As a matter of necessity, I was forced into using a walking stick in 1994 when my arthritic hip became too sore to walk on. I still wanted to participate in outdoor activities, and that seemed to be the best solution. I came to depend on it.
After hip replacement, I thought about going without the stick but found that I had become dependent on it for more than just the support. Soon thereafter, I picked up a set of poles and I have used them ever since. Recently several people, who do not know my history, have asked why I use hiking poles. My answer is that there are several very good reasons to use them, and you do not have to have arthritis to benefit from them.
The primary reasons I give for using hiking poles are balance and support. The idea of having another two feet is reassuring when it comes to tricky foot placements. It is almost like climbing on a top rope; the rope and the poles give you the confidence to try placements that might otherwise be too adventurous. Support from poles comes on both up and down hills. Down hill, a single hiking pole will reduce the impact on knees and hips and is rumored to save about 5% of the impact force on your body parts. A set of hiking poles is said to reduce the force of impact by 25%. Up hill, a set of hiking poles allows users to engage their upper body in the activity. By strong placements and using the strength of arms and chest, users can pull themselves uphill, reducing the strength required of the legs.
To maximize the effect of the poles, they must fit properly. Many of the new poles are adjustable. This enables the user to customize the fit and adjust the length for up and down hills as well as contouring around a mountain or hill. If the pole is not adjustable, the purchaser should look for a pole that allows the forearm to be parallel with the ground while gripping the top of the pole. Many of the new poles have wrist straps. These are worn like you would in cross-country skiing; the hands should come up from the bottom of the pole and through the strap opening. When the hand grips the pole, the wrist strap should be between the pole and the hand. This allows the user to release the pole and swing it back into a grip without stopping.
With properly fitting poles, the user is ready to get some practice and develop skill with his or her new tools. Like so many other activities, using hiking poles does require practice to become proficient. It is absurd to carry the poles up a mountain with the intent of only using them during a steep descent to “save the knees.” Swinging the poles is like learning to use cross-country poles. The rhythm is arm swing with opposite leg. It turns out that if you want to support one leg (as I did with arthritis), the pole goes in the opposite hand. Learning a rhythmic swing and judging where to place the pole are not skills one learns in a few steps. In many cases the placement is a matter of peripheral vision. We do not consciously place each pole but use the vision of an entire area to pick where the pole will be most effective. To be effective, a new pole user must practice frequently.
A significant advantage to using adjustable poles is that they can be modified for uphill and downhill use. Going uphill, most of the placements will be beside or slightly in front of the user. Because this reduces the distance to the ground, the pole should be shortened slightly. Most adjustments should not be more than five centimeters. (Many poles are marked in these increments). This will allow pole placements above the level of the feet and permit users to work their upper body muscles to pull them up the hill. Going downhill, the opposite is true: Pole placement is again in front of the user but the ground is below the feet, so poles should be lengthened. Again, about five centimeters beyond the “normal” length is usually sufficient. This allows the poles to be placed ahead and absorb some of the impact forces of the descent. With a constant contour, one pole may be lengthened and the other shortened to allow normal hand heights while walking around a long hill. The key to adjusting poles is not to get carried away with it. Only adjust poles when the predominant terrain changes. If the trail is going up and down constantly, leave the poles at their “normal” length and put up with it.
There are times when using hiking poles is inconvenient or not recommended. On a recent hike, participants were advised to leave their hiking poles in camp because the next segment took them across a boulder field in which they would need their hands to maneuver through the rocks. Although many of the new poles have concave tips, they tend to slide on rocks. It is also difficult to manage the poles when trying to use your hands. Once the hands, arms and upper body are used in climbing, the poles became a hindrance. In this case, a set of poles that collapse and can be fitted on the side of a day pack are quite valuable. Hiking across a snow field, hiking poles are poor substitutes for an ice ax. They should be completely avoided on high angle ice or snow. If there is any possibility that snow will be encountered, an ice ax should be carried. In case of a thunderstorm, both ice ax and hiking poles should be placed some distance from people until clear of lightning.
Another case where hiking poles are not recommended is when traveling through heavy brush or willows. In this instance, attempting to use poles will result in the poles getting tangled in the bushes and pulling the user off balance or resulting in extra effort to get poles up and over the bushes. In this case, it is recommended that the poles be carried in one hand above the bushes. In some circumstances where the brush is not too thick, poles can be an advantage to avoid getting wet by holding the poles vertically slightly in front of your body and allowing the poles to take the early morning dew or the recent rains off the brush along the trail.
A couple of safety tips (pun intended) on using poles: The tips of these tools are not sharp, but they can have significant impact when placed carelessly in the back of the leg or at the bottom of the achilles tendon. When walking in a group in which some members are using hiking poles, a little extra distance between participants is a good idea. Practice with poles will avoid placing them in someone else’s leg, but two users in line can still get their poles entangled. If one participant is aggressively pulling themselves up a hill and manages to place a pole on a rock, there is a real possibility that it will skip off the durable surface and come flying back at the next in line. Be aware of this and leave a little more room going up a hill.
It is also a good idea to stay balanced over your two primary supports and not depend too heavily on the poles. In a precarious position, if a pole supports too much weight and slips off its surface, an overbalanced person can take a nasty tumble. Occasionally, a pole will get caught in between two rocks. The best way to extract it is to release the tension on the pole by swinging the arm further back and pulling up on the pole. This also leads to a wild swing that could catch an unwary follower.
The debate over hiking poles extends to their impact on the environment. Leave No Trace principles can be compromised by their haphazard use. When hiking along a trail with a steep drop off, the downhill hiking pole can knock loose rock down, potentially endangering those below. Even when the pole is stuck securely in the trail, the downhill pole can loosen rock and make the trail less stable. This is more likely to be a problem on steep, narrow trails than the normal Forest Service trails. When hiking across tundra, I have no problem with the poles “aerating” the soil. The plants certainly don’t need extra oxygen, but the microbes creating soil can use it. A valid critique of pole use is that it creates wider trails. But the standard for Forest Service trails is wide enough to accommodate poles, and their use is only bringing the trail up to that standard. Like all the other equipment we use, hiking poles must be used with good judgment and consideration for the environment.
Hiking poles are a real boon to the user. Don’t let them become a bust for your fellow hiker. Fit the poles properly, practice with them, be cautious when using the poles on your hikes, and do not use them when it is inappropriate. If knees, hips or sore joints are a problem, hiking poles may be the answer. Use them wisely, and they will greatly extend your enjoyment of the outdoors.
– Bill Houghton