Ok, ok. You want (and deserve!) a real answer. You’re smart, savvy, and you want to know about all the best research to make your trail experience the best it can be. The fact is, hiking poles can convey a lot of benefits that can make your journey an easier, more pleasurable experience– but they’re not ideal for every situation. Studies show that there are plenty of pros and cons to using poles, and whether or not you should use them depends entirely on your best judgment. We want to help you to make this decision based on the best science and relevant experience. Read on to find out just what trekking poles can do for you.
Why Use Trekking Poles?
There are many arguments for trekking poles. They can improve your balance and provide a great deal of stability. They take strain off of joints like knees and ankles.
Trekking poles can provide more than just support. They are a valuable piece of safety equipment. If you’re crossing a stream and you don’t know how fast it is or how treacherous the bottom might be, a pole tip is much safer to check with than your foot. You can also use them as support for an emergency shelter or ultralight shelter, but their primary benefits come from what they can do for you physically on your hike.
Benefits Of Hiking Poles
Balance is one of the key benefits of hiking poles. A study showed that using hiking poles significantly improves balance. This is the case whether carrying a backpack or not. Improved balance means you reduce your risk of injury. This is especially true when going downhill: Having a pair of extra anchor points can help keep you upright. If you have balance concerns, or are at higher risk of falls, poles do appear to reduce the risk of falls by increasing balance.
Balance is especially important for certain hiking scenarios like river and stream crossings where poles can be extremely valuable to help get hikers get across safely and quickly.
Using trekking poles engages your upper body as you hike, and that means you’re going to burn more calories. If you’re hiking for exercise, this is great news! How much more you burn depends on the type of pole you use, the difficulty of terrain, and the pace at which you are moving. If you’re using a Nordic walking pole, you can burn upwards of 20% more calories while walking at the same speed.
The studies don’t have much data for hikers on difficult terrain, so we don’t know how well this transfers to a heavy elevation gain hike, but you can see how if you are going on a long day hike or trail run, additional exertion can make a major difference in your overall time, calories burned, nutrition needed, and more. Here is another study done at different levels of incline.
The studies have mixed results on the effect that poles have on energy expenditure with and without hiking poles. The trend appears to be that poles increase actual exertion on the body, but more studies are necessary to answer more confidently.
Relating to the question of additional calories burned, exertion is also a concern for pole users. One study shows that the perception of work decreases when you use poles, so you feel like you’re using less energy, while in reality, studies seem to suggest you’re using as much or more energy than you normally do. This means that you’re likely to feel less tired while your body may actually be working harder. This perceived exertion difference may cause enhanced performance when operating below maximum thresholds, and decreased performance when trying to maximize speed, or over longer durations.
The studies have mixed results on perceived exertion with hiking poles. The trend appears to be that poles reduce perceived exertion, but more studies are necessary to answer more confidently.
Knee & Skeletal Support With Hiking Poles
One of the biggest benefits that hiking poles convey is joint support. Using poles significantly reduces forces exerted on the knees and ankles while going downhill, potentially reducing the chance of injury. This holds true when hiking packless, with a day pack, and with a large backpack.
Additionally, poles can reduce the force on the knee joint by up to 25%. Now, you may have heard that poles can take 25% of the weight pressure off of your knees, and when people say this, the sheer force study is what they’re referring to. But that’s not actually what shear force is, and this study is often misinterpreted.
Shear force is a sliding force that’s parallel to the ground. It goes over the top of your knee joint, like air over an airplane’s wing, and can destabilize the joint leading to injury. Too much shear force can also impact torque, which twists the knee– again, leading to serious injury. Hiking poles don’t take weight pressure off the knee. Instead, they help mitigate dangerous twisting and other forces that lead to severe injuries like tears and dislocations.
Poles can also help keep your lower leg stable. Using them reduces varus movement in the knee, which means that the lower leg bones (tibia and fibula) stay better aligned with femur, than without poles. This reduces torque and the potential for twisting-based injuries or overuse injuries due to poor form.
