When European man came to North America about 500 years ago, they brought horses, because there were no horses in the “New World.” But there were about 100 million Native American “Indians,” and they had only one mode of transportation: Walking.
For the previous tens of thousands of years, these native peoples walked everywhere─on the plains, in the deserts, in the mountains and in the forests, yet none of them were walking around with two hiking poles. With millions of acres of forests, they had enough resources to build as many hiking poles as they would want. They had thousands of years to develop two poles if they thought they would be helpful. But they walked without them. This didn’t surprise the Europeans, because there is also no historical or archaeological evidence that shows humans carrying two hiking poles in the “Old World,” for the last few hundred thousand years
And now, within the last 30-plus years, many people are now saying we humans need hiking poles? Really? Anyone ever watch a perfectly healthy person walk down a steep, rocky trail in the mountains using their hiking poles? To me, it proves we not only don’t need them, but we need to encourage healthy people to not use them.
So, what happened?
The Growth of Mountain Hiking
In the last three to four decades in the U.S., mountain hiking has expanded greatly, along with outdoor sports stores, hiking clubs, mountain biking, backpacking and other related activities.
I started hiking and backpacking in the High Sierra of California over 50 years ago in 1969, and I’ve seen a lot of changes in both the people who hike and the gear they use.
People who live in or near the mountains enter hiking because it’s healthy, and you get to see a lot of beauty. You also don’t need to buy a lot of accessories (some will say you do, and many will tell you that you need all the latest gear, which you don’t). Plus, you can join a hiking club and meet lots of people. Sounds easy and cheap. Plus, there’s a perception that there’s no skills to learn. After all, it’s just walking. How hard can it be?
The Reality of Learning to Hike
In reality, mountain hiking takes time to build stamina and body strength, a lesson that many soon learn. But you can start on easy trails and work your way up, while still enjoying it. There are also lots of books and videos out there, along with hiking club members and outdoor store clerks to advise you. But beware of a lot of this advice, because, in many ways it is just walking. They will all tell you what you need to get started, like what clothes to wear (meaning what to buy), what backpack (to buy), and what hiking boots (or shoes) to buy. You’ll also need to buy water bottles and miscellaneous other items, all of which the stores will sell you. Regardless of what people tell you, you really don’t need to buy all this stuff to get started. Learn for yourself before buying all that stuff.
The most important item you need to buy are good hiking boots, but more on this later.
Almost everyone will also tell you that you need hiking poles (trekking poles), which you can also buy at the outdoor store. But do you really need them? Depends, but don’t believe anyone who says that everyone “needs them.” Most don’t. This is my view, and it goes against almost everyone’s view in the modern-day hiking crowd, which has, in many ways, succumbed to the mass hysteria of getting the “latest gear.” Believe me, the latest gear is the last thing to get and it’s really not very important.
And is hiking really that simple to get into? Do I need any skills or training? Or can I just hit the trails and “jump” into hiking?
About Mountain Hiking Trails
If you are on a typical mountain trail, you will often find trails that are a “walk in the park.” This is where the ground is flat, soft dirt, with maybe a small incline here and there. These trails are similar to a walk in the local city or county park, except the mountain trail is usually only one-person wide. In this type of “walk-in-the-park” mountain hiking, you don’t need buy anything special. Just bring a water bottle and a backpack (or whatever works) to carry it in. Maps and other stuff involved are for another discussion.
It’s when mountain hiking trails go up and down that changes the nature of “hiking.” The trail changes, as does everything else. Unless it’s simple and short, going up and down trails can be everything from easy to extremely difficult. If you’re not in great shape, don’t go on a steep trail that starts by going down, because then you must go up to get back. In other words, don’t hike down into a valley and back until you are in good-enough shape. If you are patient and determined, you can “train” your body over time to hike into the steepest valleys with ease.
It’s when mountain hiking is not a “walk in the park” that you must get some good hiking boots and do some training.
Training for Hiking
Training? Why would I need to train myself to go hiking if all I am doing is walking up and down? I’m just going for a walk in the woods. And what kind of training and how long does it take?
Mountain hiking, which generally involves going up and down many steep trails, like all sports, requires practice and training. You need to build up your stamina, leg strength, joints, and balance. Contrary to what others may say, training is necessary, and building up your body takes time-all depending on your age and current health. But this is not rigorous training, like training for a race. You just need to start slowly and work your way up (so to speak). You can even do this in your leisure time.
Keep in mind that if you go slow enough, going up or down a steep trail is relatively easy. If it’s steep and rocky, you can always crawl up the trail, even on all fours, or sit on your butt and slowly go down. It’s when you want to walk up and down at a decent pace and in an upright, safe manner that you need to develop some physical strength and stamina. But this is not Olympic training, it’s simple training and you can go at any pace you want. I mean, walking is one of the slowest methods of going somewhere, so what’s the big hurry? Hiking is recreation and for fun. It’s not a race, and in hiking, the tortoise generally wins over the hare─in the long run. Do a lot of hiking for many years and you’ll probably live longer. And don’t forget to stop and smell the roses.
