As an advocate of poles and professional walking guide I get the chance to lead many people in the hills and mountains of Britain and Europe. The vast majority of serious walkers are these days already using poles, there is a reason for this:
“A 2010 study by UK-based Northumbria University shows that using trekking poles reduce muscle damage and soreness in the days following a hike. The combined benefits of using trekking poles in reducing load to the lower limbs, increasing stability and reducing muscle damage also helps avoid injury on subsequent days of trekking, according to Dr Glyn Howatson. Trekking poles can also reduce the compressive force on the knees by up to 25%, according to The Journal of Sports Medicine in a 1999 study.”
The advantages of using trekking poles are:
1. Extra stability on difficult or loose terrain
If you walk off path or in the mountains where there is scree and steep slopes to negotiate, poles come into their own acting as a 2nd pair of legs.
2. Take the weight off of knees and ankles
There is no doubt that poles reduce the weight and forces placed onto the legs with every stride. The lessening of the pounding on the knees is significant when poles are used properly.
3. More power, especially up hill
Making ascents of hills or mountains becomes much easier if you are able add extra push with your arms. I find that without poles I loose traction on steep slopes and often take smaller strides. With poles you tackle hills quicker and more efficiently, especially if carrying a heavy rucksack.
In this photo, the top pole is an Exped Quad that folds down small, It has a longer handle and twist locking;
middle is a standard 3 piece Leki Makalu with twist locking;
the bottom photo is a Leki Makalu with external locking making it slightly longer when folded down.
Things to consider when choosing poles:
Cheaper poles are likely to be less well made and heavier than those from the “specialist” manufacturers. I wouldn’t want to favour one make over another but the better brands include: Black Diamond, Leki and Exped. Cheaper poles will in general be heavier, need more care to keep the locking systems working and may not be robust (i.e. tips falling off).
i. The weight of the poles
Obviously the lighter the poles, the less energy you’ll expend using them or carrying them on your rucksack. Most poles are made from aluminium though some use lighter aluminium or mixtures of carbon and titanium.
ii. Locking Systems
There are 2 categories, twist lock internal locking or external clamp style locking. Both have their good points, advantages and disadvantages. The twist locking style is more common. Black Diamond have always made poles with external locking, Leki introduced this into their range in 2010. Exponents of the external locking will cite that the twist locking versions loosen through the day and collapse. I have also witnessed external locking poles collapsing too. At the end of the day consider if you’ll be out in winter and want to be able to adjust and secure your poles keeping your gloves on and find a pole you can manage to adjust wearing gloves. It is really personal choice and the other factors listed here may be more important, coupled with cost. (External locking is usually more expensive).
Poles come with either a standard handle or an elongated handle. If you are only like to walk on the flat then a standard handle is probably the best (cheapest) option. Walking through gullies or traversing hillsides often requires you to raise an arm or adjust pole length. Having a longer handle means you can hold the pole lower down so you don’t have to stop and adjust pole length. Definitely a better option for hills and mountains.
iv. Normal or Anti Shock
Poles can be bought as a rigid unit or with an anti-shock system. His really is personal preference. A good idea would be to borrow poles from friends and form your own opinion before buying. Most anti-shock systems can be turned off if you don’t get on with it, but remember that anti-shock is an addition to the weight of the pole. I use my poles for testing the ground (river crossings, depth of snow, etc) so prefer not to use anti-shock.
v. Fold down size and length of poles
If you are very tall or very short, you can buy poles especially to suit you. If you are short then this will give a weight reduction to your advantage over standard poles adjusted to a small person.
Most poles come with 3 segments, though it is possible to buy poles with 4 segments that fold down smaller (Exped Quad 4 part trekking poles).
Peak Navigation Courses are always happy to advise you about hill walking and mountaineering equipment and how to keep safe in the mountains.