Poles or No Poles - Are hiking poles necessary, smart or a crutch?

hiking Jun 10, 2018

If you’re getting into hiking you might wonder if it’s necessary to buy hiking poles. Maybe you’ve been hiking for a long time, but you’re getting older and don’t trust your balance so much anymore and are wondering if would be smart to start using poles. Or you’ve always been using poles, but see other people your age on the trails not using them and now you are questioning if it’s even a good idea to use hiking poles.

Let me start by telling you what I do. I personally don’t (usually) use my poles, but I bring them along on my hikes anyway. What you have to know about me, is I’m 41 years old, have been exercising regularly since I was 16, and I have very good balance. After reading this you probably agree that it doesn’t sound like I need hiking poles. The motivation to still bring my poles on hikes came after an experience when hiking Eagle Cliff and Red Hill in New Hampshire. The ascent went very well. No problems at all (aside from an irrational fear of bears, but that’s for another time.) Halfway down the mountain, my right knee started to hurt. Within a few minutes of a steep descent it got more and more painful to bear weight on it. I wasn’t too worried about my knee, because I knew that the reason for the pain was a tight calf muscle.

Knowing my own body extremely well continues to be the most useful skill for living an active life. (If you want to know, the reason why my calf went into spasm was my poor technique of walking on tip toes.)

I had real trouble getting back down the mountain. I made it by touching my right toes lightly to the ground so that I could hop down the trail with my left leg. I eventually made it down, very slowly of course and I wished I had brought my hiking poles which would have allowed me to take some weight off the knee.  Luckily, by doing the calf squeeze and calf stretch with the half roller diligently for a few days after the hike, my knee was soon back to normal.

Now on to you. First, understand and accept that your body is completely different from any one else’s. Different from mine, your spouse’s, your hiking buddies’. There are various factors to take into consideration when deciding whether hiking with poles is helpful or harmful. What? Harmful? Actually yes. Let me start with that.

The whole point of using poles is to take weight off your legs and to help you balance. Balance, like any other skill in life, gets better with practice. Reversing this statement, it’s also true that balance gets worse without practice (not age, if I might add.)

By using poles, you stop practicing balancing, and as a result you’ll get worse at balancing.

Only you won’t notice this effect until a long time later. I bet you don’t test your balance on a weekly basis. You won’t know that it’s getting worse, until one day years from now, you forget your poles and you realize you’re completely dependent on them and - aside from the mental fear of falling - notice your feet wobbling on top of a pointy rock.

Bottom line: Use your poles only when you really need them. Go ahead, bring them along for your hike, and store them in your pack when you’re not using them. As you hike without them, you’ll practice balancing and strengthen your ankles and legs.

A word of warning before I let you go back outside: The sad truth is that it takes much longer for the body’s tissues to adapt than we think (or like). When first switching to hiking without poles, slow down your pace. Plan shorter hikes, knowing that it’ll take you a bit longer. Please don’t rush and get yourself into trouble. Don’t do anything that you feel unsure about. If you get to a trail section that’s scary, use your poles. Maybe you can hike without poles on the way up, but use them on the way down. Especially if you have knee pain coming down. Common sense is a good hiking partner. Your body’s sensations are an indicator for what’s happening. Learn to read it’s signals.

I'm using Black Diamond Expedition 3 Ski Poles because I also use them skiing.

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