Trekking Poles: Help or Hindrance?

© Phil Jarratt
Trekking pole technology has developed rapidly over the last 20 years, but the concept of carrying a pole when walking is of course an ancient one: they are a descendant of the common walking stick. Did you know that during the 17th century a stout rigid stick took over from the sword as an essential part of the European gentleman's dress? It was used primarily as a walking stick to aid balance, but could also be used as a weapon.

Help or Hindrance?

The market place is full of information telling us the benefits of using trekking poles but there is little telling us how to use them and highlighting their potential pit falls. Trekking poles may have considerable benefits, but that they can also present a hazard if used incorrectly.

Often I witness walkers teetering around on steep mountain paths relying on the fine tips of their poles rather than their feet; tripping each other up on narrow paths and leaving poles dangling off their wrists when using their hands to climb up difficult ground: all accidents waiting to happen! Once or twice I have needed to stop a trek to have a short 'training session' with poles, ensuring they were now an aid rather than an interference.

Trekking poles are technical kit and those who walk with them benefit from learning how to use them properly and then practicing – in the same way you would with an ice axe or crampons.

The Pros of Trekking Poles

There are plenty of pros to walking with poles. They help us to maintain balance and reduce the pressure on achy knees and backs, but there's more to them than that. They are also great for river crossings, can be used to make stretchers, used as tent pole substitutes and also washing line poles. Don't forget they are a good place to store your duct tape too!

It has been suggested that poles can reduce the pressure on every step by seven kilos, which translates to 30 tonnes less pressure on the knees over a full day trek. That's about the weight of six elephants!
Balance is an obvious area that walking poles can assist in. When carrying large loads on our backs our centre of gravity is higher, essentially making us top heavy. When this high centre of gravity is added to the uneven terrain found on the trail, any slight loss of balance can be amplified. Walking poles increase your base of support and enable the correction of these slight mistakes. When using poles we  have four points of contact rather than two, and get the added stability that comes with this.

Another key benefit walkers receive from trekking poles is assistance in descending. When moving downhill there is a large amount of pressure on the knees as they help the body slow its descent - effectively acting as brakes. On long downhill trails, the quadriceps muscles become fatigued and offer less support to the knees. This can lead to pain during and after the descent. Using trekking poles helps redistribute some of the load to the upper body, reducing the load on the knees. It is not only those with aches and pains that will benefit from using poles in this way – even if you experience no pain at the moment you will be reducing the risk of damage in the future. It has been suggested that poles can reduce the pressure on every step by seven kilos, which translates to 30 tonnes less pressure on the knees over a full day trek. That's about the weight of six elephants!

Trekking Poles 4  © Alison Culshaw

And the Downsides...

I've already said that poles can be a potential hazard when used incorrectly, actually increasing the risk of a slip or a fall, but that's not the only downside to consider. The environmental impact of poles in the mountains has not gone unnoticed either. You will often see white lines on the rock, or holes in soft surfaces from where poles have been placed. Putting rubber stoppers on the bottom of them can help to reduce the effect.

There is also the noise factor. Walk alongside someone with poles on a hard surface and you will see what I mean. When you go walking for some peace and quiet a constant "click click" is not what you want to hear.

6 Top Trekking Pole Tips

How to hold them: When holding the top of the pole, your elbow should be at a right angle. Adjust the length for uphills (shorter) and downhills (longer) and the terrain (on soft ground the bottom will sink in) to get your elbow at the right angle.

Wrist loops: Take the wrist loops off whenever you feel there is a slip risk so they don't injure you.

Practice: Take time to adapt to walking with poles. Place one pole and the opposite foot down at the same time and find a rhythm that suits you.

Legs: Continue to use your legs and feet to balance without becoming over-reliant on the poles. They are an additional aid, not a substitute to sound foot placements – your legs are stronger than your arms!

Crossing rivers: When stepping from rock to rock or wading through a small river, poles give you a third and fourth point of ground contact, increasing your stability. Carefully place both your poles accurately to ensure they do not slip.

When you don't need them: Store them away on terrain that requires the use of your hands or on ground where it is difficult to find secure pole placements (like steep rocky section) to ensure they don't get caught on rocks, trees and other walkers.

Baskets: It is often best to remove baskets altogether, unless you are on very soft ground where a small basket will stop the poles sinking in. Large baskets can get caught in heather but become essential in snowy conditions.

When To Use Them and When Not to Use Them?

Poles are most useful when descending; this is when you can really feel them reduce the strain on other parts of your body. The same goes for when you are carrying a heavy load, perhaps when carrying kit for a wild camp.

I will always put my poles away on any ground that I need to use my hands. It is much safer to put them away them have them dangling off your wrists.

Using poles on ascents can again reduce the strain put on various parts of your body. But some people will prefer to put them away for the uphill sections to give your legs more of a workout – it depends on what your objective is. Try it and see – do a flat walk with and without poles – and feel that you are using different muscles.

1 Pole or 2?

You will see people out on the hill using just one pole and some using a pair. Whether you choose to use 1 or 2 really comes down to personal preference and which you feel most comfortable with, but there are a few factors to consider.

When I am carrying a pole but not intending to use it much - only to help with a river crossing or if the going gets a little tough - then I will take one pole and keep it folded away in my rucksack until I need it. If I intend on using the poles throughout the duration of my walk then I will carry two to continually assist with my rhythm and balance. If you are regularly walking with only one pole it is worth being aware that this could cause an imbalance in one side of your body as muscles may develop unevenly.

Trekking poles can be a real help to us on the hill – but remember, take time to get used to walking with them so that you can reap the benefits, ensuring they limit the risk of a slip rather than causing it.

About Alison Culshaw

Alison Culshaw and Cat Freeman run Adventure Expeditions - an extensive programme of Open Gold D of E and School Expeditions across the UK and Alps. They also offer outdoor training for leaders at all levels, including navigation, ML and WGL courses.

UKH Articles and Gear Reviews by Alison Culshaw
Alison Culshaw and Cat Freeman
© Alison Culshaw and Cat Freeman

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