Skip to comments.Scientists Weigh in on the Great Trekking Pole Debate
Posted on 10/25/2020 9:06:41 AM PDT by SJackson
A new review sifts through the evidence for and against hiking with poles
Trekking poles elicit mixed feelings.
Partway through a late-summer backpacking trip a few months ago, I realized I had become a trekking pole guy again. Ive flirted with the concept before: I took a pair of borrowed poles on a 10-day hike in the northern Rockies 15 years ago, and bought a knock-off Leki pole in Kathmandu before a three-week trek in the Himalaya. But Ive always been lukewarm about them. They feel fine, but I really like having my hands free for snacking, picture-taking, map-reading, scrambling, and so on.
On my most recent trip, I initially picked up a walking stick because the so-called trail we were followingthe Western Uplands, in Algonquin Parkturned out to be one long river of rock-strewn, boot-sucking mud. I needed the stick to test whether my next step would be thigh-deep or merely ankle-deep, and to double-check my balance while piggybacking my kids across fast-flowing creeks. But then one of my daughters asked me to carry her stick for a whileand soon Id settled into a comfortable two-poled rhythm, even on the rare stretches of firm ground. When my daughter asked for her stick back, I told her to find another one.
Trekking poles elicit mixed feelings. Their boosters certainly love them, and not just in the backcountry. People will still say, Hey, you forgot your skis! an urban poling instructor told CBC News a few years ago. Were going to change that. In Europe, they look at you kind of funny if you walk around without poles. On the other hand, the Switzerland-based International Climbing and Mountaineering Federation sounds a more skeptical tone, suggesting that using poles too much will sap your balance and coordination, thus raising the risk of accidents in situations like crossing ridges that are too narrow for poles.
There have actually been quite a few studies investigating the pros and cons of pole use, and theyre summarized in a new review article by Ashley Hawke and Randall Jensen in Wilderness & Environmental Medicine. This isnt a meta-analysis that aggregates the results of a bunch of studies into one big dataset, because the studies all tackle slightly different questions in slightly different contexts. But bringing all the studies together in one place allows us to extract some common themes. Here are the highlights:
You Burn More Calories with Trekking Poles This is a fairly consistent finding. By some estimates, its about a 20 percent calorie bonus thanks to the added demands of using your upper body muscles. To the urban polers of the world, this is fantastic news: the pounds will melt away! To the curmudgeons of the International Climbing and Mountaineering Federation, this just means youre straining harder to accomplish the same thing: your heart rate, breathing, and energy expenditure will all be elevated. One caveat: you dont get the extra calorie burn just from carrying the poles with you. You have to actively drive them into the ground.
You Walk Faster and/or It Feels Easier
All six of the relevant studies in the review found that subjects tended to walk faster with poles. Its not because youre propelling yourself forward with arm power, though. Instead, the poles seem to enable people to adopt a more normal walking gait, with longer and quicker strides, particularly while carrying a pack or climbing a hill. That gait assistance is also why poles are helpful for people with Parkinsons and other movement disorders.
Interestingly, even though youre burning more calories in the process, the poles seem to reduce perception of effort while going uphill with a pack. Thats significant, because some scientists argue that perceived effort is what really determines your pace and willingness to continue.
You Take Some Load Off Your Joints and Muscles When youre walking downhill (and to lesser extent on level ground), poles take some of the load off your joints. That means the forces and torques on your knees and ankles are smaller, which could be particularly beneficial if youve got joint problems like osteoarthritis, or if you are older or overweight. Poles also help you brake when youre descending, reducing the eccentric muscle contractions that damage your muscles and leave your legs sore the next day.
As youd expect by now, the International Climbing and Mountaineering Federation sees the glass-half-empty perspective on this: by unloading the joints, you may be missing out on training your braking muscles, and missing out on the joint stress that triggers adaptations in your knee cartilage.
You Balance Better
This is intuitively obvious, but scientists have indeed confirmed that its true by, for example, having subjects walk across a 10-foot simulated log. An interesting nuance: according to one study, you need two poles to improve your balance when youre carrying a heavy backpack, but only one pole to improve when youre unloaded. Whether its true that long-term pole use hurts your balance remains untested.