It’s more important to regularly go walking than it is to train heavily to improve your hiking. Don’t listen to people who tell you how fast you should go. Hiking is for fun (unless your goals are different). Be patient. After all, with all this hiking you’ll probably live longer, so you’re gaining extra time. But don’t let it be stressful. Don’t worry, be happy.
After trying it for a while, if you find that you want to continue hiking you need to have good hiking boots. This will be your most important purchase.
Buy Good Ankle-High Boots
I cannot say enough about how important good boots are. Personally, I am extremely careful that I have boots that fit perfectly and are worn in (which means that after a while, they will fit better).
If you decide to get into this “sport,” then get some very good ankle-high hiking boots. Just make sure you try them on at the end of the day when your feet are biggest. Then take them home and wear them only inside the house. If all is good, keep them. Just make sure they fit.
Do not get low-height tennis shoes that have Vibram-like soles. They are really just glorified tennis shoes (unless you plan to go “trail-running”). Get boots with Vibram (or similar) soles but make sure you buy ankle-high boots. Mountain hikers who hike on more than “walk-in-the-park” conditions must have ankle-high boots. Don’t let anyone tell you different if you are going to be on some steep and rocky trails. They might not have learned this lesson yet. Some never learn. Everyone wants to wear tennis shoes because most everyone owns a pair, and they are comfortable on day one (they are fine to get started, but you will hike slowly even if you don’t plan to). Other more experienced hikers you meet who wear them will often tell newcomers that they are fine. But in the long run, you will be a better hiker with good ankle-high boots.*
With good ankle-high boots, you will learn that they give you a better platform and foot support to step on rough surfaces. Low-height shoes, regardless of their soles, will be weak and have more of a tendency to slip on rough trails (plus high boots keep more rocks and dirt out, which means your socks don’t get as dirty). Regular shoes mean you will have to move more slowly with each step, otherwise, if you slip, your foot and ankle are more susceptible to twisting and you falling. Ankle-high boots enclose your entire foot and ankle, meaning they become part of your feet.
Some people who have only hiked with glorified tennis shoes will never know how superior ankle-high boots are. But if you are only going to hike on simple trails that are basically flat dirt and very gradual slopes, any shoes, including sandals, will do.
Hiking Poles Have Only Been Around for a Few Decades
Last, but not least, and probably the most controversial piece of gear is hiking poles (trekking poles).
When you get into hiking, almost everyone will tell you that hiking poles are necessary for everyone. In my view the claim that everyone must have poles is completely ridiculous. In fact, for most everyone, my belief is you must not get hiking poles, especially if you are young.
When I started hiking and backpacking over 50 years ago in the 1970s, hiking poles didn’t exist. Now, everyone seems to have them. There’s been a lot of changes since those days. There was no one around to tell us we needed hiking poles─because they didn’t exist.
In today’s world (2022), 90 percent of the hikers I see use two hiking poles. (This does not include people who visit an area, park their car, and go for a short hike in their street shoes, or those out for a short, casual hike.) Sometimes I see a large group of hikers, which I am certain is a hiking club, and they all have two poles. If you join a club and tell members you are new to mountain hiking and want to get involved, I guarantee they will tell you that you must get hiking poles. Must? Really?
Yet-after 50-plus years and many, many miles of backpacking and mountain hiking without poles (often with heavy packs on long back-country trips over two weeks), the more I am convinced that most people don’t need them, and for many, they are harmful to developing good agility and balance in going up and down steep trails, especially those with obstacles to step on and over.
Some People Do Need Hiking Poles
Before I get into why I have found this, let me make sure that it’s understood that I am certain there are people who need poles because of a physical ailment and/or advanced age. As we get older, our joints get older, and knees and hips seem too often to be the first to go. But I’m not convinced, as others say, that poles are good for those joints. If you are old and relatively new to mountain hiking, they might be. My joints are still doing good, but as I age, yes, they might start to feel old, and I might want poles one day. But at 73, I’m going strong and have not even the tiniest feeling that I need poles. No poles haven’t hurt me. In fact, I am certain that not hiking with poles all these years has made me stronger and more agile in my mountain hiking.
The situation where I see the need for poles more than any other reason is for those who have bad knees, bad hips, or other leg problems before they started hiking. I know people who can’t walk on a city street because of bad hips or knees. Obviously, these people need poles.
Poles, of course, are an individual decision based on knowing yourself and learning from others, like reading this article.
Mountain Hiking is Not Always “A Walk in the Park”
This popular saying means it’s extremely easy. And that’s exactly what I think of when I say: “Compared to mountain hiking on a steep, rocky trail with roots, logs and other obstacles, walking on a flat dirt mountain trail on a gradual incline is a ‘walk in the park.’ ”
In many flat, or even “hilly” county or city parks, where the trails are flat dirt or pavement, you certainly don’t need hiking poles or hiking boots. Although you might see people wearing boots, you almost never see someone with poles.
