Login | July 15, 2020

Trekking poles, yes or no?

Pete’s World

Published: June 22, 2020

Are you an avid hiker/backpacker who’s long been wondering whether those fancy trekking poles are actually helpful?
I’ve been having this trekking pole debate for a long, long time, be it with friends, strangers, colleagues, professional guides, and even Euro hiking gurus. And I’m going to tell you right off the bat that the best I can offer is a tepid approval of this hiking accessory.
But before I offer my observations, I’d like to present the all-in side of this debate.
1) Keeps the body more balanced
Trekking pole advocates contend the poles function as two extra legs, claiming that four legs provide considerably more balance - especially when climbing and descending. This contention happens to be the most touted benefits espoused by trekking pole users, and I have to admit that it certainly has some validity.
2) Improves speed
That’s the contention, but I just haven’t found one scrap of actual scientific data to support this particular claim, though I’ve heard many, many hikers insist it’s true. I’ve personally tested this assertion, but I honestly couldn’t see - or perceive - any kind of substantial gain in speed. I’m wondering if this speed improvement thing is more a matter of the trekking poles helping to create a kind of four-beat rhythm that gives one the perception of hiking faster. So I’m labeling this claim inconclusive.
3) Improve hiking posture
Claim here is that the poles help one maintain a more natural posture. Now I can buy into this one because some people - specifically novice hikers and backpackers - occasionally hike with a slightly hunched posture, especially when hiking uphill. Those trekking poles can assist one in maintaining more of an upright posture, especially during those long, ascending grunts. So the premise makes sense here but think about it, core exercises help to strengthen the back so that a natural posture is, well, natural.
4) Contributes to holding a steady pace
This contention asserts that the alternating motion of the poles help to set a consistent pace. I can accept this claim knowing that this stride-and-reach pattern of the legs and arms is a nice way to get in a kind of hiking groove - but so is proper arm swing, which can work just as well if not better than reaching with trekking poles.
Now there’s several less important contentions in favor of trekking poles - tools with which to whack shrubbery, tent pole substitutes, noise makers to scare bears, and selfie sticks - but none of these actually contribute to hiking/backpacking efficiency, so I’ll leave them be.
Okay, with respect to my skepticism regarding trekking poles: I just don’t consider them an essential for all hiking and backpacking outings. Rather I see their use as more of an as-needed, situational thing.
So here we go, here’s where trekking poles leave me cold.
1) Trekking poles encumber my hands.
I’m one of those arm pumping hikers, and that arm pumping motion - in combination with tight core muscles and a neutral spine (natural posture) - help me to keep a fast and very consistent pace. I just feel faster without the poles. And just between us hikers, I’ve had spirited little competitions with trekking pole gurus… and I remain undefeated.
I also like to have my hands free, to take a swig of water, to swat at bugs, to move branches, to take photos, and most important, to catch myself were I to stumble. You can’t tuck and roll with trekking pole straps wrapped around your wrists.
2) The poles seem to increase my energy output
This claim is without hard evidence, yet I’ve always physically sensed that the poles increase my energy output rather than decrease it. And I’m guessing this is because they require more muscles (arms and shoulders) to propel yourself forward.
3) Trekking poles are dangerous in scrambling situations
I’ve hiked all over the world, often across some pretty gnarly terrain, and I’ve needed my hands to help me negotiate boulder fields, crevasses, and vertical obstacles. Those wrist-encumbering trekking poles can make such situations downright dangerous.
So you might now be asking when do I use trekking poles? I use them in trips that require lots of stream and/or river crossings -period. And this is where they shine because they give me those extra feelers when I’m picking my way across slippery rocks through moving water.
Trekking poles? Well, you’re going to have to be the judge on this one.