The Pros and Cons of Hiking with Trekking Poles

The pros and cons of trekking poles, and why you may want to grab some next time you hit the trails.

The Question

Have you ever used trekking poles while hiking? If you have, did you notice any difference in your experience on the trail? If you haven't, have you thought about trying them out?


Gearing up for the ascent to Observation Point - Weeping Rock/East Rim Trailhead, Zion NP, UT

Lately, whenever I go hiking I always find myself grabbing my trekking poles, regardless of whether I am hiking 1 mile or 20 miles. It doesn't matter if I am ascending one hundred feet or descending several thousand, they have become an essential part of my outdoor gear I never leave home without. They are simply a part of my kit nowadays, ready at a moments notice, and I don't see leaving them behind anytime soon. That being said, here are some pros and cons for you to consider when thinking about using trekking poles on your adventures on the trail or in the backcountry:

The PROS

1. Impact Reduction - Trekking poles can help to take some of the pressure off of your hips and knees while on the trail. This is especially true when ascending or descending. The poles provide additional leverage when gaining elevation by providing something to lean on when moving uphill. Conversely, they provide added relief when descending by giving you something to lean on when moving downhill to take pressure off of your knees. In turn, this allows you to go farther because your body is less tired and beat up from the wear and tear you put on it. 

2. Stabilization - By providing more points of contact with the ground, trekking poles enable you to traverse more difficult portions of a trail with increased stability or through areas that can prove challenging to one's balance. Some examples of this include when crossing a log over a stream, walking along a ridge or other areas where maintaining your balance can be more difficult.

3. Increased Traction - In slick, snowy or loose terrain trekking poles can provide additional grip and traction to the ground in order to provide even better balance and stability on the trail and not slow down your progress.

4. Deflection/Safety - When necessary, trekking poles can provide ways to move branches, foliage and more out of your way when they block or grow over the trail. Moreover, in emergency situations the poles can even be used as splints for broken or damaged limbs or even as defensive weapons to ward off animals in dangerous circumstances. 

5. Maintain Pacing/Speed Increase - Trekking poles can help provide a more rhythmic movement as you proceed on the trail. This provides a more consistent pace which can in many cases be quicker and more efficient over the duration of your hike than traveling without them. 

Hitting the Trail to the Bristlecone Pine Grove - Great Basin NP, NV

The CONS

1. Weight - Trekking poles do have some added weight to them, just like anything you add to your pack's load. But today even inexpensive poles will not weigh you down more than an extra pound or two. If weight is a major concern, you can opt for carbon fiber poles. This type of material will noticeably decrease the weight of the trekking poles, making them a pound or less in many cases for the pair. This innovation in design makes the added weight minimal in the grand scheme of things compared to the potential benefits. 

2. Energy Consumption - Using trekking poles does require regular and sustained arm movement, which does mean that you are consuming more energy than opting to travel without them. Personally, I find this added consumption to be negligible and find the benefits provided by the pole in maintaining pacing and added impact reduction to negate this added energy consumption over the span of my adventure. 

3. Environmental Impact - Depending on the type of poles you purchase, an argument can be made that if the tips of one's poles are metal and uncovered, then they could cause some damage to foliage on the trail's surface or fringes. However, most poles come with rubberized or plastic tips that reduce the impact the poles create on the trail and surrounding greenery. 

4. Cumbersomeness - When not using the poles, you have to have somewhere to put them. This is especially true if you are hiking with a camera and need your hands to capture an image. In most cases this means stopping to put your poles aside, let them awkwardly dangle, or attaching them to the side of your pack. Though some backpacks, like those made by Osprey, provide special loops along the pack's side designed to hold your poles when not in use. 

5. Flat Ground - For all intents and purposes, the majority of the benefits provided by trekking poles are limited to when ascending and descending on the trail. Though some of the benefits like stability, traction, or maintaining pacing are applicable to flat ground, depending on trail conditions such as less uniform or slick terrain. In general however, the poles do not shine as much on flat surfaces. 

Capturing some of the oldest trees on earth, Bristlecone Pines - Bristlecone Pine Grove, Great Basin NP, NV

The Conclusion

Given all of these potential benefits and detriments to trekking poles, it is important to keep in mind that at the end of the day, like in most pieces of gear we all buy, it comes down to personal preference. Do you think that trekking poles could be beneficial to you and your hiking style? What type of terrain do you find yourself traveling on most? Perhaps snowy terrain where it can be harder to get traction or rocky mountains where surfaces are loose and you are constantly ascending or descending. No matter where you find yourself adventuring, I recommend giving trekking poles a try on your next outing and seeing what you think. You may find they are useless to you or you may decide to never leave home again without them. You never know until you try...


Crossing a small stream -  Mt. Whitney Trail, Lone Pine, CA


Saving my knees on the way down - Mt. Whitney Trail, Lone Pine, CA

Published: November 28, 2017

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Mayson AlgeyerExplorer

Henderson

I am an avid outdoorsman and photographer with an enormous passion for the outdoors and sharing moments worth capturing from my adventures. These are the stories behind my adventures to share with you.