October 27, 2020

The Science of Trekking Poles—But This is Science You Can Ignore, If You Like

Photo credit: National Park Service
Some people love trekking (hiking) poles. The authors of the guidebook Don't Waste Your Time in the West Kootenays: An Opinionated Hiking Guide opined as follows:

[After a strenous month of hiking research] both of us developed knee pain. The next summer we used Leki trekking poles every day for three months and our knees were never strained. We felt like four-legged animals. We were more sure-footed. Our speed and endurance increased.

On the other hand, they also reported the reaction: "So where are your skis. Ha ha ha!" 

An article at Outside sums up the research and also gives the contrarian view:

On the other hand, the Switzerland-based International Climbing and Mountaineering Federation sounds a more skeptical tone, suggesting that using poles too much will sap your balance and coordination, thus raising the risk of accidents in situations like crossing ridges that are too narrow for poles.

In other words, poles make you weak! Do you vant to be weak? Or do they make you a sure-footed animal? 

This article on PubMed summarizes the research. 

Interestingly, pole users burn more calories. That could be a good thing (you're hiking to control your weight) or a bad thing (your food supplies are running low). 

You do protect your knees — but, retorts the Mountaineering Federation, the joint stress is good for you. (See also this.)

As they say on the Internet, your mileage may vary. 

Hopeless moderate that I am, when carrying just a day pack, I often carry just one pole, thus gaining some balance but keeping a hand free. The last time I was deer hunting in rocky country, I stashed the pole at one point along the trail in. Not having it was another reason to slow down, and slowing down is a Good Thing (TM) when you are hunting.

In a related issue, I will admit to saying something snarky the first time I saw somone snowshoeing with ski poles — especially as she was in a flat meadow. It seemed like belt + suspenders overkill. But I will admit that ski poles are a help when side-hilling in Rocky Mountain powder.

It's just that I always think that if you're on snowshoes, you need hands free for tools — rifle, saw, whatever.


Woody Meristem said...

Personally I prefer an alpenstock, a sturdy wooden shaft, to a pair of flimsy aluminum or fiberglass telescoping shafts. An alpenstock can be used to vault across narrow wet spots, beat raspberry and blackberry canes into submission, as a monopod (with a suitable bolt in the upper tip) and more. Try doing most of those things with a trekking pole and you'll have to buy another.

Traditional alpenstocks have a steel or iron pointed tip, but I prefer a rubber chair leg or crutch tip neither of which will slip on rock as much as a steel tip.

Chas S. Clifton said...

I have one of those too -- with the camera screw at the top end, a wrist loop, and a rubber crutch tip on the bottom. I used it more when I was trying to do "serious" landscape photography. I think it came from the now-vanished Early Winters outdoor equipment company.

But my hiking poles are just cut-off bamboo ski poles with rubber tips, and I do tend to grab one when going out the door and up into the woods.