Do trekking poles help? My thoughts so far.

10:30 p.m. on July 27, 2018 (EDT)
0 reviewer rep
46 forum posts

I started using trekking poles to save my knees, which aren't in the best condition.  Since going downhill is worse on your knees than going uphill, I've been using cane style poles, which I've found work better for this.

Recently I watched some videos of vertical kilometer races and saw that in some of the races, almost everyone was using trekking or Nordic poles.  I wondered if they were really a help on steep uphills, so I ordered some more traditional poles to experiment with.

I weighed myself without trekking poles, then weighed myself with trekking poles taking the weight of my arms, but not pushing down.  This took about 4 pounds off the scale.  Then I pushed down with the amount of force I might use hiking.  This took off 20 pounds.  

My first real world test, I did a short stretch (less than 15 minutes) of steep trail with and without trekking poles.  Yes, I've only done it once so far, and need to do it several more times.  But the poles did save me about 25 seconds, but my heart rate was slightly higher.

One would think that the more I used these trekking poles, the more likely they would prove to be an advantage, as the muscles you use get in better condition.

On sections of trail that require some scrambling, I find poles to be an annoyance.  They just get in the way.  Packing them away and getting them out again seems like an inconvenience, so I haven't ever done that.

Testing is ongoing.

2:29 p.m. on July 28, 2018 (EDT)
TOP 25 REVIEWER
1,310 reviewer rep
410 forum posts

I use them most of the time in the winter, all the time on mountains in the winter, but not very often the rest of the time. I always carry a set for water crossings or if my own bad knees need help. 

2:51 p.m. on July 28, 2018 (EDT)
73 reviewer rep
3,976 forum posts

I like em with an overnight pack.  Good for balance on rocks, water crossings and unweighting hips, knees and ankles.  I do not use them for day hikes or hunting. 

8:49 p.m. on July 28, 2018 (EDT)
125 reviewer rep
3,423 forum posts

I prefer a long, light, staff - mine is carbon fiber, but bamboo is a good option when a metal tip is attached for durability.  But I do have trekking poles for ski touring and snow travel.

Ed

9:50 p.m. on July 28, 2018 (EDT)
0 reviewer rep
46 forum posts

I'm currently looking at getting what are called Nordic walking poles.  Some are pretty high tech.  I like the Exel, but I'm having a hard time finding them in the US anymore.  I have some Exel carbon fiber poles for Nordic skiing, but I'm reluctant to use them for hiking.  I think the tip would wear out quickly and they are longer than what most people are using for hiking.

One thing I was going to talk about but forgot to, is poling technique.  Double poling is used almost exclusively in Nordic Skating.  I'm finding that it's the way to go for hiking too.  On a steep trail, I take up to four steps between pole plants.  I think alternating pole plants with each step is ineffective and wastes a lot of energy.  I'm not a hundred percent convinced poles are a big help, on the uphills, but I think most people that have tried them and dismissed them as useless, probably aren't using them to best effect or haven't used them long enough to develop strength.

3:54 a.m. on July 29, 2018 (EDT)
125 reviewer rep
3,423 forum posts

Having done lots of ski touring, I find one's arms can deliver only a fraction of the power your legs can generate, no matter how strong your arms are, no matter how skilled your technique.  And if you tried to really crank out a significant force, your arms would quickly fatigue.  But don't take my word.  If you are really serious about your inquiry, you can purchase a fish scale and rig up an experiment that measures the force you can apply to poles using your arms.  You'll be surprised how little it amounts to, when the test is conducted in a manner that considers the ability to sustain the effort.

Ed

7:24 a.m. on July 29, 2018 (EDT)
TOP 10 REVIEWER REVIEW CORPS
8,752 reviewer rep
1,479 forum posts

Having done a lot of backpacking I find poles rock, but only if used correctly. Many people try to use them like x-country or tour ski poles which is totally wrong. By applying the force correctly they benefit almost every step whether on flat ground or a steep slope. The heavier your pack or rougher the trail the more benefit seen, though technique is always the key.

