Whether in the mountains, on a forest trail, or along the city streets, it is not unusual to see folks trekking along with walking poles in hand. Although they may look similar to ski poles, walking poles come in different styles and designs to suit the needs of consumers.
Thinking about how to use walking poles? They can be used for a number of activities such as Nordic walking, fitness walking, hiking, backpacking, snowshoeing and mountaineering. These days, walking poles have become a trusted companion among outdoor enthusiasts.
You may be a proud user of hiking poles, or are looking to invest in a pair of hiking companions for the first time. Whichever category you may fit in, it is important to understand the ergonomics of your poles and how to use them properly.
Using your hiking poles effectively can ensure that you reap all the positive benefits your hiking companion has to offer. This article outlines a brief history of walking poles, their benefits, factors to consider when investing in poles, how to use your poles effectively, and some hiking pole tips.
What Are Walking Poles?
The use of walking poles have come a long way. The common pole designs we see today are said to have originated in Finland as Nordic walking began to take flight. First, they were introduced in physical education classes by Leena Jääskeläinen in the 1960s as tools to enhance exercises. In the 1970s, cross country skiers began using walking poles to train in the off-season.
In the early 1990s, walking poles gained popularity for exercise and recreation, and have now become widespread across the world. Although they were initially used for fitness and training, walking poles have now taken hold among hikers, backpackers, and mountaineers gearing up for their next adventure.
Whether you call them walking poles, trekking poles or hiking poles, they’ve been ergonomically designed to enhance your trekking experience more than a regular ski pole or hiking stick could offer. Walking poles have three distinct features:
- Adjustability: no matter how tall or short you may be, walking poles can be lengthened or shortened to fit your height. Their adjustability is also an asset for varied terrain. They can help hikers make easier ascents and descents on any outdoor journey.
- Lightweight poles: they are designed with consumers in mind, and instead of being a heavy burden, manufacturers have made walking poles lightweight and durable to ensure that hikers can get the best out of them.
- Hearty tips: hiking poles are usually made of carbide or steel tips which are specially designed for traction on various terrain. They offer a sturdy base for any adventure you make take on a forest trail, rocky headland or snow covered mountain.
Now that you have some background information on walking poles, it’s time to learn about the many ways you can benefit by having walking poles on your next outdoor adventure.
What are the Benefits of Hiking Poles?
Having hiking poles can take a load off your lower body and any weight you might be carrying in a day pack or expedition gear.
They can reduce stress on your hips, legs, knees, ankles and feet, and reduce bodily impacts associated with carrying heavy loads.
Balance and Traction
When trying to cross creeks, streams, rivers or hiking on a downward slope, hiking poles offer extra footing. They can also help you better navigate through mud, snow and loose rock. Through difficult terrain, hiking poles act as another pair of nimble feet which can help prevent unintended swims or unwarranted tumbles. Make sure you have quality-made hiking shoes. See our review of the top hiking shoe brands to make walking a safe activity for you.
Increase Rhythm and Speed
Hiking poles help give you a push forward as you hike, especially on smooth and easy terrain. With the propulsion you get from using hiking poles you can easily set a faster and more consistent pace.
Having hiking poles on more difficult terrain can also boost your speed by adding support on any ascent, descent or waterway crossing. Count your steps! See our review of the top pedometer to keep track of your stride.
With the benefits of weight bearing, balance, rhythm and speed, hiking poles reduce physical stress on your body, allowing you to reserve energy that you would have otherwise expelled without them. You’ll be able to endure longer hikes and backpacking trips with the added support of hiking poles.
Hiking poles not only provide physical benefits to hikers and backpackers, but they are also handy emergency tools. They can help make your shelters sturdier against the elements or act as emergency tent poles. They can be used as splints or act as the carrying apparatus for a stretcher in any first aid emergency. And in the case of an animal attack in the wild, your hiking poles are also a great defence.
Of course, with any piece of outdoor gear there can be disadvantages attached to them as well. For hiking poles, some may argue that they reduce hand functions, can’t always be stored easily, can get caught in rocks or bushes, or they can increase energy expenditure in the arms.
However, given some of the drawbacks, hiking poles offer more positive benefits that make the investment worthwhile. With this in mind, it’s important to find a pair of hiking poles that suit your needs and adventuring lifestyle. The next section will outline the different features of hiking poles to help guide your decision making.
Factors to Consider when Investing in Hiking Poles
Two section telescope
- Durability: Stiff and strong design
- Packability: Not always easy to pack because they are often heavier and longer than other pole designs (even when shrunk down)
- Weight: Since they are made for durability they are slightly heavier than other pole designs
- Best Uses: Snowshoeing, skiing, and more rugged adventures
Three section telescoping
- Durability: Most common pole design purchased but not as rugged or strong as two section poles
- Packability: More compact than two section poles and can be strapped onto backpacks or stowed easily in an average size suitcase
- Weight: Most often lighter than two section poles
- Best Uses: Hiking, trekking, backpacking, mountaineering and climbing
Folding/tent pole style
- Durability: Least durable and many models don’t include removable baskets
- Packability: They are the most compact of the three designs since they can fold down to 7-9 inches shorter than most telescoping poles
- Weight: The lightest pole design (can be 10-14 ounces lighter in weight)
- Best Uses: Good for most climbers, hikers, backpacking trips on trails and medium duty cross country
Pole Adjustment Mechanism
- External lever lock. This clamp-like mechanism is durable and easy to use. With the lever you can make quicker adjustments and even keep your gloves on while doing so.
- Push-button lock. All it takes is the push of a button to adjust the height of your poles. Once you push the button you can pull the poles to lengthen them or push to shorten.
