What about hiking poles – hindrance or help?

What about Hiking Poles aka trekking poles? They provide  additional support for trekkers, hikers, trailwalkers, trampers, mountaineers, leisure walkers and anyone who prefers additional walking support.

If you are hiking an average of 12miles(20km) or more per day or walking over rocks, through rivers and creeks, trekking through snow, steep inclines & descents and over uneven surfaces – this post might be useful.

Stepping stones

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We take a lot of steps when hiking the trails of the great outdoors. This is one of the biggest factors in deciding whether to use hiking poles or not so we are going to expand on this.

Initially, I had no idea why people used them, I thought they were more for snow, as in ski poles, so I assumed anyone with hiking poles was backpacking toward some snowy destination and using them rather than packing them away.

Below we discuss the pros and cons to help determine whether to add them to the gear list and looking at where they can and can’t be used.

Topics shared in this post

  • Pro’s and Con’s of hiking poles
  • One pole or two poles
  • Types of hiking poles
  • Alternatives to hiking poles
  • Sizing and fitting hiking poles

The pros and cons of hiking poles aka trekking poles

Pros: Factors supporting the use of hiking poles

Distributing weight of the hiking load

The distance of 12miles(20km) we mentioned earlier equates to approx. 24,000 steps. When we look at the weight we are bearing on each step. We already know our hiking load + our body weight is what our feet are carrying every single step of the way.

When you realise that your hiking poles are removing 5kg(11Lbs) – 8kg(17Lbs) each step you take then we start to realise it may just be worth adding them to the equipment list. The reduction difference depends on the terrain – the steeper the terrain, the greater the weight placed on the poles.

The weight your poles bear does depend on your walking style: some people lean into their poles as they walk, some people only use poles for balance, some people place a heavier load on their poles as they become fatigued.

When looking for Hiking Poles
What to consider : Cost, height, weight, anti-shock, adjustable, durability, comfort grips & straps, gender specific, accessories, carbon or aluminium, purpose(e.g. racing, leisure)


Stability over various terrains:

  • Hiking poles provide a lot of stability in slippery wet conditions
  • an aid for river crossings including helping others across rivers by using the poles by reaching out and giving them something to grab onto
  • support the feet over uneven surfaces by compensating for weight distribution
  • a great aid for uphill climbs giving our arms the extra pulling capability
  • a safety aid in steep and slippery descents
  • providing support for those that suffer from knee problems on the downhills
  • a lifesaver when you are going to sleep while walking non-stop through the night

Double as tent poles 

This website is all about lightening the hike and when we find an item that has a dual purpose then we emphasize this feature. We are using our poles as an extension of our limbs in such a way that does not add weight to the hiking load – we are reducing the load. If hiking with a tent which requires poles, we have therefore reduced our load by the weigt of tent poles.

Cons: Factors that do not support hiking poles

  • Increase backpack weight – the weight varies between 215g(7.5oz) – 350g(12.3oz) per pole so if you take them and end up not using them, unfortunately, you will add this weight to your backpack
  • Tripping hazard – when walking in close proximity to other people as in team events people often walk into them from behind
  • Your hands are not free – if you want something out of your backpack you mostly end up holding them both with one hand
  • Hindrance – when climbing up or down rock faces or steep tracks where you need to grab hold of things hiking poles need to be packed away or handed up or down to someone as they get in the way (or you throw them ahead and collect them when you get there)
  • Blistered hands – ensure the grips are comfortable to avoid getting blisters – hands tend to sweat on the grips, some people wear gloves but that’s not practical in hot weather

One pole or two poles

For short walks such as half-day, one pole is fine. If you are walking all day then one pole is OK if you are alternating between hands – you are otherwise going to be unbalanced which places stress on different areas of the body.

Two poles give the most support and weight distribution. It is easy to establish a walking rhythm when hiking with 2 poles. The hiking load weight remains balanced across your anatomy

Types of hiking poles

There are 2 main styles of hiking pole: telescopic and folding(collapsible).

The telescopic poles(collapsible) have either 2 or 3 sections which fit into each other or extend out from each other – they have twist lock mechanisms or snap locks to lengthen or shorten, then lock in place. This style is great for height adjustment accuracy.

The folding(collapsible) poles are similar to tent poles that have sections which fit into each other when folding you separate the section which remains attached via an elastic cord and then reconnect when you wish to use. The design allows for a lighter pole – many of the ultralight poles are in this style. The only disadvantage of this model is you do not have as much flexibility over the height adjustment.

Shock absorption(antishock) is a feature you should look for. Hiking poles are not overly expensive unless you are buying top of the range. For very little expense you can have a pair of hiking poles with shock absorption. This is really noticeable when you are on long walks as there is less impact on your hands & wrists. The shock absorption has a spring-like feel as you place the pole on the ground you can feel the spring absorbing the weight.

