The Pros and Cons of Walking Poles

by Sarah Rowell
Walking sticks - the preserve of those who are getting on in age or a little doddery on their feet?  If that is still your view, then what follows may come as a bit of a surprise; as would be that fact that in both short (uphill vertical kilometre) and long (the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc) races in Europe, a significant number, if not the majority of runners, will make use of modern lightweight walking poles to increase their performance.

You personally may not be trying to complete 100+ miles as fast as possible and in one go, but everyone who takes in trail walking, especially hilly trail walking, can benefit from using trekking poles. Like many runners, I admit to once being a total pole snob (I would not use them), until of course, I tried them and suddenly in the space of a 2 hour walk with friends I was converted, why?

Walking with hiking poles These poles were made for walking

Going Up

Poles help the transfer of power from the upper body through the arms to make walking uphill easier – think cross country skier. This works for slopes of all gradients, although to get the most from your poles, you may want to adjust the length so they are shorter for steeper hills.

Going Down

Using the poles to both balance and take some of the impact can help reduce the muscle soreness often linked to walking downhill.

Better Balance

Especially over rocky, loose terrain or when crossing rivers. Poles can add a balance point, giving much greater stability – think the 3 points of contact climbing rule.

Shock Absorption

Studies quoted by trekking pole manufacturers suggest that there can be up to 7kg less pressure per step when using walking poles, or in some cases claiming to take 25% of body weight through the pole, thus reducing the load through the hips and knees.

walking pole close up Walking poles close up

Pros and Cons of Using Walking Poles

If those are the pros, what about any cons?  The one most likely to upset your walking group (other than the click, click, click as you walk along) , especially if you are in a big, close knit party, is catching or stabbing others, not only when walking but also when taking poles in and out of a rucksack if you are not using them all the time.

The other obvious downside is that they take up your hands. If you have poles in both or even one hand, it makes it harder to use a map and compass (although not read a GPS) , to eat and drink without stopping , or to clamber over stiles etc without causing problem one – stabbing yourself or others.

If you do decide to try walking with poles, the range of options is considerable, with top-end versions costing upwards of £120.  For this you will get ultra-lightweight, collapsible carbon poles, or you can knock the third figure off and pay under £20 for a heavier, but still adjustable pair.

Which ever you choose , here are a few pointers to help you:

  • Weight – it is possible to get lightweight poles made from carbon fibre or aluminium at under 250g per pair. The downside is their strength - heavier or more powerful walkers may find a they have a tendency to bend or even break
  • Collapsible – many people prefer poles that can be collapsed and stored in a rucksack.  The alternative is between poles which are telescopic and therefore also adjustable, or those which fold like a tent pole; the latter being non-adjustable (but will come in different lengths) but normally also quicker and easier to extend/open or retract
  • Pole length – to get maximum advantage from using poles it is important to get ones the right height.  Telescopic poles allow you to alter the pole length depending on whether you are ascending (shorter length) or descending (longer length)
  • Grip – the grip on a trekking pole, combined with the strap is where a lot of the power is transferred from the upper body, especially going uphill.  These vary in width and length, so finding one which is comfortable is important. Some specific trail walking/running poles (‘Nordic’) have a special loop to facilitate this.
  • Basket – like a ski pole, trekking poles should have a small basket at the bottom to stop the pole sinking into the mud/wet ground/snow.  While on firm ground the basket may seem a bit erroneous, trying to use poles on wet ground without one involves continually having to pull the pole out of the ground behind you, nullifying any previous advantages gained
And finally, a quick word of warning, the first few times you use poles be prepared to feel sore around the shoulder and upper arm muscles the next day – this is just the body getting used to a new movement, look on it as a change from sore legs or feet!!


Originally published 05/09/14

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