AMC Outdoors, April 2005
A pair of trekking poles can transform you into a fleet-footed, four-legged, full-body hiking machine. Or a brush-snagging, rock-scarring, hand-encumbered trail beast, depending on your point of view.
In most situations, trekking poles improve your balance, and make crossing rushing streams, walking on slippery surfaces, and hiking over loose rocks both safer and easier. By engaging your upper-body muscles, poles aid in ascents and help preserve your knees on cartilage-crunching downhill grades. But in other situations, poles can cause more pain than gain. Using trekking poles while scrambling with hands and feet, traveling through dense vegetation, or hiking through boulder fields can be a recipe for break-’em-over-your-knee frustration.
So is dropping $100 or more on a pair of glorified sticks really worth it?
Down on your knees
If your knees throb with pain after a long day on the trail, you experience discomfort flexing your legs, or you just simply have “bad knees,” trekking poles can be a lifesaver. Studies indicate that trekking poles significantly reduce knee strain by transferring the energy of downhill impact from your legs to upper body.
According to a 1999 study in the Journal of Sports Medicine, using poles on a 25 degree downhill grade reduces the amount of compressive forces on the knees by 12-25 percent. Another study found that poles also reduce knee stress on level ground, though by a lesser amount (approximately 5 percent). Trekking poles have myriad other advantages. They help on ascents, allowing you to use your arm and shoulder muscles to push yourself upward. Backpackers with heavy loads often find them valuable for maintaining balance with a higher center of gravity.
Staying on your feet—or catching a fall—on slick ice, crusty snow, or rocky and uneven terrain is greatly aided by poles. And crossing rushing waterways is a snap when you have four points of contact with the streambed. For all of these reasons, trekking poles deserve homage.
Points of contention
Despite these advantages, trekking poles can just as quickly become a hindrance. When walking on narrow trails hemmed by thick brush, or traveling off-trail through dense vegetation, poles tend to get snagged by the surrounding greenery. This breaks your stride, and can rapidly lead to frustration as you jerk the poles out of the brush. When ascending or descending trails so steep as to require the use of your hands, poles quickly get in the way. The same goes for boulder fields that necessitate scrambling on all fours. Also, deep gaps between rocks can swallow much of the pole, requiring careful removal, which can slow you down.
Trekking poles have the potential to damage the environment, both aesthetically and physically. Virtually every trekking pole is equipped with a very hard, steel-carbide tip. While this provides excellent traction, it also scratches rocks. This might not harm the rocks, but these unsightly scars can mar the wilderness experience for those who follow. In softer terrain, the points can churn up soil and hasten erosion, especially along trail margins.
Polling the field
Overall, the advantages of trekking poles seem to outweigh the drawbacks for many hikers, especially those travelling long distances. An informal poll conducted by the Appalachian Trail Conservancy in 2000 indicates that 90–95 percent of Appalachian Trail thru-hikers carry trekking poles, as do 30–50 percent of short-term backpackers, and 10–15 percent of day hikers. If you fall into this camp, proper selection and use of your poles is the next essential step.
It’s a material world
What distinguishes different models—and affects price—are pole construction, shock absorption, and the materials used in handles and wrist straps. Most trekking poles are made from aluminum and weigh in at 18-22 ounces per pair ($50-$75 per pair). Some poles incorporate a lighter weight titanium-aluminum alloy, which reduces the total heft to roughly 14-17 ounces ($100-$125). And ultralight carbon fiber has appeared in some 2005 models produced by Komperdell, which can reduce the weight to as little as 11 ounces ($125 and up).
While lighter is righter, the cost of saving a few ounces also lightens up your wallet, and focusing on other features may provide better returns. For instance, consider the handles. Cheaper poles use stiff plastic, which can be hard on your hands after many hours of use. Better are poles that use dense foam, which has some give and provides a good grip. Some models extend the foam down the shaft —nice for choking up on the pole in steep sections. The best handles are made of cork, which become custom-molded to your hand with use.
A few styles also angle the handle forward by 15 degrees for a more ergonomically correct grip. Wrist straps vary in construction. Many inexpensive models include only a basic nylon strap, which can be uncomfortable and chafe your wrists after prolonged use. Look instead for straps that include some sort of padding.
Many poles feature a shock-absorption device, usually a spring, which is designed for downhill use. As the poles absorb the shock of downhill impact, the spring flexes to spare your arms and wrists some stress. This feature can, and should, be turned off for uphill sections, so you don’t waste energy compressing the spring as you push off. These devices can be a nuisance, however, and some hikers claim they provide minimal difference in upper-body fatigue.
Most trekking poles are composed of three separate sections that slide into each other and adjust for nearly any height. When extending the pole, keep the three sections equal in length and do not extend any section out all the way—this can stress the pole and cause it to break or bend. Most poles have markings to help calibrate length.
To set the height, hold the handle out in front of you with the tip on the ground and your arm at your side. For level or uneven terrain, your elbow should form a right angle when the pole is properly adjusted. For sustained downhill sections, lengthen the pole a few inches to compensate; for uphill miles, shorten it. Critical to trekking pole use and enjoyment is proper use of the wrist straps. Many hikers simply stick their hands through the loop from above and let it dangle loosely over their wrist. This is incorrect, and accomplishes little other than preventing the pole from falling if you drop it.
To properly use the straps, first insert your hand through the loop in an upward motion from underneath. Then grasp the handle, positioning the portion of the strap closest to the pole between thumb and index finger. Part of the strap should now lie between your hand and the grip, with the rest wrapping snugly around your wrist. Adjust the size of the loop to fit closely. With the straps properly fitted, you can much more effectively transfer energy between the ground and your upper body. And one final word of caution: Once you use a pair of trekking poles, you may never go back.
—Matt Heid is Senior Editor of AMC Outdoors.