Why use hiking poles?
International research has confirmed that the health and fitness benefits of hiking are substantially increased by the skilled use of trekking or hiking poles. Verified by more than 400 studies from universities, institutes of sport and various medical/health research establishments in Europe and the USA.
Informed health professionals and government agencies are now encouraging people to use poles when hiking to increase cardiovascular benefits. But there are many reasons to use trekking poles. They actually provide the skilled hiker with at least six significant benefits:
- avoid injuries
- reduce wear/damage to lower joints
- prevent back pain/injury
- increase exercise
- improve posture
- enhance the enjoyment of hiking
Just using poles with common sense will provide a few of these advantages, but some skill training is required to gain ALL of the available benefits.
1. Risk of Injury: Even minor injury can disrupt the pleasure of regular recreation and exercise. Hikers always avoided falls by grabbing a stick during steep descents or at a creek crossing. Trekking poles are strong, reliable, lightweight “sticks” that don’t break at the critical moment and are always “on hand” for immediate use. Regular pole use develops skills that can almost eliminate the risk of injury from falls or stumbles.
2. Wear and Tear: Poles reduce impact loads on the legs by about 5 kg when hiking on level ground and about 8 kg when on an incline. This reduction in stresses on the lower joints significantly reduces wear and risk of injury to the knees, feet, ankles and hips – common sites for the debilitating damage that (too often) forces otherwise fit people to give up their hiking.
3. Back Pain: Hikers tend to lean forward. The lean develops more with increasing fatigue. Carrying a backpack creates more lean to bring the load over the weight bearing forward leg. Weight is then being supported by a bent spine with the potential for back pain and injury. Trekking poles introduce a forward and lifting force from below and behind that balances things. Posture becomes more erect. The straight spine is more comfortably able to safely carry the load.
4. Exercise Benefit: Regular hiking engages about 35% of the muscles in the hiker’s body. That increases to 90% when hiking with poles. This results in a 20% increase in oxygen use and blood flow without increased exercise intensity. Increased blood flow is the main reason why hiking exercise reduces heart attack risk and helps avoid the onset of dementia in later life. Trekking poles make a good exercise 20% better. Engaging the upper body also broadens the exercise to add more to general fitness – upper body muscle tone, circulation, weight control, etc.
5. Posture: Trekking poles encourage a more upright stance to improve respiration and aspects of general health associated with better posture. The more erect bearing also seems to improve the hiker’s general sense of well being.
6. Hiking Enjoyment: Poles ease leg muscle effort by sharing the workload with muscles in the upper body. The pain of leg muscle damage is significantly reduced. Pain is also reduced in the lower joints – the feet, ankles, knees and hips. By reducing injury risk from a fall or stumble, poles allow the Hiker to feel more relaxed, to engage better with the environment and to enjoy the social aspects of hiking more.
How to use hiking poles
Poles for stability: Trekking poles provide experienced hikers with a valuable aid to stability when negotiating steep descents and obstacles (creek crossings etc). Poles might engage the ground to the front, side or behind – together as a pair, or one at a time. Specific pole techniques in this mode are limited only by individual experience and imagination.
Poles for health & fitness: When poles aren’t required for stability in the difficult sections, they can be engaged to help the hiking and to contribute to improved health and fitness. These techniques are much more specific and they need some explanation.
Two poles or one?: Hikers who use just one pole for some added stability get only that one benefit. Poles are used as a pair to receive the full health and fitness benefits. The new generation poles are very much lighter, quicker/easier to operate and much more compact when stowed. The old reasons for using just one pole no longer apply.
Hand Position – Important!: It’s easy to overlook the wrist strap, but it’s a very important part of the trekking pole. The strap takes all the weight and allows the hand to relax.
Step One: With the pole in the normal vertical position and the wrist strap hanging normally from the grip (brand name out and untwisted), enter the cupped hand into the wrist strap loop from underneath.
Step Two: Pass the hand right through until the wrist strap loop makes contact with the start of the forearm.
Step Three: Now open the hand and bring it down to surround the grip normally. When you push down on the pole, you will feel the wrist strap supporting the lower edge of the hand close to the wrist.
Step Four: Adjust the length of the wrist strap to position the hand comfortably at the grip until the wrist strap feels supportive. The strap takes the load via the wrist/arm – not the hand grip via the fingers/hand.
Step Five: Relax the hand. Just bring thumb and forefinger tips together to lightly surround the grip. This practice helps avoid the common mistake of grasping the grip too firmly which can cause hand fatigue and interfere with good hiking pole technique.
Start Position: With wrist straps engaged and lightly holding the grips, drop arms down by your sides allowing the pole tips to rest on the ground behind you.
Start Hiking: Now hike with the poles dragging along behind. Try to ignore the poles – just get into your natural hiking rhythm – just let the poles follow along.
Arm Swing: We all swing our arms in a natural balancing rhythm that doesn’t change for pole hiking. Allow your arms to develop their normal swing rhythm with the poles still dragging along behind.
Load Up: Now begin to engage the poles by allowing the pole tips to dig in as they come forward and by pushing slightly back as each arm begins to swing backwards. Continue to maintain your natural rhythm. Gradually increase the push on the back swing until you feel the poles propelling you forward.
Don’t load up excessively – just a little weight on each back swing will add to the effort.
If, at any time, you become overly conscious of the poles or feel slightly uncoordinated, just return to dragging the poles along behind you without loading them up. When the rhythm is right, start loading up again. When you are hiking with loaded up poles to your natural rhythm, you have the technique – it’s that simple.
Isn’t this Nordic Walking?
There are some similarities, but Nordic walking is a specific exercise technique with an exaggerated arm swing. The wrist strap is replaced by a “glove” that allows the hand to be opened on the backswing. The restrictive glove isn’t appropriate for hiking where arm swing doesn’t change much from the hiker’s natural rhythm and style. Nordic walking is great exercise for urbanites.
Keep the poles in. Don’t extend your elbows out. Just allow your arms to swing comfortably close to your body allowing the rhythm of your own natural style to develop. Aim to forget you are even using poles. Relax your hands – just enough grip to keep contact with the pole as your arm swings forward. Ultra lightweight poles allow even lighter hand contact to enhance technique. Using poles this way adds propulsion and lift so that hiking becomes faster, smoother and easier. You may be tempted to immediately hike much further and faster. As with all exercise, it’s better to build up gradually. If you decide to raise your level of fitness, take time to increase speed and distance. Upper body muscle soreness probably means that you’re going too hard, too soon.
A simple wipe down is all that’s needed. A quick wash with fresh water after a muddy expedition or a beach hike is a good idea, but no lubricants.