To Pole or Not to Pole, That's the Question

Walking poles (or trekking/hiking poles depending where you come from) are one of the contentious issues in hill walking. Some folk love them, swear by them, and wouldn't set off with out them. But other people won't be seen dead with a set of poles, and wouldn't use them if you paid them (OK, maybe if you paid them a LOT of money!). To help you make up your mind whether to use them or not, here's a list of some of the pros and cons.

The Benefits of Poles ....

They help your knees

The most widely known benefit is that using poles takes pressure off your knees when you’re walking. Figures vary depending on who you talk to, but it's generally accepted that using poles properly will result in a 20-25% reduction in the pressure on the opposite knee when you place your pole down.

 

They help with balance

Walking with two legs instead of four allows us humans to use our hands, a useful trick. But it also means we just don't balance as well as out four-legged friends - take one foot off the ground to step up over a rock or to cross a stream, and you suddenly only have one precarious point of contact. Using poles increases this to two or even three, much safer.

 

They keep your arms moving

If, like me, your fingers swell into uncomfortable sausages after a couple of hours walking, using poles makes you move your hands and arms to keep the blood flowing, and so avoids that "skin about to split" feeling in your hands.

 

You get a full-body workout

If you use your poles properly, you move from the shoulders as well as the elbows. In this way your top half gets the benefit of an exercise routine as well as just your legs. It means you use more calories too, if that’s important to you.

 

They help your posture

Poles adjusted to the right length encourage you to walk more upright than you might otherwise, especially going uphill. This opens up the chest and the rib cage and allows you to breathe more easily. It also stops the back and shoulders from aching so much.

 

 A group with poles. Photo courtesy of Ed and Eddie via Flickr Creative Commons

... And the Downsides

With all those reasons, it's seems difficult to imagine why everyone wouldn't use poles – a no-brainer, as they say. But there are some downsides that put people off using them

 

You need to use them right

You'll lose all the benefits mentioned above if your poles aren't adjusted properly for your height and stride length. The same applies if your technique with them is poor. Take advice from the professionals in the shop when you buy them, or search online for advice from reputable websites.

 

They can damage paths and trails

One of the complaints by opposers is that sticking the spikes into the surface of a trail breaks and damages its surface, making it more at risk of erosion. Be a responsible walker and reduce this damage by only using your poles when you need to, not simply putting them into the ground at every step whether they're taking any of your weight or not. Also don't "trail" them if you're just carrying them - put them away in your pack.

 

They can fail you

This is a biggie for me! Poles can snap, or the locking mechanism can fail, or they can simply not bite into the surface properly when you place them. NEVER put all your weight onto a single pole, for instance using it to lever you up a step, or leaning on it when standing on a rock to cross a river - the results won't be pretty if it fails and you land face first! Also, keep your poles well maintained, make sure they're properly locked in place when you extend them, and don't treat them roughly so they get dented or weakened.

 

You just can't get on with them

A friend of mine, who tried and rejected poles, said:

"They were always in the wrong place. When I needed to use my hands I had to put them down or into my pack. When I could have done with using them to get up an incline or going down a hill, they were in my pack and I had to stop and get them out."

Sometimes it's just a matter of getting used to them, but for some people their walking style just doesn't encourage what they see as the hassle of using poles, or justify spending money on them.

 

Decision Time

 

So, that's the benefits and drawbacks; as with anything you'll have to make up your own mind. If you’re not convinced yet, maybe the best thing to do is to wait until you actually feel you need them - if you're enjoying your walking, not nursing sore knees at the end, and can walk the distances you want without using poles, there's probably no need to use them. If, on the other hand, you think you WILL benefit from them, get decent ones, and learn how to use them properly. You might decide it's the best thing you've ever done.

Whatever you decide, enjoy your walking!

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