Poles are an interesting piece of hiking equipment: many love them and many hate them. There is often little space in between. Following is a presentation of most of the CON arguments, accompanied by critical evaluations (rebuttals).
Con Argument #1—Becoming Dependent
Being a mountain traveler certainly means you need to have a sense of balance. The more technical the terrain the more honed that balance needs to be. Being regularly dependent on poles or ice axe simply equates to a need for dependence on those tools. You will without question be able to tell the best snow climbers by the limited use of the ice axe or other tools for ascent. Stay in shape, don't carry too much in the old pack and don't lean on stuff.
—Roger Beckett, firstname.lastname@example.org
Rebuttal: I agree with the basic points of this critique: that depending on poles too much can reduce the sense of balance and that a well-developed natural sense of balance is very important. However, there are a number of ways to maintain (develop) a good sense of balance: special balance exercises, walking a lot on uneven ground with or without a pack, with or without poles. I find that trail running without poles is a good way to hone my balance skills. It is also good to put the poles away at times, especially in brushy areas or in more technical terrain. No one advocates using them all the time. Many of us carry collapsible poles and an ice axe. I also agree that it is great to always be in shape, carry a light pack, not pack extra body fat and have good balance, but this isn’t always the reality, especially as we get older. Another strong line of counterargument is that any loss of two-footed stability and balance is offset by substantial gains in four-footed stability and balance. This is especially true for those with heavier packs who do not have the balance and agility of the natural athlete.
Con Argument #2—Poles Get in the Way
Poles get in the way when stopping to complete other tasks (map reading, eating, drinking, peeing, etc.). I like to keep it as simple as possible. Poles are just one more piece of equipment to deal with.
Rebuttal: This argument is similar to saying that one’s pack is another piece of equipment to deal with; it would be simpler without it. Poles have so many uses and advantages (detailed in earlier sections) that they are worth small inconveniences. On a practical level, why be in such a hurry. Taking care of your poles is not a big time waster. One way to ease this problem is to use poles without hand loops or with snap off hand loops.
Con Argument #3—Require More Energy
Poles add extra stress to the upper body and require more energy to swing and place.
Rebuttal: I suspect this line of argument originated when most of the available trekking poles weighed 20-30 ounces per pair and hikers were not so weight conscious. Therefore, one solution to the energy problem is to purchase lightweight poles (e.g., 6-10 ounces for a pair of fixed length, carbon fiber poles). This argument has some weight (pun intended), but the obvious question is whether the extra stress and energy expended in using poles is offset by the reduced stress and energy when using them correctly. In my experience, the tradeoff comes out well in favor of using poles. The overall reduction of stress to the whole body and the increased walking efficiency far outweigh the small increase in stress and energy output caused by swinging the poles (see the “Increased Stamina” argument stated earlier). In addition, the extra stress will strengthen the upper body over time—a plus. In fact, many use poles as a form of body conditioning. Another obvious solution to the upper body stress problem (if it is a problem) is to use them more for balance and stability and less for speed and power.
Con Argument #4—Poles Speed Up Erosion
The tips of poles dig up trails and speed up erosion. Perfectly good trails are being scoured and defaced.
Rebuttal: I have never experienced this, but I suppose it could be true on heavily used trails with soft surfaces. The obvious answer here is either not to use these trails or to use rubber pole tip covers (“paws”). On another line of reasoning, pack animals and heavy boots do the same thing. However, on many lightly used backcountry trails, horse packers and hikers have made these trails easier to follow. Pole users can assist in this process.
Con Argument #5—Awkward to Use
I find poles awkward to use most of the time. I have to continually worry about where I place the tips (along with where to place my feet). They work okay going uphill, but the rest of the time poles are a nuisance.
Rebuttal: First, regarding tip placement, good poling technique recommends keeping them angled back so that the tips are placed close to the rear of the opposite foot. Doing this will mean that one doesn’t worry about placement. If the pole doesn’t get a good set, it is not a big deal. Learning good pole technique results in a fluid and natural motion.
Con Argument #6—It Works Better Without
I like it better without poles; it works better for me without them.
Rebuttal: So? No one is claiming that pole use is mandatory. However, this is basically an emotional argument and not a logical argument. If there are other reasons (besides those given in the previous Con arguments) why it works better without poles, seek out experienced pole users on whom to test your objections before logically concluding what works best.
The above information serves to provide an introduction to a much longer article. The sub-topics listed below are developed in the complete article: Four Wheel Drive—The Case For Trekking Poles.
Arguments in Favor of Trekking Poles
Arguments Against Trekking Poles
Reader Participation: Prioritizing Advantages and Disadvantages
Nordic Walking Techniques
Author’s Experience Using Trekking Poles
Thoughts on Issues Regarding Pole Design
Priorities for Pole Design
Additional Issues for Reflection