Trekking Poles: Pros and Cons

Bending Forward Over Trekking Poles Wastes Energy
Bending Forward Over Trekking Poles Wastes Energy

I’m a big fan of trekking poles for hiking because they help reduce the strain on my knees when I walk downhill, they improve my balance when I’m hiking over rough ground or crossing streams, and they are useful for establishing a good walking rhythm when synchronized with your arms. But there’s no such thing as a free lunch and before you run out and buy a pair of hiking poles, it’s important to understand the pros and cons of using them and how to use them properly for the greatest benefit.


  • Reduce strain on knees during descents
  • Improve balance when walking across rough terrain and stream crossings
  • Help establish a walking rhythm
  • Multi-purpose item that can be used to pitch ultralight shelters


  • Arm motion increases amount of energy required
  • Leaning forward on poles reduces biomechanical efficiency of carrying a backpack
  • Improper reliance on straps can lead to injury on falls due to wrist entrapment
  • Poles can catch on trees and brush while hiking on narrow trails or bushwhacking
  • Steel carbide tips can be potentially damaging to rocks and fragile plants
  • Care must be taken when walking across scree fields to prevent poles from snapping

Energy Consumption

First off, trekking poles require more energy to hike with because they involve your upper body muscles (arms and shoulders) as well as your lower body muscles. So, while trekking poles may reduce the level of perceived exertion you experience, you are going to burn more calories if you use them.

Hiking Uphill

There are also times where trekking poles can be more of a hindrance than a help. For example, how many times have you seen someone climbing uphill who is hunched over so that their upper body is nearly parallel with the ground. Invariably, they’re leaning over their hiking poles in an effort to offload their leg muscles while holding up their upper body and backpack with their poles.

Trekking poles provide no benefit in this situation because the weight of their upper body has been transferred away from your legs – which are the biggest and strongest muscles of your body – to the arms which are far weaker and get tired more quickly. It’s even worse if you’re wearing a backpack, because the work of holding it up is done by the arms and not the hip belt which is designed to transfer the load to your legs

When hiking up hills, it’s important to stand straight and keep your torso as errect as possible so that your big leg muscles do all the work. Trekking poles can be used for balance or to help lift your torso up using your arms, but only if they’re help close to your sides, not out front of your body.

Leaning forward actually requires even more energy because the tops of your trekking poles are pushing against you – so that you almost need to vault over them to get past. That’s another reason to keep the poles by your sides. Standing up straight and taking smaller steps is the key to getting up steep hills, not leaning forward on your poles.


Trekking poles can be be very advantageous for hikers, paricularly because they reduce the strain and force of gravity on your lower extremities when hiking downhill. But used incorrectly on uphill climbs, they can result in increased caloric demand and perceived effort. Like any piece of hiking gear, the efficient use of trekking poles requires proper technique and an awareness of the pitfalls of incorrect usage.

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  1. I prefer the old fashioned scout hiking staff. While not quite a lightweight option, the pros and cons are about the same. Another good use not mentioned is that they help with walking less frequently used trails, clearing spider webs and sticker branches that may be hanging across trails, to keep them from smacking your face.

  2. My use of trekking poles has evolved over time. I used to use them to power myself uphill and practically ski my way downhill. Once I dropped my pack weight I found two poles made hiking seem tedious, taking the time to place each pole became an unnecessary distraction. I now usually hike with one pole. I use it to test whether that log foothold in the approaching sea of mud is solid or floating, ease my way downhill path, prop up my tarp, and, on occasion, keep a poorly trained dog from getting too close. I should add that when my load increases or there is snow or ice I’m likely to bring along a second pole.

  3. I’ve looked at hiking poles over the years and still not convinced I need them. They appear to be more of a distraction to me. But then again, I’m old school, and may change my mind as I get older.

    • Physical therapists would argue you are better off not having them because it forces your lower body to acclimate to rough and uneven surfaces. Some people don’t like poles and that’s ok.

  4. Whoa! This article covers a lot of ground. Here’s a contrary point of view.

    But first some agreement. It IS counter productive to lean forward when tired or operating near your limits on a steep ascent. Even before I became a pole user eight years ago I made a conscious effort to walk as upright as possible at all times. How many times have you seen folks without poles leaning forward with their hands on their knees? … they didn’t need poles to encourage that unproductive posture! Being conscious to keep shoulders back and pelvis forward falls short of both of those outcomes but it does keep me upright!

    You DO need to be careful to not get poles snagged between rocks or on the wrong side of a root but risk of breakage is high only if traveling fast … on scree I’m not fast.

