The Great Hiking Pole Debate

Yeah, I use pink duct tape. What about it?

I took the steep and rocky Hunt Trail up Mt Katahdin when I was on the AT last year, and using my hiking poles ended up being a hassle because of the terrain. About half way up, a day hiker teased me about it, saying, “Sure seems like there is a lot of snow up here.

Now you can ski down.” I thought, “And if we get stuck at the top, I’ll use my poles to skewer you and roast you over a fire.” As a point of pride, I would like to mention that I beat him to the top by over an hour. Despite my occasional frustration, I am still an enthusiastic supporter of hiking poles. For me, there are some major advantages, and I’ll list them here.

Pros:

Hiking poles increase balance, which is important for us clumsy people. I don’t think I would have made it through the bogs in Maine without my poles, and I find them invaluable when I am fording a river. They spare my knees on descents by spreading out impact. They involve my upper body in my workout. This is important to me because I don’t want to be a hiker with awesome muscular legs and shrimp y arms.

Now if I could just get the awesome muscular legs. Hiking poles allow me to use a lightweight shelter, hello Tarp-tent. In fact, I love my hiking poles so much that when I accidentally left them in the trunk of a car after someone gave me a hitch back to the AT, I waited at the trail-head for two hours, hoping the driver would notice my poles and come back. Oh, little poles, I was so emotionally bonded to you.

We clawed our way through Maine together. I’m connected to my new poles now, but there is something special about your first love (sigh). But enough about me, let’s pull in some experts: Lee Van Horn writes in Lightweight Backpacking and Camping (edited by Ryan Jordan) that:

 

The use of poles is important for lightweight backpackers because they are effective mechanisms for transferring weight and impact stresses from your legs and feet to your arms. Thus, while the use of hiking poles increases the total weight you are carrying on the trail, distributing the load from your legs to your arms can reduce the amount of work done, achieving benefits similar to those realized when reducing pack weight. That’s quite a recommendation from a group that supports carrying as little as possible.

In Joy of Backpacking, Brian Beffort has similar things to say, but adds some personal testimonial. “As a veteran of back surgery, I experience significantly less discomfort with poles after a long hike.” The Appalachian Trail Conservancy reports that 90% of thru-hikers use trekking poles. I’m not sure if that refers to successful or attempted thru-hikers, but it seems like quite a recommendation either way. And now, some cons from Rick Bolger of Slackpacker.

Cons:

Bolger claims, that because “arms aren’t made to prop up your body,” people who use poles are expending their energy inefficiently. Because of this, he believes that hikers may “run out of gas more quickly using poles.” He also points out that poles can be a hindrance on certain terrain, and they can make it hard to use your hands when you need to eat, take photos, etc.

I’ll back him up on that last point. I have several times hit myself in the face with my poles when trying to bat away a mosquito. But I think that might be an example of user error and not an argument against hiking poles. All in all, I believe that the benefits of using poles outweighs the downsides. So calling all clumsy, injured, lightweight backpackers! Hiking poles may be just right for you.

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