Many hikers have used a hiking stick to aid in balance and navigation while hiking. Whether to negotiate through a boulder-strewn slope or to cross a swift stream, an extra “leg” has proved quite useful, especially with the added weight and unwieldiness of a pack. On one of my earlier hikes in the Grand Canyon, a wooden hiking stick was used to gently relocate a rattlesnake that refused to move from a very steep section of the Tanner Trail.
Hiking sticks, most often made of wood, have a warm, natural feel. In their most primitive form, sticks can be picked up along the trail, used when needed, then left behind for others to use. Wooden hiking sticks gather the nicks and dents of their travels, and then gather the medallions that indicate the treks they have taken. But while aged wooden hiking sticks may carry a wonderful history, they may also break when you most need them, rendering them completely useless for the rest of the hike.
Trekking poles differ from the traditional hiking stick in almost every aspect. Most models of trekking poles are designed to use as a pair, not singularly. They are usually made of some lightweight aircraft aluminum or other alloys, with titanium poles offering the ultimate in lightweight durability. Most poles are adjustable in length, enabling you to adjust the pole to your height, your comfort and the rigors of the trail. Trekking poles are tipped with a tungsten carbide material that grabs ice, sandstone and hard trail surfaces with ease. The tips can be covered with a rubber grip for more forgiving trail surfaces or flat trail walking. Baskets, similar to ski pole baskets but much smaller, keep the poles from sinking into mud and moderate snow depths. Shock absorbers, found on most models, cushion the jarring feel that comes with downhill descents. Depending on the model and the amount of whistles and bells you want, trekking poles cost between $70-$140.
So am I suggesting that you give up the warmth and comfort of your wooden hiking stick and fork out a chunk of change for a couple of metal poles that will only encumber your hike even more? Well, yes, I am. And once you’ve tried them, you’ll love them.
According to numerous studies (including one done by Backpacker Magazine in 2000 at the Grand Canyon) trekking poles reduce fatigue, increase speed, provide stability, reduce stress on feet, legs, knees and back, and increase the distance one can travel in a day.
Each pole, when planted, reduces weight on the legs and back by at least 9-13 pounds. Using trekking poles when walking on a flat trail helps you burn up to 20 percent more calories and increases your oxygen consumption by 25 percent. That consumption increases with the difficulties of the trail.
And, like cross-country skiing and swimming, hiking with trekking poles is a full-body workout, working the arms, shoulders and upper chest and back muscles through a full range of motion. Have stiff neck? Hiking with trekking poles is touted to stretch and loosen those muscles. Your posture is improved as trekking poles help you maintain a more upright stance while hiking uphill, with or without a pack on your back.
For most people, it takes a while to get used to the feel and proper use of trekking poles. If you cross-country ski, you’re more than halfway there. To get the rhythm of using the poles while walking, try them on flat ground first. Stick your hands through the wrist straps and start walking. You’ll soon find your stride. Once you start hiking on steep trails, you’ll notice the difference almost immediately. Poles give you added reach when you’re going down hill or hoisting yourself up a steep, rocky section of trail. If you lose your balance, trekking poles allow you to catch yourself, rather than landing on your hands or falling sideways.
When determining what kind of trekking poles to purchase, a few of the guidelines provided by Backpacker Magazine are a good place to start:
Ease of use: How easy is it to adjust the poles? Can the shock absorbers be turned on and off, and how easily? Do the poles collapse small enough to fit into your luggage?
Durability/stability: Do you have to retighten the poles often? When you put your weight on the poles, do they bend? What kind of warranty does the manufacturer offer?
Handle/strap: How well does the handle fit the shape of your hand? Do the ergonomically curved handles feel better than the straight handles? Do the straps chafe or hurt your hand? Can you hang onto the grip when it’s wet? Can you adjust the straps?
If possible, rent a pair before purchasing. Note what features you like, what you don’t like, and what extra features you couldn’t figure out. Talk to people who use them, especially people who are recent converts. Find out what features they like, and what has convinced them to use trekking poles.
Since trekking poles originated in Europe, some of the top manufacturers have names that are difficult to pronounce. Leki (pronounced Lake-ee) has long been the leader in trekking poles, and carries everything from kids trekking poles to Nordic walking fitness poles. Komperdell is a familiar name in trekking poles in Europe, and other well-known U.S. companies, like MSR and REI, have come out with their own brand of trekking poles.
Obviously price is a determining factor in purchasing a pair of trekking poles. Regardless of which pair you choose, the cost will be far less than the cost of evacuating you from a remote location with a torn knee ligament or broken leg.
And if you’re concerned about the funny looks you may still get from those who don’t use trekking poles, check out the look they give you when you pass by them, confidently cruising down the steepest of trails with your extra set of “legs.”