    Damaging vegetation? A found wooden walking staff can do plenty of that too. Carbide tips can damage rock (forbidden on high usage routes like the Inca Trail)

    I can accept that pole usage increases energy usage but late in the day I find myself limited by leg fatigue even late in good seasons when I have several hundred miles of hilly walking behind me. Using poles for added propulsion makes the last few miles of a day much easier. In fact, I have converted people to poles by loaning my poles in mid afternoon on days when they appear to be flagging.

    (What I would call suboptimal) pole usage may encourage leaning forward but it does not have to be that way. I rarely plant a pole ahead of my feet unless descending or for balance taking a high and awkward step up on an ascent. All other times my poles are angled backwards and planted along side my feet … for propulsion..

    I would also offer an alternative view regarding short steps going uphill. Difficult footing can dictate otherwise but wherever possible I try to lengthen my steps when ascending. That gets muscles working over a wider range of motion.

  5. When I started getting my hiking kit together (2 years ago now?) I debated poles – on one hand I felt I was getting ahead of myself, maybe buying more kit than I needed – on the other, the benefits of having them seemed reasonable: balance, giving me something to do with my hands other than having them swing uselessly by my sides, potential weapon when faced with a rabid wombat.

    I bought them and then read a lot about how to use them and find that they are (I use two) irreplaceable. I can’t count the number of times I’ve nearly fallen uphill, downhill, on flats, on rough, on smooth, with and without backpack only to have caught myself with my poles. I’m something of a natural klutz, so poles – I need them.

    As for going up hill, the con you’ve listed is alleviated by quickly adjusting the pole length to
    keep arms at a proper angle. I actually do this for any extended up or downhill – short for up, long for down. I am never leaning over the poles because of this. Is this technique not common?

    Also – with regard to damaging the environment, I have little rubber pads I put on the end of my poles to avoid digging up too much dirt. Seems to work well on hard rock also.

    • Most people don’t bother adjusting pole height. But if you keep them next to your sides, you almost never have to adjust them because the length of your legs never changes.

  6. I’m an older woman who welcomes the stability of four legs. I adore my Pacer Poles for providing that and a particular something else. I’ve experienced the difference when hiking with poles…yes…requiring extra arm movement and without. Without…my hands by the end of the day…with less motion in my arms…swell from shoulder straps pressure and lack of that upper body activity. So, to me, poles keep my inner body balanced as well as outer.

  7. As a former hiker waylayed for several years by injury, I recently returned to hiking and considered the trekking poles to help my aging 55 year old body along. I rejected the poles for two reasons: (1) the grips (even the men’s) felt too small for my large, pre-arthritic hands and (2) price. My solution? A $17 lightweight aluminum drugstore cane with a larger, foam handle. It adjusted for uphills and down; the rubber tip was invaluable on wet, slippery rocks where metal tips would have been useless – these babies are designed to GRIP; I had one hand free and could switch hands. Plus, it didn’t leave all those annoying holes in the dirt. Whatever happend to “leave no trace”? Next hike I won’t use it going uphill and save the climbs for my leg muscles only. Thanks for the tip!

  8. Check out the ergonomic grip of Pacer Poles.

  9. I’ve moved from hiking to trail running, but when I did day “hikes” I often never used poles.

    On camping trips in the Whites, I do and will use poles – here’s my view and usage of poles:

    – Walking – added propulsion
    – Climbing – Either with shortened length or I hold the pole further down (mine have extended grips) – remove some of the burden placed on and sole reliance of my legs. I find that I do reach the poles out far, leaning forward, then use my upper body and arms / lats to pull myself up. My wrists are hanging on the straps and my hands are loosely holding the grips. I actually really enjoy this motion and find it takes some of the work off my legs. This might be due to having strong upper body strength (20+ pull-ups no sweat). It also stretches out my lower back and shoulders at the same time.
    Other times I will climb with short “rest steps” and place the poles alongside my body with my hands on tops of the poles and push myself up (using triceps).
    (As an aside, there are times when leaning over is beneficial – watch some serious trail runners or fell runners power hiking – hands on quads pushing down and thru the legs. This motion helps the legs and also helps support the back and take some stress off the core).
    – Downhills – I lengthen the poles and swing them out forward to help stabilize or even brake myself if needed.

    I think you missed the one major con of poles – They occupy the hand and tie it up. A problem when you need hands for a steep scramble handhold. This is a problem alleviated, for me, by the use of straps, allowing me to simply dangle the poles when I need a hand.