So, in summary, you burn a little more energy with poles in exchange for better balance, less joint stress, faster speed, and less effort. The margins are mostly pretty small, and you have to weigh them against the intangibles, like having free hands or hearing taunts about forgetting your skis. Then, as I discovered this summer, theres the possibility of leaning way forward and resting your forehead on your pole to temporarily take the load of an overstuffed pack off your shoulders and hips while you wait for your wife to extricate your youngest daughter from yet another bottomless mud pit. I dont plan to start taking poles on my neighborhood strolls. But if my next backpacking trip is anything like my last one, Ill seriously consider bringing proper poles instead of stealing my daughters walking stick.
Something to talk about other than masks. In the past I've used one whenever I've a heavy pack, sometimes two but don't like that, now I use a hickory walking stick because I have to. All my own choice.
There were a few sketchy spots where poles would have been nice, but I can't imagine beginning such a walk with a commitment to carry stuff in my hands for 500 miles.
I tried them. Two poles tied up my hands too much. One pole hiking semi-technical areas is nice.
i always just picked up a stout stick for a pole and then returned it to the forest when i was done ... great help in maintaining balance in uneven or spongy terrain ...
After I fell and messed up my ankle and foot I started using a cane. A year later I’m still not able to walk like normal so I got a set of trekking (hiking) poles. I use one in the house on days my balance is off or the foot hurts worse than usual and I have one for outside in the yard. Two years, two podiatrists, one foot/ankle orthopedic specialist, a dozen x-rays, a heavy duty brace, and three MRI’s later and I’m still using the poles. Good invention.
Gorilla Gear made an extendable aluminum stick. Had a gun rest on a 1/4-20 bolt. Take the rest off, youve got a camera monopod. And the pointy end was nothing youd wanna be stuck with.
We like to use our snowshoes in the winter months. You can easily replace the tips for use as walking poles for the other seasons:
I have a nice walking pole I take with me if we’re going to hike around the property and check fencing; helps a LOT in the early spring when there are still patches of snow and ice in shaded areas.
Well most poles are kind of telescopic so.you can shorten them and put them on your belt or pack if not needed. 1 came in very handy to have when hiking and then had a knee injury.
Ahhh...a story on the long and the short of hiking poles.
Hiked for years with just a trusty stick but I have since figured I can keep walking for more years with poles so have been using them for several years...they do help with the joints, especially downhill. And they keep me steady.
Whatever it takes to keep enjoying what I do...
I find a halberd helps on the tricky climbing areas and on overly crowded trails where people refuse to hike single file.
More seriously, I've never felt both poles help me much, but one pole helps on long or steep climbs. Since most of the best trails around here are in flooding zones around rivers and the trails seem to cut to maximize distances there are lot of up and down sections.
I have been using a staff for decades for backpacking it has save me from falling many times.
Hiking in Colorado a pole helps greatly on trails that are steeper.
I have found great poles in the forest! Pieces of lodgepole pine that are perfect sizes.
It can be a healthy fitness lifestyle!
I love hiking, but I have knee problems. I could not hike without staff. I would be dead, it saved me many times, especially on the down slopes! I actually prefer single wooden staff. Go one years ago in Grand Canyon. Few bucks. used it like 10 years, but now is too short. I bought 7ft cloth hanger pole in Loves for $8. Works great.
I found a lovely one online that is fully adjustable, has a flashlight AND a stun gun :) I find I really need a little support on rough terrain, or even just on the sidewalks, which can be uneven or have rough patches.
I use a single six foot pole on neighborhood hikes. Dogs don’t like it.
I find the technical pair good in real rough terrain now that chemo has killed most of the nerves in the bottom of my feet.
I use poles occasionally during hikes but really don’t need them enough to carry them. They are great for wading rivers while fishing though. I have a folding one that can hang from my fishing vest. Or I just pick one up from the riverside if not carrying one. On land an occasional walking stick picked up along the trail works for short stretches, so I pick them up and drop them as I go. They are nice for long uphill hiking.
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