Hiking & Trails

Trekking poles protect your body, add to your workout on hiking trails

“Outdoor Idaho” host Bruce Reichert uses trekking poles to help him descend a steep stretch of trail in the Boulder Mountains near Ketchum.
“Outdoor Idaho” host Bruce Reichert uses trekking poles to help him descend a steep stretch of trail in the Boulder Mountains near Ketchum. ccripe@idahostatesman.com

Trekking poles are modern versions of staffs that date back to Moses for easing the way along difficult routes, catching your balance and prodding the occasional sheep along the way.

Although no longer used for parting the Red Sea, trekking poles that resemble cross-country ski poles are considered essential equipment by many hikers looking to make their walks more efficient and less stressful on ankle, knee and hip joints.

I’ve also used them to probe brush ahead for rattlesnakes and to fend off aggressive dogs as well as one insanely food-habituated marmot in Kokanee Glacier Provincial Park.

Some ultralight backpacking tents are designed to save weight by incorporating trekking poles into their structure.

Critics point out that trekking poles are just another gear item to buy and pack around, and others question the cumulative impact countless carbide tip pokes will have in trails.

But using trekking poles helps a hiker power up a hill with aerobic engagement of the arms and upper body. Then they help reduce the body-jarring impacts of descents. They’re a full-body deal.

David Johnson of REI demonstrates the proper way to attach a rainfly -- a critical piece of camping gear that often creates confusion.

Dr. Meredith Heick, a Spokane rheumatologist (also my wife) recommends “Nordic walking sticks” or heavier duty trekking poles to some of her arthritis patients regardless of age. Many orthopedists also recommend trekking poles, especially to ease stress on knees.

Dr. Heick also practices what she preaches by religiously using two trekking poles on all of her hikes as a hedge against becoming a patient herself.

For Christmas years ago, I bought her a pair of three-section trekking poles that could be telescoped to user height, shortened for uphills, lengthened for downhills and collapsed to fit in the side of a pack when not needed or in airline baggage for hiking vacations abroad.

But the poles became hard to find when she wanted them because our daughters kept taking them for their hikes. Before the year was out, everyone in the family was happily outfitted with trekking poles.

We’ve used them effectively crossing streams safely, pole-vaulting over puddles and checking the speed of snowfield glissades. Trekking poles have reduced the impact to my body from hundreds of trail miles covered in researching regional hiking trail guidebooks.

I sometimes use only one trekking pole to leave a hand free for walking a dog on leash or when photography is a priority.

However, using two poles is clearly better for upper-body workout, reducing joint impacts and maintaining side-to-side balance.

When bushwhacking or scrambling in talus where handholds are necessary, it’s often best to collapse the poles and attach them to your pack.

“The first question we ask customers is what they will be doing with them,” said John Schwartz, who’s been studying, selling and getting feedback on trekking poles for more than two decades as manager of Mountain Gear retail store in Spokane.

“If they’re Nordic walking on concrete and asphalt they’ll want poles with rubber tips for traction,” he said. Hikers heading to forest trails will need carbide tips.

“The biggest change since we first started selling trekking poles is the dramatic increase in what’s offered,” Schwartz said, noting that weight-wary hikers can find an assortment of ultralight poles, usually at the price of less durability and more cost.

Instead of fixed-length poles, Schwartz says most hikers prefer poles that can be adjusted for terrain.

Most people start with poles adjusted to form a 90-degree bend at the elbow with the tip planted by the foot.

“From there you might shorten for long uphills or lengthen for extended downhills,” he said. “You might even adjust length for sidehills.”

Avoid straight handles and opt for handles with ergonomic designs that are less fatiguing to the hand and wrist, he recommends.

Most of Schwartz’s customers say cork handles are more comfortable to sweaty hands. Plastic handles don’t absorb moisture and may be preferable in cool weather.

“Most people aren’t aware that some poles have shock absorbers built into the handles,” Schwartz said. “But once they try them, they quickly become fans.”