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Why does any hiker use hiking poles?
Your question deserves a detailed answer:
You really should consider poles as essential hiking gear.
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.
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.
There's another great reason for hiking poles in your hands:
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?
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).
I've owned four different brands of poles:
And I recently reviewed a pair from Montem; read the thorough description of how they performed here.
So all of my remarks are based on solid facts.
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 ;)
Okay, let's get serious and go through our list of hiking pole features.
Let's call out the features you absolutely need to pay attention to when you go shopping for a pair of poles, including:
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.
Adjustable poles also give you the option of loaning them to a hiking buddy with a different height and weight profile.
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 a heavy load. So if you're a leaner on the downhill section of a trail, keep reading.
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.
Some poles have the ability to turn on shock absorption only when you need it. Think steep trails!
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:
Currently I'm using the "clamp it down tight" type of lock and loving how rock solid it feels when I'm on steep trails.
But some of the other locks are easier to use if hand mobility is an issue for you.
Hand grip materials matter.
You're going to have those grips in your clenched hands for hours at a time, so go for comfort and conformation to your hand size.
I've used cork, foam and rubber (hard rubber only in winter).
Cork comes out a winner in my book, because it doesn't slip around in my sweaty palms or when I'm wearing gloves.
Foam is also a great choice, and doesn't absorb sweat.
If you're looking for the perfect trekking poles, you've also 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.
If you're going to use the trekking poles for winter hiking and/or snowshoeing (see Mount Rainier photo above), you'll need to be able to swap out the small summer baskets on the end of the poles for something larger.
This prevents the poles from sinking in snow or mud.
Be sure you can get the baskets off and on easily.
Some use a screw mechanism, others are forced on and off.
Check to be sure that you can buy replacement baskets if you lose one in the snow. Because sooner or later, you will!
Pole tip materials provide durability and longevity, with carbide giving you a long life.
Rubber tips are made to fit over the 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, so be sure to check if that's possible with the pair you like.
Wrist straps are handy while on slopes to ensure you don't lose your pole if you lose your grip.
Expect nylon webbing straps, which dry quickly and make a handy way to hang up your poles in your gear locker.
Most brands adjust easily by pulling on them or loosening them.
There are many price points, reflecting the presence or absence 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.
Around $100 US is a pretty good price for a well designed pair of poles.
You can go lower, but durability and comfort might be impacted.
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.
You want an 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 right now for two reasons:
If you're not a "leaner" like me, and you're going for ultralight gear, you might want the lighter carbon fiber poles.
Built in shock absorption is a must for my aging knees.
Ditto for my hands and wrists.
I'm willing to pay for this feature, and then not use it when I'm going uphill.
I've used these Black Diamond poles for over six 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!
You can see all of the hiking pole brands I mentioned above here.
I'll leave you with perhaps the best reason of all to use hiking poles:
trail spider relocation (eek)
Best Hiking Poles