I can vividly remember the days in which I was die-hard against the use of trekking poles. I am not old. I wasn’t at the time, and still I am not old at this moment. It was in the time when I was hardly a serious trekker, to be admitted.
An Italian mountain guide persuaded me: if he uses trekking poles, then why shouldn’t I?
This post will explain the benefits of trekking poles, and what to pay attention to.
Benefits of trekking poles
The first benefit is probably the largest: additional stability. After all, most mammals move themselves on 4 legs. And so do many reptiles and amphibious creatures. Insects use 6, and spiders 8. Birds are cheaters, but after all: most can fly. Certainly in snow and mountaineous terrain, all extra stability is welcome.
So: benefit 1 is additional stability.
The second benefit is mainly clear when you use trekking poles on multi-day streneous hikes: the distribution of weight. Imagine your weight to be about 100kg with your backpack included, full of gear. When this weight is pressing on your feet, this equals to about 0.2kg per square centimeter (depending on your foot size, and when standing on both legs). Well, you get the picture: when you use trekking poles, part of the weight is lifted from your feet and transferred through your arms to the tip of the pole. Less weight is on your feet: they will hurt less.
Benefit 2: distribution of weight.
The third benefit probably sounds obvious too. And it is. You have extra muscles to use! When going uphill, you can use your arms to propel your body weight up the mountain. When going downhill, you can use them as brakes, lifting the body weight from your usually underdeveloped quadriceps. But also from joints such as the knee and ankles.
“Walking downhill is called eccentric exercise where the leg muscles lengthen under load and applying a braking force at the same time. However, when walking uphill the muscles are shortened during contraction which is called concentric exercise. A side effect of eccentric exercise is delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) which can persist for several days after walking.” On The Hills UK
Benefit 3: More muscle groups can participate in the fun
A less obvious benefit, which I quite like and which is heavily under appreciated: use the trekking poles as tent poles and ditch your tent. With ditching the tent, I clearly mean “leave it at home”. Best is to use telescopic trekking poles, as you probably want a different height to sleep under, compared to the height you need when walking with them. And when the wind picks up, you want to be able to lower it!
Benefit 4: You save weight in your backpack.
Which trekking poles to use
It’s probably a matter of preference. The cheapest ones are not telescopic. This could be fine, depending on the purpose. But I don’t like them: they are bulky when in transport.
Most trekking poles, and certainly the cheaper ones, are tightened by turning them (anti) clockwise. This can be fine, but I’ve had many occassions in which it wasn’t. Mainly when going downhill and missing a step: my full bodyweight might lean on it, and the twist locks might actually give way. It’s temporary, but you can easily lose your balance.
When it comes to handles: it depends on your preference. Mine are plastic and I’ve never had blisters or sweaty hands. I don’t like the feeling of cork or rubber. But that’s just a personal issue.
A similar matter counts for the material of the poles. The cheaper, or more affordable, ones are made of aluminium. Aluminium is light. But not as light as carbon fiber. The weight for carbon fiber poles is about 110 grams less than aluminum ones. For myself, I don’t care about these last 100 grams. I do fully realize that 10 times this negligence is a kilo. But having one snickers less does the same job. And remember: by taking the poles, I already saved weight on the tent.
Because chosing for aluminium poles has one big advantage: they don’t break as easily as carbon fiber poles. Carbon fiber is really strong in the direction of the weight (vertical), but very weak against point-impact. You wouldn’t be the first one to throw your backpack off when getting a rest. On your poles….
Conclusion: trekking poles, use or useless?
I would definitely recommend using trekking poles on longer hikes and in more difficult terrain. Certainly when carrying a backpack for multiple days. For flat hikes of limited distance, they have less noticeable benefits.
Do make sure to get the right ones and to train with them too: you don’t want blisters on your hand or muscle pain as a result of movements you haven’t made before…