  10. Three years in a row I went to my doctor for my annual physical. (He’s my age – not young) Each year he’d tell me that I was in great shape and ask if I had complaints. I’d complain of my knees when hiking and especially when backpacking. He’d tell me to get trekking poles. I didn’t.
    The third time he responded, “Three choices: Quit complaining, get trekking poles, or get a new doctor.” I got poles. My knees seldom hurt during or after hiking now.
    I have basic Black Diamonds, which adjust easily. I do lengthen them for long downhills because that’s when I’d beat up my knees, then I walk more slowly and plant a pole with each step to take a little shock off my knees.
    No need to grip handles. If you use a downhill ski grip you can rest your wrists in the straps and the wrists take the pressure and no grip is needed. (Because I’ve had skin cancer I wear light gloves all the time and that helps a lot too.) Come up with your hand through the loops and rest your wrist on the loops. This is not a good idea in places where you can fall and the poles might get caught on brush, rock, etc.
    If I need my hands to scramble I either let the poles dangle, as Tim says, or I put them in the pole holders on my pack. Big rubber tips do protect the environment better. I have some. They can pull off if stuck in rocks so some folks epoxy them in place.

  11. Bill in Nashville

    I will add my voice in praise of Pacer Poles.

    I used to use a single hiking stick but my hand began to go numb after an hour or so. I tried the typical trekking poles–same thing. I might add that I am over 60 with arthritis.

    I saw a favorable comment about Pacer Poles and eventually bought a pair.

    They are excellent! No numb hand, no post-hike aching arthritic feet(knees, shoulders etc)
    and their unique ergonomic design is great.

    I recently did Foster Falls trail which was ups and downs with a zillion roots and sharp wobbly rocks. My poles helped me avoid slips and falls more than once.
    Going up can be tricky due to the reasons mentioned but I’ve learned to adjust.

    I can’t address backpacking as I don’t do that.

    Thanks for an excellent article and comments.

  12. I’ve chimed in on PacerPoles in the past and will again. I’m also over 60 with arthritis. The only time my hands don’t hurt is when they are resting in those PacerPoles–at least that’s my excuse for hiking and backpacking and I’m sticking with it!

  13. A few times I’ve scratched my nose or face with my pole in hand, dipped the end of the tip and caught it on a rock while walking and smashed the top of the handle into my face.

    Pick your nose with caution… haha

  14. While I use poles (mostly, for my purposes, because they can double as shelter support and help reduce knee impact with descent), I would say they are in my pack about 50% of the time. Why I don’t use them more? It depends on the terrain and surface. If it is moderate to no slope, soil under foot, no over-hanging vegetation, trekking poles are great. On steeper terrain and rocking substrate, I want to rely on my feet and legs. I would add the following additional “cons” to the good comments provided by others:
    – Noise – yes this is a minor reason, but the click, click, clicking – especially on rocks substrate – sometimes drives me crazy
    – Hands free – I don’t like having stuff in my hands. I frequently take a drink or eat a bar while hiking. While doable with poles, they make it more of a production.
    – Distraction – Most of us who like to hike do so without much thought; and, while hiking is not rocket science, it does require attention. Where to place your foot, scanning ahead on the trail, looking for wildlife, enjoying the scenery, etc. All the scanning pulls the eyes away from your foot placement. If you have trekking poles, you also have to be attuned to where you place the point of your pole (see balance below).
    – Balance – This is the big one for me: I’ve heard people over the years tout the value of trekking poles because they have “saved me from falling over a cliff”, and other such sensational tales. While there may be instances of this, here’s the other side of that coin: The assumption is that poles allow you to use other muscles to move your body, balance, and reduce impact on descents. If that is the case, then your center of gravity is no longer centered over your legs/feet. Your legs/feet possess the strongest muscles for supporting your body and maintaining your position and balance. If your weight – however slightly placed on the pole – were to shift – say the point slips on a rock – you have a recepie for a fall. Not only that, you have these thing in your hand that limit their ability shift/wave/etc. to balance the body – or even catch yourself should you actually fall. Given that about 50% of my hikes cover terrain with bedrock or lots of loose rocks, how and where you place your trekking pole can make a difference, as to whether or not it slips on a rock or not. A small slip can shift your weight, causing you to use more energy at least, or fall, at worst.

    On the Pro side: I find my hands can sometimes swell swinging at my side (even when I tuck my thumbs in my shoulder straps); using poles allows me to get the blood flowing in my arms and hands.

