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Top 3 hiking pole dilemmas

Award winning travel writer, hiker, and adventurer Stacey Wittig sporting her hiking gear. // photo courtesy of the author.

Award winning travel writer, hiker, and adventurer Stacey Wittig sporting her hiking gear. // photo courtesy of the author.

Why are so many people that spend time on hiking trails so ambivalent about using hiking poles? I often meet a hiker who seems to be struggling with a dilemma about using these devices, even when they know that the hiking pole has been used by serious hikers since prehistoric times.

Why are today’s hikers so conflicted over usage of this apparatus? Here are three causes of the modern hiking pole dilemma I frequently run across:

1. Hikers see hiking poles as “a crutch.” defines a crutch as “anything that serves as a temporary and often inappropriate support, supplement, or substitute.” Well, hiking poles or staffs are kind of like crutches, aren’t they? I appreciate my hiking sticks most on the downhill. By leaning into my hiking poles when the trail leads downward, I transfer weight from my upper body through my shoulders, arms and hands onto the poles. I envision myself as a sure-footed, four-legged creature: my hiking sticks are my forelegs. The beauty of this exercise? I am taking weight off my knees. Knees tend to be the weakest link for most outdoor enthusiasts, so I figure that anytime we can alleviate “wear,” we are extending the shelf life of our knees.


Hiking the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu, Peru, is much easier with a pole. // photo: Stacey Wittig

2. Fear of looking “old.”
The other more common definition of crutch is “a staff or support to assist a lame or infirm person in walking.” Well, in today’s youth-focused society, a cultural stigma exists: we do not want to look lame, infirm or – the worst yet – old. I believe that this is the biggest reason that people avoid using hiking poles – they think “sticks” will make them look old.

3. Misguided worry that the pole may “get in the way”
Another objection I hear is that a hiking pole seems like just another gadget that will get in the way. I’ve heard hikers often complain that a pole “will distract me from my hiking experience.” Let me ask you this, when you are on a Sunday drive in the country, does your steering wheel distract you from the scenery? Probably not. Using a hiking stick is like driving a car. Once you learn how (which should only take a couple of hikes) it becomes second nature. Hiking poles will become part of the rhythm of your gait.

I can still hear the clop, clop, clop of poles hitting ancient bricks along El Camino de Santiago in northern Spain. It’s the sound of pilgrimage, the sound of movement. Many times the arc of your arms swinging the poles will actually set the pace of your hike and give you greater momentum. I have been using hiking poles on and off for the past twenty years. I started using just one (the mono pole method) but in the past five years have evolved to using two. Technically, poles force me into a better walking posture, give me a more full-body workout and help move me along at a faster pace. Most long-distance trekkers would not begin a hike without their hiking sticks.

Some hikers prefer two poles. // photo: Stacey Wittig

Some hikers prefer two poles. // photo: Stacey Wittig

What do you think? Do you use hiking poles? If not, are you ready to try? Leave your comments below.

Stacey “Vagabonding Lulu” is an Arizona travel writer based in Flagstaff, AZ. Learn more about her adventures at


One Comment

  1. I remember back in the Spring of 1993 acquiring my first set of Leki poles preparing for the John Muir Trail. I had seen them advertised in “Backpacker” and considering some of the endorsements, I decided they would likely aid my journey due to a major knee reconstruction following a motorcycle accident in 1981. Packing a 67-75 pound pack, I knew I would need all the aid I could muster and the use of poles just made logical sense. Reason for the pack weight was because we were only able to arrange one cache drop of our food so I in essence became the proverbial mule. Not only did the poles make the trip much more enjoyable and more pain-free, the stability they offered on steep descents made for much more sure-footedness and much less stress on the lower back overall. On a somewhat humorous note; I was pointed and laughed at by quite a few fellow backpackers when under the snow line declaring “where’s the best skiing” or “did you forget your skis?” That was 93 and today it’s a rarity to not see several hikers on the trails minus hiking poles. If you are still contemplating the use of poles, you are sincerely cheating yourself and your overall joint health backpacking or merely day hiking. The poles are a common sense answer to our bi-pod instability. Four legged critters are much more sure-footed, so the addition of the poles should honestly be a no brainer. Happy Trails.

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