To Pole, or Not to Pole...

Posted by: Glenn Roberts

To Pole, or Not to Pole... - 11/01/18 03:14 PM

First, let’s acknowledge that hiking poles have significant benefits in reducing stress on knees when hiking downhill, are excellent for stability, and properly used can take some of the weight off your feet. They also have many other uses: poles for some ultralight tents or for tarps, propping up packs, and setting or retrieving bear bags. No argument there.

But I’ve got to wonder: at least to some extent, the weight and stability issues they address are created by pack weight. The pack changes your center of gravity, for example. So, if you reduce the weight and bulk of the pack, do you eventually reach a point where those issues vanish, for all practical purposes? If so, where is that point?

I ask because I’ve significantly reduced my pack weight this year, from about 15 pounds to less than 10 (before food and water.) That means that, for a summer weekend, I’m carrying a pack that weighs 13 or 14 pounds. I’m wondering if I really need hiking poles at that weight, and wanted to see if there was a threshold below which all of you might decide not to take your poles. (And yes, I know the best way to decide is to hike without them once and see if I miss them. I’ll do that - but since the Ohio skies are gracing me with the second consecutive day of rain and cold, with more to come tomorrow, I got bored and thought I’d just put the question out there.)
Posted by: professor

Re: To Pole, or Not to Pole... - 11/01/18 03:28 PM

My need for poles has grown with my age. In some terrain, such as hills and creek crossings, I need the poles for stability even if I don’t have a pack. I have also found that my hands swell if I don’t use poles. So where that line is of not needing poles, I crossed it years ago. grin
Posted by: Glenn Roberts

Re: To Pole, or Not to Pole... - 11/01/18 03:41 PM

Good points. I’m 68, and while Ohio terrain isn’t as challenging as what you encounter, it could well be that I’ll find, after hiking without them, that pack weight is no longer the deciding factor.
Posted by: Pika

Re: To Pole, or Not to Pole... - 11/01/18 04:21 PM

I’m in my early 80’s now and have found, the hard way, that I’m not quite as steady on my feet as when I was younger. Unless I’m walking on a smooth surface, pack or no pack, I find that poles help to keep me upright. Fortunately, my knees are still in good shape so I don’t yet need poles to spare them.
Posted by: 4evrplan

Re: To Pole, or Not to Pole... - 11/01/18 04:21 PM

TL;DR: It depends on the trip.

I hiked for a long time without poles, just because I had never bought any yet. But, for my trip to GUMO, I knew I didn't want to do that kind of up and down over steep rocky switchbacks without them, so I made my own cut from a local bamboo grove (probably less than $10 invested counting all materials). Now after having done that hike, I can confirm that they were a life-saver, possibly literally if they prevent a misstep and subsequent trip over a precipice. I wouldn't want to hike that kind of terrain without poles, even if I was carrying no pack at all.

For flat-ish terrain, on the other hand (which for me would be Davy Crockett National Forest or a local state park), I wouldn't bother. For something in between, say part of the Ouachita Trail for example, I could go either way. If I'm doing climbs from valley to ridge or vice versa, I'd probably take the poles. If I'm staying pretty consistently high or low, I wouldn't. If I were to hike somewhere with no trees, like the middle of the desert or above tree line (though there's nothing like that around here), I might take them just to support my tarp. That, or deal with the weight penalty of my free standing tent and not have to have the poles in my hands the entire time, because they don't collapse.
Posted by: wandering_daisy

Re: To Pole, or Not to Pole... - 11/01/18 07:55 PM

Poles are critical for me when I have to wade across a stream. I just did a 9-mile, 2850 +/- day hike today and really used my poles. Poles are great for off-trail travel. I now use them to just touch rocks when I have to hop a lot of talus- it helps my balance. And poles suffice on lower angle snow when I do not need traction devices.

never have considered my poles as part of my pack weight, because I always carry them in my hands. I am not quite sure why you are so worried about the weight of the poles. Used properly, they actually take weight off your feet.

And I too, have had the swelling/numb hand issue completely mitigated by using poles.

For me the only down-side is that they make taking photos more awkward. And, of course, after a rest break, you have to remember to pick them up!
Posted by: aimless

Re: To Pole, or Not to Pole... - 11/01/18 08:17 PM

For me the decision to use poles or not is based far more on the terrain and the trail than my pack weight. I do not need them for general balance or to protect my knees (yet). They come in most handy for me during creek crossings and on especially steep or rocky trails. Loose rock is the worst! I find that one pole is usually enough to assist in those situations.

Many of the trails I hike are narrow and have brush impinging on the trail for a significant percentage of the distance. Under those circumstances the poles are constantly impeded by the brush and simply get in my way.

Pika, a couple of years ago I listened to an interview with a gerontologist about old people falling. The most interesting piece of it for me was his explanation that there is a time lag between the feedback we get from our leg muscles and when that information reaches our brains to be processed and a further lag in the opposite direction as the brain sends out control signals. When we first learn to walk, we train our brains to expect that lag and to compensate for it.

