Trekking Pole Tirade

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I don’t think trekking poles are bad–I use a trekking pole myself.  I just take issue with the usefulness that’s attributed to them.  I don’t think they’re doing what they tend to be described as doing, and that trying to use them that way does harm.


Trekking poles are those telescoping walking sticks that hikers and backpackers like to use.


Sometimes people use just one, sometimes two.  I don’t think it matters much whether you use one or two of them.  Probably they’re sold in pairs just to sell you more stuff.  I like using one pole because I prefer to have a hand free.


My tirade centers on a particular idea, recently expressed in a well known outdoor magazine…and really all over the internet.  In fact you can’t read anything about trekking poles without immediately having this fallacy brought up.


The idea?


That trekking pole’s usefulness comes from taking some of the load off your legs when you’re hiking.  The idea, or at least how it tends to be interpreted by the hiking community, is that you’re transmitting some of your body weight to the ground through the trekking pole, rather than through your legs and feet.


That just burns me.  I get a little too triggered by that rubbish, honestly.


There’s just so much wrong with that…I’ll get to work unpacking it for you.


Let’s start with Wolff’s Law.  This states that bone is remodelled according to the force that travels through it.  Force meaning, in this case, load.  So if you take the load off your legs (and where is that load going by the way? Evaporating?) then you are removing the signals that tell your body where to build bone and where to eat it away.  It’s well known that osteoporosis is exacerbated, if not caused by, a lack of load bearing exercise.  When we talk about load bearing exercise in reference to osteoporosis we understand its importance, but when we switch to talking about trekking poles, then suddenly the same laws of physics and physiology don’t apply?!




So why are we so concerned about taking load off the legs when it’s so obviously helpful for our structure?


Because of this idea of impact.  People worry about impact and load, weight in this case, when they start to notice knee and foot pain.  The idea is that if there is less load going through your leg there will be less of it to press the bone ends together in your knee and less of it to squash your foot flat.


Which is wrongheaded.


What actually stops the impact we’re talking about here, is having stronger tissues around your joints.  If the muscles and ligaments are helping out more around the joint, then bone ends aren’t shifting all over the place or rubbing or bumping into each other.  And your foot’s tissues maintain their integrity and position.


My next point.  


What happens to this load that you took off your legs?  It didn’t really evaporate.  You still weigh the same amount and gravity is still hurling you toward the planet at a rate of 9.8 meters per second.


No, that load that is now no longer being carried by the biggest and strongest muscles and bones of your body is now moved up to your wrist, your shoulders, your upper back and low back–even your neck.


Because your center of gravity is now high in your body and off-center (in order to transfer weight from your legs to the pole) it is costing all of the rest of you far more energy.  If you lean your torso forward, your low back has to work harder to keep you upright.  If you jut your head forward the back of your neck has to work harder to help your eyes see the horizon.  


If you use your shoulder to propel you up a hill those little muscles get tired out (and painful) much more quickly than the powerful muscles of the butt, calf and quads.


So this load that we’re so concerned about taking off our legs does damage twice.  Both by taking it out of legs where it creates strength and resilience.  And by putting it into other areas that don’t handle it as well…all while destroying our alignment and stability in the process.


I did warn you this was a tirade, didn’t I?


But I mentioned that I use a trekking pole.  So what do I see in it besides the fact that it holds my tent up?


For one thing, I really like flicking sticks off the trail with it.


The other thing I really like about my trekking pole is that it aids my balance.  This actually makes it easier for me to keep my center of gravity over my feet.  It also helps me not grip my legs so hard when having to take biggish steps downhill, or when travelling down hill on uneven terrain.


What I mean by “grip my legs hard” is that, if I feel less stable I’ll use more muscular effort around my knees.  Which creates a lot of time spent in taxing eccentric contractions.  Which will make me very, very stiff and sore later.


A trekking pole is a nice assist.  That extra point of contact with the ground gives me better balance and stability.


The other thing I like is that with that extra bit of balance it’s easier for me to take my eyes off the ground and spend more time looking at the scenery.


So next time you’re out hiking with your trekking poles, please pay attention to whether you’re trying to take weight off your feet and effort out of your legs.  Or whether you’re using them to help you balance and to keep your center of gravity over your feet.


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