  15. I only use the exposed carbide tips of my trekking poles for very particular conditions: Snow, ice, and wet slab, when I need the tips to “bite” into the surface for stability. The rest of the time I keep my tips covered, which gives me all the benefit of the pole without it sinking into soft trail dirt.

    Also, I highly recommend learning correct pole technique, such as not “pulling” yourself up an incline, but actually placing both poles behind you and pushing down as your make a step up. This is a great DVD that teaches the best way to use your poles in all conditions:

    POLES for Hiking, Trekking & Walking

    • This is actually the method recommended by They also have a unique hand grip that facilitates it because it’s nearly impossible to do with a vertical pole or pole straps.

  16. I don’t go on any hike without my poles, they’re like a part of me now…
    The only time I use the straps is for crossing streams…
    Take Care Everyone….

  17. Any energy output using them is worth it it terms of benefits.


    Help on steep downhill sections
    River crossings
    Aid for balance on really rock strewn paths
    Use to hold up shelters like tarps and Mids
    Fighting of farm dogs ( yes I have had to do that on walks)

    Poles simply are superb and I am this summer trying some very light and strong Fizan ones. I wont backpack without them.

  18. I guess I am with the hiking staff fellow……….but a lightweight verson…I use a single 0.75-1 inch bamboo pole with some paracord wrapped at key points. I used them on the West Coast trail last summer, and I would never do without it. Why? The biggest is the ability to grab the pole wherever is most efficient for big step ups and downs (which were everywhere on the WCT). That hand maneuverability is huge. The pole is also easy to hold/balance with 2 fingers when not using by balancing in the middle, and the weight feels non existant. Third, poles break, and this happened to my sons poles on the WCT when caught between 2 roots. While cracked, with just some wraps of electric tape it was back to 100% because it was like taping together a wodden barrel. I should also say I am a 205 lb guy, and there has not been any issues with the pole breaking due to my weight……….bamboo has amazing axial strength along its central axis.

    Now whether if covering lots of miles on a well defined gradual trail, the walking poles could still be a bonus….but where the terrain requires big steps up and down, its bamboo for me.

  19. I am a Physical Therapist, and I am a fairly recent convert to using two poles while hiking. In fact, there is a movement to get patients with balance issues to use hiking poles with rubber tips. I haven’t had any patients try it yet, but I can see the benefits. At any rate, I almost always use my poles for long and challenging hikes. Among other benefits I will mention below, they help keep me going when I’m fatigued.

    I agree with Jim C, who says, “I rarely plant a pole ahead of my feet unless descending or for balance taking a high and awkward step up on an ascent. All other times my poles are angled backwards and planted along side my feet … for propulsion..” That’s exactly how I use my poles.

    I also agree with Mike: “adjusting the pole length to keep arms at a proper angle. I actually do this for any extended up or downhill – short for up, long for down.” It takes only a minute to stop and adjust the poles, which works extremely well for steep, extended climbs and descents.

    I strongly disagree with alnetloc, who claims, “If you have trekking poles, you also have to be attuned to where you place the point of your pole”. On “normal” trail conditions, I hardly pay attention to my poles, except to enjoy their rhythm as they swing loosely, just about on their own momentum (I had to consciously practice the “no-grip” method until it became second nature).

    However, I frequently hike the rocky, rocky, rocky (did I mention rocky?) AT in PA, which is known as, “The Place Where Boots Go To Die”, and during those frequent EXTREMELY rocky sections, you have to watch where you place each footstep anyway. I have never had a pole tip slip on rock — wet or dry — although I have occasionally gotten them caught between the rocks, without incident. Small price to pay for the benefits, which brings me to my last point:

    alnetloc also asserts that, “you have these thing in your hand that limit their ability shift/wave/etc. to balance the body – or even catch yourself should you actually fall”. I can’t tell you how many times my poles have saved me from going down. Even wearing my over-the-ankle sturdy leather boots, I seem to frequently roll my (mostly right) ankle on the rocks, and I have caught myself every time with my poles, where had I not been using them, I would have fallen and hurt myself. It happens on every hike, and they enable me to hike faster.

    In addition, I sometimes use them like a skier going through a slalom when a narrow trail curves around and obstacle, like a tree for example). I put out my pole and lean sideways on it as I maneuver around the obstacle without breaking my stride at all.

    My 70-pound muscular, athletic dog always knows when we get close to the end of the hike (usually at, around, or after dark, when the “night crowd” starts to get active), and that’s when I have to get her back on the leash. That’s when I fold up my poles, as I can’t control her on leash and use poles at the same time.

