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Hiking Poles:
Why Use Them?

Female hiker with backpack and hiking poles, crossing a flower strewn meadow with snowy mountains in backgroundNavigating a soggy spring flower meadow using my hiking poles

Why and how do I use hiking poles? (a.k.a. walking sticks or trekking poles)

Let me count the ways!

Trekking poles:

  • improve my balance on steep slopes and give me confidence while negotiating tricky footing.
  • take a load off my knees when I'm hiking downhill.
  • are useful for probing a snow bridge to safely cross an icy cold stream.
  • can be used to fend off aggressive dogs whose owners are nowhere in sight.
  • double as emergency tent poles.
  • give my upper body a nice workout as I navigate the terrain.
  • click against rocks to alert bears and other hikers of my presence.
  • collapse into a small footprint, to ride along in my pack when I don't need them.

See? You really should consider poles as essential hiking gear.

But don't just take my word for it!

Read what this hiker has to say about using trekking poles!


Let's be objective about using hiking poles on the trail

You already know my subjective preferences.

Here's what objective research results say:

Hiking with poles may increase the number of calories burned without making you feel more tired.

How?

The weight of the poles plus the involvement of your upper body muscles in each step will burn more fuel (calories).

That means that if you hike for weight control, you will end up burning more calories if you use walking sticks.

SOURCE: Journal of Strength Conditioning Research 2008 Sept; 22(5):1468-74 Trekking poles increase physiological responses to hiking without increased perceived exertion. Saunders MJ et al.


Need another scientific reason?

Here's yet another great reason:

Using trekking poles during a hike will cause your heart to pump harder, to support the increased demand for oxygen from your arms (in addition to your legs, which are already screaming for oxygen).

The result is a stronger heart muscle, without increasing your pace or choosing harder terrain. You are getting more benefits from each hike!

SOURCE: Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise 2005 Dec; 32(12):2093-101. Muscular and metabolic costs of uphill backpacking: are hiking poles beneficial? Knight CA & Caldwell GE.

In addition, these authors found that your leg muscles don't have to work as hard when you use walking sticks, because they provoke a longer stride length.


If all of this objectivity hasn't convinced you yet, what about having a little fun?

  • If you're into unique and personalized hiking gear, hiking sticks make a dandy place to display a hiking medallion.

The best reason to use hiking poles?

And I would be remiss if I left out this vital fact:

Hiking sticks make really handy perches for gray jays (also called camp robbers or whiskey jays).

gray jay perched on hiking polesHow can you resist a visit from this lovely bird? Just watch out for your sandwich - gray jays are fast!


Features of the best hiking poles

I've owned four different brands of poles:

  • REI
  • Komperdell
  • Black Diamond
  • Leki

And the first thing I can say unequivocally is that all of them were better than the hiking sticks I made for myself out of fallen tree limbs!

If you're looking for the perfect trekking poles, you've got to be sure they will fit your hands and not cause fatigue.

That's why you need to buy hiking poles specifically made for women.

This is especially true for women like me who are "petite", meaning short - we need shorter poles and smaller grips.

Features you absolutely need to pay attention to:

  • Poles must be adjustable so you can shorten/lengthen them according to trail conditions, and so you can collapse them to their smallest height to stow in your pack.
  • They should be as lightweight as you can afford (preferably under one pound). Carbon fiber is the lightest, most expensive, and most prone to breakage under heavy load. Aluminum is also a light choice and you'd be hard pressed to break an aluminum trekking pole - although you can bend it if you really try.
  • If your knees or hips are at all cranky, purchase the poles with shock absorbing internal springs to take some of the punch out of your steep descents.
  • There are several types of locking mechanisms to choose from to keep your poles from collapsing when you put weight on them, and I've used all of them: twist lock, button, external latch/lever/clamp, and a combo of twist and lever. Currently I'm using the "clamp it down tight" type of lock.
  • Hand grip materials: I've used cork, foam and rubber (only in winter). Cork comes out a winner in my book, because it doesn't slip around in my sweaty palms. Foam is also a great choice.
  • If you're going to use the trekking poles for winter hiking and/or snowshoeing, you'll need to be able to swap out the small baskets on the end of the poles for something larger so the poles don't sink. Be sure you can get the baskets off and on easily, and that you can buy replacement baskets if you lose one in the snow.
  • Pole tip materials: Rubber tips fit over carbide tips to give you a wide range of options for traction. If you break off a tip, you can buy replacement tips that install easily.
  • Wrist straps are handy while on slopes to ensure you don't lose your pole if you lose your grip. 
  • There are many price points, reflecting all of the above features. Pick your top 3 "must have" features, and you'll see what you can expect to pay for a good set of hiking poles.


Hiking poles: my recommendations

As I've mentioned earlier, I've used every reputable brand on the market and tried out every feature.

I've leaned on my poles on steep rocky or icy descents, used them to probe swiftly flowing streams, defended myself against overly curious mountain goats (rest assured, no goats were harmed), and used them to prop up shelters.

Here are my top 3 "must have" features:

  • Easy to use, stays put no matter what clamp style locking mechanism. You push down on a small lever to lock the pole to a particular length, and open up the lock with a reverse motion. This can be tricky with gloves on, but not impossible.
  • Aluminum poles are what I carry now. The extra money for carbon fiber doesn't seem justified, especially because they're easier to break and I rely on my poles for steep downhill work on sketchy terrain. If you're not a "leaner" like me, you might want the lighter carbon fiber poles.
  • Built in shock absorption is a must for my aging knees. I'm willing to pay for this feature, and not use it when I'm going uphill.

I've used Black Diamond poles over four years (hiking in all 4 seasons in mountainous terrain), and they've taken everything I've dished out.

They might be just what you're looking for!

Black Diamond Women's Trekking Poles


One more compelling pole usage

I'll leave you with perhaps the best reason of all to use hiking poles:

trail spider relocation


Eeeeeeee!


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