Should you buy trekking poles? It’s a polarising question: to hit the trails with or without them? To the uninitiated, poles can seem more hindrance than help while hiking – extra weight and a nuisance to carry – but many experienced walkers wouldn’t leave the trailhead without them, and for good reason. Several good reasons, in fact. Here’s six of the best.
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Quite simply, four points of contact with the ground are better than two when it comes to staying upright on uneven terrain, such as you’ll inevitably encounter while walking in wilderness areas, when tree roots, rocks and ruts are all out to trip the careless hiker. This is all the more true during multiday backpacking trips. When walking with a loaded backpack, your centre of gravity is considerably altered – even if you’ve packed with scientific precision in regards to weight placement – and walking with poles can be really beneficial, even potentially life-saving if you’re traversing precipitous paths with drops offs or negotiating river crossings.
When used correctly, trekking poles allow you to create forward momentum with your arms and upper body while you’re walking – in exactly the same way as cross-country skiers employ ski poles. This greatly increases the efficiency of your walking technique, conserves energy and allows you to travel further and faster, especially while ascending or going across flat terrain. You may not intend to go speed walking, and do don’t have to, but mastering this technique definitely facilitates economy of effort.
If you’re traversing soft terrain, or in conditions where the topography is obscured by something – water, snow, loose scree, thick undergrowth – trekking poles can be an invaluable tool for keeping for your footing. Use the pole not just as a stability device, but also as a probe, checking for any potential ankle-snapping holes in the trail that you’re moving along, or gaps in the rocks that you’re scrambling across.
Fact: When you’re walking downhill, pole placement helps alleviate the stress being placed on your knees (by up to 25% according to scientific research undertaken by experts in sports medicine). Younger yompers might not appreciate this to the same degree as those north of 30, but even trail grommies will feel the benefits kick in during longer hikes with a decent amount of descent.
Hikers everywhere experience regular run-ins with vicious flora such as stinging nettles and thorny bushes, and exploring in some areas carries with it the risk of fauna frights too – stepping on a somnambulant snake snoozing beneath bracken can really ruin your day. Trekking poles can be used to swish away everything from spider webs spanning the path to barbed strands of brambles. Of course you should never use poles (or anything else for that matter) to provoke wildlife, but if you want to see whether a clump of grass contains any snakes, giving it a sweep with a trekking pole is a much better option than simply ploughing in.
For the fastpackers and weight-obsessed wanderers out there, poles can transcend their obvious application as a simple walking aid and become an integral part of the adventurer’s tool kit. Many lightweight bivvies and tarps are designed so that trekking poles can be used to improve the shelter’s performance. In emergencies, poles can also be used as crutches or employed as splints. Some creative packrafters even employ them as paddles.
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Author of Caving, Canyoning, Coasteering…, a recently released book about all kinds of outdoor adventures around Britain, Pat has spent 20 years pursuing stories involving boots, bikes, boats, beers and bruises. En route he’s canoed Canada’s Yukon River, climbed Mont Blanc and Kilimanjaro, skied and mountain biked through the Norwegian Alps, run an ultra across the roof of Mauritius, and set short-lived records for trail-running Australia’s highest peaks and New Zealand’s Great Walks. He’s authored walking guides to Devon and Dorset, and once wrote a whole book about Toilets for Lonely Planet. Follow Pat’s escapades on Strava here and instagram here.