When you get into the mountains, trails can be flat, soft dirt on gradual inclines. These are a “walk in the park” and poles are just as unnecessary. But mountain trails are also in the “mountains” and trails are often steep and laden with obstacles and steps, being either straight up or down steep slopes or on switchbacks. And in these cases, one has to regularly step on and over rocks, tree roots and logs─and constantly at different angles. It’s no “walk in the park” in these cases. That’s when many people say that poles are needed, although many still use their poles when the trail is easy, mainly out of habit, I am sure. I have seen many people, though, tie their poles to their packs on easy trail sections. Or they might carry them in their hands without using them. At least these people realize that poles are not always useful, but often in the way.
As I mentioned above, some people with physical ailments or of older age do need poles. But for those who are healthy and in fairly good condition─especially if you are young─my bottom-line opinion is: definitely, don’t start using them. If you are a beginning mountain-hiker, consider that now is the time to start training your body to be a better hiker, and in my opinion, that is best accomplished without poles.
It Might be Too Late; Are Your Poles Now Crutches?
If you are already using poles, it might be too late to stop using them. In other words, you’ve got to the point where you can’t hike without them. If you are young and have already been using poles for years, I suggest you put them away. But be careful, you might already be too dependent on poles to hike comfortably without them. So, take it slow.
Poles might fool you into thinking that they are helping you right away, which they might be—in the short run. But in the long run, they might not be good for you. Developing good balance and strength is a slow process and mountain hiking is like any other physical endeavour; You must develop these attributes through time with training and practice. Hiking poles are not a shortcut to long-term goals of developing these attributes; They just make you think they are.
I never criticize anyone who uses them, because I don’t know if they have a physical need to use them, and it’s also not polite, nor is it my concern. But when I see groups where almost everyone is using poles, I am sure that they don’t all have physical problems that require them. The great majority of people I’ve hiked with in a hiking club are very healthy people and most have hiked a lot of miles and are strong hikers.
At times, I even wonder if the reason they use them is because they’ve been using them for so long that they now need them—or think they need them. But many of these pole-hikers aren’t that agile when it comes to going up and down steep, rocky trails. In fact, many are slow and awkward in these situations, and I blame it on the poles in almost every case.
Some might say: “If everyone is using poles, then maybe they are needed. Why should we listen to you?” The fact that everyone is doing something, even if it’s just the majority, is not a good reason to do something. Just look around at society. Continue reading here, and then go hiking and find out for yourself.
My Years of Mountain Hiking Without Poles
I started hiking and backpacking over 50 years ago when I was 20. For several years, backpacking was all I did in the warm months. I put in a lot of miles in the high mountains of the Sierra Nevada in California.
I also hiked and lived in the high mountains of Colorado for 13 years. Hiking at high elevations in the Sierras and the Rockies is lots of steep climbing, often on narrow rocky trails going over 10- to 12,000-foot passes. When I came to the southern Appalachians in North Carolina in 2007, where I’ve hiked for most of the last 15 summers, I was introduced to a different mountain environment that has many steep trails, but all at a much lower elevation then in the mountains out west.
And all this mountain hiking was done without poles─“in the good old days.” One thing I am certain of─beyond any doubt─based on my experience: Poles are desirable by many, but the idea that they are necessary for all is ludicrous. I do believe that if you want to be a great hiker, and you are relatively young and in good condition, that poles will be, in the long run, detrimental to developing good leg strength and balance.
But the real proof I offer is that I am 73 and go up and down steep, rocky and difficult trails many times faster and with greater ease than most people who are 10 to 20 years younger who have poles. It’s the poles that slow many of them down. The younger ones are faster on easy areas, but I’m no slouch.
How Long Have Hiking Poles Been Around?
Back in the 70s and 80s, hiking poles still did not exist that I knew of. I do know that throughout history, a hiking “stick” (also known as a staff) has been used by many around the world. A stick/staff is generally around one’s own height or more. In my backpacking youth, I and my friends would hike with a stick at times, but only if we found one suitable and only for a little while─just for fun, really. I never found them useful. And we crossed rivers and streams often carrying heavy packs and without poles or sticks (we did wear old tennis shoes we packed for fishing, tying our boots onto our packs to keep them dry).
I started to see hiking poles in the 90s when I lived in Colorado, but they were rare. When I came to the southern Appalachians in the early 2000s, I saw people using them all the time. It was rare that I saw even serious hikers without them, although I ran into lots of people (tourists, generally) who, visiting an area, would just park their car near a trailhead and walk in for a ways─without poles and in their street shoes or sandals. In fact, I still see this all the time.
Later, I joined a hiking club and some Meetup groups and hiked with groups for many summers. I noticed the use of poles increasing more and more, especially among the “younger” old people, who might be in their late 50s or 60s (much younger people rarely hiked with us “old” people). In that group, it’s closer to 100 percent pole use. But to this day I have never used them, and I feel great hiking without them. Plus, I like my hands free.
