Hiking poles - useful tool or crutch?
Updated: Jun 22, 2020
A recent Facebook question in a hikers group set off a storm of replies regarding the use of hiking or trekking poles. There were people on both sides of the camp - those who thought they were essential equipment and those who expressed that, 'real' hikers don't need them.
I wanted to weigh in on the discussion and help you decide when it's appropriate to use them. First of all, hiking poles are a tool, not an accessory. If you have them but don't actually use them, they just get in the way. Typically, they are used when the terrain is rugged, technical, or steep. They help maintain balance, shift weight, and encourage an upright posture.
However, hiking poles can be useful even on the easiest of terrain. If you are a beginner hiker, struggle with weakness, or have decreased balance due to age or lower level of fitness, poles help ensure safety and enjoyment on the trial. Poles allow the elderly or those with physical challenges which result in lower leg weakness, such as muscular dystrophy or multiple sclerosis, to still enjoy an easy path through the woods. Trekking poles give hikers a bigger base of support and absorb some of the contact forces from the ground, relieving pressure on the knees. This helps significantly if you experience knee pain when hiking downhill.
For those taking on more challenging hikes, poles help with balance when your legs start to fatigue. The bigger base of support takes some of the weight from the backpack off of the legs which can be especially helpful when through-hiking. Poles are never a sign of weakness and should be used if they make you feel more confident on the trail.
Adjusting the poles
Hiking poles, though made of different materials and colors, all function in basically the same way. To properly adjust for level ground, place the grip in position with your forearms parallel to the grown and your elbow at a 90 degree angle. If you're hiking uphill, shorten the length of the poles somewhat to accommodate the incline. When descending, lengthen the poles to keep you stable going downhill.
To hold the poles, from under the wrist strap, place your hands completely through the strap. The pole should hang from your wrist when you let go. Place your hand over the strap as you grip the pole. NEVER hook your thumb through the strap or allow the strap to go over your thumb or you will risk a thumb injury should you fall.
Walk with the poles using your natural arm swing, putting forth the pole in the hand opposite the foot that is stepping forward. On level ground, the poles assist your forward movement, so it's almost as if you're dragging them behind you and placing them behind your foot fall. When going up a steeper incline, shorten the poles slightly to maintain good alignment as you reach forward. You can place the pole slightly ahead of where your foot will fall, and then step, or step and place at the same time.
When going downhill, lengthen the poles in order to keep an upright posture as you reach them forward. Place your hands over the top of the grip and then set the poles first before taking a step. Use them more for balance as you step down, rather than leaning heavily upon them. A wider base of support improves stability.
Hiking poles are a useful tool for being a safe and healthy hiker. For guidance and instruction on how to purchase and use trekking poles, contact me!