There is not just one technique, but many. Switching to the appropriate poling method for the current stride becomes instinctive as the body learns to move as a quadruped. At times the pole moves with the near foot, at times with the far foot and as Randall mentioned, some times several steps come between pole plants. The important thing is to remember that you are mostly trying to apply a vertical force, not horizontal. If you come from a ski touring background you have to unlearn the thought that the poles make you go faster by pushing horizontally and some people just can't do that.

In backpacking the poles make you go faster/farther more easily by lightening your steps which is accomplished by pushing down, not back. It isn't about increasing speed so much as reducing effort. Each step is slightly easier so total energy expended is reduced. You can use that to go faster, farther or happier as you prefer.

Some folks will tell you that saving that little bit of energy on each step isn't worth it, but those are people who haven't figure out how to use poles properly or aren't doing the sort of trips where conserving energy is vital. Other folks will carry their poles around in their hand or on their pack which negates their benefit entirely. What other folks do doesn't matter one bit. Get some real hiking poles, adjust them to the proper length, learn how to use the wrist strap and then hike. The only answer that matters is how that works for you. After a few hundred miles you'll have the answer to your question, Randall.

7:58 a.m. on July 29, 2018 (EDT)
TOP 25 REVIEWER
1,310 reviewer rep
410 forum posts

I don’t ski tour, but when I use poles it’s my back, chest, & shoulder muscles doing most of the the work, not my arms. I also plant my poles at a steeper angle than a lot of people do when hiking, so that I’m pushing more behind myself than down. 

10:58 a.m. on July 29, 2018 (EDT)
0 reviewer rep
682 forum posts

My wife loves using hiking poles--she first tried them on one of our treks in Peru, where the guides swear by them to save your knees.  I am not such a fan.  They certainly take some of the strain off your knees on a downhill, and I find that helpful.

On the other hand, going uphill faster isn't really a goal of mine, and the scientific studies I've seen show that while poles reduce strain on your legs, they increase the overall exertion of your body (makes sense, if you've ever studied Newton) going uphill.  True, the work is shared between upper and lower body, but I don't need to work harder going uphill.  I want to work less.

These days I'll usually hope to find d an appropriate stick for a steep downhill, rather than using (and carrying) poles for the whole trip.

11:48 a.m. on July 29, 2018 (EDT)
TOP 10 REVIEWER REVIEW CORPS
8,752 reviewer rep
1,479 forum posts

balzaccom said:

My wife loves using hiking poles--she first tried them on one of our treks in Peru, where the guides swear by them to save your knees.  I am not such a fan.  They certainly take some of the strain off your knees on a downhill, and I find that helpful.

On the other hand, going uphill faster isn't really a goal of mine, and the scientific studies I've seen show that while poles reduce strain on your legs, they increase the overall exertion of your body (makes sense, if you've ever studied Newton) going uphill.  True, the work is shared between upper and lower body, but I don't need to work harder going uphill.  I want to work less.

These days I'll usually hope to find d an appropriate stick for a steep downhill, rather than using (and carrying) poles for the whole trip.

I find it amusing that you're unwilling to carry the dead weight of poles when not using them yet are willing to allow your entire upper body to freeload. The point of using the upper body is to take some of the load off of the legs. If you want to work less you may want to work more ;) (For those who need the joke explained; You reduce the amount of work the legs are doing by doing more work with your upper body.) Net energy means little once your legs are gone in my book. Not as if you can walk on your hands at that point heh.

Totally agree about the carrying poles you aren't using thing though. If you aren't going to use them leave them at home. If you bring them, use them.

3:19 p.m. on July 29, 2018 (EDT)
TOP 10 REVIEWER REVIEW CORPS
5,205 reviewer rep
1,107 forum posts

A perennial topic here on TS. Rather than reinvent the wheel, here's a TS article from 2010 on the subject with substantial follow-up discussion, and here's a discussion thread from last October. In the latter, the OP tried to make a case that "poles are a bad idea" and was countered by a deluge of, to quote Thomas Pynchon, "whims, peeves, hallucinations and all-around a**holery", but also a lot of first-hand experience and maybe even some genuine wisdom (probably from whomeworry)¨. There are probably other threads introduced at a rate of one every year or two.