The problem is that poles have been around for so long (20 to 30 years) that I believe many of the more “experienced” hikers have them because someone else told them that they need them, and they passed that belief on to the next generation. When I started hiking, no one used poles, so there was no one around to tell me I needed them (I doubt I would have listened to them anyway).
How Long Have “Humans” Been Hiking Without Poles?
Humans’ prehistoric ancestors on the evolutionary scale started hiking without poles when they first came out of the trees a few million years ago and started walking on the ground. These “pre-humans” first started walking hunched over similar to how modern apes walk. In other words, they were “knuckle-draggers.” That proceeded to evolve from having long arms and dragging their knuckles on the ground, to standing more upright. As time passed over a few million years to modern humans, who today stands upright when walking, the arms didn’t evolve and get longer so they would continue to touch the ground. Arms got further and further from the ground to where we are today…until poles came along,
So, the answer to the subtitle question is that hominids (pre-humans) have been walking around as their only mode of transportation for a few million years, and there is no evidence of the use of two hiking poles to get around.
We started out as knuckle draggers with arms used like hiking poles. Now people say you need hiking poles. Are we now going backwards in evolution?
So why do so many people use them like they are essential?
Why Do People Use Poles?
As mentioned above, people who started mountain hiking in recent years are generally told by others─who often appear to be experienced─that you need poles, although many of the people who say that are selling hiking poles and, consequently, they tell you they are necessary. I also believe that most of these salespeople sincerely believe you do need them. But in my mind, to say that poles are necessary is pure garbage. They might be necessary for some, but not for most.
Plus, if you join a club or Meetup group, I can guarantee that almost all the members will tell you that you must have poles and then when you hike with the club, almost everyone will hike with them. It’s called peer pressure.
I also see hike leaders often comment in their online announcements about an upcoming hike that poles are either “highly recommended” or “necessary.” I cringe when I read that. Are they trying to scare you? Or are they too someone who needs poles?
Of course, for those who have been hiking with poles since they started mountain hiking, maybe they are necessary. I’ve done many hikes where these remarks were made by the leaders, and when I do the hike, I never found they were “needed.” What they mean is, for those who do need them for a physical condition, or for those who have never hiked “difficult” terrain without poles, poles are necessary. But for those, like myself, who have never hiked with poles, they are not necessary.
I wonder how many people started hiking with poles and don’t know what it’s like to hike without them. I also wonder how many are so use to them that they really believe that they do need them─and feel weaker when they don’t have them. In other words, they’ve become crutches.
Do Some People Need Poles?
Of course. I once had a very strong hiker (in his 80s) say to me that I still have good balance and don’t use poles. My answer was simple: “I’ve never used them.” The conversation ended there. He was a good, strong hiker with 30-plus years’ experience. But he had terrible balance and was concerned about falling in some situations─even with his poles. The thought that he had damaged his natural balance by using poles for many years went through my mind, but there could be other reasons that I am not aware of, so I don’t dwell on it. (After all, he was a bit older, in his 80s, and might have other problems requiring poles, and I might be there myself one day when I get to his age). This is someone who uses poles because they are necessary.
I’ve also hiked with people who have had hip replacements (sometimes both hips) or other problems, like bad knees. It’s obvious these people need poles. I must admit that all the people I met who had those conditions were strong-willed people who were not going to let anyone or anything keep them from hiking in the mountains, and I never heard one of them complain. These people are remarkable in my opinion. It’s obvious that poles are not only helping them achieve their goals, but they are also necessary.
But I do have my opinions on healthy people using poles (especially healthy, young people), and because poles have become so common, I have given great thought to the advantages and disadvantages of using poles.
Are Hiking Poles Really Beneficial?
Obviously, healthy people who use poles are convinced they are beneficial. But are they? How, one might ask, can they possibly be harmful?
An example of their use might be instructive. A couple of years back, I went on a 9-mile loop-hike with nine other hikers (men and women all over 50, many in their 60s, and me at 70). I was the only one without poles. There was an elevation gain of about 900 feet. On the loop we hiked up and down about 8-plus miles on a long, gradual, and relatively easy ascent to the highest point. We then descended back to the beginning of the hike in about a half mile. In other words, most of the final section was very steep downhill on a rocky and rough trail with switchbacks, all in the woods.
Everyone was in rather good shape and hiked at a good pace on the long gradual ascent, where it was mainly a soft woodsy, well-worn flat trail that was easily hiked (in fact, most of it was a “walk in the park”). The hikers didn’t seem to use poles like they are necessary on this part of the hike. Most of the time, they just walk with them in a cadence with their arms and legs moving, placing one pole on the ground, alternating with the other arm and pole. Sometimes, someone might even carry both poles in one hand for a short spell on the casual, flat dirt trail. On a trail like that, they really do appear to be useless, and I wonder why even carry them in that situation, although I have seen people at other times tie their poles to their packs for the easier sections.