As we age, the lag increases, but our brains tend to be less elastic and often hang onto the expectations that always worked in the past about how long the lag should be. The result is that our nervous system can get out synchronicity between our legs and brains, causing stumbles and falls.
Posted by: Glenn Roberts

Re: To Pole, or Not to Pole... - 11/01/18 08:54 PM

I’m sorry; I must have worded that poorly. I’m not worried about the weight of the poles, just wondering if there’s a certain pack weight below which you don’t find poles necessary for stability or balance. (Like you, I don’t count them as part of the pack weight.)
Posted by: JustWalking

Re: To Pole, or Not to Pole... - 11/01/18 11:47 PM

I'm an always poles guy regardless of pack weight. While my reflexes are pretty good, I've always had terrible balance. On flat or rolling terrain, I often carry them in my hands, holding them near their midpoint, parallel to the ground, and can deploy them quickly when needed.
Posted by: BZH

Re: To Pole, or Not to Pole... - 11/02/18 02:12 PM

I personally don't use poles, but I have noticed that people with lighter packs seem to be more likely to use them. I would guess that it is more correlation than causation. I would guess people who go lighter have more experience backpacking and are more likely to see the benefits of using poles. I have also noticed older people are more likely to use poles often even without a pack.
Posted by: aimless

Re: To Pole, or Not to Pole... - 11/02/18 02:47 PM

About half of the people I see using poles seem to have no clue how to use them. They just stab them randomly at the ground, with no reference to their gait or pace. I presume they own poles because someone told them that using poles is A Good Thing, but no one ever told them how or why.
Posted by: OregonMouse

Re: To Pole, or Not to Pole... - 11/02/18 03:43 PM

I never leave home without my poles! That's partly because of my increasing balance problems as I age (83). I started using a single staff back in my 40s, and 15 years ago switched to two poles. Now I need them even with no pack at all.

Here is an excellent site on why/why not to use poles, and the correct technique, to help your decision whether or not to ty them: Pete's Pole Pages The Brits have used trekking poles for a lot longer than we have!

If you aren't sure, get a couple of used ski poles at the local thrift shop to try out, before investing in more expensive poles.

I have found poles to be a wonderful adjunct to exercise walking, turning a lower body exercise into a whole body exercise (called "Nordic walking"), strengthening the body core muscles. You do want to add rubber cups to protect the points of the poles and your neighbor's sidewalk.

Dogs can be trained to avoid the poles when on leash. The late Hysson easily learned to "heel" a little farther away. I also trained him to walk directly behind me on command. I discovered the hard way that if I let him walk in front of me (on or off leash), he would inevitably stop dead right in front of me every time he found an interesting smell. Fortunately I never tripped over him with my pack on, but there were several close calls. The other thing to train your dog to do is the "flip finish"--there are lots of youtube videos on how. This gets the dog back to your left side without his winding you up in the leash!
Posted by: Bill Kennedy

Re: To Pole, or Not to Pole... - 11/04/18 02:29 PM

I have a love/hate relationship with poles. I don't really like using them, but the benefits outweigh the annoyances. I can go farther with less discomfort using poles, and they're valuable, sometimes essential, for creek crossings and other iffy terrain. So, I use them regardless of pack weight, but not generally on my daily walks.

Also, I find that my balance isn't as good as when I was younger, and I feel more confident with them. I do sometimes just carry them if the trail is narrow or brushy. I keep meaning to figure some clever way to attach them to the pack temporarily, within easy reach.
Posted by: Glenn Roberts

Re: To Pole, or Not to Pole... - 11/06/18 01:09 PM

I just took a long day hike without my poles, carrying the load I would normally carry for a two-night trip (including food and water.)

The verdict: While I didn’t really need my poles to maintain balance or stability, and didn’t have any problems on uphill or downhill stretches - I unexpectedly found that I missed them! In particular, I missed the way they help me maintain a hiking rhythm; I found myself hiking too fast, or too slow (if there is such a thing), and was having to consciously pay attention to pace.

Most of all, I missed using a pole to prop up my pack so I have something softer than a tree or rock to lean against (or so I can sit with the group, instead of off by myself because of where the tree or rock are.)

I also found one other potential problem: my tent is not free-standing. Occasionally, I’ll camp on a surface that is not amenable to tent stakes (roots, rocks, or an exposed rock slab.) When I do, I can use my poles to hold the ends apart, converting my tent to almost-freestanding (enough for a night, anyhow.)