  20. Sally Dabrowski

    I mainly only use my poles when I’m snowshoeing. I thought I’d use them backpacking, but I have found them to be more of a hindrance than anything else other than when I’m on snowshoes. I have good balance and hiking without poles allows me to work on my balance while hiking if I’m on really uneven terrain. As far as taking the strain off the knees going downhill, they do do that job well, but learning to engage certain muscles also does the same job, which is what my sister and I did while backpacking into the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone last week, which was a long and steep descent.

    I think that damage poles do that Phillip mentioned not to mention the noise they create going over rocks since barely anyone I’ve hiked pass who’d been using them actually had the rubber caps on the poles should not be overlooked. While doing the Franconia Ridge Traverse this spring nearly every rock I stepped on was covered in scratch marks and my hike was constantly interrupted by the screeching sound of poles over rocks as we passed hikers. I get that they’re rocks and they’re not really being hurt by scratches (and I’m a rock climber so who am I to talk) but the point is that we’re supposed to do our best to leave no trace so pole use should be done responsibly, i.e. using the rubber caps unless the conditions require the need for steel tips like in the winter. Most pole users I’ve seen walk with them far out to the sides or out to the front and sides seemingly without noticing what their poles are landing on since they often landed close to us and I’d imagine alpine plant life, which, as we all know, is fragile. In a way I think they’re becoming somewhat of a new hazard to watch out for. Perhaps specifically addressing proper pole use should be added to the Leave No Trace syllabus.

  21. Sally Dabrowski writes, “my hike was constantly interrupted by the screeching sound of poles over rocks as we passed hikers.” Screeching? Sounds extreme to me, but perhaps my hearing and my sensitivity to loud noises are not what they used to be.

    Immediately before that she comments, “While doing the Franconia Ridge Traverse this spring nearly every rock I stepped on was covered in scratch marks” Seriously? Sounds like hordes of vicious, rampaging hikers with ice axes bent on destruction. Perhaps those marks were left by the glacial movement and tumbling that deposited those rocks there in the first place, if they’re really that visible and noticeable.

  22. Sally, I thought you should know that when the e-mail came through with your reply, some letters had somehow gotten dropped out of your comments. It actually came through that you were worried about the damage to “ant life” (I’m not joking), rather than “alpine plant life”, which is what you really wrote.

    I was getting ready to comment that, “Well gee, you may as well just stay home. What about all the bacteria and micro-organisms you are grinding under your boots on the trail?” When I went to copy your quote, I saw what you had really written. I went back and looked at the e-mail again, and sure enough, it had gotten mangled and you were misquoted.

    Just for the record, I agree that we should take care to minimize damage to fragile alpine plants. I hope all the animals get the memo, too (Sorry, just joking about the animals memo).

  23. Hiking poles have entertainment value also. When hiking with my grandchildren in Texas, we spear broken off prickly pear pads that we find along the trail and then see how far we can catapult them with the poles. When my grandson, at age 5 finished his first long backpacking trip with me to South Rim in Big Bend National Park, I asked him what was his favorite part of the trip. His response was, “Throwing ouchies.” This was after watching the sunrise on the new year perched on a cliff a vertical mile above the Rio Grande River as we gazed a hundred miles into Mexico.

  24. Very entertaining, Grandpa — thanks :-)

  25. Hi Phil,

    Good arguments, did you use poles on the TGO challenge?

  26. Started hiking without poles, never saw the usefulness at the time…
    Now, I wouldn’t hike without them.

    Lets me hike with a groove, increasing my overall speed.
    Steadies my downhills.
    Let’s me use them with a lightweight shelter, instead of a heavier shelter with included poles.
    I can prod suspect footing easily beforehand.
    Personal Advantage… I go off on a side trail & sometimes can’t remember which direction I should resume coming out. I lay one pole on the ground, tip forward, in the direction I need to go on the main trail before going in on the side trail.

    I don’t use straps, so sometimes I might end up with a callus on my thumb.
    Sometimes I feel the extra exertion in my arms at the end of the day, but not always.
    A hindrance around some obstacles, particularly going under blowdowns.
    Personal Disadvantage…I used to eat sunflower seeds incessantly while hiking… even had a custom pouch made that hung off my pants belt. Poles broke me of that habit for good.

    Tip: Because I worry about losing a pole in a (rare) river crossing, I’ve made a pair of attachments out of guyline with 2 end slipknots to easily attach to the pole handle and wrist, acting as temporary straps. Handy in an outside pocket when needed.