I personally like my hands free, and they move around like they always have ever since I took my first steps as an infant (although I honestly can’t remember), helping me balance my body as I move. That’s the natural use of hands and arms while walking; helping your balance. Everyone walks with this same natural rhythm; arms straight down, swinging forward and back in a natural cadence.
Even in the gradual ascent where there were periodic stair-like steps on rocks, I saw people putting their weight on one pole to help lift themselves up to a higher step. But people with poles often hesitate on stepping up if there is a big step or anything tricky, deciding where best to put the pole on the ground, because such steps are always made of rock or some other object, like a root. Consequently, they slow down a bit going uphill. To me, using poles like this is ridiculous, because I see it with people who are good, strong hikers when they are going uphill on a trail. In other words, they have the strength to step up without the poles, but they use the poles anyway. I wonder if they subconsciously justify their use by doing so, because what they are really doing is not training their legs to be stronger when stepping up.
Descending With Poles on a Steep Trail Can Be Painful to Watch
It is in descending a rocky mountain trail that makes me really wonder about any advantage of poles. In fact, this is where I see a real disadvantage. In much of the final descent on the hike, you had to step down from rock to rock, sometimes about a foot or a foot and a half, and often at weird angles.
I watched as others in front of me, with poles, would sometimes stand and pause for a bit to look at the step and study it. Then they would carefully place their two poles in front of them on the surface of a rock, or near it, on what they judged to be solid grounding. Then they would lean out over them, putting much, if not most, of their weight on their poles, and step down, then repeat this action for the next step…and do so on most of the descent. The amount of time spent on taking one step was phenomenal. When I see this I wonder if these people never learned how to descend steep rocky trails like this without poles—that maybe they think this is the only way to hike down them.
I have watched this many, many times, done exactly in this manner, and every time, I cringe. When hikers do this, those behind them must wait until that hiker had stepped down and then it was their turn. A short line would then form. I was always waiting for the people in front of me when they were pole-hikers. It’s like waiting in a long line to use the bathroom because there’s only one toilet. On this particular hike, I was near the end with one person behind me. I kept looking back to see how they were doing, as they were always a little way back, moving slowly with their poles down the “steps.” That person was stepping down just like the one I described.
Walking Naturally You Connect to the Ground with Two Points; With Poles It’s Four Points
The problem is that when a hiker with poles is ready to make a steep step down, instead of using their body’s leg strength and natural balancing ability, they use the poles. When they walk without poles, they only have to find two points to connect to the ground: their two legs. With poles, they have to find four points, and two of those points are going to take some of the body’s weight, even most of it at times. This is one way that causes them to go slower.
All our lives, we learn to walk with two contact points to the ground. Then poles come along and make it four. You couldn’t design a more confusing way to screw up the walking and balancing habits that come from walking and from evolution. At some point, the body can’t go back to the normal way of walking; it’s too late.
Our Natural Way of Walking
When we all take a step─regardless of the terrain─for a few seconds all the body’s weight is on one foot. For someone like me, who is 170 pounds, all that weight (plus what I am wearing and carrying) is on that area that is the sole of the shoe, which is about half a square foot (in other words 340 pounds per square foot is placed on one foot). That’s an incredible amount of pressure on a very small area. When one foot is planted on the ground, that amount of weight is powerfully connected to the earth and chances of it slipping are minimized with that connection (just imagine placing a 170-pound, one half square-foot, lead weight on the ground and try moving it). And when the soles are solid like Vibram soles, the connection is even stronger, hence, the importance of good hiking boots. It’s not going to slip easily.
When people cross a stream, they are often hesitant to step on rocks because they might be slippery. I wish people would test this out in reality, instead of just thinking that or hearing that from others. It’s generally not the case. Rocks can be slippery, but hikers need learn how to recognize that. And when all your body weight is on one rock, that’s a lot of weight and the connection to that rock is massive (170 pounds in my case). When you put some of your weight on poles, you lessen that connection, making it more liable to slip. Poles, might be helpful when crossing water, but most people who always use poles will never know that they aren’t always the best method, because that’s all they’ve ever done.
When I watch people with poles cross a stream, I always witness a bit of concern, even fear, as they look for a path, wondering where to put their foot and their poles. Since they might never have crossed a stream without poles, they never get to learn when rocks are slippery. Water cascading over rocks is often slippery, but on a stream with rocks scattered across it, they generally aren’t, and when you step on top of a rock smaller about the size of your foot, the chance of slipping is tiny. Why? Because you are putting your body weight on it and that weight grabs that rock with a very strong connection.
I, hiking without poles, generally cross streams many times faster than people with poles, who generally slow down and spend lots of time trying to figure out how to cross. They should get some old boots that can get wet and practice crossing to see. Of course, if their balance is already damaged from years of using poles, it could be too late.
