Trekking Poles - Luxury or Necessity?
Depending on whom you talk with, trekking poles are either an essential bit of kit or an unnecessary hassle. Hiking sticks offer additional support on rocky trails and much more, but some hikers don’t think they’re worth the extra energy required to carry and use them.
Most hiking poles can be collapsed via telescoping or foldable shafts, and the lengths of most collapsible models can be fine-tuned. The rest are fixed-length poles which are stiffer, lighter, quieter, and less expensive.
The classic trekking pole consists of three telescoping shafts, the extension of which is controlled with internal expansion nuts, levering clamps, or sprung ferrules. When it’s cold and/or wet expansion nuts tend to slip, while the other two designs are more reliable. Telescoping poles offer an unmatched usable length. They can be fine-tuned for an extended uphill or they can be dramatically resized for an entirely different user or application. Two-shaft poles are less adjustable than the more common three-shaft poles.
Premium grips are made of cork or high-density foam. Cork and foam grips glide smoothly in the hand and reduce perspiration buildup. They are also lightweight and thermo-neutral. Rubber and plastic grips are heavy and abrasive and get slimy when wet. While using plastic is not recommended, rubber is okay for winter.
Adjustable and integrated straps are attached to the tops of nearly all hiking poles. Some hikers recommend removing them, while others prefer using the straps. Without straps, the poles are lighter, the movement is less restricted, like when you want to take a photo, grab your water bottle or when wearing mittens. Additionally, if your hands are not tangled in the straps, you’re less likely to break your pole if it gets stuck.
Hiking poles are equipped with small carbide tips (carbide is extremely hard and durable). These tips are great on soft and broad surfaces but they are less reliable on hard and small surfaces. The tips need replacement, about every 2000 to 3000 km, depending on the terrain.
There are various benefits of using walking poles that can't be ignored like:
- Make walking easier: They help improve and maintain your balance while ascending and descending with a heavy backpack. Especially useful for tackling mountainous terrain – most serious hikers consider them a critical piece of equipment. During both climbs and descents, they can help you maintain your balance and provide increased support on tricky terrain. Moreover, they will reduce the strain and force of gravity on your legs when hiking. Of course, it‘s not a free ride - the strain is just moved to your arms and upper body, and you have to carry the weight of the poles. But sharing the effort does mean that your legs get less tired while your upper body and arms maintain their strength. Additionally, trekking poles are especially helpful for long distance hiking. Long hikes, particularly steep terrains, will tire out legs. However, your upper body is still fresh. Hiking sticks give your arms extensions to reach the ground, so when using them you engage your back, shoulders, and arms. Even walking flat, using poles evenly distributes the burden of walking onto all four limbs and core.
- Facilitate river stream crossing: They provide you assistance and balance in the river. It is generally best for one person to cross at a time while using a pair of trekking poles. Cross sideways to the current, taking small steps, and move slightly downstream toward the opposite bank. Always keep three solid points of contact and use the poles to probe your way.
- Knee saver: Reduce stress on knees. Hiking sticks reduce the strain that would ordinarily be absorbed by the joints and muscles in the lower body alone.
- Aid walking when injured: If you injure a foot or knee while on the trail, they are a great aid in helping you walk as you can use them similar to a crutch. You wouldn’t put the cane under your arm, but you would be able to severely lean on it to alleviate the injury.
- Convenient for canyon hikes: Many canyon hikers use aluminum trekking poles for steep off-trail descents and ascents. Others prefer wooden walking sticks, which are a must for traveling through canyon narrows to negotiate slippery moss-covered stones.
- Use in camp: In camp, they can turn a fly-sheet door into an awning, support a wash line or tarp, and retrieve bear-bagged food. Some tents can be pitched with trekking poles, too.
- Use in the rain: Since rocks and roots can be slick when wet, using hiking poles is an especially good idea in the rain.
- Use on unstable terrain: Hiking poles are extremely useful on unstable terrains, like wet grass, mud, scree, snow, and ice. They are incredibly useful for balancing on tricky sections and rough surfaces, particularly if you’re carrying weight. In slippery, muddy or snowy conditions they help a lot. Also for testing how deep snow is, how thick mud may be, and stabilizing oneself while crossing tricky terrain.
- The extra energy wasted, especially when applying a wrong technique.
- The annoying clicking noise they make.
- Obstruct hand function.
- Metal tips offer unreliable hold on hard rock and pavement.
- Some find them annoying in bushy terrain and when scrambling. In those cases, it's better to strap them to the backpack.
One or Two?
Although some hikers use only one pole because they like to have the other hand available for scrambling, bushwhacking, etc, most experts recommend using two poles. All the advantages of a staff are more than doubled when you use two. Walking with two poles uses the upper body muscles and takes much of the strain off the legs and hips. Using one pole takes the strain off only some of the time and can make you feel unbalanced.
- Unless you have money to burn, features like shock absorbers and carbon fiber shafts aren’t needed.
- Grip extensions, which offer several more inches of nonslip material below the primary grip, are highly recommended. They allow for quick choke-ups on uneven terrain.
- Learn to use the straps properly by inserting your hand from below so that the wrist is supported. Be sure the grip is comfortable in bare hands and the strap is padded.
- As with hiking footwear, the weight of trekking poles is disproportionately important compared with other items in your hiking pack. Much more energy is required to swing a pole all-day than to carry in your pack an item of the same weight.
- With a lightweight pole, matching every step with a pole plant is achievable on good trails.
- Heavy poles are more difficult to swing. Often backpackers drag or stow away their poles because their arms have tired; or they walk in irregular sequence (e.g., three pole plants for every four steps) because their arms cannot match the speed of their legs.
- It’s important to invest in hiking sticks that you can use correctly. If they feel awkward or if they are always lashed to your pack as dead weight, you’d be better off without them.
- You need to find your rhythm of walking with trekking poles so it's worth doing a few training walks with them before you set off on a long hike.
Whether trekking poles are essential or not mostly depends on what outdoor activity you are doing. If you plan on carrying a 15 kg pack on a backpacking trip, then hiking sticks would be of great help to you; lessening the strain on your knees and helping to transfer some of the weight of the large bag. If you are taking a day hike, you might not necessarily need hiking poles. However, if you suffer from sore knees, hips, or back, they can make a huge difference. They take the stress out of the knees downhill and give you an extra bit of confidence in exposed terrain. Trekking poles are not a fad or marketing ploy. They are a safety measure for many and simply an aid for others.