This summer, I hiked around 300 miles through Spanish mountains and countryside on the Camino Primitivo. One of the things that made it possible was a pair of trekking poles. Here’s why.
Trekking poles don’t have the best reputation among casual walkers. Sure, ultra hikers and the like might find them useful, and maybe some older people with dodgy knees could benefit too. But, regular, fit people? They obviously don’t need them. It’s just an extra bit of gear they have to carry on a day out.
But that’s the wrong attitude. Trekking poles aren’t just for the super serious, gear obsessed, and elderly. They’re an important bit of kit for anyone who likes to go for a hike, whether it’s a multi-day backpacking trip or a casual bit of hill climbing.
Why Use Trekking Poles
Trekking poles have a lot of benefits, but really, they can all be summarized in one sentence: they let you use your arms while you hike. If you’re walking without trekking poles, you’re only using your feet and legs for everything. All your weight is passing through your knees. You can only balance on two points: your feet. However, when you use trekking poles, you have a way to connect your arms to the ground. They can brace you, balance you, and take the weight off. Let’s go a little deeper.
Trekking poles make you more efficient. Walking long distances over varied ground puts a lot of strain on your body. Your knees, ankles, feet, hips, and leg muscles all take a severe beating since they’re the only things doing any actual work. But if you use trekking poles, you can engage your upper body. On each stride, you can use your arms to push you forward a little bit. It’s not a huge amount, but over miles, it makes a difference. Instead of just swinging your arms by your side, they’ll be driving you on.
You can go uphill faster. On flat ground, your arms help a little. On steep uphills, they can make a huge difference. You can use your poles to push and pull you up, instead of just relying on your awkward footing. If you’re climbing steep slopes, they’re incredible.
Trekking poles protect your knees. By taking some of the strain away from your knees, trekking poles protect them. If you’ve ever hiked for a full day, you’ll know that your knees are often one of the first body parts that starts to scream in pain. With poles, you can go for longer without your knees hurting — and for longer overall.
You stay healthier longterm. And it’s not just in the short term. Hiking is an activity you can do deep into your 60s, 70s, and even 80s. By taking steps to look after your body now, you ensure that your knees and ankles are less likely to be a problem in 20, 30, or 40 years.
You have a better balance on tricky terrain. Trekking poles make it much easier to balance on tricky terrains, like when you’re descending a steep slope, crossing a stream, or walking on wet ground. Going downhill, you can put more weight in your poles and use them to brace yourself, so you don’t pick up speed. Across difficult flat ground, you can use them to reach out, spread your weight, and balance if you start to slip.
You can carry weight more comfortably. Hiking with a light backpack is a very different story to backpacking or any other walk where you’re carrying 15 or 20 (or more!) pounds. Without poles, you’re kind of at the mercy of your load. With poles, however, you are in more control. You can push through your arms to make walking easier. You can pull yourself uphill. If your load starts to pull you off balance, you can counter it with a pole. While poles are nice when you’re walking unencumbered, they’re essential when you’re walking with a big pack.
You get better exercise. To top it all off, with trekking poles, you burn more calories and get better exercise than someone not using them, because you’re walking faster and engaging more muscles.
Using Trekking Poles
Convinced now? Well, let’s look at actually using them.
The most important step is buying (or borrowing or stealing) a pair of trekking poles that fit you. For most people, the easiest way to do it is to get an adjustable pair, like these from Black Diamond. That way, you’ll be able to correctly size them so that when you hold them, you keep a 90º bend in your elbow.
Even better, you’ll also be able to adjust them while you walk. If you know you’re going uphill for an extended period, it’s a good idea to shorten your poles by two or three inches. If you’re going downhill all day, you can lengthen them by the same amount. And, if you’re walking across a long traverse, you can lengthen one and shorten the other. The only advantage of non-adjustable poles is that they’re lighter, which for 99.999% of people won’t make much difference.
When you walk with your poles, you want to maintain your body’s natural rhythm. This means your left pole should plant at the same time your right foot hits the ground, and your right pole should plant when your left foot hits the ground. Don’t plant your poles too far in front. You want them slightly angled and to hit the ground roughly where your foot does so they can drive you forward.
Be careful where you place your pole, especially on tricky ground. If your pole slips, you can fall over. When you’re crossing a stream or otherwise relying on your pole for balance, make sure to plant it securely and test it before putting any weight on it.
The wrist strap is an often overlooked part of your pole. It helps keep your pole in place without you having to cling on too tightly. It should work like a ski pole wriststrap. Hang the pole from your wrist by the strap and then grasp it, so the strap is between your hand and the handle. This keeps the pole in the correct position but lets it fall out if you trip—falling on your pole is an easy way to dislocate your thumb.
When you’re going downhill, adjust your grip and hold your pole from above. This way you’re taking your weight straight through your arms, rather than relying on your finger grips.
Most poles ship with rubber tips on. These are great for when you’re walking on the road but not much use elsewhere. Remove them, and you’ll find a sharp carbide tip underneath, which is designed for rough terrain.
Trekking poles are an essential bit of hiking kit. If you’ve never tried them before, give them a shot. You won’t hit the hills without them after.