The question of whether hiking poles are useful or not can't be universally answered. Various factors play a role. What is the purpose of the hike? Where does it go and what is the trail like? What are the strengths and weaknesses of the hiker?
Hiking poles for the cardiovascular system
If you’re looking to boost your cardiovascular system, then it makes sense to take poles on the hike. If you use the poles correctly and rigorously, you will also work the muscles in the upper body, switching the body into four-wheel drive, so to speak. This is especially worthwhile going uphill and works up a good sweat.
Support for hiking downhill
When hiking downhill, poles relieve the leg muscles. However, if the hike is only short, it’s worth doing it without poles, as walking downhill trains the leg muscles eccentrically, i.e. the muscles have to slow your momentum and work against gravity. This is what makes it so strenuous and causes the muscles to ache.
These are the cases in which hiking poles are useful
Are you carrying a heavy load? Then poles help you to walk more upright.
When it's slippery: on snowfields or glaciers, for example, poles aid stability.
If you are unsteady on your legs or are injured, poles provide relief and enable you to slowly rebuild your walking technique.
If you want to quicken your speed going uphill, poles can be of help. Watch trail runners: many of them always have their poles with them, but use them mainly when going uphill.
Don’t use poles on even ground
When walking on the flat, studies have shown that walking with poles doesn’t ease the joints. One possible reason is that people who walk with poles tend to take bigger steps and this, in turn, increases the pressure when the foot hits the ground.
When poles aren't useful
- If you don't use them rigorously, because then they neither relieve muscles and joints nor reduce the risk of falling.
- In impassable terrain or when climbing they can be a nuisance – in these cases your hands sometimes provide better support. In high alpine or impassable terrain, one pole can be used on the uphill side of the path.
- If you want to train your balance, leave the poles at home, because poles stop you from exercising your sense of balance and surefootedness – when used all the time, that is.
The deciding factor is therefore what you personally want to achieve
Those who wish to challenge their body more can use poles when walking uphill to stimulate their cardiovascular system, work up a good sweat and increase their speed. However, those looking to train their balance and leg stability can, at least now and again, hike without poles.
If you want to ease the pressure on your body when walking downhill, poles can be used to help relieve the leg muscles and joints. Nevertheless, it’s worth walking without poles now and again otherwise you will no longer be training your balance – and this increases your risk of a fall. When walking on level ground, poles don't necessarily ease the joints, but they do help if you have balance problems or are unsteady on your feet.
Ultimately, it’s largely a question of taste – and that’s how it should be.