Wednesday 26 July 2017

Why Trekking Poles?

Trekking poles are mainly used for support, balance and to take some weight off your legs. The last is important. I find that my legs feel less tired when I use poles, especially on high mileage days or when carrying a heavy pack. Also, by giving a workout to the arms and shoulders trekking poles help maintain strength in these areas. Before I started using poles I found that my arms and shoulders would feel sore after my first few days ski touring at the start of each winter season as they hadn’t had much usage in the five or six months since I’d last skied. Once I started using trekking poles this soreness vanished. One reason I started using poles was because my knees had started feeling very sore after long descents, especially on hard and stony ground. They’d be sore by the end of the descent and then very stiff the next day. Poles, I reckoned, might reduce this soreness. They did more than that. After a while my knees stopped hurting at all. And that is still true over twenty years later.

My evidence for the benefits of trekking poles with regard to muscle soreness is personal and anecdotal of course. Naturally, trekking pole companies make the same claims, sometimes quite colourfully as when Brasher gave the weight saved on your legs in numbers of elephants. There was little actual research to back up the claims however and what there was came from lab studies of people on treadmills and not from actual outdoor use.

However a study at Northumbria University provided more concrete evidence that poles can significantly reduce soreness after a hill walk and also help maintain muscle function. This wasn’t an indoor study or just a brief walk up a slope. The 37 men and women in the study climbed Snowdon. They were split into two groups of equal fitness. One group didn’t use poles; the other group did and were taught how to use them. To try and cut out variables that could have affected the study the walkers ate the same meal the evening before the walk, had the same breakfast, carried daypacks of the same weight and took the same scheduled rest stops. During the hike the heart rates of the walkers were recorded, along with how they perceived their exertion rates. After the hike various tests were used to assess muscle damage and function. These tests were repeated at 24, 48 and 72 hour intervals. The results were in accord with my personal experience. The pole users had far less muscle soreness and a reduced loss of strength. They recovered more quickly too. Unsurprisingly the pole users felt less sore than the non-pole users. Levels of an enzyme that indicates muscle damage were found to be much higher in the non-pole group than before the walk but almost the same in the pole users, showing that any muscle damage was minimal.

This is only one study but it does confirm the personal findings of me and many other pole users. Trekking poles really are good for your muscles and the effects are noticeable after as well as during a walk. It’s nice not to wake with aching legs the morning after a walk. This is especially significant on multi-day walks when you want to enjoy walking every day and not have to take days off while your muscles recover. Also, soreness and strained muscles can make injury more likely so using poles can reduce the chances of hurting yourself while walking. Poles can also prevent injuries by preventing slips and falls. I have descended slopes in dense vegetation or after dark when my poles often prevented me tumbling over. And if you do suffer a leg injury poles can be used as supports while you limp along. I have walked out to the road with someone with a sore ankle who found trekking poles enabled them to hike out without needing help from anyone else.

Just having trekking poles doesn’t mean you’ll instantly gain all the benefits though. You need to use them effectively. I’ve seen too many pole users waving them around pointlessly or tapping the ground ineffectively. Poles need to be held correctly and placed where they will provide support and propulsion. Handles don’t need to be gripped tightly, which just results in sore fingers and wrists. With most poles the straps take the weight and support your hands (the exceptions are Pacerpoles which have shaped handles that can be held loosely without need of straps). To use a strap like this you put your hand up through the strap from below so the strap runs between thumb and fingers and over the back of your hand. With the straps like this you can swing the poles back and forth without holding them firmly as the straps makes them secure.

To gain the most from poles the force applied to them should propel you forwards not push you sideways or impede walking by pushing you backwards. Yet all too often I see walkers place poles off to the side or a long way in front with the pole handle angled back towards the user. The pole tip should be placed in front of you so it is closer than the handle. Your arm should go straight out in front and not to the side or across your body. A full reach isn’t needed though as this can make your arms ache. Keeping your arm slightly bent and fairly relaxed is far more comfortable. You then push down on the pole so it helps propel you forwards and walk past it, letting it swing behind you as you bring the other pole forwards. The idea is to get a rhythm going that is easy to keep up which feels relaxed.

Pole length matters too. Adjustable poles are adjustable for a reason. Many people use too long poles and have to lift their arms high each time they swing the pole, which can be tiring. On flat and gently sloping terrain you should be able to hold the pole pointing straight down with the tip touching the ground with your arm bent at right angles at the elbow. On steep slopes this can be too long, again forcing you to lift your arms high, which can make you lean back, putting you out of balance. Shorter poles are needed. On short ascents you can grasp the poles lower down. Some poles have foam or rubber round the shafts for this purpose. On long ascents it’s better to adjust the pole length so you can still use the straps and handles. On descents lengthening poles stops you leaning forward, which again can affect balance. If the descent is only short placing your hand over the top of the handle provides a little more length. On long descents lengthening the poles is better, again so you can use the straps and handles. On traverses you may want a short pole in the uphill hand and a long pole in the downhill one. Here gripping the pole lower down to shorten it and putting your hand over the handle are best unless it’s a very long traverse and you won’t be changing direction.

