HOW TO USE TREKKING POLES 

HOW TO USE TREKKING POLES

Article Summary

QUICK TIPS: DO'S & DON'TS

Trekking pole use for hiking, walking, and backpacking is a given for most experienced outdoor travelers, yet we often see new hikers hesitant to bring them along. Whether it’s a misunderstanding of how they are used, lack of knowledge on their benefits, or simply an ‘I don’t need those’ mindset, we see many hikers choosing to hit the trail without them.

Unfortunately, this is one of the most common mistakes made by beginner backpackers and hikers. Trekking or hiking poles reduce fatigue on your joints, provide additional stability in challenging terrain, and can even be combined with shelters to create multi-purpose use.

Check out our tips below on why you should be using trekking poles, how to use them properly, and when to adapt their set-up for various terrain.

Want to Know How to Use Trekking Poles Correctly?

You're in the right place! In this guide we will be covering the following:

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    The benefits of using trekking poles
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    How to setup your poles correctly
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    How to use trekking poles correctly
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    How to adjust them for different terrains

Do

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    Adjust your poles to the proper length before hiking
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    Use the wrist straps for reducing hand/wrist fatigue
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    Adapt your pole technique to the terrain
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    Know basic maintenance for handling problems on the trail
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    Remember to use the proper tip (carbide for soft soils and rubber for rocky surfaces)

Don't

  • Assume that trekking poles are unnecessary
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    Just ‘set and forget’ the length
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    Be afraid to commit some weight to the poles while hiking - that’s what they are for

Benefits of Using Trekking Poles

If you hope to enjoy your time on the trail for many years and many miles, take a closer look at the benefits found whilst hiking with trekking poles. Using poles early and often may be one of the simplest ways you can extend your body’s ability to hike.

Stability

It’s no secret that the terrain you, often, find yourself hiking through can be rocky, rooty, steep, and uneven. Never ending paths of awkward foot placements make ankle twisting slips and falls very common.

The use of trekking poles, however, greatly increases your steadiness and reduces the likelihood of a bad fall while on the trail. Once you cross your first stream with the aid of trekking poles, you’ll never look back!

Pro Tip: Trekking Pole Maintenance

Wiping down your trekking poles after every trip and clearing the tension adjustments of mud and debris will greatly extend the life of your poles.

Additionally, take the time to learn about your their internal components. Many common problems experienced on the trail, such as a pole section not locking in place, are easy fixes with just a little know-how.

Reduced joint fatigue

When hiking without trekking poles, your feet, legs, and knees take a beating with every step. Just imagine how quickly that impact can add up over the course of many miles. For many, this can result in sore, fatigued joints or debilitating overuse injuries like tendonitis.  

Take advantage of the shock absorption found in most quality hiking poles to help lessen the impact your joints experience while hiking, particularly on downhill sections which can be rough on knees.

mature backpacker on a mountain ridge in hiking tights

More balanced fitness   

If you’ve ever witnessed the toned calves of a thru-hiker, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that consistent hiking will strengthen your legs considerably.  Why not spread the workout to your upper body for full-body fitness?

Distributing some of the impact force from the ground through your poles and the arms holding them, not only minimizes joint fatigue in the legs but, also, helps to build fitness in your arms. The extra boost from pole planting will allow you to move quickly while toning arm muscles.

100% legs = tired feet, ankles, knees

70% legs + 30% arms = less fatigue, better full-body balance

How to Correctly Size Your Trekking Poles

Determining pole length

The length at which you set your hiking poles (if adjustable) will depend on the terrain you plan to hike. Generally, you’ll want to look for a 90° angle formed at your elbow when holding the handle of your trekking poles, tips placed next to your feet. This will provide the ideal support position for hiking, while still maintaining natural movement of your arms.

For lengthy, uphill sections of trail, it is recommended that you shorten the length of your poles (1” to 4” depending on gradient). This results in a more powerful pole plant helping to boost you onward and upward.

Woman hiking in trail of stones

Long, downhill segments require a longer pole height to better aid with stabilization and shock absorption. This small change in the length of your poles can be critical for joint protection when gravity is pulling you down fast.

Proper wrist strap use

Improper strap use is something we, frequently, encounter out on the trail. Here are a few tips to ensure that you are attaching yourself to your trekking poles in the correct manner.

Many hiking pole styles are designed for wrist strap adjustability via a small, removable block located at the top of the handle. Confirm that yours are set properly - wide enough that you can easily slide your hand up through them yet small enough that you still feel slight tension from the strap while holding the handle.

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    Slide your hand up through the strap from behind the pole’s grip
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    Grip the handle of your trekking pole - the strap should now be running down, between your thumb and forefinger into your palm and around the back of your wrist
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    Make sure that there are no extra twists in the strap and that the webbing sits flush against your skin
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    If you let go of the pole it should fall down out of your hand

Techniques for Using Trekking Poles

You may not recognize it at first, but there are, actually, several strategies behind the method and rhythm to which you swing your poles forward. Knowing the differences before you hit the trail will help in determining which may work best for you. Ultimately, your goal should be to develop a rhythm with your hiking poles so that they act and feel like an extension of your body’s natural movement.