One thing I do if my foot gets in the water is to move quickly, keep crossing and get out of the water. High boots, if waterproof, barely get any water in them, unless it’s real deep. Others, with poles, often stop while their foot is in the water and try to figure out the next step. It’s the worst thing they can do. Of course, the best way, if you know you are going to cross water, is to carry cheap sandals or tennis shoes, take your boots and socks off, and just walk across. If you move slowly and plant each foot carefully, poles are not needed. I use to carry old tennis shoes for standing in the water while fishing. I’ve never had a serious fall.
I can see some advantage to taking poles with you if you know there will be difficult stream crossings, but I personally would not. There have been a few times I have come to crossings where I had no extra shoes with me. In those cases, I have taken my boots (and socks) off and either tied them to my pack or carried them, and then crossed barefoot, stepping carefully. It’s easier done than people think. Most are just nervous. But, after all, it is just water.
The Body’s Center of Gravity
In normal walking and standing, our center of gravity is in the lower abdomen, just below the navel and several inches under the skin (walk around thinking about it and you will feel it). Balanced and controlled walking is keeping the center of gravity in that low spot on the body. If a walker is carrying something heavy (like a backpack), then the center of gravity is higher, making the body less stable than without that extra weight. Consequently, the body learns how to compensate. But if the added weight is too high or too far away from the body, the body will compensate by leaning forward, in a slouch. So, it’s critical that backpack weight be close to the body, so the body maintains an erect, stable posture.
How Poles Move Your Center of Gravity
When someone uses hiking poles, the poles have changed the body’s center of gravity. That means that instead of the weight passing down through the body’s natural center of gravity in the lower abdomen through one’s legs, they’ve raised the center of gravity and balance higher in the body because the poles are attached to the arms which are attached to the shoulders. Plus, by putting weight on the poles, the center of gravity has moved away from center of the body, towards the area where the poles are planted on the ground. All this makes the body more unstable and more liable for slipping or falling, but what it really does is confuse the body. Consequently, pole-hikers slow down out of a subconscious concern for safety. It’s actually the body intuitively compensating to slow down and be careful.
This becomes obvious when you watch a pole hiker step up or down, especially in stepping down on a rocky, steep trail.
This is a totally unnatural act that the body is not designed for, nor is it used to doing (unless you’ve been using poles forever). If the hiker has a heavy backpack on, the situation gets worse since the center of gravity is already raised higher in the body, and the hiker must slow down even more to compensate.
In summation, what the use of the poles is doing when the body is going up or down steep trails is totally confuse what the body has learned and developed since the first steps were taken as an infant. After a while, the body might lose forever what has taken many years to learn, along with millions of years of evolution,
Poles Weaken the Body’s Connection to the Ground
The hiker has also taken some weight off their boots/shoes, which again increases the chances of slipping or twisting a foot. Instead of, in my case, 170 pounds contacting the earth at one connection point, the strength of that connection is now reduced by possibly the majority of your weight─and it’s been transferred to a higher position, making it even more out of balance.
Consequently, every time someone puts weight on their poles, they’ve raised their center of gravity, and moved it away from the center of the body. Plus, they’ve weakened their connection with the earth through their boots. This all puts them in a more precarious and weaker position, not only causing them to slow down, but to constantly rethink and re-evaluate their weight distribution in an unnatural way. This doesn’t matter so much on the walk-in-the-park trails, but it becomes extremely important on steep, rocky sections, especially going downhill.
To see this, all one must do is watch a hiker with poles go up or down a steep trail, which has rocks, roots, and other obstacles to step over and on. They calculate every step, constantly shifting their weight between the four points where they connect to the earth. It’s almost painful to watch, especially knowing that they don’t need to hike like that.
If the hiker is wearing boots, this effect is minimized, but if they are wearing glorified tennis shoes, the situation is even worse─because their ankle can twist sideways. Ankle-high boots lessen the chance of that happening.
Therefore, my advice to people who hike down a steep trail while depending on the use of their poles to help their balance is: You better slow down, because you have increased the possibility of falling. But in a way, if you are using your poles for balance, you are already moving slowly on steep trails, because your body and mind are subconsciously telling you to do so.
Watching pole-hikers, I’ve never witnessed a bad accident─just little mishaps and struggles─but every time I wonder what would happen if someone slipped on a step-down like this on a steep hill. Their hands are full so there’s no way for them to immediately extend out and help their balance, block their fall, or grab a small tree or branch to help. And they move down the hill very slowly in these conditions. I generally have to stop, watch, and wait, as I sometimes hike at the end of a group. (Sometimes, if the leader doesn’t mind, I will just go ahead and walk downhill on steep trails in the front, and before long, I am way ahead of the whole group. Some leaders, for some weird reason, frown on this.)
But the alarming thing that bothers me is what happened to our natural way of walking, which has developed ever since our ancestors came out of the trees a few million years ago? Homo Sapiens is an incredible species, which walks upright and has walked the entire earth in every scenario and been extremely successful in going everywhere. But we have now been reduced to this type of walking in the last 20-30 years?
