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The Real Pros and Cons of Trekking Poles

I. Introduction

Early 2005 I took part in an over-the-top "rant" about Trekking Poles published in the Los Angeles Times. It's no secret that I'm not a fan of these things, so I had no qualms about jumping in to help with the article. I penned some incendiary comments to be used as quotes, and the Times decided to turn it into a poles vs. no poles kind of thing. They re-wrote it with an even edgier tone, but used my name as author. After a couple back-and-forths, I thought, what the heck...it's an entertainment piece, not a "how-to." Eventually it ran, and it was certainly entertaining, but rather pointless.

So what is the truth about trekking poles? Are they good, or bad? The purpose of this web page is to lay out all the cards in an intelligent manner -- pro and con -- about trekking poles. Ultimately, I guess, the purpose of this page is to educate those who do choose to use trekking poles.

II. The "Pro" Side: Advantages of Trekking Poles

Most obviously, poles reduce the impact of hiking on knee joints and leg muscles. Arm and shoulder muscles support and relieve the leg muscles. With the basic "hands above the heart" position necessitated by the poles, circulation is improved and heart rate is reduced. The "rhythm" created by walking with poles leads to relaxed, more regular breathing and increased stamina.

A landmark study published by Dr. G. Neureuther in 1981 proved that use of "ski poles" while walking reduces the pressure strain on the opposite leg by approximately 20%. Furthermore, while walking on level ground, poles reduce the body weight carried by the legs by approximately 5 kg every step. Move to an incline, and that reduction increases to 8 kg. This translates into tons of weight -- yes, tons -- for even a two hour hike.

Jacquie Hunt, editor of a popular hiking newsletter, weighs in with additional health benefits: "An advantage that I found once I started using poles is that my hands no longer swell up when it is hot. Keeping your arms moving so the blood doesn't pool in the hands is a lot safer than keeping hands high on pack straps and risking a smashed face if you trip."

Finally, poles help many people with balance issues. We all have different comfort levels when balancing along puncheons, crossing streams, etc.; for some hikers, trekking poles are worth their weight in gold. They can certainly aid when crossing soft ground, and can be indispensible for tasks like river crossings, and scree running.

III. The "Con" Side: Problems with Trekking Poles

There are two categories of drawbacks to hiking poles -- those legitimate, and those perceived. One of the main problems with my comments in the LA Times article is that my "over the top" approach precluded me from stating the legitimate drawbacks to using poles. So here goes...

First, using poles increases your total energy expenditure. Your arms were not designed to prop up your body, nor to distribute weight. Even Peter Clinch, whose "Pete's Pole Page" is long recognized as an on-line authority, says, "...if you have tired legs and knees then poles can be a win, but if you have a tired body, with your cardiovascular system at its limits, then poles may be more of a hindrance than a help." Those "tons of weight" that poles save the knees aren't carried up the hill by themselves. Many hikers with good legs are unaware that they actually may run out of gas more quickly by using poles.

Not only do poles make hands and arms do what they aren't designed to do, they prevent your hands from being hands! Open the map, eat a snack, wipe your brow, grab a rock, snap a photo, read a compass...all of these become clumsy and time consuming with poles in hand.

The final "legitimate" con is that many people simply do not use poles correctly. Clinch says, "judging from the people I see in the UK using poles, the majority of folk get little or no benefit from them." Without proper technique, poles are simply in the way. And that brings us to the "perceived" drawbacks...

Many pole users are road hogs. They flail about madly, and you'd better get out of their way -- even when you have the uphill right-of-way. "It's all about me" seems to be their credo on the trail. Just as there are rude, inconsiderate drivers on our highways, there are rude hikers on our trails. Let's be clear on this: Not all pole users are inconsiderate, that's obvious. But it seems that all selfish hikers use every trail hogging technique available, and poles are part of their arsenal.

Hunt says "My chief gripe about pole users is the tendency to start carrying or dragging them point backward whenever the trail gets less steep or their arms get tired or whatever. One has to keep well behind such hikers." (For those of you pointing fingers, I have never accidentally on purpose stomped on poles being dragged on the ground. Never.)

Too many poles, too many scratches. Some of the most revered trails in the country are now hopelessly scratched. New Hampshire's Presidential Range, for example, is home to routes that have existed for over 150 years. Some of these trails, such as the Crawford Path, are historic treasures in their own right, but are now scoured and defaced with countless claw marks. Considering that all of the routes to summit and descend Mt. Washington take less than a day, the over-use of trekking poles on this peak is unnecessary, and mostly a reflection of our selfish society.

IV. The Final Word: Rebuttal from a Regular Pole User...

Come on, Rick, give 'em a chance!

I went to poles several years ago after a minor knee injury descending the Little Merced River into Yosemite Valley. It was an easy decision: Poles save the knees. For you to make an exception for people who already have physical limitations but rebuke healthy folks for using them... well, I say an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. I've used mine ever since, long after the injury had healed, and I'll never step onto a trail without them again.

My poles have extended my hiking day significantly, on the order of 5 miles and 3 hours. I'm talking about a reduction in overall fatigue, back strain, sore feet, and lactic acid build-up, a.k.a. 'the burn'. When my days used to wrap up at 2pm after 10 miles, I'm still going strong at 6pm after 15 or more. That puts more real estate within my range, allowing me to venture further off the beaten path and leave the heavily impacted frontcountry trails for the slackpackers. Plus I have enough energy to enjoy the country I'm hiking through, instead of stumbling along with numb legs and battered toes...all thanks to a few ounces of aluminum. [Stumbling along with numb legs and battered toes? Apparently he's seen me on the trail! -- RB]

With the reassurance added by the poles, I have covered hundreds of miles in light-weight trail shoes, as opposed to the heavy, supportive boots that are so hard on vegetation and soil. Turned ankles are a thing of my past; if you think a pair of poles chews up the trail, how about dozens of booted feet on a search and rescue operation that results from a bad ankle? Speaking of ankles; I was doubly glad to have my poles when it came time to stabilize the lower leg of an injured hiker -- notably poleless -- who had taken a bad step on descent from a popular local trail.

As for your concern for the damage that poles do to the environment, I'd have to argue that a trail itself is already a heinous scar on the land, and isn't going to get much worse as a result of my passage. In fact, my poles enable me to tackle some serious off-trail routes, with terrain rife with hidden holes and loose talus that demands my poles, on which my negligible mark will be obscured by the next wind or snow.

Your attacks on trail ettiquette were way off base... you are quite right that too many people are ignorant of the right of way rules, but to pin that on pole users is absurd. Besides, you'll never find me and my poles in your way as you climb a tough hill, because I'm either way ahead of you with energy to spare, or I'm off on the road less traveled, distributing my impact and taking in the great view everyone else missed because the rugged trail that leads to it.

So, I guess what I'm trying to say is this... poleless hiking is great for the slackpacker, the guy who keeps his days short and rushes to get to his SUV when the sun starts to go down. But the hiking community actually consists of a wide range of outdoorsmen, some quite capable and dedicated, who don't need or deserve your criticism nearly as much as they need and deserve the comfort, safety and versatility of their trekking poles.

* * * * *

Parts I, II & III written by Rick Bolger, avid outdoorsman, naturalist and editor of slackpacker.com. Rebuttal, Part IV, written by MacPhail, veteran outdoorsman, guide, instructor and conservationist based in Ventura, California.

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