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I covered quite a lot of ground, but approaching 36 my knees are starting to give me troubles. Should I expect trekking poles to restore my previous stamina and walking durability? Or are they just fancy status symbols? :)

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alphagalileo.org/ViewItem.aspx?ItemId=77477&CultureCode=en Here's a link to a study where researchers found about a 25% less fatigue to the leg muscles of a group of hikers who hiked up and down a mountain in the UK, with and without trekking poles. –  DavidR Aug 16 '13 at 15:43
    
@DavidR Your comment could be a good starter for an answer :) –  Amine Aug 16 '13 at 17:00
    
I'd be interested if anyone else knows of different / better studies about trekking poles and knees. The OP asked if this was "proven"... I know hikers who were claiming trekking poles gave them a certain % reduction in knee strain BEFORE this 2010 study, and I'm just wondering if there's anything out there to formally back it up. Of course, personal experiences with poles helping with knee pain are also welcome. :) –  DavidR Aug 16 '13 at 19:38
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@DavidR: researchers found about a 25% less fatigue This is not quite a correct characterization. They found less soreness. But in fact (see my answer), trekking poles have actually been found to increase exertion. –  Ben Crowell Aug 17 '13 at 1:23
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On boggy ground they are useful for poking the ground to see how far the pole sinks in. –  QuentinUK Apr 15 at 19:05

4 Answers 4

up vote 22 down vote accepted

Here are some scientific papers, with my brief summaries.

Saunders MJ ; Hipp GR ; Wenos DL ; Deaton ML, "Trekking poles increase physiological responses to hiking without increased perceived exertion," J Strength Cond Res 2008 Sep; 22(5): 1468-74

Using trekking poles caused them to burn calories faster, as measured by VO2max. In other words, they make you less efficient, which is the opposite of what a lot of people seem to believe.


Bohne M ; Abendroth-Smith J, "Effects of hiking downhill using trekking poles while carrying external loads," Med Sci Sports Exerc 2007 Jan; 39(1): 177-83

Using trekking poles reduces strain on joints when going downhill.


Glyn Howatson et al., "Trekking Poles Reduce Exercise-Induced Muscle Injury during Mountain Walking," Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, published ahead of print, 13 May 2010, doi: 10.1249/MSS.0b013e3181e4b649

Subjects reported less muscle soreness after climbing Mt Snowdon if they used trekking poles.

Summary: They make hiking less damaging to your body, but they increase exertion.

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Super, those papers are confirming my personal experience –  РСТȢѸФХѾЦЧШЩЪЫЬѢѤЮѦѪѨѬѠѺѮѰѲѴ Aug 17 '13 at 19:00
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The two first studies were made on very small samples (<15 people). The error margin is important for both studies in comparison to the overall hiker population. –  Amine Apr 16 at 17:43
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With poles, I can move a lot faster than without them. Burning more calories is hardly surprising, and I'm leery of a study that fails to take this into account. –  Michael Hampton May 10 at 15:45

I've heard rumors of studies that show that trekking poles reduce the force on your legs during a hike (by transferring it to your arms). The only reference to a study I could find was this one, but I wouldn't know how to verify that the study was well constructed.

2010 UK Study

This showed about a 25% reduction in the strain on the leg muscles of hikers (measured by an analysis of chemicals in the muscle tissue, and also the precived amount of muscle soreness from the hikers). The hikers trekked up and down a mountain trail in the UK, so it seems like a fairly realistic test. The study measured exertion of muscles, not knee injuries, but I would assume that reducing muscle strain would also reduce overuse injuries.

My experience

My totally antectodal experience is that 100% of the people I know who hiked long distances on the Appalachian Trail (either through-hikers, or guys that hiked a long portion) used trekking poles, and swore by them. They claim the poles reduce the strain on their knees, let them hike faster, and made them a little more stable when descending a trail. This included one 60-ish hiker, for whatever that's worth.

Also, I have no way to back this up, but I would speculate that anything that made you more stable on your feet would reduce the risk of, say, slipping and tearing your ACL while descending a loose trail.

No Silver Bullets

Of course, if you're having knee problems while hiking, you should think of trekking poles as part of your strategy to address that. Other things may include, looking at your shoes, maybe losing weight (if you're overweight), maybe adding in some lite strength training and stretching for your legs, reducing pack weight, and maybe even picking less aggressive hiking goals.

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I started the AT without poles. I managed to twist my ankle twice, once before hitting the NOC and once just before the Smokies. After the second time, where I was laid up for two weeks at Fontana Village, I broke down and bought poles there. The rest of the hike I had no further trouble and was even able to hike faster. –  Michael Hampton May 10 at 15:47

There are people who swear by poles, and there are people hiking into their eighties without poles or knee trouble. Part of it is genetics, part of it is being intelligent about hiking. Poles may help with the symptoms, but wouldn't it be better not to cause the problems in the first place? If you're having knee problems, look at your pack weight. If your dry pack weight is high (say, 20+ pounds) work on reducing the weight. If you're not wearing the right shoe for long distance hiking (trail running shoes with a little padding) that's going to be hard on your knees.

Buy or borrow a copy of Trail Life and read through it. I read it a couple years after getting back into hiking, and making the changes outlined in older versions of this book made hiking much more fun. The author Ray Jardine and his wife have hiked tens of thousands of miles through-hiking the AT, the PCT, and the CDT, among others.

Trekking poles are extra weight, and therefore will require extra exertion. Furthermore, they're extra weight on a moving part of your body, just like shoes are, which further increases the importance of keeping them light. Fix the other issues first, if any, so that you're not just treating the symptoms instead of the cause.

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+1 - good point. a new product isn't a silver bullet, esp. for something like knee problems. –  DavidR Aug 17 '13 at 12:19

Trekking poles are a great helper if you have problems with your knees after a long march. A pain 'in knees' is usually a pain in the muscles around the knees, that are responsible for maintaining equilibrium. Those muscles are not very active if you walk on footpath, but in outdoors they are intensively used. With trekking poles, the equilibrium is maintained by providing additional fulcrum.

I can say with my experience, that using trekking poles have enabled me keeping pace with my comrades in mountains, which without poles were very hard for me, and additionally I had problems with knees.

But mention also, that using trekking poles will train your arm muscles, but will not train that muscles that are making problems by you. So you can become trekking-pole-dependent. After increasing my stamina with trekking poles, I've started to train walking without them, at begin in plains, than in mountains. Now I use them very seldom.

Also from my experience, trekking poles are decreasing fatigue of leg muscles, but increasing the fatigue of arm muscles, and overall you use more energy. I was able to increase distance walking without trekking poles. But if my knees are saying that they are too tired, I switch to trekking poles.

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