Stepping Up and Down Without Poles
Me, without poles, I just walk and step down, using my natural balance and my leg strength to control my descent, often putting my arms out, unconsciously, to maintain my balance, or sometimes to grab a thin tree trunk to help. But that’s only for speed, I never need a tree or limb to help me climb up or down. I move quickly and easily as I descend a trail. In fact, I am completely comfortable and confident in my balance and strength working together.
I also never break my cadence going up or down as I hike on and over rocks and other obstacles. I never─and I mean never─stop and analyze a step up or down. I just walk up and down. I go uphill and downhill so much quicker and easier than those with poles that I am confused every time why people use poles.
The New Normal in Mountain Hiking
Since it’s become the norm that in group hikes almost everyone uses poles, then how pole-hikers use their poles going up and down more difficult steeper trails is all that anyone sees. It’s become the new normal. That all reinforces the belief that poles are necessary. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.
I wonder if, when someone like me comes along without poles, some are baffled that I don’t need them. Maybe they think I was born with some natural balance. Beyond having the good luck of being healthy, along with the natural ability to walk that most everyone is born with, I never had any special athletic abilities (I was a swimmer). I guess I just didn’t know any better as there was no one around when I started hiking to tell me I needed poles. If I’d known, I could have been using poles all these years, screwing up my natural balance all this time. I guess I missed out.
Not everyone with poles is so clumsy and awkward in stepping down as I described above; some are quicker and more graceful, and most have obviously gotten use to their poles and hike up and down steps with confidence, although they never move as quickly as I do without them. But they still use four points to connect with the earth, constantly shifting their center of gravity.
With some people, when they are stepping down with poles, I even see a little bit of fear and doubt in many of their steps. I wonder how they would manage such hiking without poles, that maybe they are now crutches.
I wonder if people new to hiking who are using poles─because someone told them they were necessary─learn how to use them by watching how others use poles to step up and down. In other words, how many people never learned how to hike without poles? If you always held an infant’s hand when they were first learning to stand up and walk, but never let go of their hand so they could learn to walk on their own, how long will it take them to walk on their own?
It’s all About Balance ─ or is It?
I have no problems with my knees, my feet, my hips, or my legs. I’m lucky in many respects because I started hiking on serious mountain trails without poles at a young age. I have great balance and I attribute a lot of that to no poles. My belief, in general, is that many people are slowly damaging their natural ability to balance by using poles. But there’s more to it than just balance.
Searching the internet, you can find other hikers who’ve written about the benefits of using poles, but it’s rare to find those who write about the disadvantages, possibly because almost everyone uses them, including the writers. Most of those promoting them talk about how they reduce strain on hips, knees and ankles and can help on balance. Some even comment that they are good for your back. Ironically, I say the exact opposite. Poles help cause these problems over the long run.
Without poles you help develop strength in these areas, especially developing your natural balance. Of course, if you are young, you’re more likely to develop strong joints, leg muscles and balance.
As for your back, I believe most back problems have to do with posture more than any other single factor (except for accidents, too much sitting and bad lifting practices), and I don’t see any benefit how poles help in posture. They most likely are detrimental to good posture, because we were not born with poles attached to our hands. We evolved and grew up from infancy to walk without aids, using our natural balance with our arms swinging by our sides in a steady cadence.
To constantly hold poles with your hands in front of you is more than likely going to cause you to hold your shoulders forward, which is very bad posture. Most people have poor posture, and you can see it as people age. They slump over─because they’ve been slowly slumping over all their lives. (If you want to help your posture, study and learn about the Alexander Technique.)
Balance, Leg Muscles and Knees
Balance while hiking in the mountains to me is leg muscles combining with your arms to create a natural balance using your whole body. I see myself at times throwing my arms out automatically and subconsciously, even in extreme ways at times, as I move up and down and left and right. After 70-plus years, it’s become unconscious movements on the trail.
But there is one other important aspect of mountain hiking besides balance, and that is leg strength. The leg muscles are the strongest and largest muscles of the human body, and being able to step up on your own requires leg strength. Many trails have lots of rocks, logs, and roots to step over and around. The real problems with balance are when you have to really step up, like in a stair step from one level to another, often stepping up a foot or more onto a rock.
In a building, the maximum height for a stair step by code is 8 inches, but a 12-inch, or even an 18-inch, step on a rocky trail is not uncommon. It takes a lot more leg muscles to step up that high than a normal stairway. And it takes even more muscle to step down that far in a controlled manner, and this is where the leg muscles are extremely important for maintaining your balance.
When you step down, especially on a tall step, if you don’t control your step so that you gently reach the bottom, then you will put pressure on your knee joints because in a sense you are jumping down. When you use the leg strength of the upper leg to slow your descent, then there is no “jump” because the muscle in the upper leg gives you a controlled descent.
