Group of backpackers with hiking / trekking poles

Trekking Poles: Considerations in Using Them for Hiking and Backpacking

Trekking poles are a common sight today on trails. They aid in your ability to hike safely. Tents manufacturers have made designs to use them for erecting lightweight shelters and there are many ways you can use them together with a tarp for ultralight backpacking.

However are the popular tools of the trail all they are cut out to be? Let’s take a look at the basics and you decide.

Health and safety benefits of using hiking poles

Hiking or trekking poles offer you health and safety benefits. Staying healthy and safe on the trail is obviously important while in the mountains. Some common cited health and safety benefits are:

  • They may cut the forces, moments around  joints and may help reduce the loading on the joints of the lower extremity
  • Reduces amount of innate and temporary muscle damage/soreness associated with vigorous activity
  • Assists in maintaining muscle function in the days after a mountain trek, and cut the potential for injury
  • Improves balance whilst hiking on all terrain by giving you two more points of contact with the ground
  • Helps with stream and river crossings, and on ice and snow or crossing scree fields
  • They can help to defend against attacks from dogs, bears, and other wildlife

Fitness benefits, the good and not so good

Using hiking poles is good for your fitness. It puts a higher demand on your cardio-respiratory system which elicits higher heart rate and oxygen uptake, which is good for training and improving fitness. Even though it increases your energy expenditure, it reduces or has your Rate of Perceived Exertion (RPE). This holds true for walkers, hikers, and runners.

One question is do hikers on backpacking treks or a day outing want higher energy expenditure? We generally do things to conserve energy in the mountains. The data suggest the following:

  • Significantly higher physiological responses for V̇O2, V̇E, and HR while using poles due to an increase of recruited muscle mass.
  • Greater energy expenditure (Kcal)
  • Lower RPE
  • Facilitates propulsion during level running and for the absorption phase during downhill running
  • People suffering from osteoporosis strengthen their bones and muscles by walking with poles
  • Helps improve muscular strength
  • Benefits of people with other conditions such as obesity, heart disease, and diabetes.

Other ways to use hiking poles in the field

Besides as aids during hiking, poles can serve other purposes in the field. You’ll need to factor this in when you consider bringing them out.

  • Support shelter as replacement for tent poles (if tent is made for this or can accommodate it)
  • Use with tarp for shelter
  • Use as splint
  • Use as repair for broken part of backpack frame
  • As anchor
  • Act as “shield” against thorny bushes and such

Some potential problems with trekking poles

  • Some people report increase in elbow and wrist pain
  • They may cause an increase in environmental damage
  • Can be cumbersome during times when your hand are needed (i.e., ledge climbing)
  • They can get caught on roots, rock and, holes which can cause falls
  • Hikers may assume a hunched position for long periods of time leading to pain and dysfunction and increased energy expenditure.

Final thoughts

Hiking poles, like any other equipment, has advantages and disadvantages. Using them wisely will increase your hiking efficiency and pleasure, using them indiscriminately you may increase fatigue and risk of injury. One of the important things to remember is to learn how to use them wisely with your personal style of hiking.

I find them very helpful on long downhills which reduce the stress on my knees. However, I don’t find them of much use on uphills as I find they get in the way of steeper sections of trail. I also like to use them on level sections of a trial as I find that it increases my pace and rhythm. I have also started to use poles for shelter support more often which helps with pack weight. Reducing pack weight reduces energy expenditure which may offset the increase in energy expenditure from using trekking poles.

Look at your personal style of hiking and decide how these valuable tools can fit into your hiking toolkit. Ask yourself, when do I need them and when should I stow them? This may take some trial and error when you first start to use them. Basic rules of thumb should be, they should not cause pain, negatively alter your mechanics,  and not slow you down.

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