Hiking with Hiking Poles – The pros and cons.


hiking poles

People often wonder whether or not they should use hiking poles.  Before I really got into hiking, I often wondered the same thing.  As a result, I ended up doing a ton of research and spent many miles hiking with poles and hiking without poles.

So should you use hiking poles?  You should use hiking poles when hiking through slippery conditions and when hiking long distances at a time.  You should also use them when you want to hike faster or you want to burn more calories.

I’d skip the hiking poles for shorter day hikes through easy terrain.  I’d also skip them for days when I want to combine trail running and hiking into the same trip.

Let’s take a look at the pros and cons of hiking with hiking poles so you can see how I came to these conclusions.

The Advantages of Using Hiking Poles

Hiking poles offer hikers a few advantages.  Some of these advantages are:

  • Less stress on the lower body.
  • More stability.
  • Increased walking speeds.
  • A better workout.
  • An additional tool that can be used.

Less Stress on the Lower Body

The Cooper Institute did a study to determine how hiking with trekking poles effects muscles versus hiking without them.  They took two different groups of hikers, one group with hiking poles and one group without, and tested their blood to determine how much muscle damage was done during the hike.

What they found was that the group with the trekking poles suffered less muscle damage than the group without the trekking poles.  The group with the poles also recovered much quicker than the group without the poles.  They surmised that the reason for this is that the poles reduce the load on the lower body and as a result decrease muscle damage and soreness in the lower body.

These findings are significant, especially for people who go on longer hikes.  Being able to recover quicker means the hiker is less likely to injure themselves.  It also means that the hiker can do more miles in less time and with less rest.

Unfortunately, backpackers are notorious for developing lower-body injuries.  Reducing the amount of strain on the lower body can help to reduce or even eliminate the development of some of these injuries which makes hiking poles greatly beneficial to long-distance hikers.

Increased Stability

Hikers have to deal with elevation changes, unlevel ground, and a wide variety of different surfaces.  They also have to deal with wet rocks, (sometimes covered with wet leaves), mud, loose gravel, and a whole host of other issues.  This is part of what makes hiking so fun!  Unfortunately, it can also lead to injuries, (not fun).

Trekking poles can help cut down on these injuries and can reduce the likelihood that you’ll fall when you step on that wet rock or stumble over that fallen log.  They also make crossing streams and rivers easier as you double the number of contact points you have with the ground.

Increased Speed

Hiking poles give most hikers a speed advantage.  One of the main reasons for this is that because less stress is put on the hiker’s lower body, they can hike longer without having to take as many breaks.

Another reason is that hikers can safely move downhill and over streams without slowing down as much as they normally would.  On top of this, using a nordic walking style approach when hiking can increase speeds on flat areas as well.  In fact, while the average hiking speed is only around 3 miles per hour, the average nordic walking speed is about 4 miles per hour.  This means hiking without poles is often 25% slower!

A Better Workout

By now, you know that using hiking poles is going to make your hike less strenuous on your lower body.  The reason for this is because some of the physical effort used for hiking is now being placed on your upper body.  This gives you a more rounded workout as it turns hiking into a full-body exercise rather than just a lower body one.

Additional studies from the Cooper Institute also found that walking with hiking poles leads to a 20% increase in energy usage and oxygen consumption.  This means you’ll burn more calories with hiking poles than without.  Keep this in mind as you plan out your backpacking trip as you may find you need to pack more food when you bring poles than when you go without.

An Extra Tool

Hiking poles can be used for more than just walking.  You can use them to replace tent poles, to put tarps up, and possibly even to keep small animals at bay.

Buy a hiking pole with additional built-in features and you can get even more utility out of it.  For example, some hiking poles have compasses and even small saws built into them.  This means hiking poles could give you some gear redundancy without adding much weight or they could be used to reduce the number of items in your backpack.

For instance, some people will leave their tent poles at home and just use their trekking poles instead.  This could lead to them being able to carry a smaller backpack which could lead to even further weight reductions.

hiking trail marker

The Disadvantages of Using Hiking Poles

Of course, using hiking poles also offers some disadvantages as well.  These disadvantages might include:

  • Environmental disruption.
  • Having to deal with an extra piece of gear.
  • The hike becoming more difficult than without hiking poles.
  • The additional cost of having to buy more gear.

