To Pole or Not to Pole?

poleYou will often see hikers using a walking stick or sometimes two “trekking” poles.

Walking with two walking poles using a cross-country ski technique can improve your walking workout. Read on to learn some of the benefits of walking with poles.

PHYSICAL
      • Increase heart rate without increasing walking speed, because you’re elevating your hands closer to the level of your heart.
      • Increase calories burned by 20-25%.
      • Decrease forces in the feet by up to 26% during walking as they absorb some of the shock when used correctly.
      • Reduce strain on ankles, knees, and hips
      • 50% of your body’s muscles are in the upper body and are not exercised with walking or jogging. Using the poles can condition your upper body while hiking.
      • Poles reduce the impact of hiking on knee joints and leg muscles by transferring some weight to arm and shoulder muscles. The “hands above the heart” position necessitated by the poles improves circulation and reduces heart rate. The “rhythm” created by walking with poles leads to relaxed, more regular breathing and increased stamina.
BALANCE
      • Crossing creeks, streams, rivers
      • Traversing hillsides
      • Crossing shale & scree
      • Carrying heavy loads
      • Resting en route
MANEUVERING
      • Crossing downed trees over trails
      • To break or prevent a fall
OTHER USES
      • Center or side pole for a tarp
      • To prop up your pack
      • To lean on when resting
      • Pushing aside spider webs & brush (especially cat claws!)
      • Self defense – walking poles are a deterrent to attack by humans (bad guys look for folks without sticks or dogs) or wildlife.

There are those who believe that the drawbacks to hiking poles outweigh the benefits.  First, using poles increases your total energy expenditure.  Your arms were not designed to prop up your body, nor to distribute weight.  The weight that poles take away from the knees isn’t carried up the hill by itself.  Many hikers with good legs are unaware that they actually may run out of gas more quickly by using poles.  Hiking with poles also occupies your hands so that they’re no longer free to do other things: open the map, eat a snack, wipe your brow, grab a rock, snap a photo, read a compass…all of these become clumsy and more time consuming with poles in hand.

The final drawback is that many people simply do not use poles correctly. Without proper technique, poles are just in the way.  These videos demonstrate proper use:

For me, I generally do not use poles for “casual” hiking. You probably won’t see me with poles on our class hikes. However, if I’m going to backpack in the Grand Canyon, I wouldn’t consider going without poles. The combination of carrying the extra weight on my back and the difficult/steep terrain make poles a must-have item on such a trip. If I’m going to be doing a day hike that entails steep climbing or creek crossing, I will usually take my pole on a day hike.

So try them out, and decide for yourself which way to go.  I’ll even let you borrow my pole for a hike to give you a chance to test drive using a pole.  If you do decide to go with poles, I recommend a trekking pole with adjustable height that you can lengthen or shorten for variations in terrain, and one that has spring coil shock absorber inside. It’s also handy for transporting them if they telescope down to a smaller size.

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