Ever found yourself wondering why hikers insist upon poking the trail with their seemingly pointless trekking poles? Poles that look more like useless accessories reserved only for the most experienced mountain wanderers? I mean, they seem to barely even let the poles touch the ground, let alone put any weight into them that could possibly hold any meaningful benefits. I’ll admit, my past ignorance of the many benefits of trekking poles has seen me wondering the same over the years. And although hiking with the assistance of poles certainly isn’t for everyone, there really are some great reasons why they should be seriously considered if you intend to keep exploring on foot well into your older years.
The benefits of trekking poles
Probably the most significant reason for hiking with poles is to reduce stress on your knees and back. When you first use trekking poles, it may seem like they’re not really doing much to help reduce the pressure, and it can be tempting to put more weight through your arms than what feels natural. But consider the number of steps you take in a single day of hiking. If using poles only reduces the weight through your knees by 2 lbs per step, that sure adds up to a lot of weight over the day. And if you are carrying a loaded backpack then this becomes even more crucial.
With a little bit of weight redistributed on each of your steps, your muscles and joints will take longer to fatigue, helping you get in those extra miles before you need to take rests. This especially applies to downhill hiking where the muscles in your legs are almost constantly contracting (they never get to fully rest or rely on other muscles). So using your poles out in front of you to take some of the load off of your quads and knees will help delay the onset of fatigue, and prevent any falls from weakened muscles.
3Promotes better posture
The less we fatigue, the better we are at keeping good posture. As we become tired, however, we tend to start leaning or hunching forwards as we hike. This puts extra strain through your back, especially when hiking with a backpack, and can lead to shortened days and aching muscles. Or worse still, injury.
4Improves lung capacity
With good posture also comes improved lung capacity. An upright posture opens up the lungs to allow more oxygen in. And more oxygen in leads to more efficient delivery of oxygen to the muscles helping them stay stronger for longer.
5Increases stability and balance
Having three or four points of contact to rely upon, instead of just your two legs, makes negotiating tricky terrain much easier, and safer. Even on mellow terrain, hiking with a backpack instantly alters your usual centre of gravity, so the extra help from a pair of trekking poles will keep you much more balanced. Add in some creek or river crossings and you’ll be very glad you have the extra stability to negotiate slippery rocks or a strong current with ease and confidence.
6Helps you hike faster
Once you get into a good rhythm with your hiking poles, you will find yourself walking faster. The poles propel you forwards slightly and encourage you to lengthen your stride to keep your arms and legs coordinated with each other. For hikers on a schedule, or for those wanting to get lots of miles in each day, this is a big benefit of trekking poles.
7Can be used for resting
Hiking with a backpack adds a whole load of extra strain on your body. And resting regularly will help to alleviate the fatigue. Leaning on your trekking poles when you stop to rest can provide a little extra relief to your tired body, and even if it’s just for a minute or two, can reduce some of the weight of your pack on your knees.
8Good protection from your surroundings
The likelihood of having to fend off a bear or mountain lion will (hopefully) be very slim. But a pair of hiking poles might just help you seem bigger and scarier to any predators that you may encounter. You’re more likely to use your poles to bash down any vegetation that has encroached upon the trail. Of course any old stick will do just fine for this, assuming you can find one. Your trekking poles, however, are already in your hands and using them to bush bash won’t slow your progress much at all.
9Double as tarp poles
If you are on a lightweight backpacking mission then using your hiking poles as support for your shelter or tarp can be a good weight and space saver. Shaving up to 2 lbs off your pack weight is a big saving, and trekking poles are also stronger and more stable than dedicated tent poles.
10Very useful if you become injured
And finally, should the worst happen and you become injured out on the trail, having hiking poles could be more of a lifesaver than you might realise. A sprained or broken ankle can be agony to put any weight on, and a pair of fully extended hiking poles can easily be adapted into crutches to fully take the weight off of the injured leg. For those with less serious sprains or injuries, using trekking poles can often mean they are able to finish the hike as planned, if only at a slower more cautious pace.
The negatives of hiking with poles
With so many benefits to trekking poles, why don’t all hikers use them? Here are a few reasons:
1They can get in your way
Sometimes, and especially on narrow trails, there’s just nowhere to place your poles! You can end up holding them up in front of you, which can fatigue your shoulders very quickly, or you just have to fold them up and pack them away. This can slow both you and your fellow hikers down, or block the trail entirely.
2You don’t have free hands
If you like to snack while you hike, or have a habit of checking your GPS more often than you probably should, then having poles in your hands all the time can fast become very tiresome. Yes, you can just drop your poles and let them hang at your wrists, but then you’ve got poles hanging around and getting in the way whilst you’re trying to take that perfect photo. Even drinking on the go is not an option when you have trekking poles in your hands. You’ll need to stop and put your poles down each time you need to use your hands. Additionally, there are times when you are scrambling up steep terrain where having your hands free is almost essential. Again, you’ll have to stop, fold up your poles and attach them to your pack each time you encounter tricky terrain.
3They are another thing to carry in your pack
Whenever you’re not using your poles, you’re gonna have to carry them in or on your pack. And although most decent poles weigh only around 1 lb per pair, every little bit of extra weight all adds up, espeically when you are carry everything you need to survive for multiple days in the wild.
4They can add extra erosion
With many of the more popular trails already suffering from overuse and erosion issues, the addition of an extra point of contact on the ground with every step your take certainly takes it’s toll on the trail over time. And with more and more people are using trekking poles, the problem isn’t going to get any better.
5Burns more calories
Carrying enough food to cover your caloric needs can be a challenge at the best of times when hiking. And although some people may rejoice at the idea of burning more calories by using trekking poles, it’s an issue that any sensible backpacker could just do without. More calories burned means more food in the pack. Or worse still, less energy and greater fatigue, thus negating all the fatigue reducing benefits that trekking poles provide in the first place!
There are clearly more benefits of trekking poles than negatives. But that doesn’t mean that they are necessarily right for you. If possible, try some out before you buy your own. And then once you know they’re for you, make sure you understand what to look for in a good pair of trekking poles and what you need from them to make your hiking experience better than ever.