You can’t venture into the outdoors without noticing a plethora of hikers, armed with an arsenal of trekking poles. So, what’s the deal? Why do hikers use trekking poles, and are those cumbersome sticks worth the price to haul around? Are they worth it?
The Benefits of Trekking Poles
Trekking poles are popular for a reason. They actually have a number of benefits. They can make your hiking easier, and they can also double to provide extra functions, like using them to pitch a tarp tent.
Here are a few of the benefits to consider.
1) Reduced Muscle Soreness
In a 2010 study, they found that the use of trekking poles significantly decreased the soreness in days after hiking. The study also showed reduced levels of creatine kinase in hikers using trekking poles, which indicates reduced muscle damage.
This reduced muscle damage is likely due to the partial shift of weight bearing work to your arms. By doing so, you decrease the demands on your legs, and although your arms are getting more tired than usual, the overall muscle demands are actually diminished.
2) Improved Stability on Rough Terrain
Have you ever come to a sketchy crossing? Snow? Loose rock? Creeks?
With trekking poles, those sketchy crossings can become less daunting and help you keep your balance. On loose or slick terrain like snow, poles add an extra point of contact, so if one foot slips, you’re less likely to fall.
With creek crossings, you can use your poles to stabilize yourself as you leap from rock to rock. Just reach out, secure your pole half way between you and where you’re going. Then reach your foot out and use that pole to help stabilize you. This can be especially helpful when crossing deeper waters that require you to get your feet wet.
3) Reduced Impact on Knees
Obviously, the use of poles can help reduce and disburse the burden and impact on your legs and joints.
One study showed that when carrying loads, such as a backpack, trekking poles helped to reduce the forces that are placed around joints, and helped to reduce the loading on joints of the lower extremities.
In another study, participants climbed Mt. Snowdon, the highest peak in England. Half of them used trekking poles, and the other half did not. Researchers found that those using poles had a lower perceived exertion during their ascent, had reduced muscle soreness, and lower levels of creatine kinase, a protein associated with muscle damage.
Finally, one more study on obese women showed that poles could reduce muscle and cartilage damage after downhill walking.
4) Reduced Level of Exertion
When you use trekking poles, you actually incorporate more muscles into your activity. So, instead of just working your legs, you incorporate your arms as you introduce poles. The result is that you redistribute your load over each of your four limbs.
Since you are incorporating a more full body exercise, your heart rate correspondingly increases. However, despite that increase in heart rate, hikers actually report a lower perceived exertion when hiking with poles. So although your increasing the physiological benefits of your exercise, it doesn’t feel harder.
5) Trekking Poles Help With Trail Blazing
If you hike long enough, you’re going to find a trail that disappears into bushes. An obvious trail can quickly disappear into the bushes in less traveled areas. If you choose to bush-wack via hand and fist, you’ll probably get scratched up and frustrated.
But if you have a pair of poles, you can easily push the brush out of your way. This provides some comfort when your hauling through tick country.
6) They Can Double as Tent Stakes!!
This is my favorite reason to use trekking poles. To be fair, I typically don’t use a traditional tent, but instead use a tarp or a tarp tent. The nice thing about these types of setups is that they don’t require tent poles. Instead you can just use your poles.
By ditching the tent poles you can save some weight. And, you might as well use that weight for an item that’s dual purpose, like trekking poles!
I’ve heard people claim they bring poles as a form of self-defense against bears and cougars. While I must confess, this makes me want to roll my eyes, I can see how they might provide some comfort. Although you’ll probably never use them as a weapon, the idea that you could is enough comfort for some backwoods venturers.
There’s something about the clickity clack of trekking sticks on the trail. As you get into your groove, trail hiking can be very meditative. Trekking poles can add to that Zen as you clicking clack with each stride, plant each foot and pole, repeat.
Usually, I tend to notice familiar song rhythms and then my mind loops them with the beat. For me I hear Nirvana’s rendition of Plateau and the Muppets Christmas Carol “There goes Mr. Grench“.
Are Trekking Poles Worth It?
This is a question of personal preference.
Personally, I don’t like to bring extra gear on a hike unless it’s going to provide extra benefit, or allow me to replace other gear. I also don’t like carrying things in my hands as I hike. So, initially, I didn’t like using trekking poles.
But, here’s why I use them now, despite those reservations.
Since I don’t carry a tent, and use a tarp tent instead, I’ve reduced my hiking weight by quite a bit. So, that makes extra room for luxuries like. Plus, my trekking poles double as tent stakes – so, bam, they’re dual purpose.
On level ground I prefer not to use my poles. So, I’ve got foldable ones that I can just strap onto the side of my backpack. Then when I go downhill, I can quickly whip them out to save my knees.
Carrying a weighted load over varied terrain can pose some risk for injury, especially with years of repetition. Based on research, trekking poles can help reduce those risks, and therefore keep you on the trail. So, if you ask me, that’s a win-win.
So, I’m going to say yes, trekking poles are “worth it”.
What do you think? Love ’em? Hate ’em? Let me know in the comments.