  27. A few thoughts from a non-user:

    1) To those who say you shouldn’t lean forward and put weight on poles (such as climbing), doesn’t that posture relieve the weight on your legs? In such a case, the poles allow you shift the weight burden temporarily, giving your legs a rest. And isn’t this weight-shifting feature the reason why people’s knees hurt less, because the arms are taking some weight off the knees? As such, the extra energy burned by your arms should be offset by energy saved in your legs. Yes, my leg muscles are biggest, but who hasn’t wished they could give their tired legs a break by using their arms at times? (Or by getting a llama!)

    I should note that I am thinkingmainly in terms of backpacking. Some trekking pole makers seem to believe that poles are primarily to propel you forward at a faster rate, in which case your overall energy increases (because you don’t get something for nothing).

    2) “Using poles allows me to save the weight of tent poles.” Well, if you use poles no matter what, this is true. But the poles for my REI Quarterdome weigh 15 oz.–less than all but the most expensive hiking poles. So you’re probably carrying more, not less, weight by using trekking poles in places of tent poles.

    3) I have a buddy whose poles clattered with every step, not just from hitting rocks, but from the adjustment mechanisms which allowed the inner pole to rattle. At times I found it quite annoying–it ruined the quiet of the nature around us–but there was no diplomatic way to get him not to use them. (Thankfully, marmots ate his straps and his new poles are much quieter.)

    4) I have hiked many miles staring at rows of holes punched in the dirt. No, it doesn’t affect much in the big picture, but I found the holes distracting, even annoying. I have also noticed scuff marks on rocks, something normally only found on mountain bike trails.

    5) I carry my SLR camera in its case around my neck, ready to use on a moment’s notice to capture a fleeting photo opportunity. Having poles in my hands could be an unwelcome encumbrance, even if they hang by their straps.

    6) Balance: I have watched my friends using poles lose their balance on rocks and logs that I navigated easily without poles. (True: some of us are blessed with a better sense of balance than others.) My belief is that a reliance on a pole to catch you makes your balance skills worse, not better. Kind of like riding a bike with training wheels. My physical therapist might have me use poles while standing on the balance platform, but eventually he wants me to learn to balance with no aids.

    • C.H., Leaning forward puts a lot of extra stress on your low back (and your shoulders & arms, if you’re leaning on the poles). Think of your body as a group of levers: Levers provide a mechanical advantage, which can be calculated by the formula: Force X Distance to the Fulcrum. In this case, your hips (and the joints between the vertebrae) are the fulcrum(s), and gravity acts as the force on the lever. As you lean forward, you increase the distance to the fulcrum(s), increasing gravity’s mechanical advantage over you, and then you have to work harder to counteract that force. The small lower-back (and neck) muscles are not made to work that hard; they are designed to correct small amounts of sway when everything is properly aligned.

      So, the same with the arms, and the legs. The major advantage I find with poles is while ascending & descending, not really so much on the flats. Uphill, I push almost straight down on the poles, minimizing stress on the shoulders, elbows, and arms; and relieving gravity’s advantage it has on the lever of my femur (and the weight of my upper body sitting directly at the end of the femur where gravity works on me), with the fulcrum at the knee. The greatest stresses at the knee are when it is at 90 degrees (force acting at greatest distance to the fulcrum), and greater, when the tendons and ligaments are not aligned to their greatest mechanical advantage.

      Descending, the poles help with deceleration, which otherwise has to come from eccentric force of the quads. Muscles can provide greater eccentric force than concentric force, but those stronger muscle contractions also exert greater forces at the knee. I often have my hands right on top of the handles while descending, and it’s all angled to minimize stresses to the upper extremities. The pole tips are ahead of me, and I push forward through the poles.

      • Thanks for that scientific explanation! So you do use your arm strength to take a bit of weight off your legs on inclines and declines (which makes sense). But if the poles don’t help for level walking, they would cost you energy. So a mostly flat hike means the poles are using energy without providing much benefit, unless you use them as if XC skiing, to propel you faster.

    • (I meant to add this to the end of my other comment): Also, my sense is that people who use trekking poles in place of tent poles are using ultra-light tarp-like tents that weigh much less than the Quarterdome. Personally, I use the Nemo Losi 3P, so that’s not even part of the equation for me.

  28. I discovered another use for my poles this weekend: Descending an unmaintained, overgrown blue-blazed side-trail off the PA AT a few weeks ago, my face kept getting wrapped in the numerous invisible spider webs strung across the trail. I seemed to hit them every few feet! It was extremely annoying.