A hiker pauses for a rest at a clearing while ascending into the mountains

Where to plant poles

It is commonly recommended to plant trekking poles opposite your forward leg (right pole plant when the left foot is forward and vice versa), providing maximum stability while matching the natural inclination of our arm movement whilst walking. I find it limiting, however, to say that this is how you should always do it.

In fact, I routinely prefer the opposite strategy of placing poles next to the foot with which I am stepping. This method provides greater joint support and helps with propulsion forward.

I, often, find myself switching between the two methods throughout a hike based on my rhythm and the terrain. My point here is that there are a time and place for both methods, with neither being the only ‘right’ way. Keep the below comparison in mind and practice both to determine which works best for you:

Planting trekking pole with...

...Same Leg

...Opposite Leg

Greater propulsion/speed

Better overall stability

Increased joint support

More natural motion

Moving them forward

As you move forward with each solid pole plant, raise your forearm slightly to allow the trekking pole to swing forward ready for its next plant. This should be a subtle, natural movement with the arms and less of a noticeable pickup and throw forward.

  

Terrain Considerations

Stream crossings

Using trekking poles when fording rivers and streams is a great way to add stability to your frame within moving current. Face upstream if the current is strong and maintain a tripod position as you shuffle sideways through the water. Don’t forget to use your poles as a way to probe upcoming rocks or other underwater hazards that may not be visible from above the surface.

Steep terrain

As we mentioned earlier, experienced trekking pole users will alter the length of their poles when hiking straight up or downhill. You will want to set a shorter length for ascending and a longer one for descending. When going uphill, try to incorporate a solid pole plant and arm push to better launch (that is what it feels like when you time it correctly!) yourself over trail obstacles.

When traveling through steep, downhill terrain or rock stairs we, often, find it more comfortable to place our hands on top of the grips. Establish both poles on the lower level before stepping down. This is a great way to reduce impact experienced by your joints when your entire body weight comes crashing down onto the next step.

Winter hike

Snow

One of the best adjustments you can make when using trekking poles in deep snow is to add a large diameter basket near the tip. This prevents the tip from sinking too deep and provides better traction. You may also want to shorten the length of your poles in deep snow.

Rocky surfaces

If you will be hiking over trails that feature long sections of bedrock or consistent boulder hopping, you will benefit from adding rubber feet onto the tips of each pole. Without them, you will find that your pole’s carbide tip frequently slips upon planting your it onto a rocky surface

Additional Hiking Pole Uses

Every good hiker or backpacker knows that the best gear items are those that have multiple uses. Consider these clever ways in which you can, also, incorporate trekking poles.

Shelter support

Trekking poles are a great way to support your tent or tarp each night while backpacking, especially since you will already have them with you on most trips (hopefully, we’ve convinced you of this by now!). This is a popular strategy amongst ultralight backpackers because it eliminates the need to carry folding, aluminum poles designed only for use with a tent. This Stratospire 2, from Tarptent, is a great example of a shelter that incorporates the support of trekking poles.  

Pro Tip: Protect Your Gear

It wouldn’t be much fun to retrieve your nice camping tent from a gear duffel only to find it has been punctured by the sharp tip of your trekking poles, which you stored in the same place.

Make sure that the sharp, carbide tip on your trekking poles is properly covered with a rubber pad before shoving them in with other gear.  

Depth or surface condition testing

Have you ever hopped off a rock without knowing whether the mud in front of you was a negligible ¼ inch deep or a shoe-ruining 6 inches? What about leaping onto a rock while crossing a creek unsure of its stability?

Eliminate the mystery of unknown terrain by probing with your trekking poles. We, commonly, check things like mud or snow depth, rock stability, and even tap logs we’re about to step on in hopes of scaring critters away before our foot is on top of their home.

Emergency splinting

Trekking poles can serve as the critical support necessary for creating a splint commonly used for serious sprains or bone fractures experienced while on the trail. If you’ve ever taken a wilderness first-aid class or read through what you should carry in a first-aid kit while hiking, you’re familiar with the need to sometimes improvise emergency medical supplies in a backcountry setting.

hiking injury

Trekking poles were the most commonly used item for improvising splints during scenarios throughout my training as a Wilderness First Responder.

Bushwacking

Trekking poles are really nice to have when hiking through areas that have dense vegetation or heavy foliage. For some reason, we seem to prefer moving branches and foliage out of our path with poles rather than our faces.

Camera monopod

Any skilled photographer knows the importance of stabilizing the camera for obtaining crisp images worthy of sharing. Consider purchasing a small handle accessory that turns a trekking pole into a convenient monopod for better photos.

Bear awareness

When hiking in bear country, we will routinely tap our hiking poles together for extra noise in hopes of alerting a bear or other large predator that we are coming. This is, particularly, comforting when hiking around blind corners and is a lot less annoying than bear bells.

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About the Author Chris Olson

In addition to his role as an outdoor adventure guide, Chris Olson seeks to share his passion for, and experience in, the great outdoors through writing and photography. He has backpacked, hiked, climbed, kayaked, biked, and skied throughout much of the eastern United States, as well as iconic locations such as Zion National Park, Newfoundland, and Puerto Rico. His passion for fresh air, and beautiful places, reminds us all of the simple joys to be had from spending time outside!

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