If you’ve spent any time walking down a trail in recent years, you’ve probably seen a few people with trekking poles and you’ve likely contemplated getting a pair for yourself. However, you also see plenty of people plodding along without trekking poles, so you also probably question whether or not trekking poles are actually worth the money or if they’re just another marketing gimmick for the unsuspecting hiker.
Unfortunately, there’s a lot of misinformation out there about trekking poles and their effectiveness. People on both sides of the debate tend to dig their heels in on this topic so it can be difficult to determine what information is actually true about trekking poles and what’s just a hiker’s stubbornness.
To quickly answer the question before we dive deep: Are trekking poles worth it? Trekking poles are worth the extra weight. There is scientific evidence to suggest that trekking poles do help decrease the forces placed on the body. This is good news for those of us who have previously injured our hips or knees and for those of us who frequently hike with a heavy pack. In the end though, it’s really a personal choice and that’s why we’re here…
To clear the air and settle this debate once and for all. Coming up, we’ll dig into the issue of trekking poles and look at the facts. We’ll present both sides of the argument and give you our final verdict as to whether or not trekking poles are actually worth it. Let’s get to it!
What are trekking poles?
Trekking poles are basically ski poles that are specifically designed for use while hiking. Trekking poles vary widely in design, but often they are made from either aluminum or some sort of carbon composite and feature a rubber or cork handle.
Many trekking poles also feature wrist straps for use on the uphill sections of a hike. Additionally, the vast majority of hiking trekking poles will either fold or telescopically collapse to become shorter for storage when you’re not out on the trail.
Why do people use trekking poles?
People use trekking poles for a wide variety of reasons, some of which are backed by scientific evidence and some of which are just personal preference. Here are some of the top reasons why people use trekking poles:
Some people (myself included) find that they are more stable, especially on steep uphills and downhills while using trekking poles. Trekking poles can act as a third or fourth leg (depending on if you use one or two while you hike), so it makes sense that they would improve one’s balance.
Indeed, many people find that trekking poles are really helpful when walking on a muddy hill, ice, or snow because trekking poles provide an extra point or two of contact with the ground. In particular, older folks, people with balance issues, and people who are new to hiking find that trekking poles give them the confidence they need to get out and enjoy the world.
Whether or not trekking poles actually improve one’s balance or just give people the mental fortitude to take on slick or steep slopes is a different matter altogether, but for many people, trekking poles are crucial to their ability to travel over difficult terrain. Thus, if you’re the type of person who feels uneasy on uneven or steep terrain, trekking poles may be useful.
Downhills with a heavy pack
One of the most popular reasons people cite for using trekking poles is that trekking poles can help provide extra support for the knees and hips when carrying a heavy pack. Many people find that using trekking poles, especially on steep downhill sections, helps alleviate some of the stress and wear and tear that repeated pounding can cause to the knees and hips.
Additionally, trekking poles can provide extra balance as you hike downhill with a heavy pack. Especially if you didn’t pack your pack perfectly in the morning, chances are pretty high that your pack is a bit lopsided or that it’s even pulling you backward. Trekking poles can help you stay upright as you walk downhill because they can provide a bit of stability on difficult terrain.
While hiking in places where you need to cross a lot of streams, you might find that trekking poles can be really helpful. If you’ve ever slipped off of a rock that you were perilously trying to balance on while crossing a stream, you know that it can sometimes be difficult to get to the other side of a river without getting your feet wet.
Trekking poles can help ensure that your dry river crossing stays, well, dry, as having two extra points of contact with the ground can help you walk across the loose, slippery rocks that are typical of riverbeds. On the other hand, trekking poles can be invaluable when doing a wet crossing of a major river, where having a third point of contact can be the difference between a quick and simple crossing and a horrible situation.
Travel through snow
If you’ve ever been snowshoeing and fallen over in deep powder, you know that it can be incredibly difficult to get back up. Unlike on a summertime trail in the woods, when you fall over on powder snow, you can’t just place your hand on the ground, roll over and get back up. If you tried, your hand would sink straight into the snow and you’d be back right where you started.
With trekking poles, however, you can lay them flat onto the snow and push down on them to create a sort of brace for you to stand up with. This can be awkward to do at first, but if you fell down in powder on a solo snowshoe trip, you’ll certainly want a pair of trekking poles to help you get back up.
The worst part of bushwacking is when the trees and shrubs that you’re walking through decide that they want to swing back and hit you right in the face. If you hike with trekking poles, however, you can use them to push brush away from you as you walk.
Trekking poles are especially helpful when you’re hiking in an area with poison ivy, poison oak, stinging nettles or any other less-than-fun plant as you can use your trekking poles to move these plants to the side as you walk. By doing so, you can minimize your exposure to these plants, which we can all agree is a good thing to do.
Tents and tarps
Trekking poles are useful even when you’re not hiking. When you’re at camp, you can use your trekking poles to set up a tarp, especially if you’re hiking in an area without sizeable trees to tie your tarp to. Instead, your trekking poles can take the place of the trees and act as the support mechanism for your tarp.
Additionally, many lightweight tents are designed to use trekking poles as the tent poles to save some weight and bulk in your pack. Thus, trekking poles can be a multipurpose piece of gear, ultimately saving you weight on a longer backpacking trip.
In the (hopefully) unlikely event that you or someone in your group gets seriously injured, trekking poles can be a really useful piece of gear. Not only can you improvise a number of different splints for broken bones by using trekking poles, but you can also use them to create a variety of different devices called litters to carry someone a short distance.
Why don’t people use trekking poles?
