Frances wants to know more about trekking poles. She’s asking to prepare for my upcoming Intro to Backpacking event at Harriman State Park. The event is part of Hudson Valley Hikers and beginners will get to try out a variety of gear Her question is:
My question is whether I need to get those hiking sticks if I really get into hiking?
Do you need Trekking Poles?
According to a Section Hiker Poll, 73% of backpackers use trekking poles (hiking sticks.) The Appalachian Mountain Club found that 90-95% of Appalachian Trail Thruhikers use them. I find that among day-hikers, the percent of people using poles is less, but still the majority.
That said, you don’t need them. I bought my first pair of trekking poles about 5 years ago. For a long time before that, I used an old wooden walking stick I had been given when I first joined the boy scouts, or I just walked with nothing. I really didn’t think that there was any point in spending money on poles if I could just pick up some free walking sticks in the woods, and I wasn’t really sure if they helped me much anyway.
Advantages of Trekking Poles
The first major advantage to trekking poles is that they take a lot of stress off your knees while descending long, steep slopes. Some studies have shown that they can cut knee stress by 20-25%. Most hikers I know find that once they get into their late 30’s or early 40’s their knees really start to bother them, especially on the down hill. As your body gets old, the stress catches up with you. (Be good to it while you’re young.)
On flatter trails, poles really help to set a pace or rhythm. Some hikers find that they’re almost always faster with poles than without. This is in part due to both the extra push forward you’re able to give with your arms and rhythm you establish while using poles.
A lot of hikers don’t use poles while going up hill, particularly when they need to use their hands for climbing. I find that they’re helpful on a long gradual climb, but not a steep or technical climb. Some hikers tend to use their poles incorrectly when going up hill, almost making prying motion with them. This can actually be bad for your back in the long run.
Trekking poles or walking sticks can also be helpful when crossing water or when footing is tricky because they help you balance. They can also be used as probes to check the depth of murky water or mud, the traction on slippery rocks or ice, or whether a rock or log may wobble if you step on it.
Trekking Poles vs Hiking Sticks
The above uses of trekking poles can really all be accomplished with a pair of sticks picked up off the ground. Sticks have a few advantages over poles. For one, they’re a lot cheaper (free.) They’re also easier to replace if one breaks (just pick up another one.) They’re arguably more environmentally friendly because they don’t leave marks on rocks and nothing needs to be mined out of the ground to make them. Some people also find sentimental value in an old wooden walking stick. I still have mine from when I was 12, and its now covered with collectible medallions for trails and sections I’ve completed.
Now, if you don’t need poles and wooden sticks will do just fine, why do so many people buy expensive poles made of fiber glass, aluminum, and titanium?
I bought first trekking poles about 5 years ago when I was flying out west to go hike in Great Sand Dunes national park. First, I couldn’t bring my old walking stick on the plane because of carry-on rules, but I wanted something to help me get up those sandy hills. Climbing up the soft sandy dunes was also going to need snow baskets. Snow Baskets are little plastic discs that attach just above the tips of your poles. They offer more surface area so that you can push-off snow and sand and not just pushing the tip into the surface. For these reasons, I decided to buy a pair of aluminum poles for my trip. And I really liked them.
Advantages of Manufactured Trekking Poles
Another advantage of using poles over sticks is that the length is adjustable. It’s helpful to lengthen your poles when going down hill and shorten them for going up hill. It’s also helpful to collapse them completely when not in use. This allows you to store them in or on your pack or in the back seat of your car.
Manufactured poles usually come with a wrist strap. When used properly, the strap transfers your load to the pole though your forearm and not your hand. This allows you loosen your grip. It also may prevent a broken wrist should you trip and fall.
Finally, there are a lot of ultralight tents and shelters out there that use trekking poles for support. These tents are lighter because you don’t have to carry tent poles to put them up. We call this the “dual-use” principle of ultralight backpacking. Anything that serves more than one purpose is highly desirable because it helps to save weight.