Hikers have long known that trekking poles help when crossing streams and on thigh-burning downhills. Now there's scientific proof to go along with our "field research." Scientists at the Universities of Massachusetts and Wisconsin and at Steadman-Hawkins Sports Medicine Foundation in Colorado found that poles provide the following benefits:
Fewer injuries. Poles reduce the risk of injury and tendonitis in knees, calves, thighs, and even hips, according to Michael Torry, Ph.D., director of biomechanics research at Steadman-Hawkins. Trekking poles also allow hikers to keep a more normal stride and a faster pace with less effort.
Less pounding. Up to 4.4 percent of the force that reverberates through your body with each step is absorbed by the poles. After a long day and thousands of steps, that support adds up.
Relief for ailing knees and joints. Dr. Torry says that angling the tips of your poles forward slightly can reduce the compression in your joints as you hike downhill. When hiking uphill, angle the poles backward for an extra boost and reduced ankle stress.
Fewer face plants. While researchers didn't test stability, they agree with what many backpackers already know: Four legs are better than two on uneven terrain.
Less fatigue. According to Christopher Knight, Ph.D., who led the study at the University of Massachusetts, properly used poles (see "Proper Pole Use" below) reduce the workload for lower-body muscles and joints by transferring some of the load from your legs to your arms. Subjects in Dr. Knight's study (who hiked with loaded packs for an hour on a treadmill) said the trek felt easier with poles.
PROPER POLE USE
When walking on flat terrain, hold your poles so your arms are bent at about 90 degrees. Take time to readjust pole length when going up (shorten) or downhill (lengthen) so you can maintain a comfortable grip and upright posture. Researcher Dr. Knight recommends using wrist straps and a light grip on the handles.