I’ll admit it. We’ve started to use trekking poles.
While many people will be in support of this decision, some are likely to ask “why?”. The old me certainly wouldn’t understand this decision. Maybe I’m getting old, but I have to admit that I appreciate using them.
I used to think that using trekking poles while hiking was cheating on the trail. I perceived using them as a sign of weakness and lack of fitness or technical ability to handle challenging terrain. I also considered them a way for people to accelerate their pace – going much faster than I could imagine as an enjoyable pace. For how we hike, pace is important since it throttles how much of the scenery we can take in (one of the main reasons we go on hikes in the first place!). Going too quickly means you can miss a lot. Too slow means you stay in one place too long. I’ve never really understood hitting the trail at a very fast pace. This perception of hiking poles, and what kind of person you are if you use them, was so strong that when we did our first section of the PCT I remember thinking to myself “gee… trekking poles” when we saw someone pass by. I remember the two of us chuckling about it on the trail and lightly shaking our heads. However, throughout that hike my opinion started to change. I’ve found that trekking poles aren’t just useful to keep you from killing your knees; they have other benefits I never considered as well.
Trekking Poles Save Your Knees
The most obvious reason for using trekking poles is that they help distribute the load and as a result they can “save your knees”. They help both when ascending and descending, although when things are a little flat that is where it can get a little awkward.
Going uphill: you can use the poles to both stabilize yourself and to help pull yourself up.
Going downhill: the poles can be used to control the rate you are going down and the overall impact you make with the ground on each step. I can’t understate how useful the poles are going downhill. While I can definitely descend a technical trail without poles, it’s just much more comfortable to use the poles. Especially by the end of a day of hammering downhill when my legs start to get a little tired and I am more likely to misstep. Climbing down large rocks or drops is nice – I can put the poles down firmly and lower myself using my upper body strength instead of having to slide down or make a leap. Like I said before, each individual time you do this it doesn’t seem like much, but at the end of the day it makes a huge difference.
Trekking Poles Keep You From Tumbling
Trekking poles are also good at adding stability. This is also an obvious one, but some of the specific cases may not be so obvious.
Boardwalks: I never considered this before, but I’ve found the poles to be useful to help stabilize myself on wet boardwalks. Stepping onto a wet boardwalk and going for a slide is a terrible feeling. Boardwalks can be dangerous (slippery, unstable) but this danger is totally kept under the radar. They just seem to be stable and clean compared to the soft ground but the only times I’ve ever had a hiking companion get injured on a trail is on a boardwalk. I’ve had plenty of close calls myself.
Loose Rocks: Loose rocks or stones can be exhausting; it takes a lot of effort to just avoid a rolled ankle. A nice feature of trekking poles is that you can “test” out larger stones before stepping on them to make sure they truly are stable.
Slippery Terrain: Much like the boardwalks and loose rocks, the trekking poles in general help save yourself from falling.
Parting the Sea: I tend to find sloughing through thick, tall grass or plants to be exhausting, especially when they are wet. While I have never used a trekking pole to help push the brushes away from me as I hike through them, I have used sticks. This also keeps tall, wet grasses from soaking your clothes.
River Crossing: This is where I think I will find a lot of use. Crossing larger streams or rivers can be challenging without a stick of some sort (I simply refuse to do it without some additional support). The trekking pole just guarantees you have a stick available that is the right height and strength to get it done. I haven’t crossed any larger streams with my trekking poles yet, but I have found some use crossing smaller creeks on day hikes.
Other Uses: Of course there are plenty of other uses for the trekking poles. We’ve looked at getting an ultralight tent, and use our trekking poles as tent poles. We love our Hubba Hubba, so we probably won’t do this right away, but the idea is tempting.
Not Just Dead Weight
While I’m sure nothing I’ve said here comes as a surprise to anyone, I still think I need to say that: yes, I am sold on the trekking poles. We will be using them on our multiday trips from now on. They aren’t just single use items that are dead weight all of the other times. And if you get a light enough set on sale (we got the Black Diamond UltraDistance Z-Poles on sale at MEC) then there really is very little weight penalty for something that helps negate the impact of carrying a pack all day.