12:13 a.m. on July 30, 2018 (EDT)
0 reviewer rep
682 forum posts

Lonestranger: .As a fanatic cyclist, if my legs go I'm toast anyway...grin.   But I do think that less work is less work, not more, particulaly if speed is not the object.  My legs are strong enough and fast enough to get me where we are going before my hiking partner/wife.  Poles do not add any advantage... My wife swears by the added stability they provide her, and that's great.  But I prefer to keep my arms free.   Amusing sidenote: crossing streams, I am an inveterate and gracefully successful rock hopper.  My wife hates to do that, and usually just wades.  She is afraid of falling in.  But put us on a dance floor and I am a complete oaf, while she is elegant and stylish...different strokes, for sure. Just like hiking poles...

12:05 p.m. on July 30, 2018 (EDT)
TOP 10 REVIEWER REVIEW CORPS
8,752 reviewer rep
1,479 forum posts

Sounds like we are in violent agreement balzaccom ;)

Of course they are useless to folks who don't use them and folks who find them useless tend not to use them, but as you mentioned, different folks are just that, different. Folks who use them just may find a use for them. That is why I don't think people should talk in absolutes, at least not most of the time. I know how I use them works for me and that I'd never be able to do what I do without them, but that doesn't change how they don't work for you.

We are all different people doing different things in different places. I know moving from the West Coast to the East totally changed how I camp and hike and I'm still the same person more or less. There is no one right answer to this or many other questions, only personal choices we make and live with. That is why I think it is wrong to give absolute answers as some folks do on this subject. Rather than tell people that poles are mandatory I say the poles work for me and trying them is the only way for others to know if they will work for them.

7:51 p.m. on July 30, 2018 (EDT)
0 reviewer rep
682 forum posts

Ha.  Thanks.  And by the way, if you've figured out a way to hike without adding any additional weight, yet allowing none of your body to "freeload" I am all ears! 

 

Well, not all ears. 

10:14 p.m. on July 31, 2018 (EDT)
0 reviewer rep
46 forum posts

As I said in original post, I did test how much force I was exerting with poles.  Not with a fish scale, but standing on a scale.  Pretty significant.  Of course legs are much stronger, but who would argue that five pounds out of your pack wouldn't make a difference?  If you were only pushing on your poles with five pounds of effort, it could be making a big difference over a long hike.  So many other factors involved, it's not that cut and dry.  That's why I'm timing myself over sections of trail too.

And yeah, I do find myself changing my poling to go with the terrain.  I also carry my poles in my hands quite a bit.  Sometimes most of the hike.  I usually don't use them when I'm walking on a gradual slope, either up or down.  I think that if my knees and hips were perfect, I wouldn't use poles.  I like having my hands free.

Do a search for videos of vertical kilometer races.  Pretty interesting.  Poles are even more popular in Europe.

10:30 p.m. on July 31, 2018 (EDT)
0 reviewer rep
682 forum posts

Boulder Strider said:

As I said in original post, I did test how much force I was exerting with poles.  Not with a fish scale, but standing on a scale.  Pretty significant.  Of course legs are much stronger, but who would argue that five pounds out of your pack wouldn't make a difference?  If you were only pushing on your poles with five pounds of effort, it could be making a big difference over a long hike.  So many other factors involved, it's not that cut and dry.  That's why I'm timing myself over sections of trail too.

And yeah, I do find myself changing my poling to go with the terrain.  I also carry my poles in my hands quite a bit.  Sometimes most of the hike.  I usually don't use them when I'm walking on a gradual slope, either up or down.  I think that if my knees and hips were perfect, I wouldn't use poles.  I like having my hands free.

Do a search for videos of vertical kilometer races.  Pretty interesting.  Poles are even more popular in Europe.

 Who's racing?

3:14 a.m. on August 1, 2018 (EDT)
0 reviewer rep
46 forum posts

A couple quick points:

Who's racing?  Racing shows what works.  When I was younger, I passed everyone on the trail.  Now I'm 64 and have a heart problem, I push hard to get up to a lake or summit, and five minutes later, an overweight housewife and her nine year old kid, that I didn't pass on the trail, show up.  I'm hiking with a guy that is much younger and hikes over twenty miles a day, for weeks on end, with a loaded backpack.  Am I racing?  You bet I am.

