This is sure to rile people up. From the days of using a stick found on the ground when hiking with your parents, to the latest and greatest carbon poles, things have evolved. Whether to use poles comes down to personal preference and I’m not here to tell you to change what you are doing, I just want to offer a few scenarios and let you choose. In the meantime, as always, consider the activity you are embarking on and plan accordingly.
Short and Fast
True running on non-technical ground rarely necessitates the need for poles. Swinging spears around on narrow trails running 7-8 minute miles is dangerous. Having poles makes it more difficult to access your running pack or quickly retie your laces. You are better off having the full arm swing and watching your surroundings than looking for pole placements. If you do bring poles I recommend getting the lightest available 3-piece poles for easy packability and be mindful of the person behind you! Pro Tip: Some pole handles now come with a detachable hand grip making the gear shuffle that much easier; highly recommended.
Long and Slow
Ready to climb up and over that ridge? This is where trekking poles really shine. Take some weight off the knees, descend more safely, catch a near-fall at the end when you are tired. There is some evidence that poles will lesson the load on your muscles during that 23-mile day and ultimately reduce fatigue. Having good poles makes a difference here. The pole length should allow shortening for ascents and extension on descents, although I am usually too lazy to do that. Pro Tip: If you are very familiar with your preferred pole length you can save a few grams and get poles that are a fixed length, but only do this if you have experimented with collapsable poles at different lengths!
Fast and Hard
Between the above two is where the gray area really exists. Do you want to carry the extra weight? How much running will you actually do? Generally I’ll bring the poles if I’m ascending more than a couple thousand feet, but for flatter terrain I’m aiming to cover more ground by running and leaving the poles. Having a decent running pack for carrying the poles comes in handy. Pro Tip: you will notice that having your hands elevated and fingers exposed that the fingertips will get a bit colder. If you are sensitive to cold this might be another consideration.
On a grade 4 scramble you will want your hands more than poles. Whether you bring poles I guess depends on the approach. Also beware the scree slopes and boulder fields - it is easy to break a pole between rocks. Pole tips will also slip on cold hard rock so when you reach this grade it’s time to put them away.
I have found poles useful on rainy days or early season when jumping large mud holes. Use the trekking poles as a pole vault can be fun and rewarding. The poles will help to find the depth of the mud hole you are considering stepping through. They also help catch yourself on the ice during shoulder seasons
Getting ready for the cross-country ski season is a good time to double-pole up the mountain. It’s not the same as real skiing but I think it helps. The double pole jump is a fun aerobic exercise - uphill is better than down but down his more fun :)