Trekking poles are a great investment. They save your knees (and your ass) when going down steep descents. They also can help haul you up the big climbs, give you balance during river crossings and make great pointing out view sticks. Trekking poles really have multiple uses.
But did you know that there is actually a proper way to use them? Nope, neither did I until not long ago.
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Why use hiking poles?
Think of hiking poles as an extra leg (or two). With those extra legs, you get extra stability which allows you to hike faster, safer and for longer distances. Several studies have been conducted that show you trekking poles can reduce the pressure on your knees by up to 25% and allows you to burn 40% extra calories.
Trekking poles can make a huge difference to your hike, if you know how to use them properly.
Good times to use trekking poles
- When you have a heavier backpack on. Hiking poles can help keep you stable, especially on a steep incline or decline.
- If your hike requires stream crossings, trekking poles are great. Having two poles to anchor your way across a series of slippery rocks is invaluable. They are also useful for checking the depth of the water.
- If you are hiking in winter conditions, trekking poles are great for balance on a slippery and snowy trail.
- If you hike in an area with poison ivy, poison oak, nettles, or any other plant you want to avoid, trekking poles provide an easy way to gently push them to side and hike by.
- On steep downhills trekking poles can provide good anchor points to balance against as you hike down.
- Hiking poles are useful for steep uphills.
- If you want to make your hike more of a full body workout, trekking poles can be used to give your upper body a workout as you hike.
- If your hands swell when hiking, using trekking poles will keep the hands closer to the level of the heart, improving blood return to your heart.
- You can use trekking poles as supports for an ultralight shelter. This will save you some weight in your pack.
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The Wrist Strap
It sounds silly, but you can use your wrist strap to prevent your hands aching and/or sprained wrists. It is often overlooked.
To adjust the length of the strap, pull the tension block out. Once the block is removed, you can pull the loose end to tighten the strap, or the upper portion to loosen it. Once the desired size is reached, push the tension block back in.
Put your hand through the appropriate strap from the bottom so it rests nice and snug around your wrist. The strap should be over the back of your hand and untwisted with your thumb over the strap. Then hold onto the grip and top of the strap with your hand. You want it nice and snug so that it helps support the weight of your hand on the pole, but make sure it isn’t difficult to remove or restricts circulation to your hand.
Plus, if you drop your pole it isn’t going to whizz down the hill.
Gripping the Pole
Do not grip the pole as if your life is dependant on it. The trekking pole should be able to rotate forward and back between your thumb and forefinger. If you keep your grip relaxed, it will take little effort to flick the pole forward with each step.
A tight grip on the pole isn’t necessary and can tire your hands and wrists. The only fingers that you should really be using are your thumb and forefinger lightly. You will naturally tighten your grip if you feel yourself slipping or need a point of stability for a moment while walking.
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Adjust the poles so your elbow is at roughly a 90-degree angle when the tip is planted next to your foot. However, you won’t always be walking on nice, even ground. Depending on whether you are hiking uphill or downhill you will need to adjust your pole length accordingly.
If you have 3-section poles, you may find it easier to set the top section at the midway point and then adjust the bottom section to the right length for your terrain. Then when you need to adjust the length, you just need to adjust the top section.
Adjusting your trekking poles according to terrain
- Flat: so that your elbow is at a 90-degree angle
- Uphill: 5-10 centimetres shorter
- Downhill: slightly longer so that you are standing relatively upright holding your poles, about 5 tp 10 centimetres longer
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Walking with your Trekking Poles
There is no definitive right or wrong way to use walking poles but there are ways that can help you use them more effectively.
- Alternate legs: Each pole goes forward when the opposite leg does. This pattern maximizes balance and lets your arms swing the way they do naturally when hiking.
- Parallel legs: Each pole goes forward when the same-side leg does. This pattern provides the most relief to your legs, so use it to minimize leg fatigue and stress as needed.
- Double (or simultaneous) pole: Both poles move forward at the same time. This pattern is useful for stepping up or down, or as a change up.
The most commonly used method
When using trekking poles for walking, each pole moves forward when the opposite leg does. This will help you maintain stability and balance. If you walk with the same side pole and leg you will walk with a swaying gait. Practice at home: If that doesn’t come naturally, give it a practice at home, just simply walk dragging the poles behind you with a natural gait. You should see that you fall into the opposite arm/leg pattern. Then bring the poles up enough so the tips touch the ground with each step.
When stepping up (on a ledge for example), both poles (if you are using two) should move forward at the same time.
Pointers for walking with your trekking poles correctly with the alternate leg movement
- Keep your elbows close to your sides
- With each step, flick the opposite side’s pole foward. The loose grip will help with this.
- You don’t need any forced or exaggerated arm motion, let your arms move naturally.
