Why I use trekking poles, and you should give them a go

I’ve used trekking poles for long hikes for years, and will wax lyrical about them whenever I’m asked.  And often even if I’m not.  During training walks for a Three Peaks challenge back in 2007 I found that going downhill was aggravating an old knee injury.  After asking around for advice and reading a few articles, I borrowed a set of poles to try them out on steep descents and found they helped my knee, and helped to keep off fatigue.  So I bought myself a pair with some birthday money.

And then I started using them for trail running, especially for ultra distances, and for multi-day backpacking trips, to help with balance under a heavy pack* and take some of the strain off my back. I’ve even been considering using them to pitch a tarp for an overnight bivvy.

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My kit for a multi-day backpacking trip.

*Lightweight backpacking?  Hahaha. Not me.  With half a kilo of peanut butter, a pair of binoculars and an actual HARDBACK book about birds, and my collection of shiny pebbles gathered on the way, I’m a lost cause to the lightweight movement.

The benefits of walking with poles

Reduced strain on joints: Trekking poles introduce other muscles to your movement by sharing the load more evenly across the whole body, reducing stress on ankles, knees and legs, particularly on descents.  This is especially true with a heavy pack on your back.  This is an important benefit, not just for people with existing issues, but also as a preventative measure for other hikers.

Improved endurance: Trekking poles can help on both descents and ascents, but also help you to push on for longer without fatigue.  They emphasise the natural marching rhythm of your walk, and help to push you forwards with a spring in your step, even on flat, easy-going terrain.

Help on ascents and uneven ground: On uphill stretches, poles help to spread the load to all your limbs to propel you upwards.  They also help make sure you stay upright when the going gets muddy or slippery underfoot, and aid balance on uneven trails, especially at the end of the day when you’re more likely to make a misstep.

Reduced swelling in extremities:  Do you get sausage fingers when you’re hiking?  I do, especially when it’s warm out.  Keeping my hands raised by holding my backpack straps helps a little, but it’s not a natural movement.  Trekking poles engage the arms, and keep blood pumping, to prevent the worst swelling.

Improved posture:  Using trekking poles helps to keep you upright as you walk or run, especially on ascents, keeping your back straight and preventing slouching.  This has the benefit of helping you breathe all the way from your diaphragm, and staving off fatigue that little bit longer.

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My Leki poles are now an essential part of my hiking kit.

Are there any disadvantages?

Well, yes.  Walking with poles isn’t ideal for everyone, and there’s a few things to consider before you make the decision.

Greater energy expenditure: Using trekking poles burns more calories by working your upper body in addition to the workout your legs get from your hike.  Research suggests its as much as 20% over your hiking baseline level.  More calories burnt means that more will inevitably need to be consumed (unless you’re working out to lose weight).  On longer hikes, especially multi-day trips, that means having to carry more food with you to compensate.

Whole body workout: As trekking poles work more than just your lower body, you might find that you have unexpected aches and niggles in your arms, shoulders and back, until you become used to the technique involved.

Risk of injuries: Injuries are likely to be the result of improper fit or technique, so it is important to ensure that you adjust your poles correctly for your height and activity.  If the trail requires any scrambling, it is usually better to pack away poles to leave your hands free when you need them.

Trail damage: All walking causes wear and erosion to trails, plus with the scratches on the rock and small holes in the mud from trekking poles, the cumulative impact of all visitors over the years can result in significant degradation to the route.  Be sure to stick to the trail in sensitive areas, and be considerate about where to place your poles to minimise damage.

Other uses for your trekking poles

  • A useful extra pole for a tent or a tarp shelter (or a substitute if one breaks).
  • A mono-pod for photography (like a tripod, it helps provide stability for your camera).
  • Testing the depth of snow, or water, or bogs.  For crossing streams, trekking poles help you keep your balance, probe depths, and test the stability of stones.
  • An emergency splint in a worst case scenario.
  • Pointing at distant wildlife or birds as you try to convince people there really is something there (my favourite use!).
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Trekking poles help provide additional stability on uneven ground.

