I went hiking last week. I hiked the Appalachian Trail from Cheshire, Massachusetts to Bennington, Vermont. It was colder than anticipated, rainy with some snow, and because of a gear failure I had to hike out, purchase a replacement, and hike back in to pick up where I left off. In all, I did 41 miles, hiked twice with a headlamp, and managed some (for me) significant elevation changes.
Since I was alone, I had some time to consider a lot of things. I have been hiking with a pack since Boy Scouts in the 1960s and I have seen an equipment revolution. It isn't necessarily that the new gear makes it better. It's that sometimes the new gear is what makes it possible to do it at all.
My first observation is the use of trekking poles. They look like ski poles and are a direct descendant. They became popular about 20 years ago and I first started using them in 2005. Far more useful than a walking stick, they let you get your arms into the actual work. Once they became a thing, they were almost universally adopted. I did not see a single hiker that wasn't using them on this hike.
Trekking poles, once you are used to them, make you into a sort of quadruped. Four points of contact, if you slip, start to fall, the extra balance they provide keeps you upright. More than once, without thinking, I could jam the pole into the dirt, step forward and keep hiking, in situations where a fall seemed inevitable. Crossing streams, the poles can be set anywhere to assist as you move on the rocks.
The poles increase my pace. Not because I am trying to go faster, but because of the factors I mention above. Particularly when descending, instead of holding onto rocks, roots and trees, lowering myself, I could hike upright, setting the pole tips and stepping down, making the travel fluid instead of a series of stops and starts.
There are all sorts of price points and designs. My first set came from Wal-Mart. I only stopped using them because I was given a set of name brand poles for Christmas two years ago. This is a case of a rising tide raising all boats. Even an inexpensive set gives you most of the advantage. The pricey ones are lighter and stronger, have better locking methods for the telescoping sections, and look nicer.
Here's my current set, cropped out of a picture I took of a shelter. I consider them as important as my boots. A game changer in gear.