You can usually tell the experienced hikers from the rookies on the trail. With only 3 years of hiking under my belt, I’m no longer a rookie you see, I’ve moved up to a novice. Not that I don’t make rookie mistakes on the trail now and then. Like the time I almost lit my friend’s JetBoil with the little foam koozie thing still on. Man, I might dedicate one of my future blogs to my rookie mistakes.
So back to the subject at hand – hiking or trekking poles. Almost every seasoned hiker uses them. Early on in hiking, it was with a single pole. Not sure why I started using one. One pole was ok, but it didn’t seem to make much difference. Either that or I wasn’t using it properly. After some research, it became obvious that I could have gotten by with less knee pain with two poles.
Most people will tell you that they use poles to lessen the impact on the knees. The knee is an amazing feat of design by our creator. It absorbs repeated pounding and tremendous weight over and over. The compressive force exerted on the knee going downhill is significant. One study revealed that the typical runner’s knee absorbed between 2-4 times the bodies’ weight. for a 150 lb hiker, that’s approximately 500 lbs each time! The average person’s stride is 2.5 ft. So, in a 10 mile hike, you take roughly 20,000 steps. So here’s some numbers that will blow you away. That’s over 10,000,000 pounds of force or 5,000 tons absorbed by your knees on this particular hike. Good golly, check my math on that one. No wonder my knees ache sometimes. Supposedly, a 1999 Journal of Sports Medicine study revealed that used properly, poles reduce the stress to the knees by up to 25%.
I bought my single trekking pole a partner and that’s when the benefits became obvious. With two poles, I developed better balance going downhill, didn’t slip as much, moved faster and even learned how to “spider” with them. Yes, I know arachnids have eight legs, but someone came up with the name for the technique. The poles even gave this boy some rhythm, where there was none before.
One of the reasons I took up hiking was to get some exercise. Using the same math as before, imagine lifting your trekking poles even 5,000 times on a hike. At an average of 10 ounces each, that’s over 3,700 lbs of lifting. Wow, who needs a Nordic Track? Back to the balance discussion – poles provide the stability when carrying a heavy pack on those extended backcountry trips. They are invaluable when you have to ford those fast-moving streams. Think about it, having 3 points on the ground at all times when crossing over those slippery rocks.
There are times when poles are a nuisance or even a hindrance. Bouldering or rock scrambling is not the time to be using your poles. Hand over hand climbing or bushwhacking through dense vegetation may be some other situations where they are best left strapped to your pack. Lash them down and stow them with the tips down to avoid skewering yourself in the neck or head.
If weight is an issue, then shelling out the money for lighter high-tech carbon poles may be for you. Expect to spend $150 or more for those. I remember a time on the A.T. where we ran into a fellow with 1 – 1/2 carbon fiber poles. We saw the other half of his pole 20 miles later in a swamp with thigh deep mud. The brittle carbon fiber pole was no match for the Maine muck. On the other hand, my $25 aluminum poles were going strong 200 miles later. Even something as simple as this comes with accessories. Rubber tips are more eco-friendly, mud and snow baskets will keep them from sinking down. Some have compasses and thermometers built into the handle. Handles are typically plastic, rubber, or even cork, with straps to prevent flinging them over the ledge when you point out the awesome scenery or mountain lion. I prefer cork handles since it is comfortable and doesn’t cause as much sweating.
Some other uses for trekking poles:
– The make great spears for self-defense.
– You can wrap duct tape around the shaft which can be used in emergencies.
– You can make a huge cross symbol for those trail vampires
– Use them to make noise so that you don’t sneak up on a bear or to scare away mountain lions. No, really.
– Sword fights or fencing around the campfire. Rubber tips on of course. 🙂
So, like anything else in hiking gear, you get what you pay for. If you’re not sure about the need for poles, borrow some from a friend or spend a small amount on an entry-level set. Your knees will thank you.