This is when hiking poles make sense:
- When you want to stimulate the cardiovascular system. 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 uphill and works up a good sweat.
- If you have to carry a heavy load. Poles then 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 injured, poles provide relief and you can slowly rebuild your walking technique.
- For a tour that stretches you to your limits. 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.
- If you want to quicken your speed uphill. Watch trail runners: many of them always have their poles with them, but use them mainly when going uphill.
This is when hiking poles make no sense:
- 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.
- For those wishing to improve their balance, because poles remove the need to exercise your sense of balance and surefootedness, at least if you always walk with poles.
- On the flat, as poles don’t necessarily protect the joints: 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 touches the ground.
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 who wish 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 is a good thing.