Baskets are disc-like rubber/plastic fittings which can be placed near to the bottom of the poles and prevent the poles from sinking into mud and snow.

Tip covers – the tips are usually strong graphite and quite sharp – they come with rubber covers which are quieter, especially when doing some road walking or across rocky terrain – they are also useful when you need to pack the poles away they will protect your backpack from tearing. They do tend to wear out, sometimes you get more than one set supplied or you can purchase separately. Some people don’t even bother to use the rubber covers mostly because they wear out or get lost and don’t get replaced.

The hand grips can vary from soft to hard, they vary from rubber, foam, plastic and cork. Your hands will sweat and the cork is not so good at absorption but a lot more comfortable for sweaty hands, so too is the softer rubber comfortable to grip but rubber being quite resistant can cause blisters so too with the harder plastics which can get quite uncomfortable and blisters can develop as a result, you can wear gloves or fingerless gloves to protect hands but they can get hot to wear in summer.

Alternatives to hiking poles

As you can see by the photo a broom handle can be used as a hiking pole – this one is adapted for the ice and has a nail hammered into the bottom to provide grip.

Some people will use a walking stick to hike with and some people prefer a hiking pole for a walking stick.

Before we started using hiking poles we would hunt around for a suitable stick on the ground from a tree and provided it was smooth to grip it was a great walking aid.

Sizing, fitting and adjusting hiking poles

When sizing, the poles will need to be high enough to set between your elbow and armpit while your arms are at your side. Therefore, your forearms will be resting on the poles slightly higher than your waist.

Fitting is about adjusting the straps to support your hands and wrists. Check if your poles have adjustable straps – I recommend straps.

Adjusting depends on the style of pole. For telescopic, usually in 3 sections, extend the bottom section just inside the maximum extension line(it will be marked), lock in place. With one arm at your side, place pole next to it, extend the top section until the top of the grip sits half-way between armpit and elbow, lock in place. You can now set your second pole according to the first which is now the correct length.

Summary

I hope you have enough information to determine if hiking poles are going to be of use to you or not.

Personally, I use them all the time – it took me one hike to get used to them and to decide I was more comfortable with them than without. In my case, I needed to take the weight off my hiking load by distributing it across my legs and hiking poles.

I had far less foot pain, less muscle pain and was less exhausted, they prevented many skids from becoming falls and made crossing creeks with slippery rocks and stones a lot drier.

If you are still unsure, borrow some from a hiking friend and try them out or try picking up a branch or stick next time you are out walking just out of curiosity to see how it works.

Did you ever wonder what those piles of sticks were at the end of hiking trails?

Hiking poles have to be one of the best ways to Lighten the Hike!

Wilderness footprints

10 comments

  1. The first time I saw these poles being used was on a holiday in Tenerife. I got the cable car up to the top of Mt. Teide and there were lots of walkers heading down the path that would take them to the bottom of the mountain. Some had walking poles, though it looked to me like most of those were older walkers. I guess they provided more stability on uneven terrain.

    1. Gary, I think they have started to gain some recognition in recent decades – we never used them when we were kids or teenagers but I started to use them in my adult years once I realised their benefits – cheers!

  2. I’m so glad to have found this post! I had been walking and hiking 3-5 miles daily to get in shape for longer hikes with friends over the summer. Aches and pains in my legs and hip often cause me to limp and I finally saw a doctor and found out that I have osteoarthritis. Pretty much anything I do hurts but I had been wondering if poles would help. After reading your article, I think I’m going to give them a try. Thank you.

    1. You are welcome Theresa and sorry to hear about your osteoarthritis but glad to hear you are looking for ways to manage it and keep doing the things you enjoy!

  3. I didn’t know there’s diverse type of poles. Came back from our hike trip to Mount Kinabalu in Malaysia 2 years back using hiking poles. It sure helps a lot. But I didn’t know then what I know now. We are planning our trip to the himalayas this year and will consider what you shared in this post. Thanks

  4. Great information! Me too actually haven`t thought that those poles have a purpose. I do hike once in a while, and sometimes I see people (especially old people) using those poles. I thought it is because they are just “old people”. So glad to have read this article. I think I will need those poles on my next hike.
    Thank you for sharing your article.
    All the best!

  5. Very interesting read and I am glad that I stumbled upon this. I always wondered why the poles!. I can now see the benefit, particularly when walking long distances and uphill.

    Surely gotta be some better light weight strong carbon composite material to make them out of in this day and age of high technology 700g pretty heavy for a pair of poles!.

    1. Derek, there certainly are much lighter poles in the higher end price range. Mine are inexpensive and weigh 600gm/pair and when in use they are really quite weightless as they make contact with the ground and take the weight off the feet. Best to ensure they are in use to the point they are beneficial and not a burden. Thanks for raising this concern Derek!

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