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Trekking Poles and Your Knees
This article was first published in Trail Walker in May/June 2008.
Moses in the Bible traveled through the desert for 40 years with one. In literature, Gandolf the Grey, in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, travels with one, too. And highly experienced backpacker Andrew Skurka has trekked well more than 10,000 miles with a pair of them.
"I hike nowhere without my two trekking poles," Skurka, named "Adventurer of the Year" by National Geographic Adventure magazine for 2007, writes on his backpacking website.
Yet, many hikers and backpackers are still not convinced of the usefulness of hiking (or trekking) poles, and many of those who are convinced choose to use only one pole.
Advocates of trekking poles say they decrease pressure on the knees, especially going up or down hill. And advocates of Nordic walking (a type of exercise walking) maintain that the poles help with walking even on a level surface.
What Does the Research Show?
Research published in scientific journals supports the use of two trekking poles, especially going up or down hill. One article, published in Medicine & Science in Sports and Exercise in 2000, loaded volunteers with a backpack equal to 30 percent of their body weight and monitored their walking for 60 minutes on a treadmill with five degrees of incline. Those using two hiking poles had a longer stride, with a shorter frequency of strides. The muscles in their legs were less active, energy consumption while carrying the poles did not increase, and the subjects perceived their workout with poles to be less taxing than the same routine without poles.
Another scientific article, published in the Journal of Sports Sciences in 1999, evaluated how trekking poles affected forces on the knees while hiking downhill. Volunteers were monitored, while carrying a backpack weighing about 17 pounds, walking on a ramp downhill 25 degrees with and without two trekking poles. The poles were adjusted to about two-thirds of their body height while participants walked at a constant rate wearing hiking boots.
The authors concluded that an important force on the knee (ground reaction force) decreased as much as 20 percent when the volunteers used two hiking poles. Other forces on the knee also decreased. The greatest decrease occurred while the hikers had both poles on the ground when one foot was in the air between steps.
A third study, published in the International Journal of Sports Medicine in 2000, determined that 20 volunteers, walking uphill at a grade of up to 25 percent carrying about 33 pounds in an internal-frame Gregory backpack, said their perceived exertion was less while walking with a pair of Leki brand poles than while walking without them. In addition, no significant increase in energy expenditure was noted while using trekking poles, despite the extra weight (about 24 ounces for the pair) and the extra arm motions. Test subjects also said that the steeper the grade, the more they relied on their poles.
Walking Stick, Stave, or Trekking Pole?
Many a hiker has made his or her way over a rocky brook crossing with the aid of a nearby thick, relatively straight downed branch. Some hikers routinely use a walking stick, carefully crafted from a downed branch, but finished and smoothed for ease of use. So what are the advantages of an expensive trekking pole?
Modern trekking poles are very strong because they are made from reinforced aluminum or carbon graphite. They have a cushioned, ergonomic foam or cork composite hand grip. One innovative company, Pacerpoles, has placed the handles at an oblique angle, claiming they make the use of the pole more efficient. Many poles have fabric straps attached to the hand grip to prevent the poles from slipping away.
Trekking poles have three sections, which can be extended or collapsed. A locking ring mechanism is the most common method of securing the bottom and middle sections of the pole at the desired length. A twist to the right locks the pole, while a twist to the left unlocks it. One locking ring controls the bottom pole section, while another ring controls the middle section. An optional feature is a small spring (which can be turned on or off) in the center of the pole to give a bit of extra shock absorption when the pole hits the ground.
The bottom of the trekking pole usually has a strong carbide tip, which resists wear and tear. Sitting just above the carbide tip is a circular plastic basket-like device. This feature helps the pole resist plunging far into muddy or boggy ground. A special snow basket can be inserted for snow treks. This modification makes the poles more useful in deeper snow by increasing the surface area of the basket.
Since trekking poles are made for rugged use, pole parts such as hand-cushions, carbide tips, and locking rings can generally be replaced, if needed.
In contrast, walking poles for the Nordic walking exercise discipline have a more secure wrist-strap mechanism as well as a modified and angled rubber tip, may only contain one or two sections (rather than three), and are lighter in weight. They are designed not to bear the full weight of the walker but only to assist in walking. A hiking or trekking pole is designed for more rugged use and pressures.
Extra Weight, or Worth Their Weight?
In the age of "lightweight" hiking and backpacking, some argue that any extra unnecessary weight is a burden that can slow a hiker down. However, people who regularly use trekking poles wouldn't hike without them.
"Trekking poles are a staple in my gear list, about as important as my shelter or rain jacket," Skurka wrote in an email. "They put some extra power into my step," he added.
While the weight of a pair of collapsible three-section trekking poles varies from 17 ounces to over 24 ounces, research studies have shown that carrying this additional weight does not impact the hiker's performance. The studies also indicate that metabolic use is not increased with pole use.
Many hikers and backpackers further justify the extra weight of trekking poles by finding additional uses for them. These include using them for tent or tarp poles-or even makeshift poles to string a line to dry rain-soaked clothes. Moreover, some backpackers reduce the weight of the poles by removing the wrist straps and baskets from the bottom of the poles.
Over the past several years, I have become convinced of the usefulness of hiking poles. Before making any investment, however, I "borrowed" two identical kitchen mop handles, unscrewed the mop attachment, and hit the trail. I appreciated the poles during stream crossings, and especially when going downhill. On more than one occasion, being able to plant a pole into the ground prevented or minimized an ankle sprain or fall. Eventually, I began using Leki Makalau trekking poles. I have also used Komperdell Mountaineer anti-shock poles.
While I rarely adjust the pole length during a hike, preferring instead to simply "choke" up on the pole when going uphill, I do find the adjustable feature important. Before the hike, I adjust the pole length to a size that suits me, making certain to tighten the locking rings to avoid slippage (on one occasion, my hiking pole did shorten unexpectedly, since I had not sufficiently tightened the adjustment). Moreover, if I need to use my hands for an uphill climb, I can collapse the poles and stow them in my backpack.
Overall, I would add my voice to those who proclaim that they do not hike anywhere without their two hiking poles.
Howard E. Friedman DPM is a podiatrist treating hikers and non-hikers in Suffern, NY.