Thursday, June 11, 2015

Trekking Poles and Why I Use Them

For many many years I resisted the use of trekking poles. I had tried using poles a few times, and they always seemed like more of a nuisance than help. I had tried some cheap trekking poles, which I ended up carrying more than using; I also tried a staff because…well…bushcraft. I ended up leaving it in the woods.

About two years ago however I decided to give them a more serious try. My motivation was to use a set of trekking poles as the tent pole for my GoLite Shangri-La 3 tent. I figured, if they work as a tent pole, even if I don’t actually use them while walking, and simply keep them in the pack for shelter set up and river crossings, then it would be worth it, especially if I could find a lightweight set.

So, I did some research and ended up with an older 2012 model of the Black Diamond Alpine Carbon Cork, which I got at a discount.


They did indeed work well as a center pole for the SL3. What was surprising however was that I started using them a lot while walking as well.


Even now that I don’t usually use the SL3, and have a free standing tent with its own pole system, I still carry the trekking poles on most trips. There are two differences between my current attempt to use trekking poles and my previous ones where they didn’t work out.

The first reason is that I got good trekking poles. The weight of the poles makes a huge difference in how usable they are. The weight matters not just because you have to carry it in your hands all the time, but more importantly, because a lightweight set of poles can move without effort at your walking pace. Heavy poles require more effort to move, and you either get tired trying to force them to keep up with your pace, or they start to fall behind, which makes for a miserable experience. I find that a combined pole weight of about one pound or under works very well. The poles I have weight 16 oz. There are lighter poles out there, but these have some features that I like.

The second reason is that they make a big difference with my knee pain. Due to some childhood injuries, I have pretty bad knees. On many trips I would be in extreme pain, especially when going down hill. The trekking poles have greatly reduced the stress on my knees. It is not so much an issue of distributing the weight, as my pack is fairly light, but rather it’s an issue of stabilizing my knees. For me, just like with a lot of other people, knee pain while backpacking comes from lack of lateral support on the knee. When walking on rough terrain, the knees do experience a lot of stress from side to side, trying to stabilize the body. That lateral stress can cause severe pain. The trekking poles take away a lot of that stress by serving the role of stabilizers. For me, it has been a big change. There are trips on which I suffered years ago, that I have been able to repeat recently with no problem.


And of course, you have the usual benefits such as river crossings, walking in deep snow, and weight distribution when carrying a heavy load. They also easily attack to the side of a pack when not needed.

So, that’s why I started using trekking poles and why I have continued to use them. If you haven’t had success with them in the past, but are still interested in using trekking poles, try a light weight pair that can be adjusted to your desired height. It may make a difference for you.