Hiking Poles:
Benefits For Hikers

by Diane Spicer

Meet Hiking For Her's Diane

Trekking poles give a hiker lots of benefits. Find out which poles are best at Hiking For Her. #trekkingpoles #hikingpoles #polesforhikers #hikinggear #hikingforher #besttrekkingpoles


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

Let me count the ways for you!

Trekking poles:

  • improve your balance on steep slopes and give you confidence while negotiating tricky footing
  • take a load off your knees when 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 or prop up a tarp for ultralight camping
  • give your upper body a nice workout as you navigate the terrain
  • click against rocks to alert bears and other hikers of your presence
  • collapse into a small footprint, riding along in your backpack when you 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!

Female hiker wearing a green backpack loaded with her snowshoes and winter gear, gazing at Mount Rainier with trekking poles in her handsTrekking poles are useful in all four seasons, as you can see here at Mount Rainier


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?

There's another great reason for hiking poles in your hands:

  • 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?

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 I recently reviewed a pair from Montem; read the thorough description of how they performed here.

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.

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.


Important features
of the best hiking poles

Let's call out the features you absolutely need to pay attention to when you go shopping for a pair of poles:

Adjustability

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.


Lightweight

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.


Shock absorption

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!


Locks

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 
  • buttons 
  • external latch/lever/clamp 
  • a combo of twist and lever 

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.


Grips


Hand grip
 materials matter.

A lot.

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.

  • It can also be wiped clean.


Baskets

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.

Tip:

Check to be sure that you can buy replacement baskets if you lose one in the snow. Because sooner or later, you will!


Tips

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.

  • They also protect the tips if you decide to take them on a neighborhood walk on cement.

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.


Straps

Wrist straps are handy while on slopes to ensure you don't lose your pole if you lose your grip.  

Most of them adjust easily by pulling on them or loosening them.

  • If you end up with too much strap material flapping around your wrists, trim it with scissors, but only after you know it's the length you're going to need for all of your hiking plans.


Cost

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.


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, 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. 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!


One more
compelling pole usage

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

trail spider relocation

Spiderweb stretched across trail

Eeeeeeee!


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Hiking Poles



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