How to set up your trekking poles correctly

Most manufacturers of trekking poles will give guidelines as to the right length for your height.  As a general rule, they should be set at a length which allows your hand to lightly grip the handle  while your elbow is bent at a right angle and your forearm parallel to the ground.  Roughly, this corresponds with the height of the hip belt on your backpack.

Some people find that the poles should be adjusted for the terrain, reduced for ascending and lengthened for a downhill walk.  However, you may find that  your hands will move up and down as you need, so look for poles with long handle grips, and play around with what feels good for you as you go.

The wrist straps let you to walk with a more relaxed style.  The key is to not take a tight grip on the handle, but to let your wrist rest on the strap as you push down to propel yourself forward.  As you stride, the poles become an extension to the movement of your wrist, transferring the momentum from your arms and the rest of your body.

Always remember that your legs are stronger than your arms  Don’t put too much of your weight onto the poles, as you might be risking injury.

What to look for when buying poles

Trekking poles are available across a wide range of budgets, from as little as £10 to as much as £200.  I found buying the best I could afford, and not skimping on the budget, meant I had a really great bit of kit that has lasted and lasted.

The most important factors to consider when choosing what’s right for you, and within your budget, are durability and comfort (especially the handles).  The more lightweight the poles, the more expensive they will be, due to the materials used in their construction, such as carbon fibre or titanium, or cork handles.

Some poles fold into three parts, others have a telescopic system for packing away, and some are a fixed length.  If you’re going to be packing the poles into your bag, consider the length that they fold down.  Telescoping poles are adjustable, through not as lightweight as collapsible poles.

Some poles have a built-in shock absorber system, designed to give additional protection to your joints.  It will add weight to the poles, and add to the cost, and may not have that much of an impact on performance.

Travelling with trekking poles

If you’re planning on using public transport to get around between hikes, or to travel overseas with them, be sure to look for poles that can be folded or shortened.  If you can pack them into a travelling bag or on the outside of a rucksack, they are much easier to travel with.

When it comes to flying, it’s unlikely trekking poles will be permitted luggage in the cabin.  It’s worth making sure the poles fit inside your bags, and also checking with individual airlines for their policy.

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On the beach outside my parents’ house at the end of my coast-to-coast crossing of Scotland.  Waiting for the tide to come in and bring the water closer.

Looking after your trekking poles

Like with the rest of your kit, its important to ensure your trekking poles are clean and dry before packing them away after use.  Telescopic poles are best stored unlocked.

Do you walk with trekking poles?  What tips can you share with me?

What I loved this Spring

Where I’ve been and what I’ve done:

Freelance work kept me busy through March, but I was able to spend a week away in the South Downs National Park leading a walking holiday.  Wild, windy weather made some of the routes quite challenging, but I was excited to explore a new area.  My favourite walks were on the downs around Arundel, and along the Cuckmere valley to the famous Seven Sisters viewpoint.

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The famous Seven Sisters view from just above the Coastguard Cottages on Seaford Head.

At the beginning of April I moved south to Devon, to start work as part of the crew of the traditional sailing ketch Irene of Bridgwater.  We spent the first part of the season based out of Dartmouth, visiting the nearby ports of Brixham and Salcome regularly, with a one off trip to Weymouth, where we disappeared into the fog.  Taking the lookout on the bow with only around 20 metres visibility, in a 38 metre (124′) ship, is one of the most nerve-wracking things I’ve done.

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Leading the way out of Weymouth harbour in the fog in the tender, with Irene following close behind.

If you ever plan to visit Dartmouth, be aware that it’s much easier to reach with a boat than on public transport or even by car.  As soon as my leave began in May, it was a rush to head north.  I had to pick up my backpacking kit and make my way to Oban, the starting point I’d chosen for the TGO Challenge.

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A glorious day to go for a walk.  Starting the TGO Challenge in Oban on the 11th of May.

I’d prepared a route to cross Scotland from Oban to my parent’s house on the east coast, planning to walk around 270km (170 miles) in 10 days, before I had to return to the ship at the end of my leave.  The first six days were hot and dry, entirely not what I’d expected for a trekking and camping trip in the highlands.  In fact, I had so much trouble with being out in the direct sunlight for so many hours a day that I switched around my rest days in Pitlochry to buy factor Scots sunblock and a pair of shorts.