While there are certainly many reasons to use trekking poles, there are plenty of people who refuse to yield and purchase a pair for their next hike. This, of course, raises the question as to why these people choose not to use trekking poles and if their arguments warrant any consideration. Thus, we’ll now take a look at the reasons why you shouldn’t use trekking poles:
When scrambling or hiking on really steep trails, you sometimes need to use your hands to prevent yourself from falling. If you’re using trekking poles, it can be difficult to use your hands at the same time.
Therefore, when you’re on steep, rocky terrain, it might be best to avoid using trekking poles. However, it’s important to note that you can always stash your trekking poles on your pack for when you have to negotiate a scramble, so you don’t have to completely go without them on your hike. In fact, there are even some backpacks that come with a clip for you to quickly put away your trekking poles for a scramble without even having to take off the pack!
Some people really don’t like the extra hassle of having to deal with trekking poles on a hike. For the most part, these people don’t like having yet another piece of gear to keep track of while they’re out and about. Thus, for these folks, trekking poles just don’t fit in with their experience of the outdoors and that’s okay, too.
Increased energy expenditure
Since trekking poles require you to use your arms, they actually result in an increase in energy expenditure on your hike. This might not seem like a big deal on a short day hike, but if you’re out on a long thru-hike or a grueling backpacking trip, you may need all the energy you can get.
Therefore, some people eschew trekking poles because they don’t want to increase the amount of energy their expending by involving their upper body into something that really just requires their legs.
Another reason why people avoid using trekking poles is because they get easily caught on trees and brush as you’re hiking. Additionally, trekking poles can get tangled up in rocks while crossing a scree or talus field, which can cause them to snap in half.
Generally speaking, breaking a trekking pole isn’t really a common occurrence. But, if you do use trekking poles, you will – at some point – have to stop and untangle your poles from whatever branch or rock they’ve managed to get caught on. Usually, this only takes a second or two, but it can cause an annoying disruption to your hiking momentum.
Most trekking poles come with steel carbide tips, which are durable and provide a solid surface for you to gain traction and stability on a variety of surfaces. While this is great from a human standpoint, steel carbide tips can fairly easily scar rocks and leave behind unsightly signs of past visitors, especially in popular alpine areas.
Additionally, trekking poles can cause more damage to trails, especially on the muddy sections along a footpath. Trekking poles leave behind small little holes in the mud which can quickly multiply with every passing hiker. If that wasn’t bad enough, trekking poles can quickly and easily damage or even kill fragile plants, who aren’t able to defend themselves from a trekking pole’s metal tips.
That being said, it is very possible to reduce one’s environmental impacts when using trekking poles. Responsible and conscientious trekking pole use, especially in muddy or fragile areas, can minimize or eliminate any additional impact that they might cause. Reckless use of trekking poles, however, can have major negative consequences for our wild places.
Do trekking poles actually help?
Since there are good arguments to be had on both sides of the trekking poles debate, we’re now going to take a look at the actual scientific evidence behind whether or not trekking poles are an asset or a hindrance.
The main article that most people cite when they want to argue that trekking poles can help decrease the load and impact on your joints was written by Scwhameder et al. in 1999. The researchers in this study looked at the loads placed on the knee joints of hikes who used trekking poles and those who didn’t.
They found that, when used properly, trekking poles can reduce the external and internal loads on several parts of the overall structure of the knee. However, the researchers were not able to determine whether or not this reduction in load on the knee actually had any clinical relevance. This means that they weren’t able to conclude that using trekking poles can actually help knees stay healthy and functional in the long term, only that one’s knees experienced a lower load when trekking poles are used properly.
That being said, another study, conducted by Howatson et al. in 2011 looked at the differences in cases of muscle damage after a day of hiking between people who used trekking poles and those who didn’t. During the study, the researchers looked at 37 active adults who hiked up Snowdon, the highest peak in Wales, with a light day pack.
The researchers tested the hikers both before and 24, 48, and 72 hours after their hike to see whether or not they had experienced any substantial muscle damage. They found that those who used trekking poles were less likely to display signs of muscle damage in the days after a hike than those who didn’t use trekking poles.
Other studies, such as one by Cho and Roh in 2016 support the claims made by Howatson et al. Moreover, research done by Brito et al. in 2018 found that, while trekking poles do not necessarily allow people to walk faster, they do lead people to have better walking posture and mechanical efficiency when hiking with a backpack.
Thus, there is evidence to suggest that trekking poles can decrease the likelihood of long-term use injuries in hikers because they can decrease the loads placed on the knees and other lower body joints while walking, especially with a heavy pack.
In the end, it’s a personal choice
At this point, you should understand both sides of the trekking pole debate. While trekking pole enthusiasts laud trekking poles for their ability to provide extra stability and decrease pressure on the lower body joints, among other things, detractors often refuse to use trekking poles because they can get in the way of other activities.
That being said, there is scientific evidence to suggest that trekking poles do help decrease the forces placed on the body. This is good news for those of us who have are dealing with previously injured knees or hips and for those of us who regularly hike with a heavy pack weight.
At the end of the day, however, whether or not you want to use trekking poles is a personal choice. There are always going to be people who swear by trekking poles and while others refuse to yield.
If you’re debating whether or not you want to buy a pair of trekking poles, our best advice would be to go ahead and do it. You have little to lose and a lot to gain in this scenario, so it’s worth the chance if it could mean reducing your likelihood of injury in the long term. Ultimately, people either love trekking poles or hate them, but the only way to find out how you feel is to try them out yourself!