Everyone may be different, but I disagree that there aren't absolutes.  If you watch an Olympic Nordic race, at any point on the course, everyone is doing the same thing.  You won't see one guy double poling and the next guy alternating single poles.  Would someone who isn't Olympic caliber be different?  Maybe.  But I am certain that every human being on the planet will hike up a steep section of trail more efficiently double poling vs. alternating.  Well, assuming they have two good arms and are walking and not running.  When running, I see most people switch to alternating poles.

My question was/is whether poles help at all, going uphill?  Can I reach a summit or a lake quicker and less tired using poles most of time and not just to help me up big step-ups, which is how I've been using them the last 25 years or so?

I guess that wasn't so quick.

3:24 a.m. on August 1, 2018 (EDT)
125 reviewer rep
3,423 forum posts

Boulder Strider said:

"As I said in original post, I did test how much force I was exerting with poles.  Not with a fish scale, but standing on a scale.  Pretty significant... ..So many other factors involved, it's not that cut and dry.  That's why I'm timing myself over sections of trail too..."

While your results look promising there are some aspects of your assumptions and study to reconsider.   

You comment that one should be able to apply greater arm force with time spent conditioning the arms to use poles.  That is a good point, but one that the vast majority probably is not interested in committing to.  Few practice shouldering a pack on a regular basis; therefore I just don't see folks out there doing trekking pole calisthenics. 

Timing yourself is a pragmatic way to evaluate the utility of poles - perhaps the best criteria.  But a fifteen minute test period comes nowhere close to representing the toll that several hours of hiking and poling will have on performance.  The longer you go, the more caloric efficiency matters.

Ed

12:27 p.m. on August 1, 2018 (EDT)
0 reviewer rep
682 forum posts

Randall:  My comment was only partly facetious.  Racers do what is fastest. They don't do what takes the least energy--in fact, they try to use as much energy as possible, because they want to go as fast as possible. 

Cycling racers use extremely lightweight bikes at the edge of control.  I don't.  And if I really wanted to compete with top cyclists, instead of buying a $15,000 lightweight bike, I could achieve the same weight savings by losing two pounds.  Imagine how fast I would be if I lost TEN pounds! How much money would that be worth? grin.

You use Olympic Nordic racing as an analogy.  Yet top trailrunners and marathoners don't use poles.  Why not?  Because they require more energy.    If you really want to go fast on foot, you should model yourself after them, not after Nordic racers who coast a lot of the time... You should not confuse efficiency with speed.  They are different things. 

Think of a boat race.  Powerboats are faster.  But if you want to get to Hawaii, you better use a sailboat, even though it is much slower, it is way more energy efficient. 

Again, different strokes for different folks.  I'm glad that I don't worry about how fast I am hiking, only about how much fun I am having. 

11:44 p.m. on August 2, 2018 (EDT)
0 reviewer rep
46 forum posts

Second timed hike.

While my hiking partner is off doing a section of the CDT, I've been hiking a stretch of trail, one day a week, to maintain conditioning (cycling other days).

Last week I timed myself over the steepest part, once using poles the whole time and once without and got a slight positive result for the poles.  This week I planned on timing myself over the whole thing, but on the second run, I got into a conversation with a fellow hiker.  But I did get a time up to the point where started timing last week and got roughly the same time for both.

My feeling right now, subject to change, is that trekking poles offer little to no performance advantage, except, possibly, really steep sections, up to but not including the point of rock scrambling.  But they are useful for aiding on step-ups and step-downs, stream crossings, and any situation where you might need help with keeping your balance.  

I definitely enjoy walking more if I'm not carrying poles in my hands.  I need to work on a system/procedure for carrying my poles on my pack but being able to quickly get them out for use, when needed.

For purposes of this post and any future posts, I call steep any section of trail where my heels don't touch the ground.  Really steep is a section of trail that would be like the stairs in your house or in a building.

1:26 a.m. on August 3, 2018 (EDT)
0 reviewer rep
682 forum posts

My wife will tell you that using poles takes time to learn them, and make them part of your natural hiking pattern.  It took her quite a few hours to get comfortable with them.  Now she swears by them.

1:04 p.m. on August 3, 2018 (EDT)
TOP 10 REVIEWER REVIEW CORPS
5,205 reviewer rep
1,107 forum posts

balzaccom said:

 Yet top trailrunners and marathoners don't use poles.  Why not?  Because they require more energy.    

