HOW TO USE TREKKING POLES
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 Hiking Poles Correctly?
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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.
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!
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.
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.
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, knees70% legs + 30% arms = less fatigue, better full-body balance
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.
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.
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.
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.
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...
Better overall stability
Increased joint support
More natural motion
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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 backpacking first aid kit, you’re familiar with the need to sometimes improvise emergency medical supplies in a backcountry setting.
Trekking poles were the most commonly used item for improvising splints during scenarios throughout my training as a Wilderness First Responder.
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.
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.
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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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!