Those with knee pain, knee injuries, or weakness in the lower body may benefit from poles by reducing forces and chances of movement that can cause injury.
Less Pain, More Gain?
Trekking poles don’t just offer joint support. Kinesiologists have found that they act as tools that have shown to improve a person’s gait for faster speeds and reduced forces on the knee. Poles can redistribute work amongst the muscles, letting your upper body handle some of the work that your lower body normally does.
This, combined with the joint support and reduction of perceived exertion, means that all in all, you may be able feel less exertion with poles while expending more energy. You’ll likely be able to reduce the overall load and impact on your joints, while improving your balance and reducing your risk of injury. You might be willing to go longer because you feel comparatively less pain, which is can be a major factor in determining when you “quit”
Reduce Hand Swelling
Ever get swollen hands while hiking? Hiking with poles should help mitigate the swelling of your hands and fingers.
Cons of Trekking Poles
Inconvenience & Weight
One of the problems with hiking poles is that they can be pretty inconvenient. They take up room in your car, they add extra weight, they need to be strapped to your backpack when not in use, and perhaps most annoying of all, you can’t take them as carry-on luggage on a plane. You have to check them, which can be expensive if your airline doesn’t allow free checked bags, and checked luggage means extra airport time.
Additionally, poles can be a nuisance out on the trail as well. Hiking in areas where terrain may require use of hands, you’ll likely want to put your poles away for a period of time. They can be awkward to carry, and it takes time to pack and unpack your poles.
If you have collapsible or foldable poles, it does take time to break them down and get them out again– and if you leave them fully assembled and strap them to your bag, you have to be careful that they’re not hitting your legs, branches, or rocks as you hike. For some hikers and many trail runners, this extra annoyance isn’t worth it.
Yes, this was listed as an advantage- and for some people, it is. It all depends on why you’re hiking. If you’re on an endurance hike, the added weight and upper body activity results in actually burning more calories (according to some studies), which means you’re losing energy faster. This might not be a big deal on a quick hike in the woods, but this additional energy loss could result in a slower time in a race, or a quicker decline in performance over a long adventure. Hiking poles may cause you to need to adjust your calorie expenditure estimates or carry different amounts of nutrition.
They Leave A Trace
Many hikers abide by the principles of LNT- leave no trace. This means that you don’t do any additional damage to the natural area of the trail, and you leave nothing behind. Unfortunately, many hiking poles have a steel carbide tip, which leaves gouges in rock formations. Hardened steel can even leave scratches in granite. You must keep this in mind if you want to use poles, and consider getting a rubber cap for the tip if you’ll be hiking on rocks. Additionally, when hiking on thin trails, hikers may be placing poles on a sensitive alpine environment, which could cause damage to those fragile areas.
Trail Running & Poles
If you’re a trail runner, especially a mountain runner or ultra-distance runner, you will find that pole use is even more hotly debated amongst your peers than in the hiking world at large. At some races, you’ll see everyone using poles. At others, there’s no pole usage to be found. Why?
Part of this has to do with footing. Running organizations note that the increased stability and balance poles provide can be very beneficial on runs over uneven ground. Rough, rugged, rocky trails are often dangerous even for the experienced trail runner, and a pair of poles for balance can save a run.
As trail running coaches point out, there haven’t been any kinetic studies on poles and running– but an expert professional’s opinion, backed by the science of pole use, is that poles can be advantageous. In addition to all the benefits that they convey while walking, using poles while running reduces the muscular load while not increasing cardiovascular demands enough to make the run more challenging. On steeper terrain or where more muscle fatigue is anticipated, poles can be particularly helpful. If the limiting factor is isolated muscle fatigue, vs cardiovascular fatigue, poles might be a great option.