So, even though I don’t need them at my current pack weight, I’ll probably continue to take them.
Posted by: Jim M

Re: To Pole, or Not to Pole... - 11/07/18 08:11 PM

That was an interesting topic, more than I might have guessed.
I take two poles if there are any ups and downs worth mentioning. Although on a little local mountain I do frequently (2 miles 2000 ft. gain to the top) I take only one pole for some reason. It has been shown that they increase your efficiency (that means improve speed and endurance, I suppose). Much like Jesus, Many years ago, I used to find a stick about the right length and use it as a walking staff. Once or twice I have climbed or traversed a steep snowfield w/o ice axe and I know how to use poles to arrest a fall so I felt much safer. (would not crossed it, them, w/o an axe or poles.) I am 78 and have an arthritic hip (replacement scheduled on Christmas) so I definitely like two poles to take a little weight off the hip.
Posted by: Matt Miller

Re: To Pole, or Not to Pole... - 11/09/18 05:15 AM

Hey, for me the advantages of using a pole outweigh not using it as it increases my propulsion. Why don't you give a try to light weight adjustable poles. It will be much more comfortable for you with that weight.
Posted by: Petro1234

Re: To Pole, or Not to Pole... - 11/10/18 08:23 PM

The pack does little to alter your centre of gravity, but it puts weight to somewhere where your feet do notstick out, it puts your whole balance of your skeleton out of allignment.

Poles i thinsnk some like and some do not, but 1 pole seems universal, pack or not. 20 year old shepard girl up the hills, no pack has one, and im not arguing with her. It seems very useful to her on st3ep inclines just to steady herself.
Posted by: Dryer

Re: To Pole, or Not to Pole... - 11/12/18 09:16 AM

You initial thoughts are dead on....however, poles are a personal thing. Pack weight and over all stuff weight at their minimums.

I own both telescoping and fixed length trekking poles. Since I maintain a nature preserve, my fixed poles get used 99.9% of the time.

My fixed poles are re-tasked ski poles and I find them both lighter and MUCH stronger than telescoping. They will not collapse on steep downhills!

My reasons for poling are:
1) I tend to roll my ankles. Since I started using poles, maybe 15 years ago, I've not rolled an ankle since!
2) Poles make great tools! I've caught/relocated snakes. I've whacked vine tangles and cleared spider webs off trails! Flipped rocks and branches off trails. Poles are great for bushwacking and moving brush out of the way.
3) They add a nice purchase for general steep climbing, no bending, much less tired. Might as well use those arms!
4) My tarp would fall down without them...poles serve more than one purpose.
5) I tend to hike faster, less fatigue, even with just one stick!

I would highly encourage anyone interested to buy up any old ski poles you find at garage sales or wherever. Knock off the baskets. Usually the grips and straps are already perfect, but modifications are very simple. Ski poles don't rattle, don't collapse, have no moving parts, and once you learn how to use trekking poles, you won't be adjusting them anyway.
Posted by: OregonMouse

Re: To Pole, or Not to Pole... - 11/12/18 11:00 AM

. . .once you learn how to use trekking poles, you won't be adjusting them anyway.

You will have to adjust the poles if they are used to hold up your shelter! The lengths I need for the tents I own are all longer than what I need for hiking! It's also nice to be able to shorten the poles to the max and tie them to my pack if I have to scramble using my hands or bust through brush (something I no longer do, but have in the past).

Of course, if you're just trying out poles to see if you like them, old ski poles are the most economical way to start. No point in paying for more expensive poles until you're sure you'll use them!

I've never had an adjustable pole collapse on me. That's rather surprising since I don't have a lot of hand strength and sometimes have to visit a neighbor for help opening jar lids. Both of my pole sets are the same brand (Leki), for whatever that's worth.

The poles I've used for everyday walking and day hikes are about 6 oz. heavier than the carbon fiber poles I use for backpacking. While the poles aren't part of pack weight, they are part of skin-out weight, which is what is carried on my feet and knees.
Posted by: Dryer

Re: To Pole, or Not to Pole... - 11/12/18 05:19 PM

Good points, but my poles all fit my tarps fine. I don't need more that 4 feet of headroom. If I want something taller, I simply lash on a stick.
Collapsing poles....this happens when I've stepped off of a steep drop off, 1' or so, putting my weight on the pole. Usually happens after the slip joints get dusty after being out in the field a while. And, I bet I'm heavier that you are. grin
The only time I mess with telescoping poles is if I'm flying somewhere and need them to fit luggage.
Posted by: BradMT

Re: To Pole, or Not to Pole... - 12/17/18 08:53 AM

I experimented with ski poles in the 1970's for use while backpacking. I did a couple trips with them, and went back to a staff.

In the late 1980's I switched from a staff to a cane, and since then options for a cane have gotten better.

I have trekking poles, and occasionally haul them on a trip thinking I'll change my mind about them, but I never do. I genuinely dislike having both hands committed to them. I use them snowshoeing, that's it.

A cane, set at the right hike, is just right for me. Gives me the stability and security I want, relieves pressure downhill, doesn't commit two hands, which I sometimes find unsafe.

Think an ice axe... stable, low center of gravity.