Take a Load off Your Knees while Hiking Uphill: Use Hiking Poles
Carrying a heavy pack can take a heavy toll on a backpacker's knees, ankles, and hips. Many backpackers believe that hiking poles can make hiking easier and take strain off the knees. Hiking poles are like ski poles that adjust in length. They are commonly used by backpackers in Europe.
Researchers designed this study to test the physical effects of using hiking poles on uphill climbs. Five men and five women, all frequent backpackers, walked for an hour on a treadmill set to a 5% grade. They carried packs that weighed about 30% of their body mass. They were each tested twice, once with and once without poles. Researchers measured heart rate, oxygen consumption, muscle activity, and movements of the trunk and lower limbs.
The results showed that backpackers used longer and fewer strides when using the poles, and they put less stress on their trunk and legs. Using the poles caused the triceps muscles to work harder. And even though pole use increased heart rate slightly, oxygen consumption was the same with or without poles. All participants reported feeling like they were actually working less hard when using poles.
The researchers conclude that using hiking poles for uphill climbs definitely eases the load on the knees and other joints of the legs. They suggest that taking the idea to the mountains might show even better results than simply using a treadmill. This is because the even and steady treadmill doesn't require nearly as much work with the poles as the uneven ground of the backcountry. Pole use might also help backpackers avoid falls, another cause of injuries associated with backpacking.
If you plan to try a pair of hiking poles, make sure the equipment fits. In this study, the poles were set to a length where the elbow was bent at a 90-degree angle when standing straight with the pole touching the ground.
Christopher A. Knight, and Graham E. Caldwell. Muscular and Metabolic Costs of Uphill Backpacking: Are Hiking Poles Beneficial? In Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise. December 2000. Vol. 32. No. 12. Pp. 2093-2101.