    Continuing on our N – S leg this Sunday, we headed back up the side-trail (which actually starts in somebody’s yard). I had forgotten about the spider webs until I got hit in the face again shortly after entering the woods. My hiking partner suggested using one of my poles for clearing the way in front of me, and I found that using my pole to clear away the spider webs made our hike so much more pleasant than using my face!

  29. I’ve done that for a long time with my poles. If I don’t have a pole, a found stick will work or when walking my dog–her leash. :)

  30. I’m starting to feel like those guys who go around spearing trash with spikes on the end of long poles! I’m collecting an awful lot of leaves on my pole spikes these days :-)

    • Once I was hiking in Dinosaur Valley State Park and I forgot my trash bag. Before long, I found a discarded plastic shopping bag and quickly filled it with trash left on the trail and then filled another found bag. I then started spearing all the cans with my hiking poles and had many cans on each pole. I was quite a sight when I ran into a Park Ranger coming the other way. He was quite happy with what I was doing and carried out the trash bags for me.

  31. I’ve been divided on poles for a while. I finally bought some decent ones on a mega cheap sale and tried them out for a while.

    I like them for downhill because they make it much easier and safer to descend sketchy terrain quickly. I also like them on rocky terrain – in spite of other comments – because rocks have a tendency to move underfoot and I do NOT want to be caught tripping onto some sharp rocks. Poles help with that. Just be careful not to snag them.

    For significant uphill, I’ll usually put them away altogether. I want my hands free to grab on to things as I’m climbing. I’ve tried using the traps and nearly fallen multiple times because the poles snag on things while I’m trying to pull myself forward. I don’t like that, obviously, so I just stow them away now. Depends on how significant the climb is, of course.

    I recently crossed a narrow trail that had large piles of snow strewn about. Having a pole in hang made it much safer, in my opinion, crossing this because of the slip hazard. The poles gave you a little extra balance so if your foot started to give when moving forward, all was not all lost.

    However, in the end I’ve started to conclude to myself that I only need one pole. I want the balance that it gives me in difficult situations, but I also like having a hand free to do other things, like grab my camera or some trail mix. Plus I don’t like lugging around the spare pole when I only feel like using one.

    Also, recently (today, in fact) I had to cut off a pair of unleashed dogs that were very interested in being unfriendly with my friend’s dog. The poles worked exceedingly well for cutting across their path and preventing them from getting too close. Now I like the feeling of having SOMETHING in hand to help deal with unwanted encounters. What if those dogs wanted to be unfriendly with me?

  32. As I’ve been losing weight and getting in better shape, I’ve been using my poles less and less. In a week of hiking in NH, I can count the miles in which I used my poles on one hand. I find that I hike faster without them, and I’m more stable on rocky trail, too. I think the poles give you a false sense of security at times. My natural balance has definitely improved since I stopped using them as much. Since I’ve started hammocking, I don’t need them for my shelter anymore, either. I still carry them though, as a security blanket of sorts. I should actually get a lighter set… eyeballing LT4’s. They’d save me 4oz on an item I don’t use very much.

  33. I used to use poles on every hike. Over time, I realized that reliance on them was affecting my natural balance. My body (core, legs, ankles and feet) became less responsive to terrain and balance changes. Now, I only use them on longer trips, where I will be carrying a heavier load – primarily to reduce strain on my lower back and knees. I have become a much stronger hiker by leaving them home for day hikes.

  34. Everyone is certainly different! I hike faster and more stably on rocky trails with them than without.

  35. 35 stream crossings over wet, slippery rocks this past weekend gave me a whole new appreciation for my poles!

  36. I’m surprised at how many people don’t use poles.

    I just went over Mount Mansfield on an LT section hike. “The Forehead” was a fairly long rock scramble / rock climb (maybe 1/2 mile of true scrambling). Pretty sketchy stuff.

    I had to put the poles away for the scramble and when I got above the bad part I felt almost naked hiking without them. Even though I came to a road walk, then a visitor center parking that saw its share of old men wearing dress shoes, I still took my poles right back out.

    I’ve been waiting for this pair to die before I transition to Pacer Poles. They have survived 4 seasons so far, but this last LT section might have been there last.

  37. Kevin, You will love the Pacer Poles. I’ve been using them for some time now and wonder how I ever survived without them. :)
    Also check out their cold weather cover for the hands–they work great.