Environmental Disruption

The Appalachian Trail Conservancy created a paper going over the potential environmental effects of using hiking poles.  They explored the possible impact that trekking poles could have on vegetation, soil, and rock.

They concluded that trailside vegetation could be damaged from the swinging motion of the trekking poles.  This could lead to the trail being widened and low-lying ground cover being lost.  One could conclude that this could lead to erosion which could lead to lost trails.

On top of this, the soil is also being penetrated each time a trekking pole makes contact with it.  This could also lead to erosion and could cause the soil to retain water, which could lead to muddy trails instead of hard trails.

The tips of hiking poles can also chip rocks and scrape off the moss.  This probably only has a small impact on the environment, but it does affect the aesthetics of some trails.

On the other hand, nobody seems to be mentioning the potential environmental benefits of using trekking poles either.  Stabbing the ground with hiking poles could reduce soil compaction and could help low-lying vegetation take root.  Vegetation can often help stabilize slopes and could prevent further erosion and slope failures.

hiking trail

Unfortunately, nobody has done any thorough studies on the environmental impact of trekking poles and until somebody does, we’re all just guessing.

Additional Gear

Having to deal with extra gear can be a pain both on and off the trail.  For starters, you’ll have to drag two more items out to the hiking trail with you.  Get poles that don’t collapse and they may be a hassle to pack as well.  This is especially true if you’re taking a bike or motorcycle to the trailhead.

On top of this, you’ll have to store your trekking poles when you get home.  I’ve noticed over the years that more and more of my home is being taken up by camping gear so I’ve become a little more careful with what I buy.  I do have trekking poles, but I opted to get ones that collapse in on themselves.  If you’re worried about space, you might want to consider doing this too.

Money

A good pair of hiking poles is going to cost you some money.  It isn’t a lot of money, but it is something to consider.  The $25.00 to $50.00 you spend on trekking poles could be used to buy other hiking gear.

Is there another piece of kit you’d rather have?  If so, you might have to give that up when you buy your hiking poles.

A More Difficult Hike

Scrambling up rocks and climbing boulders is tough.  It’s even tougher when you have a set of trekking poles in your hands.  In this case, your retractable hiking poles might end up in your backpack for most of the hike and you’ll simply be carrying extra weight for no reason.

Boulders aren’t the only places you can’t use hiking poles either.  Sometimes, you’ll find that the trails are much too narrow to allow for your poles to be used.  On these trails, you’ll just be carrying your poles around without getting any real hiking benefits from them.

How to Use Trekking Poles

Setting the Length

Trekking poles should fall at a 90-degree angle to your elbows.  Basically, this means your forearms should be completely horizontal when your trekking pole hits the ground, (assuming level ground).  If you’re using telescoping or folding poles, you’ll want to set the appropriate length before you get started.  You can reset the length for long downhill slopes and long uphill slopes so that your arms run at a 90-degree angle on these slopes as well.

Gripping the Pole

Before gripping the pole, you’ll need to slide your hand through the strap from underneath.  You’ll do this by reaching up through the strap and then grabbing the grip.  After you’ve grabbed the handle, you can then adjust the strap so that it fits comfortably around your wrist.

One of the reasons why it’s so important to go through the strap from underneath is that going through the top can leave your thumb vulnerable during a fall.  Trip and fall with the strap wrapped around your hand improperly and you’ll essentially end up dislocating your thumb.

Walking Technique

When you’re on flat ground, you’ll want to use your hiking poles asymmetrically.  What I mean by this is that if your right foot is up, your right hand should be down and vice versa.  Walking like this gives you at least one point of contact on each side at all times and helps give you additional stability and balance.  On top of this, you could potentially use this method to help lengthen your stride and speed up your pace.

Uphill and downhill walking on steep slopes may call for you to walk using both of your poles with each step.  Essentially, you’ll lift both poles and plant both of them before each step you take.  This creates additional stability when going uphill and reduces the pressure on your lower body when going downhill.

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Christopher Schopf

Christopher Schopf loves camping, hiking, canoeing, and basically anything that gets him outdoors.

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