been subjected to the scrutiny of technological development, like everything else. Nowadays trekking poles come in different shapes, sizes, colors, and materials. They have springs, locks, and straps, and it can be hard to know where to start.
Most people you meet trekking with poles will go out of their way to tell you how great they are and how they wouldn’t hike without them. But before you start looking at buying the best trekking poles, we’re going to take a closer look to see whether they’re worth the hype and how they help — or hinder — us on the trail.
Trekking Poles 101
Modern trekking poles are usually made from aluminum or carbon fiber and come in either fixed length or adjustable. Some poles will fold up, or collapse telescopically, to fit onto the outside of your backpack. Most hikers will choose a collapsible trekking pole, with either twist-lock or clip-lock system to secure them in place. Twist-lock systems are usually cheaper, but can be less secure and may come loose over time.
Fixed-length poles are lighter, but if you regularly change footwear for your hikes and have different sole thicknesses, you could find your fixed-length no longer works for you. Your trekking poles should sit comfortably in your hand with your elbow bent to 90 degrees.
The handles on these poles are usually straight-staff handles, but these are shaped for a more ergonomic fit and are made from plastic, foam, or cork for comfort. Foam or cork are usually preferred as plastic doesn’t breathe and can lead to blisters more easily. These grips usually have straps on that are used to keep your poles in place so you don’t have to grip your poles tight all day.
Why Use Trekking Poles?
Trekking can put a load of strain on your knees and your ankles — especially if you’re carrying a heavy backpacking load. The jury is still out on whether poles help to relieve this generally, but what they do help with is reducing impact. On steep downhill sections, you can use your poles as extra limbs and lower yourself gently onto a foot placement, rather than dropping down onto it. You can reduce this impact further by using the ball of your foot, rather than dropping down onto your heel.
Keep Your Balance
Away from protecting your knees, sometimes it’s just great to have some help with balancing. Even on easy ground, your balance can suffer as you tire and your poles can help. On steep-sided trails or slippery hillsides, you can use your poles to dig into the ground and support you as you move. Anyone who has had to make a sketchy traverse will appreciate how beneficial it can be to dig a downhill pole below you and lean uphill.
Get Into a Rhythm
When you get yourself into a rhythm on a hike, you find yourself eating up the miles with ease. Swinging your arms and using your poles creates a rhythm that carries you along the trail and turns your trek into a full-body workout. Your swing will come from your core and — so long as you plant your poles at a slight angle — your poles will drive you forward and help to keep your momentum up. You will also find the added benefit that using poles improves your posture and oxygen intake.
Almost Endless Uses
There’s no end to ways that you can use your trekking poles. Whether it’s checking the depth of a puddle, pushing back spikey bushes while you pass, or having the reassurance to fend off animals that get too close, your poles are a multi-tool in themselves. There are even ultralight tents that rely on trekking poles for their structure, allowing you to leave your tent poles at home and save on weight.
Help a Casualty
Even if you’re not totally sold on using walking poles, they’re a great thing to have with you on the outside of your pack — just in case. If you meet someone on the trail who has a sprained ankle or is struggling with blisters or exhaustion, you can alleviate a huge amount of pressure and pain by lending them a pole or two. Who knows, that person might just be you! In extreme cases, you can even improvise your trekking poles into a splint to stabilize more serious injuries.
Why Doesn’t Everyone Use Trekking Poles?
They Cost Money
Hiking is meant to be simple, right? You just lace up your boots and hit the trails. Once you start adding in extra equipment, the sport becomes far less accessible and poles are no exception. Poles cost money and even the most affordable poles aren’t free. If your choice is to fill your truck to hit the trails, or buy some poles and stay at home, then the answer is obvious.
They Don’t Suit Every Trail
Not every trail requires poles. In fact, some trails are made more difficult with the use of poles. On some narrow trails, you can find yourself tripping over poles easily and they are more of a hindrance than a help. If your trail involves regular scrambling, you need your hands free. Unless you stow your poles for every feature, you’ll spend all day finding precarious ledges to rest your poles on while you climb up. To avoid snagging injuries, be sure to take your hands out of the loops when you’re climbing, if you use poles on scrambling days.
They Use More Energy
As we said earlier, poles turn your trek into a full-body workout. Okay, they increase oxygen intake, but they also raise your heart rate and oxygen requirements. This extra exertion means more calories and you need to make sure you fuel yourself for the hike. Sure, the extra effort is minimal and is generally outweighed by the benefits, but that extra few percent can make a difference if the trail is going to take it out of you.
Are Trekking Poles Worth It?
Even the most experienced hikers often deliberate over whether to take their walking poles with them on a particular trek. Most backpackers or thru-hikers — those on long trails with heavy packs — will find poles relieve a reasonable amount of pressure from their feet and can help protect their ankles on rough ground. Hikers who are looking to move fast and light along the trail may choose to leave the poles at home. Ultimately, the decision lies with you and how you feel on that particular day.
If you’ve never used poles before, try borrowing a set or picking up an affordable pair to see whether you get on with them. You can always keep these as your spare — or emergency — set if you then decide that poles are an integral part of your hiking setup. Remember, you don’t have to take them with you every time you head out of the door, but it’s fine if you want to.
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