  38. I know of one scientific study on trekking poles, and that was pretty strongly in favor of poles.

    “The results showed that there was significantly less muscle soreness in the group using trekking poles. This group demonstrated a reduced loss of strength and a faster recovery immediately after the trek compared to the control group. Self-rated soreness peaked at 24-hours in both groups but was significantly lower in the trekking-pole group, both at this point and at the 48-hour point. In addition, levels of the enzyme creatine kinase (which indicates muscle damage) were much higher at the 24-hour point in the non-pole group, while the trekking-pole group’s levels were close to the pre-trekking levels. This shows that the muscle damage they were experiencing was negligible.”

  39. You didn’t really go into the advantages of poles going downhill. When descending with a full pack, they help me control my rate of descent and help me stabilize my pack, especially when moving at a faster pace.

  40. Hey Philip,

    Great overview here. I can think of a few more things to add to your list of “pros” for hiking poles:

    1. Help you keep your stride or pace (you mentioned the walking rhythm)
    2. Give you a boost on uphills
    3. Take shock off your knees on downhills (huge benefit for me on steep terrain in the Whites)
    4. Great for balance on slippery rocks or uneven terrain
    5. Extra points of contact for river crossings
    6. Whacking bushes, branches and spider webs out of the way (esp handy if you’re hiking first in your group in the early morning when no other hikers have cleared the spiderwebs from the trail with their face yet :)
    7. Testing a sketchy looking rock before you put weight on it
    8. Fending off animals like snakes or small rodents
    9. Supports for pitching a tarp (whether you plan to sleep in a tarp or need to set one up in an emergency)
    10. For emergency litter or splint construction

    There are definitely cons like you mentioned, but I think the versatility of hiking poles and all of their pros far outweigh any of the drawbacks.

  41. I love my pacerpoles. At this point, I can’t imagine going without them. The stress reduction on downhills is worth it alone for me. I find them to be useful in just about every situation other than narrow, sunken trails or when trying to get my water bottle =)

  42. I used to hike with poles all the time. Especially when my kids were in their kid packs when they were a few years old. The last thing I wanted was to fall with them in the pack. Then I started back packing and got out of the habit of carrying them.

    Then I found myself in a BAD situation. About two weeks ago I had ascended about 4.5 miles to where we camped overnight. The only way back was a 1000ft ascent back up the hill. While at camp I almost broke my toes when my foot found a hole and my opposite foot’s toes got bent back at a 90 degree plus angle. After temporarily seeing stars from the pain I hobbled back to camp down a steep hill and my rear to keep weight off my foot. The next day I ended up using the poles I had strapped to my pack the day prior and they help save my butt climbing out. In fact, I caught a couple who had left over 20 minutes earlier.

    If I can say onething it is this. They may save you should you get hurt. I won’t go back packing again unless I use them or they are strapped to my pack PERIIOD!

  43. The straps should only be looped over the top of the hand, not around the wrist.Hand up thru the loop takes pressure off wrists and hands.You won’t need a death grip to hold your poles.Easy to escape if needs be.Also the tips should always be behind you and used to push yourself along.Once you get a rhythm going you can really cover ground safely.

  44. I am a huge fan of Section Hiker, but take issue with the construct of this piece. Virtually all the listed cons are in reality issues of technique vs. cons. A hiker with excellent knees and balance may well feel encumbered by poles. For the rest (majority) of the hiker population they can provide great benefit.

    More specifically on listed cons:

    -Arm motion. Arm motion, or swing, should be occurring even without hiking with poles. It is the application of force to stabilize or propel forward with arms that is cause for additional energy expenditure with poles. This is not a con however as the typical endurance limiter is muscular fatigue in the legs vs. overall energy expenditure. The redistribution of where the fatigue occurs can be quite beneficial.

    -Using poles uphill. A great deal of propulsion can be realized if poles are planted in line with the trailing foot vs. in front of the body. The feel of this is a push almost straight down, engaging the lats and chest muscles. This is beneficial if the legs are fatigued vs. the cardiovascular system being taxed.

    -Straps. A technique issue. See Arts comment.

    -Poles catching on trees and brush. Very small or no baskets eliminate this issue.

    -Environmental impact. Regrettably yes, sometimes noticeable in heavily trafficked areas.

    -Poles snapping if caught in rocks. Yes especially carbon, risk is greatly mitigated with aluminum poles or carbon poles with an aluminum lower section which many manufacturers have moved to because of this issue.

  45. Keep you hiking poles away from me. Do you really want to use them while climbing through scree/talus and on level graded trails? Do you want to have your hands free? Are these really helping you? Follow the masses, get your poles but I’ve tried them and all they do is get in the way for the vast majority of the time.

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