I once tried to traverse a snowfield high in the Wasatch mountains without trekking poles. That experience alone was reason enough to make me search for more information about this piece of hiking gear.
Are they really helpful beyond a few isolated situations? How are they used? Can they be a nuisance? What are the differences between them? To find out, I talked with my nephew, who works for Backcountry.com, his wife, and a couple of friends—all avid hikers who use trekking poles.
Making Hills Easier
Hiking uphill is never a breeze, but it is much easier when you use poles to engage the upper body muscles and relieve some of the stress from the legs. It’s all about exerting leverage when you push off with the poles and move up a slope more efficiently. You should become accustomed to using the poles as part of your natural stride. As you stride with one foot, plant the pole on the opposite side of your body and push as you move ahead.
Using the poles to maintain your balance on uneven ground, rather than just stabilizing your body with just your legs, will save significant energy. Be sure your hands are through the straps when you grip the pole for added leverage.
What About Going Downhill?
Your knees will thank you for bringing trekking poles on the descent. By absorbing the shock with your arms and upper body rather than your knees, you will be able to move more quickly and comfortably with much less fatigue. When descending, it is helpful to plant your poles ahead of your opposite foot to make the descent more efficient.
Of course, stability is key when negotiating slippery terrain. You can take a more natural, relaxed stride when you use poles to help maintain balance. Snowy and icy conditions require significant energy just to stay upright and trekking poles take away some of the pressure. They serve the same purpose in wet and muddy conditions.
The bottom line: Using poles to hike up and down trails and slippery terrain really allows for a more interesting hiking experience. The challenging and scenic trails are more accessible when you use trekking poles.
Most poles have adjustable length, and this can really help on uneven terrain. Start with the basic ski pole position. Standing straight up, hold the pole grips with your hands and adjust the length so your forearms are parallel with the ground.
- Uphill—shortening the poles will position them to give you the most leverage for climbing.
- Downhill—lengthening the poles will maximize their shock absorbing capacity and allow you to maintain better posture for more comfort.
- Traversing a slope—for the most stability, shorten the uphill pole and lengthen the downhill pole
Endurance, Safety and Adaptability
Regardless of terrain, trekking poles give you the ability to hike further and stay on the trail longer, especially when hiking with a heavy pack. Distributing some of the added weight and stress to the poles is less fatiguing than making your legs do all the work.
And, don’t overlook the importance of safety. A bad fall can end your expedition prematurely or result in a trip to the emergency room. Avoid this by focusing on prevention and packing your trekking poles. As a side benefit, trekking poles will help prevent the common hiker’s affliction of finger and hand swelling.
Trekking poles are also adaptable: in a pinch, some hikers have used trekking poles to replace broken tent poles and set up shelter with a tarp. They can also be used for protection against wild animals such as mountain cats.
A Great Workout
Even when not hiking on challenging trails, some people use trekking poles to improve their fitness. Rather than just walking, you can have a “full body” workout by using poles to engage the muscles of your upper body. It may take a short time to develop a rhythm and feel comfortable with your poles, but once you are used to them, they can actually become an important part of your fitness routine.
Selecting the Right Poles
The variety of trekking poles is extensive, so check out the different types before purchasing them. Consider what kind of hikes you expect to take, your fitness level, your height and weight and your tolerance for having to lock and unlock the poles for changes in terrain. Your trekking poles should make your experience more enjoyable and not become a nuisance.
Some key points of comparison are: cost, weight, shaft material (and shock absorption capacity), length (and adjustability), size when collapsed, durability, locking system, grip material and types of tips available.
Get an overview of what’s out there before making a purchase—and also read a few product reviews by hikers who have actually used the trekking poles you are considering. Visit your local outdoors store to try different poles for yourself to evaluate their comfort and suitability for your needs. Then let us know how your hiking experiences have improved using your trekking poles.
Will Kuhlmann is an avid distance runner who serves on the board of the Columbus Roadrunners Club. He also enjoys skiing, hiking, swimming and kayaking.