There is much debate – among hikers and guides alike – on whether or not to use trekking poles over long-distances. The question is, are trekking poles worth the investment?
When I spent my first summer in the Whistler area a few years ago I started hiking weekly, sometimes daily, to explore the surrounding mountains and trails. I noticed that trekking poles seemed to be increasing in popularity, and to see if it was more than just another equipment trend, I turned to research.
One has to keep in mind that many studies are done in a laboratory or other such controlled environments. That means subjects may not have time to experience the improved efficiency that comes with the training effect of using trekking poles. This in turn can affect the timing of hand-opening and the timing of the pole tip coming in contact with the ground. Using trekking poles also alters our gait by increasing our stride length, but decreases the frequency of our strides (Knight & Caldwell, 2000).
Trekking on an Even Surface – Maintaining
Research conducted in 2002, by Timothy Church and colleagues from the Cooper Institute in Dallas, Texas showed that walking with poles increases our body’s oxygen demand due to using a greater volume of muscle by adding our arms to the workout, instead of just our legs. Because more muscles are working, there is a greater cardiovascular effect and subsequently, greater caloric expenditure.
Downhill Trekking – Descending
When walking downhill, forces on the body are three to four times greater than walking on a level surface. Studies conducted in 2007 at the University of Western Illinois by Michael Bohne and Jilianne Abendroth-Smith have revealed that poles reduce the forces that load our ankle and knee joints by taking on some of the pack weight; regardless of what size pack we are carrying or how heavy it is. The forces put on these joints are small but can accumulate when traveling long distances or on frequent expeditions.
Trekking poles redistribute the force over a greater number of joints, utilizing our biceps and anterior deltoid muscles to increase stability, but also sending vibrations to our elbows, shoulders, neck and wrists. This is great news if you’ve recently had knee surgery or have always been more injury prone in your lower body. Purchasing a pair of poles would reduce the impact on these joints, letting you maintain a higher activity level. If you have elbow or shoulder problems but strong knees and ankles, a pair of poles probably isn’t going to help how your joints feel at the end of the day.
Uphill Trekking – Ascending
In the UK, research studies have focused not only on the uphill (the most taxing part of any trek) but also on how people perceive their effort while trekking uphill. Participants in a research project at Northumbria University (2010) found that when they were climbing, it felt easier if they were using trekking poles even though they were expending more calories.
Whether or not a person should buy and use trekking poles depends on their history of injury and if they tend to struggle on ascents. For those individuals who have had previous injuries to back, neck or shoulders, trekking poles could aggravate the problem. If you are someone who wants to increase their caloric energy expenditure (and at the same time making the climb feel easier) or if you’re someone with a previous knee or ankle injury, trekking poles might be just what you’ve needed all along.Categories: backcountry, hiking, trekking poles