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.

Pros

  • 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

Cons

  • 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

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 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.

Conclusion

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.

14 comments

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

    of:

    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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.”

    https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2010/06/100602121000.htm

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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 =)

  7. 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!

  8. 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.

  9. 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.

  10. 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.

  11. I’m 83. My favorite trekking area is the White Mountains of Inyo county. I have occasionally used a hiking staff* but the idea of using a pair of poles just turns me off.

    I am more inclined to follow the “advice” of Carlos Castenada to keep one’s hand free while moving through rough terrain.

    Of course I am “old school” when it comes to traveling and bedding in the out of doors. I don’t have much in the way of “modern” gear.

    * my hiking staff is made from a diamond willow. I got it from a guy who lives up in the Boundary Waters area of Minnesota, just outside International (frostbite) Falls right near the Canadian line.

  12. Philip: Do you have a dog in the “carbon fiber vs. aluminum” fight, regarding breakage? You say in another of your posts that you’ve broken both types. Would those experiences lead you to recommend one type over the other (purely regarding break-ability, not weight, of course.)

    • It really depends on the specific pole and the circumstances of use. I avoid really thin ultralight carbon fiber poles because I have a tendency to break them in mountainous terrain. But I use a thicker Carbon Pacer Pole and have for years. I still break them but only about once a year because they have a much a thicker shaft. If I wasn’t in the mountains it might not be a problem though. But I don’t really care that much if a pole is carbon fiber or aluminum as long as it lasts. I also busted a bunch of aluminum poles last year, but fishing. So no preference based on material alone.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *