Are hiking poles useful?
Hiking poles are a standard piece of kit for many hikers, but how useful are they? The answer is very, but only if they are used correctly. I always recommend taking two hiking poles instead of one. It’s a more natural way of walking and won’t promote muscular imbalance from leaning on one side.
How do I use hiking poles correctly?
- Make sure they are long enough. Your elbow should be at 90 degrees when you hold your pole.
- Shorten them for ascents and lengthen them for descents. There’s no exact science here of how much to adjust your poles but you will find what’s comfortable for you with practice.
- Place your pole correctly. When you go uphill, you won’t get any benefit from placing the poles ahead of you and trying to drag yourself up the mountain. Instead, plant your pole so that it lands slightly behind you and push off it as you push off your opposite foot. This takes practice but you will eventually get into a good rhythm.
Do hiking poles protect your knees?
A study by Dr. Neureuther in 1981 proved that use of poles while walking reduced the strain on the legs by approximately 20%. Over the course of a day this is a huge reduction in pressure on your joints. So yes, hiking poles can protect your knees, however only if you use them properly (see above).
If you do suffer with knee issues, don’t just rely on your poles to take the weight. It is much more important to strengthen your legs, glutes and core before a big hiking trip. If you have the strength in your core and quads, then a good technique for descending is to engage your core and land each foot with a slightly bended knee. This takes the weight into your core and quads, rather than pounding into your knees and hips.
Do hiking poles improve balance?
Hiking poles are an excellent help on snow/river crossings and loose terrain. However, I would advise hiking occasionally without them too so in order to improve your proprioception and balance. There are certain times when hiking with poles is more of a hindrance than a help. Steep rocky ascents and descents are usually much better tackled without poles so you can also use your hands as a point of contact on the terrain.
Go light weight
There are hundreds of lightweight aluminium and carbon fibre poles on the market. I recommend getting a light, collapsible pair of poles so that you can stash them in your bag if you don’t want to use them. It’s good to have a pair handy in case you injure yourself. They are also very useful to use for setting up emergency shelters or in conjunction with a bivy bag if you are sleeping out.
With a bit of practice, hiking poles can become your new favourite piece of hiking gear. If you are hiking a long-distance route like the Tour du Mont Blanc or Bernese Oberland Traverse this summer, hiking poles are invaluable. They will save you energy on the uphill, and your knees will thank you for it on the downhill!
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