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The view from the western shoulder of Schiehallion, looking back along Loch Rannoch to Rannoch Moor and the Black Corries.

The second week was much more as I’d expected, with cooler temperatures and drizzle that actually felt refreshing rather than miserable.  I added another rest day to my schedule, as I’d extended my leave for an extra week, so was able to take my time and fit my walking around the weather conditions.  It also meant I was able to catch up with a number of other Challengers in Tarfside on the Tuesday night, which has the reputation of being a fun night, and definitely lived up to it.  You can read more about my TGO challenge adventure here.

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In the col between Dreish and Mayar in poor visibility, about to descend into Glen Doll after an extremely long and tiring day.

Following the TGO Challenge, at the end of May, I had a few days in Northamptonshire taking part in the selection process for what could be some very exciting work in the winter.  As a job interview, it was one of the best and most inspiring I’d ever been to, and the highlight was meeting a group of awesome people that were also on the shortlist.  I’ll keep my fingers crossed, but competition will be stiff.

My spring love list:

  • Books: I’ve found it hard finding the time to pick up a book in the last couple of months, usually just managing a few pages in bed at the end of a long day.  But I did finish a couple of books: Tristimania by Jay Griffiths, about her experiences with bipolar disorder, and Tracks by Robyn Davidson, the account of an awesome expedition across the Australian desert by camel in the late 1970s.
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Tracks is one of the best books I’ve read, and I thoroughly recommend you pick up a copy.
  • Podcast: I’ve just discovered the wonderful Ologies podcast by Alie Ward, and never before have I known so much about squid.  And I thought I knew a fair bit about squid.  I’ve even been to visit Te Papa in Wellington SPECIFICALLY to see the colossal squid.
  • Clothing: I was desperately in need of a good pair of hiking pants for the TGO Challenge, and took a punt on the Alpkit Chilkoot softshell pants.  My only criticism on them was that they were TOO WARM for the ridiculously hot weather over the first week of the TGO, and I hadn’t bought any shorts with me.
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After ending up thigh-deep in a bog, again, the Alpkit Chilkoot dried quickly and didn’t have their stretchiness compromised by the crispiness of embedded dried peat.
  • Equipment: I’m still not completely enamoured of my Wild Country Zephyros 1 tent; I think I’m just not getting something right with tensioning the flysheet.  I didn’t encounter high winds during the TGO fortunately,  so I’ve got to keep trying to figure it out.
  • However, I absolutely love my Leki Makalu hiking poles.  They proved themselves to be essential during the TGO, especially for hauling myself out of various bogs, over peat hags, and supporting my knees on steep descents.  Do you hike with poles? This post has a few reasons why you should give it a go.
  • Treats: Not so much of a treat as a staple part of my TGO challenge diet: crunchy peanut butter, eaten straight out of the jar with my spork. 
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We joined the crew of Provident for the day to help move their ship from Dartmouth back to their base in Brixham.
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Traditional Brixham Trawlers like Provident often had red sails, coated in ochre to protect them from the sun and salt.

What’s next:

With the TGO Challenge done and dusted, it’s back to work on Irene.  We’ll be based out of Oban, sailing around the islands of the Inner Hebrides and taking our guests kayaking and walking.  I hope it will also mean we’ll get plenty of fresh seafood on our menu too.  I’ll also have a bit of time in my next leave to explore the islands on my own, and can’t wait to get to know this area much better.

Then we’ll relocate south to be based out of Newlyn, with sailing voyages planned to Brittany and the Scilly Isles.  I’m really excited about the Scillies, somewhere I’ve never been to before but heard lots of good things about.  And I should have the opportunity to spend a bit of time in Cornwall walking the coastal path and swimming in the sea.

Thanks for following along with These Vagabond Shoes.

You can keep up to date with my travel and adventures on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.  Here’s to fair seas and following winds.

Read about what I got up to through the winter here.
I’d love to hear about what you’ve been up to in spring, or any plans you have for the summer. 
Let me know in the comments below.