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
- A multi-purpose item that can be used to pitch tarps or ultralight tents
- Arm motion increases the amount of energy required
- Leaning forward on poles reduces the 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
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.
There are also times when 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 erect 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 held 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 very advantageous for hikers, particularly 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.