- There is no need to firmly plant the tip into the ground (unless you are falling). However, bearing down can add a bit of thrust when going uphill or on the level, or be a braking action when you are going downhill.
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Using your trekking poles to burn more calories
There are a few ways that you can use your trekking poles to burn a few more calories as you hike. ‘Coz you know, all those uphills and miles just sometimes isn’t enough…
If you want to add a definite action and get a little upper body work, you can bear down on your hiking pole a bit. This will add resistance in your shoulders and arms.
Bored of the slow pace? Relax your arms and put a little shoulder action into each pole movement with the tip of the pole planting slightly behind your body. You’ll find yourself zooming along.
There is a technique called the swing and drop technique that allows you to boost along. This is where you flick both poles forward with an easy motion, then walking one to four steps forward. Swing the poles forward again at the point you think you can use their stability.
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Using trekking poles when going down hills will help absorb some of the sock with your arms and upper body rather than your knees. They also enable you to move quicker with much less fatigue. For extended descents or hilly terrains, your pole should be a little longer, so that you will be standing upright when you plant the pole in front of you on the slant. You can also loosen the straps or take them off as they can get tighter with the increased angle.
Rather than planting the poles parallel with your body, planting them slightly ahead will give a bit of braking action. Keep your knees soft with small steps and the poles ahead of your body.
For stability going down stairs, place both poles on the next lower step and then step down. Try not to let your poles get behind you.
If the terrain is very steep, icy or muddy, one useful technique is to walk down sideways, ramming the tip of the pole well into the ground and positioning the foot right up to it. Ma and I had to do this on Iron Gate Gorge as it was so steep and slippery going downhill.
- There are times you may need to adjust your poles so that one pole is on the longer side and the other is a bit shorter, such as going down a zig-zag. Having one short and the other one long helps you alternate them at each turn without any need to adjust them constantly.
- Be careful when you plant your poles on rocky and hilly terrains. If the pole slips between two rocks, you may fall or snap the pole if you do not pull it back out straight away. I’ve nearly done this a few times.
Read More: Tips for Hiking in New Zealand
When hiking uphill it’s better to keep the pole is short enough not to pull yourself up the hill but to help push off. This means that the tip of the pole should not be in front of the lead foot, rather keep the poles close to the body. If the tip is too far forward, you will be using your energy pushing the pole downward instead of backwards. Keeping the poles reasonably close to your body will help improve your efficiency as well.
Hiking uphill can be challenging for your legs and lungs. Poles help you to engage the upper body muscles and relieve some of the stress from the legs. It’s all about exerting leverage when you push off with the poles and move up a slope more efficiently.
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Using a Single Trekking Pole
While a pair of trekking poles is more beneficial when you are covering longer distances, one is adequate for a moderate hike. You still get the stability and balance with a single trekking pole but don’t have to think about your coordination. This is a plus for me.
I personally use just one pole and try not to let myself rely too much on it. This makes me feel more comfortable and in control of my body and it’s actions. Plus, I like having a free hand. You can use your free hand to grab your drink/camera/other bits and pieces. Also, as I am a tactile person and like to touch the textures of the bark and trees around me
Read More: How to keep your feet happy on a hike
Using Trekking Poles to Negotiate Obstacles
Trekking poles can be very helpful when you encounter obstacles in the trail.
Stream and river crossings: Trekking poles provide much-needed stability when you need to cross a creek or river. Make sure that the tip is planted securely on the bottom before moving forward. You may need to lengthen your pole if the water is deeps.
Puddles: The fun thing about trekking poles and puddles is ‘pole vaulting’ across. Provided the other side isn’t too slippery of course. You can also use your poles for stability as you manoeuvre around the puddle.
Large rocks: For getting up and over large rocks, poles can give you a helpful push. To do this, plant both poles in the ground and as you step up on the rock, push on the poles to get you all the way onto the rock.
Logs: To step over a log, simply plant the poles in the ground and use them for stability. If you’re walking on a log to get across water, you can use the poles to improve your balance by reaching them out to both sides (picture a tightrope walker using a large pole for balance).
Recommended Hiking Poles
- Cascade Mountain Tech Carbon Fibre Trekking Poles: Lightweight, carbon fibre adjustable trekking poles
- Black Diamond Pro Shock Trekking Poles: double flick locks, lightweight, adjustable trekking poles
- BAFX 2 Pack Anti Shock Trekking Poles: anti shock, budget friendly trekking poles
Read More: Kabuda Trekking Pole Review
Watch the video below for demonstrations on how to use trekking poles properly.
Using trekking poles (or hiking poles) will help your hike, the trick is to use them properly. Once you have got the hang of these bad boys you will be well on your way to zooming uphill and down like a pro. Boom!
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