Got Knee Pain While you Hike? Try Trekking Poles!

Rick Deutsch, "Mr HalfDome" uses trekking poles on his hikesToday I’ve got a real treat for you–a guest post by author and adventure travel afficionado, Rick Deutsch (also known as “Mr. Half Dome”).

Rick has hiked all the way up to the top of Yosemite’s Half Dome over 20 times. He’s been a featured destination speaker on hiking and walking for over 5 different cruise lines.

I’m a big advocate of active weekends, getting outdoors, and enjoying the beautiful surroundings of the Bay Area. We know that walking hills is a great form of exercise. Below Rick tells us about how we can use trekking poles to improve our fitness and our upper body strength during an outdoor hike.


The Bay area has some of the most picturesque hiking trails in the world. The mountains surrounding the Santa Clara Valley offer many opportunities for hikers. Even if you are fit, your knees may cause you problems while hiking. Your treks downhill will test your meddle. There is not a whole lot you can do to strengthen the cartilage in your knees – yet your knees are critical to slowing you down.

Trekking poles can help with balance on hikes“Trekking poles” or “hiking poles” are ski pole-like aids worth your consideration. By using a pair of specialized poles instead of a single walking stick, you’ll feel a sense of increased stability, balance and support for your knees. If you hike without poles, you will notice that blood pools at the ends of your arms giving you “sausage fingers.” This does not occur when using poles because you are pumping blood actively with each step.

The advent of aluminum and composite materials such as carbon fiber allows manufacturers to bring lightweight poles with increased strength to the market. Most poles are less than 8-ounces each. A German company, LEKI, makes adjustable length hiking poles. This simple innovation allows you to use the poles at an optimum length for your height and for the terrain you are traversing. While the pole length is important, the wrist strap is key. By utilizing a wrist strap, your body weight is supported by the strap and not your wrist. This can prevent possible wrist pain after long hours of hiking.

Learning how to use poles optimally is easy, but often not intuitive. Optimal use enables you to achieve the many benefits. These benefits include improved balance, confidence, endurance, posture and upper body strength.

Downhill is where the poles earn their keep. Four “legs” will keep you from slipping, but most importantly the poles will absorb the downhill stoppingenergy. The tips of good poles are carbide steel and will grip into trails. You can also put rubber tips on them to reduce noise or protect sensitive surfaces.

Pole technique is important. The primary benefit during level walking is stability. When going uphill, the poles should be shortened to maintain the 90-degree angle. Keep them behind you and drag them lightly then push the tips into the ground to assist in propelling you forward. You will find that about 5% of the work is transferred from your lower body to your upper body muscles. You will feel a glow first in your triceps – that means they are doing the job. Walk with a reciprocal gait (opposite arm/leg swings) and you will get into a rhythm. I see many people bringing the poles in front of them and tapping them as they walk through them. There’s not much benefit to this technique.

Long hikes with a pack are much easier with poles as they help distribute some of the weight off your back. To go ultra-light, you can use your poles as tent supports and even a fishing rod. They are handy for hanging up wet clothing at the end of a hard day. Trekking poles are also very handy when fording streams. It’s easy to step on rocks while using the poles to securely grab the bottom as you walk across. You can cross a low flowing river while wearing river sandals and facing up stream with the poles in front to maintain balance as you move sideways. An added benefit to poles that is not publicized is that you have some level of protection in case of a run-in with dogs, snakes, spiders and other animals (or bad people). Available attachments include a device for turning your pole into a mono-pod for stable photo

If you are doing a hike that temporarily does not require the poles, they can be telescoped down and put into your backpack or attached with Velcro straps to your fanny pack. This is my method when ascending the Half Dome cables.

Trekking poles have become standard equipment for me whether hauling a pack on the Yosemite High Sierra Camps loop or on a local training hike. If you’re looking to increase your stability and improve your balance while hiking, it might be time to look into a pair of trekking poles!