Why You Should Use Walking Poles to Hike

Walking Poles Are Good For Your Health and For Hiking

800px-TrekkingPolesCarbonWoman Wiki
Trekking poles, carbon fiber (Wiki commons)

Scientists and Researchers Support Using Poles To Hike and Walk 

Working outdoors, in a variety of terrains and situations with kids I find that my hands are usually taken up with field gear, children's hands, or pointing out objects along the trail. However, when I'm hiking alone or on a longer trek I find it useful to take along a walking stick or hiking poles, especially because I have bad knees. I was curious if there really was a benefit to my knees and health, or if it was just anecdotal. After some digging I found out some surprising results that I thought I would pass along to you for consideration.

What is a Walking Pole?

A walking pole is sometimes called a trekking pole, walking stick, or hiking stick. It is a tool that is used to help provide stability, strength, and balance when walking.

Walking poles may be made out of wood, aluminum, or carbon fiber and there are a wide variety of accessories that can come with them. Some are made specifically for skiing, some are spring loaded for enhanced power, and some even have screw mounts to act as a camera tripod. Walking poles may be used singularly or in pairs. Some walking poles are made in two or more pieces (with a shock cord) so that their size may be adjusted (telescoped) or they may be  folded and stored conveniently in a backpack.

Ski_poles wiki
Ski poles for walking (Wiki commons)

Why Are Walking Poles Beneficial?

Researchers from a variety of walks of life have begun researching walking poles and whether or not their use is beneficial. Doctors from the Mayo Clinic suggest that walking poles are useful because:

  • The arm movement associated with walking poles adds intensity to your aerobic workout, which helps you burn more calories.
  • Walking poles improve balance and stability.
  • Walking poles help you maintain proper posture, especially in the upper back, and may help to strengthen upper back muscles.
  • Walking poles take some of the load off your lower back, hips and knees, which may be helpful if you have arthritis or back problems."  (May Clinic Website, Walking poles; Good for brisk walking?)
  • Provide more of a core workout using poles than without.
  • Distribute and transference weight when going uphill on steep terrain.
  • Help the walker develop a walking rhythm and pattern.
  • Provide extra traction and security when crossing rough terrain, creeks, streams, ice, and hillsides.
  • May also be used to find the depth of substrates such as mud, ice, water, or loose soil.
  • Personally I've also used my hiking stick to move snakes out of the trail when they were in danger of being trampled. And they make handy cobweb removers.

In the Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport researchers found that Nordic walking, or using walking poles, resulted in, ".. a significant increase in oxygen use and caloric expenditure compared to regular walking, without significantly increasing perceived exertion" (Church, Earnest, Morass, 2002). This means you can burn more calories without even noticing. It's estimated that you burn approximately 200 more calories every half hour using walking poles. Using walking poles increase the amount of cardio exercise you get in every time you walk!

Walking poles have also come to the attention of doctors treating patients with breast cancer. Shoulder functionality is a big concern for cancer survivors recovering from treatment. Research from the Integrative Cancer Therapy Journal concluded that, "..using a walking pole exercise routine for 8 weeks significantly improved muscular endurance of the upper body, which would clearly be beneficial in helping breast cancer survivors perform activities of daily living and regain an independent lifestyle" (Sprod, Drum, et. al. December 2005).

Orthopedic researchers have also found that using walking poles is beneficial for reducing stress and weight load on knees that have osteoarthritis or have had knee replacement. In the Journal of Orthopedic Research researchers state, "...walking pole gait may allow patients with knee osteoarthritis or a knee replacement to reduce medial, lateral, and total contact force in situations where the use of walking poles is possible" (Fregly, Lima, Cowell, Jr. 2009, v. 27).

Are you sold yet? If so let's talk about how to choose walking poles to meet your needs.

Johnny Soderberg Flicker trekking poles
Walkers using walking poles (Photo: Johnny Soderberg, Flicker common use)

How to Choose Walking Poles

There are many good sources for choosing the right walking poles but the best I've found is from REI. Visit their page on "Trekking Poles and Hiking Staffs" for comprehensive information. However, I do like to support small businesses, and the web page from Montem Outdoor Gear is good too. Here are a few tips and ideas about choosing one that is right for you:

  • Consider why and how you're going to use your poles (skiing, hiking, major backpacking and cross country, or walking around the neighborhood).
  • What is your price range and budget? Poles can run from $30-$200.
  • Decide what type of pole would work best for you?: antishock poles with springs, standard poles that are strong tubes/poles, compact poles for those under 5'0 or smaller, a full hiking staff, or Nordic walking poles.
  • What materials do you need (or can you afford)? Aluminum, carbon fiber, or even wood.
  • Do you need one or two adjustable points on the pole? Do these points need to be collapsible (there are those that collapse and those that telescope)?
  • What type of grip would you prefer? Cork is common, as is foam, and even rubber. (Cork is most hygienic and least likely to cause blisters)
  • Do you want/need a wrist strap (I always say yest to this)? Check out the REI video on how to use wrist straps property.
  • Do you need a sharp tip on the bottom of the stick for traction, flat rubber tip, or basket for walking on snow? Remember that sharp tips can leave impacts on trails. Consider carefully before using them and try to remember to reduce your impact on the environment when you're outdoors.
  • Do you want to use the poles for something other than hiking? Some poles are designed to double as tent poles or as a tripod for a camera (see the example below).
Wiki monopod
Walking stick camera monopod (Wiki commons)

If you're like me and you like videos here's a good one on YouTube about "Selecting Trekking Poles" from Spadout.com.

How do you Size a Walking Pole Properly?

The most simple rule you can follow when sizing a pole is to make sure that when you bend your arm, at the elbow, that your hands rest comfortably on the grip(s) of your pole with your elbow at a 90 degree angle. You should also remember to shorter your pole by 2-3" when you're hiking up steep inclines, so that you re-distribute weight from your knees to your arms, upper body, and back. The same is true if you're hiking sideways on a hill. Shorten the pole on the uphill side but leave the downhill side normal length.

How Do You Use Walking Poles Properly?

There are many different ways to use your walking pole, from propulsion to balance. The "Gear Guide: How to Use Trekking and Walking Poles" is a good place to start so check out their page, which has useful diagrams and instructions. Additionally, the video by Jayah Faye Paley has some great information on how to use the poles and how the poles affect different muscles of the body.

Walking poles are an amazing way to get in more of a cardio workout when you hike, burn more calories, reduce the amount of stress on your knees, and include your whole body in a walk. Consider making an investment in a set of poles for yourself or someone you know that may have knee or joint problems.

I really encourage everyone to try walking poles and remember, buy locally from small companies if you can. I mentioned Montem Outdoor Gear earlier, they're in New York (unfortunately we don't have the advantage of any local stores near us). They also have a helpful hiking blog. If they're not near you then try to find local outdoor stores that know their content and can speak directly to your needs.