When trekking poles first appeared they were disliked, sometimes vehemently, by many walkers. (One reader objected to poles appearing on the cover of TGO, saying that showed the editors must be in the pay of the pole makers!). People seemed to feel that using them meant you were infirm or old. That attitude is less prevalent now, though it still appears every so often. My own view is the opposite. I think poles help prevent you becoming infirm. And while they can’t stop you getting older, they can mean that your legs are less likely to feel the effects of ageing so rapidly. Many people, as I did, start using poles because they have growing problems with sore knees or ankle or back. I think it’s better to start using them before you have any of these problems. That way you may never suffer them at all.

This piece first appeared in The Great Outdoors quite a few years ago. I've edited it a little.


  1. Quote: ' I think poles help prevent you becoming infirm'.
    If I'd done the amount of walking you've done Chris, over rough and challenging terrains, I might agree with you. But to be honest I'm in the opposite camp. I've never needed them. On eleven TGO Challenges I only carried one pole, mostly strapped to my rucksack and mainly used as a third leg for river crossings.
    Maybe I'm one of the lucky ones. I've never had problems with my knees, uphill or downhill. I've walked the Munros, run marathons, and taken part in fell races well into my 80's.
    I'm still running/walking for fitness and pleasure and my knees are perfectly sound. As yet, there's no indication I might be becoming 'infirm'.

    1. I think you are one of the lucky ones! I did plenty without poles - Pacific Crest Trail, Continental Divide Trail, half a dozen TGO Challenges, two 500 mile Munro trips and more - but once I'd started using them I found they made such a difference that I went on doing so. I'd never say anyone 'needs' them, just that they could make a significant difference. Hope your knees stay sound for much longer!

  2. I'm in complete agreement with you, Chris. I always use them in the hills and I'm convinced of all the benefits you describe. And discovering Pacer Poles five years ago made me even more certain of the benefits. But you do see a lot of people in the Lakes with a single pole prodding occasionally and ineffectually at the ground. Which is useless of course.

  3. Once I started using poles (and using them correctly) I will never go back. They have made a tremendous difference in how my knees feel on long days with lots of elevation gain and loss. They are least effective for me on ascents, but on flats and descents they are invaluable.
    One interesting thing I have noticed is that with heavier packs the poles help maintain my posture much better, as my hands are nearly always in front of me and my shoulders stay erect. This has undoubtedly helped strengthen my upper back, shoulders and core.

  4. Great points about pole length and usage. I work in the hills and have wrecked knees now so poles are essential to me. I do note that when crossing very rough ground like boulder fields I encourage people not to use wrist loops as I've seen 2 wrist/arm injuries due to slips when the hand was through the loop and the pole trapped. I use z poles a lot as I do a lot of rope work and having a pole that fits inside my bag is essential when taking or removing coils. I tend to buy ski mountaineering poles as they are stronger, z poles designed for walking only or carbon poles often only last me a few of months. i am however a big chap and, in winter particularly, the poles are often in use 5 or more days a week.

  5. I have done all the Munroes and Corbetts and a lot of the of the 2000ft+ Marilyns, as well as about 15 worldwide Ultras. I have used poles for about 20 years and agree if they are used properly they are a massive benefit to the knees. I had really bad knees but using poles allowed me to keep walking without feeling any pain.

  6. H'mmm, a very interesting article Chris. I've used a single pole (right handed) for many years. Recently, I've had a number of frustrating injuries (knee and lower calf) all on my left leg. My right leg and foot have remained strong and injury free. This article will convince me to experiment with two poles.
    Dave Porter

  7. With two knees in a terrible state,poles enabled me to have much more enjoyable days on the hill.

  8. I have been XC skiing walking and running using sticks in the hills for over 40 years, in the early years people smiled, some scoffed, some still do. I use them more for driving forward in a Nordic Skiing / Walking style, but they provide balance and support when coming downhill. I use the straps for drive and driving extension, but not over rough ground (some of the quick release systems are excellent for this) as you can be pulled backwards if a stick jams. I am not keen on angled handles as I feel they are over rotating my wrists causing pain and stiffness in the joints, I prefer to use the thumb and forefinger XC style for control with the power/support being transferred through the straps. I find the use of sticks also builds up my arm and core strength for rock climbing and for wielding ice axes when winter/ice climbing. If people are not sure go and find a Nordic Walking Demo/intro course, quite often they are free:-))))

  9. A Polish friend invited me for a weeks X country skiing in the forests near his Polish hometown a few years ago. As a mountain guide/ski instructor he taught me the basic technique. I realised a while later in the Lakes I had subconsciously changed my pole technique to the X country skiing technique. It was a bit of a mini revelation! However, I've never got on too well with the 'arm/elbow at right angles' suggestion. I just feel more comfortable with my wrist about 6-8" below my elbow when the pole is vertical. So when I'm walking the pole tip hits the ground behind me and my arms are swinging as they would without poles. I just happen to have poles in my hands. A walking companion swears by only using one pole, as she finds two unbalance her, which I find odd, but who am I to argue? I suppose it comes down to what works and is comfortable? The snap-lock on one of my poles broke today in the Pyrenees, so I'll test her theory as I have no choice until I find a branch.

  10. Chris, you should make Youtube video about how to use trekking poles correctly..

  11. I find they prevent my hands swelling up in hot weather on long walks. Now feel lost without them!