The Benefits of Hiking with Trekking Poles (Plus How to Use Them)

9 Reasons to Re-Consider Trekking Poles, plus some tips for maximizing the fun

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July 16, 2017

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After years of thinking trekking poles were ridiculous, I found myself seriously struggling on a 500 mile trek across France and Spain. Later I would discover I had a dislocated knee cap and a fractured bone in my foot, but at the time all I knew was that walking HURT.  A lot of people seeing my struggling recommended trekking poles, but it took a young, handsome guy from Canada to convince me. He was a cross-country ski racer and said it felt weird to cover distance without them. That conversation triggered my analytical brain to do a lot of research and eventually a visit to a sporting goods store in Pamplona. That was 5 years ago and I still use the same pair almost every day on the trail. I've come to appreciate them for many uses and since this is a common topic of debate, I'll share my secrets with you. I'm also writing a note at the end on how to use them properly, efficiently, and have more fun using them.

1. Love Your Knees

As mentioned above, I started using poles as a last-ditch effort when my knees were failing me. Poles help the knees for a couple of reasons. First and most simply, they carry the weight of your arms so your legs don't have to. This is only true if you're using them the way they're designed to be used (more on that at the bottom), but if you think about it your arms are probably about 10% of your body weight which is significant. If you are pushing down in the wrist straps you can take even more weight off your knees, and even help propel yourself forward when your legs start getting tired. In addition, the biggest help to me is when I'm going downhill. When my knees were really bad steps were the absolute worst. I would set both poles on the next step, put nearly all of my weight on them, then just swing the rest of my body down. I rarely need to use them that heavily now, but when my quads are really tired I still find that they help enormously.

2. Staying Upright

I mean this two ways - the first is obvious. On slippery, wet, loose, steep footing, poles are great for helping you keep your balance and catch you when you trip. But they also help keep your body upright so you don't slouch and stress your back out more than it already is. I'm particularly appreciative of them when I'm hauling a heavy pack up a steep climb and I want a rest but don't want to take off my pack and lose momentum. I just plant the poles in front of me and lean forward, resting one shoulder on each pommel and straightening out my back at a 90 degree angle. Instant relief. It's wonderful. 

3. Stream Crossings

This one is also pretty obvious. When fording a stream/creek/river, hopping from rock to rock or just wading through, poles are the best way to keep your balance and stability. But I know people who carry poles strapped on their pack only for the brief opportunity to help them cross streams. I will never understand it - it's a waste of weight and also, thats what sticks are for. 

4. Self Defense

I've never actually had to use them for this, but I've thought about it a lot. Just today I saw a coyote about 10 ft off the trail in mid-day. My first thought was "maybe it's rabid" and my second thought was "I can hit it with my pole and keep my distance." I've also been known to sleep with them in my tent just in case I wake up to a bear poking its head under the fly. I'm not cool enough to rely on my upper-cut like my friend Sean. 


Photo: Christin Healey

5. The Awkward 'What Do I Do With my Arms??' Problem

I think a lot about efficiency of movement when I'm on long treks, trying to save energy where I can. I'm not sure how this fits in with that but I like the fact that I'm getting an upper-body workout in addition to lower-body when I'm actively using the poles. My arms are never really tired, but I like having something to do with them. I think the motion helps engage my abs too (and who doesn't love that?). Now when I don't have my poles I feel really awkward and often end up hooking my hands in my shoulder straps which does weird things to my shoulders. Give your arms a job to do instead. 

6. Look Cool in Pictures

Hahaha, just kidding. They never look cool. But the solution is to drop them on the ground. Doesn't get much easier than that. 

7. Go-Go Gadget Arm

This one I learned from Colin Fletcher's book "Complete Walker." Picture it: you've set up camp and a sudden downpour sends you running into your tent. But your water bottle is still outside, just out of reach. No need to find your raincoat - just use your pole to reach it and bring it home.

8. Keeping Pace

On the few hikes that I've forgotten my poles I actually hike slower, and I don't have as steady a rhythm. A tip I learned from running is to always try to keep the same cadence, even if that means you're taking baby steps uphill. The length of the step isn't as important as the rate of steps when you're covering long distances, and poles often help do that. 

9. Tripod

I do a lot of hiking and camping by myself. I'm not super vain, but it is nice to actually be in the frame once in awhile (and convince my family I'm still alive when I don't have time to call). I've found that the wrist strap makes a clever little cradle for my camera/phone. I just stab the pole into the dirt as hard as possible, cradle the camera in the strap on a timer setting, and then continue up the trail. 

Tips on Using Them Correctly

So now that we've established how great trekking poles can be, here are some quick tips to help you maximize the fun. You know that silly wrist strap? It's actually the most important piece. The strap is meant to be tightened to cradle the heel of your palm so you can relax your arm. You do NOT need to be holding the handgrip tightly when the strap is fit properly - that is a waste of energy and also, annoying. Your fingers and thumb should be loose and the strap should be doing the work of keeping the poles moving with you. When I'm using them to propel myself forward my hands are almost completely open and I'm pushing down with my wrists.

Pole heights should be adjusted so that your elbows are roughly at a 90 degree angle when standing still. This does vary based on personal preference, but it's a good place to start. Some people will shorten them for uphill and lengthen them for downhill to maximize their benefits. 

If you're thinking about buying new poles, I highly recommend cork grips. Mine are rubber and they get really sticky after a hot day. 

Enjoy!

Cover photo: Christin Healey

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