When Not To Use Trekking Poles
There are scenarios where trekking poles really should not be used. Certain uphill or downhill terrain involves needing hand holds. At these times, be sure to stow away the poles. When hiking in alpine terrain where there is a single thin track trail, and pole usage will be hitting the fragile terrain off the trail, please put the poles away.
In addition to these scenarios, trail runners, athletes, or adventurers with large days ahead of them often leave poles at home because they can reduce performance for long durations due to added weight, increased exertion, and time lost transitioning poles to a pack, and to in use.
Wrist Straps – Should You Use Them and Why?
Wrist straps are an important part of the hiking pole because using them correctly can help increase comfort and utility. Using the straps allows you to maintain a looser grip on the pole and helps the pole act as an extension of your arm. Properly fitted straps help support your hand as you push downwards on the ground reducing the force necessary on your fingers and hands to grasp the pole.
However, some hikers feel that the straps just get in the way, or worry about the straps making it too difficult to drop the pole in case of an emergency. If you think that the consequences of falling on the poles would be worse for you than the consequences of falling without their stabilization, you might not want to use the straps.
If you do want to use the wrist straps, make sure you use them correctly. First, put your hand up through the bottom of the strap. Then pull down and grab the grip of the pole. This technique supports the wrist and heel of the hand and allows you to keep your hand relaxed on the grip. It also allows you to put serious pressure on the poles without having to squeeze too hard and makes it easy to grab the pole correctly after letting go of it.
What To Look For In A Trekking Pole?
Trekking poles should touch the ground when your arm is held out with your elbow at a 90° angle. This can be adjusted in either direction for uphill vs downhill travel as well. While features like shock absorbers and sand or snow basket tips might be of interest to you, here are the key features to look for in a trekking pole.
- Lightweight, durable body
- Cork or foam hand grip
- Steel tip (with a removable rubber cap for safety)
- Adjustable wrist straps
- Removable baskets for hiking in the snow
- An easy folding or telescoping mechanism (folding vs telescoping is up to your preference)
As far as materials go, aluminum, carbon fiber, and graphite are all popular body options. These are lightweight, sometimes weighing as little as 8 to 12 ounces for a pair. Aluminum is usually a cheaper and more durable option, but it is heavier. While aluminum bends under too much stress, composites tend to break– so know your pole’s limits! Both body materials are strong, but every pole has its breaking point.
You definitely want a padded handgrip of some kind, as the hard plastic ones often hurt to grip. Foam is great for summer, as it does a good job absorbing sweat. If you’re hiking during winter, however, you might want to use a rubber grip for insulation– but you may not want to use rubber grips during summer, as they are can be uncomfortable to grip as they get slick with sweat and tend to chafe.
When looking at wrist straps, be aware that plain braided or woven nylon can lead to chafing– chamois, leather, or a synthetic version of either of those is better for your skin. You also might want to consider a padded wrist strap.
If you want to learn more, read our complete guide to choosing and finding the best hiking poles.
Adjustable or Not?
Many poles are adjustable, which enhances stability on difficult terrain. Shortening your poles on uphill hikes and lengthening them to help get you downhill is a major advantage of adjustable poles. In addition, adjustable poles significantly increase the ease of packing the poles out of the way.
Fixed-length poles, however, have fewer parts than adjustable poles, and this means they tend to weigh less. Many ultra-light poles, which weigh less than one pound per pair, are fixed-length poles. Choose an adjustable or non-adjustable pole based on how you hike.
Ultimately, the choice of whether or not to use hiking poles is up to you. We hope that our guide helps you to make the best decision based on your hiking style and needs. Happy trails!
Max DesMarais is the founder of Hiking & Fishing. He has a passion for the outdoors and making outdoor education and adventure more accessible. Max is a published author for various outdoor and marketing websites. He is an experienced hiker, backpacker, fly fisherman, trail runner, and spends his free time in the outdoors. These adventures allow him to test gear, learn new skills, and experience new places so that he can educate others. You can read more about him here: hikingandfishing/about