Where the knee joint suffers is by an impact that is fast and sudden, and when this is done over and over, you cause joint pain. When you walk down stairs, the short steps (at a maximum of 8-inch height), are low enough that you never “fall” to the next step, you just step with control to the lower level. But with taller steps, your leg strength becomes critical to a controlled descent-and you need develop that leg strength, otherwise the muscles atrophy.
People might think that hiking poles can be helpful. Maybe, but are they really? Strong leg muscles are major in controlling your balance while stepping up or down. When stepping using your poles you are not developing your leg muscles in a normal healthy way in coordination with your natural balance. It’s more than likely that you are going to suffer from future problems with balance because of years of hiking-pole use.
Hiking Boots Are Critical to Mountain Hiking
If all the mountain hiking was on soft, flat dirt trails on gradual slopes, tennis shoes, even sandals, are good enough. My observations are that poles are a complete waste on such trails. But when hiking moves onto trails that are less “like a walk in the park,” but are steep and filled with obstacles like rocks and roots, good hiking boots are essential and if someone is going to hike without poles, I believe good ankle-high boots are essential for developing strength, balance and agility, along with safety without having to rely on poles.
And… the Final Word On Poles
So, what do I conclude about the use of poles? If you are young and have no physical problems, then I strongly advise you not to start using them. If you already have been using them, it might be too late, but youth adapts more easily than older people, so you can probably get your body acting in a more balanced and coordinated fashion by discarding poles. But remember it takes time to develop your body for any physical endeavour; It’s just easier when young.
Since almost everyone today tells people that hiking poles are necessary, people believe them─and those who tell you that probably started using them for the same reason: others told them they need them. On top of that, outdoor stores like selling things and hiking-pole companies promote them. I mean, how many things in life do people do because everyone else is doing it? For older people, poles might be your best option. But, depending on your age and health, don’t let anyone─unless you have some physical limitations─tell you they are necessary.
But the final decision is up to each person, especially for older hikers. Poles might be the tool to enable you to hike in the mountains. If so, go for it. After all, we might all need them, including me, in old age if we want to continue mountain hiking. But let’s not call them necessary for all. I personally want to encourage younger people to learn to hike in the mountains without poles, because you will develop better strength and balance in the long run. Do you really want to never learn how to hike without poles? And don’t forget good ankle-high hiking boots.
A Bit of Human History and Walking — Are We Going Backwards in Evolution?
At the beginning of this article, I mentioned that there is no evidence that humans, which includes Native Americans and their prehistoric ancestors, ever came up with the idea of hiking poles and that was after a few hundred thousand years of walking everywhere. I find it hard to believe that in the last 20-30 years they have become necessary, or even advisable. And to suggest they are a modern invention, well, hiking poles from trees were everywhere waiting to be invented, but they weren’t.
And people are now saying we need them?
I read one internet article where an “experienced” hiker wrote about how to use poles. He wrote that you use them pointing forward going downhill to take some of the strain off your legs and put it on your arms. And when going uphill you should use them pointing backward to help you move up a hill.
After tens of thousands of years of humans walking everywhere, especially in the Americas where there were no horses, this is what man has come to? Native Americans were going up and down mountains in the east, in the high Rockies and in the High Sierras in the west. It was their only form of transportation. And now we humans must use poles to help us walk?
Nope. I don’t buy it. That is not progress. My best reason why poles are now popular? It’s mass hysteria, and the key word here is “popular.” Let’s first learn how to hike in the mountains without poles. If after that, if you are still in good physical condition, you decide to try poles, then give it ago. But I bet you will get rid of them after your first hike with them. If I get old and feeble, maybe I’ll get them, but right now, in my mid-seventies, I can walk up and down steep, rocky mountain trails faster than the average day-hiker with poles, and with ease.
And only try on boots at the end of the day because your feet expand all day. Then take them home and wear them on indoor floors only for a few hours. If not good, return them and find a pair that fit and try again. And if boots are too big, but the next size up is way too big, then get sole inserts and experiment with them, along with more layers of socks on the larger foot (one foot is often larger than the other, and left and right boots aren’t always the exact same size).
Downhill Hiking with Poles
If I were leading this hike, knowing that everyone used poles, I would have done the steep part in the beginning, because going downhill on steep rocky hikes is more dangerous, harder, and slower for people using poles. Uphill is much safer, easier, and quicker for pole-users. Doing a long easy hike at the end is smarter than doing the downhill hard part at the end, when everyone is tired. For me, though, without poles, it doesn’t matter at all. But part of the benefit of the hike is hiking many miles until you reach the top with a great view, like desert at the end of a meal. In that respect, hiking the steep part at the end can be the way to go.
Native American Indian Hiking Poles?
And to anyone who says that modern science and aluminum has brought lightweight hiking poles to society: Well, that’s just plain stupid. What is shown here is a pole with a leather strap attached at the handle end. It could have easily been used as a hiking pole, but it’s a stick used in a Native American game. If they’d wanted to make hiking poles, they could have easily made them. Native Americans had skills.
I mean, really?