Some do. I believe Scott Jurek used them on his AT FKT. My daughter, who is working her way up in the women's elite ranks, uses them for uphills, as did a fellow I met putting in a 40 mile, 4-pass day in the Rockies this summer.

But here we are more interested in their use for day hiking and backpacking.  I have the impression that many or maybe even most PCT and other long-distance hikers, including Andrew Skurka,  use them pretty much full-time. This may the old "10 million flies can't be wrong" argument, bit an awful lot of people seem to find them worth the money and weight.

As I have said in the previous discussion, I like to have poles when backpacking for a little extra oomph on the occasional big step on the uphills, to take it easy on the knees on the big steps on the downhills, and for balance on stream crossings etc. They can also be a boost when power-hiking on steep ground. I don't know if they save me any energy, but they do seem to come in handy.

But poles can also tie up your hands, the tips can get stuck between rocks, they can get tangled in brush on overgrown trails, and on flat ground they can be generally pretty useless, so it can be nice to stash them on the pack or leave them behind sometimes.

5:00 p.m. on August 3, 2018 (EDT)
TOP 25 REVIEWER
1,310 reviewer rep
410 forum posts

One thing I’ve noticed is that when I don’t use trekking poles my hands swell up. I don’t think it’s from overtightening my pack straps, but giving my hands something to do does keep them from swelling. 

9:49 p.m. on August 8, 2018 (EDT)
0 reviewer rep
46 forum posts

I managed to do another comparison test, with heart rate monitor, this morning.  Why should anyone care?  Millions and millions of books on training, proper form, and equipment have been sold.  The reason people can write books like this, the reason these books sell, is that people are more alike than they are different.  If someone wins five Tour de Frances, it's likely he can give you tips that help on your club rides.  If you follow his advice, you won't win five tours, so people are different, but what helped him will probably help you.  

There are thousands of examples of products that have been proven worthless, in test after test, yet people still swear they work.  I personally spent years working on a pedaling technique, called ankling, for cycling, only to discover it was a myth based on an erroneous conclusion someone came to after studying photos of professional cyclists.

Once again, on a fairly steep section of trail, my time with poles was very slightly faster, but my heart rate was also a little higher.  I think a reasonable person, and me too, would conclude that it is a wash.  There are many good reasons to carry trekking poles, but performance enhancement probably isn't one of them.

Based on this, my dislike for carrying things in my hands, my strong belief that cane style trekking poles are about a thousand times better than ski pole style trekking poles, for going down hill, when trekking poles are the greatest help, I think the best advice I could give myself (I often don't follow my own advice) is to attach cane style trekking poles to my pack for the hike up, then pull them off for the hike down.

11:02 p.m. on August 8, 2018 (EDT)
125 reviewer rep
3,423 forum posts

I generally concur with your conclusion, Randall.  And it makes sense from a thermodynamic POV.  Our bodies have evolved to perform most efficiently conducting activities certain ways, in this case walking while carrying a load.  It is hard to improve on the time tested configuration of our bodies nature has refined over the eons.  Sometime, as in cycling you can make the activity more efficient, utilizing mechanical levers (pedals, cranks and gear clusters) but trekking poles do not offer significant utility when used as mechanical levers, at least when walking.  Thus going faster also requires more effort, as your test indicates.  That is not to say poles are useless; as many of point out they help stabilize our descents over steep inclines and facilitate greater control on unsteady footing such as loose talus, snow, and ice. 

Ed  

10:32 a.m. on August 10, 2018 (EDT)
MEDIA
87 reviewer rep
20 forum posts

I haven't always used trekking poles, but after a pretty rough and rocky section hike, I decided to look into them. Not wanting to spend a lot of money, hiking on a budget, I decided to make my own trekking poles using old golf clubs. My first trip with them was amazing. It definitely helped take the weight off and move faster. 

November 20, 2019
Quick Reply

Please sign in to reply

 
More Topics
This forum: Older: FYI for Trailspace Veterans - possible influx of new users Newer: My thoughts on choosing trekking poles.
All forums: Older: bivi bag or tent for a long trip Newer: Armstrong Mountain, Pasayten Wilderness, Washington