- Twist lock. This style of lock is durable and also retains strength in your poles. However, the expander and screw setup can be more difficult to adjust than the previous mechanisms above. Some poles may have a combination of these adjustment mechanisms.
- Aluminum: although heavier than carbon fibre, aluminum poles offer more durability. They may bend under high stress or impact, but that are rugged enough to withstand breaking. Often, they are the more economical choice as well.
- Carbon fibre: they are built with stiffness and strength but as soon are they’re put under high stress they are more vulnerable to breakage. So be aware if you like to hike in rugged and remote areas, because once they dent or splinter they are done for. Carbon fibre is the lighter alternative to aluminum but they are often the more expensive option.
Although the weight differences between poles may be only ounces, it is important to think about the distances you’ll be traveling with your poles.
For longer distances, it’s good to invest in a lighter pair of poles because reducing any weight can go a long way for any backpacking or mountaineering adventure.
- Cork: as time goes on cork grips mould to the shape of your hands. They are heavier and sweatier than foam grips but cooler than rubber grips since they absorb a bit of moisture. Overall, cork grips are a lighter alternative to rubber grips and are great choice for any trekking activity.
- Rubber: they don’t absorb any moisture and when used for longer distances they can cause chafing from sweaty hands. Rubber gripped poles are good for mountaineering, snowshoeing, skiing and other winter sports. A downfall however, is that they are the heaviest grip material.
- Foam: out of the three materials, foam is the lightest and the softest to hold. They absorb water which does not make them ideal for winter activities. However, for any long, sweaty hikes and backpacking journeys they can help keep your hands cool.
Adjustable straps allow you to change the length of each strap to ensure a comfortable fit. Some hiking poles have padded and lined straps to help prevent chaffing.
Buckle straps are not recommended since they are uncomfortable and do not enhance trekking performance.
Carbide and steel are the common materials used for hiking pole tips. They offer traction on dirt and are effective even on ice. Some poles have concave flex tips which offer more traction and grip while hiking. These pole tips work great on forest trails, rocky terrain and snow.
Rubber tips are a good accessory to have if you’re also using your hiking poles on pavement or indoors. Without rubber tips, your carbide or steel tips will become dull and make a lot of noise when used on pavement.
Larger baskets are better if you plan on trekking through the snow. So if you’re using your poles primarily for winter activities, then large pole baskets are the way to go. Smaller baskets are better for hikes in the woods to avoid getting the baskets caught in roots or foliage.
If you plan on using your poles for a number of activities make sure you find poles with removable baskets and options to switch them out. Be aware that some manufacturers have different diameter holes for their baskets so some brands are not interchangeable with others.
Some poles have an off/on option for the shock absorbers so people can use them only when needed. Shock absorbers are more helpful when going on downward slopes where your body is taking the most impact. They are also nice to have on well-worn trails to keep your pace while lessening the stress on your body.
Shock absorbers are not recommended when using hiking poles aggressively on rocky terrain or during waterway crossings since you need the power and balance to get you through.
How to Use Hiking Poles Effectively
- Add Necessary Accessories
- If the beginning of your trek involves using your poles on pavement, make sure you attach the rubber tip to the end of your pole
- Make sure you take off the rubber grips as soon as you start trekking on dirt, snow or ice to improve traction
- Change the baskets on your pole as needed: larger baskets for activities involving snow and smaller baskets for any forest or trail treks
- Adjust Wrist Straps
- Feed your hands through the bottom of the straps then grab the grips
- Adjust the straps accordingly to ensure your wrist is resting firmly against the strap
- Make sure that your hand cannot easily slip back out of them
- Grip the Handle
- Once you have your wrist straps adjusted, keep a loose grip on the pole handles to avoid muscle tension or wrist strain
- Knuckles should be facing forward
- Adjust Pole Length
- Make sure your hands are on the grips and the tips of the poles are touching the ground
- The best initial setting for your poles is to have your arms bent at a 90-degree angle as a compromise for uphill or downhill terrain
- Undo the adjustment mechanism as you shorten or lengthen and lock back into place once finished
- Assess Terrain
- For extended inclines it’s best to shorten the poles in order to use them for leverage
- For extended descents lengthen the poles for added support (lengthen them just long enough so you don’t have to lean over into them)
- Work on Technique
- Flat terrain with some slight incline/decline
- For whichever foot you step with, the opposite pole should come forward. As you step your right foot forward the left pole should swing and touch the ground. As you step your left foot forward the right pole should swing and touch the ground. Once you have this rhythm locked and loaded you’ll be propelling yourself with ease
- Uphill terrain
- For whichever foot you step with, the same side pole should come forward. When stepping with your left foot the left pole should come forward, and with your right foot the right pole should come forward
- Plant the pole further away in front of your body during steeper ascents
- Downhill terrain
- When going downhill make sure you plant the pole down in front of you before stepping. As you plant the left pole forward step with your left foot. As you plant the right pole forward step with your right foot. Exert more pressure on the poles when the terrain is slippery.
- One Pole vs. Two Pole. Some people may find carrying around two poles to be a hassle and may only use one as an alternative. Using a single pole is okay as long as you’re on easy and relatively flat terrain and carrying little or no load. Using two poles is highly recommended if you’re carrying a significant amount of gear and are going through varied terrain. Having two poles can better help with balance and weight distribution.
- Pole Storage. After use, make sure you wipe down your poles to remove any dust or moisture.
Leave your poles lengthened if they are wet, and allow the shafts to air dry. It’s also best to leave the adjustment mechanisms unlocked to increase their longevity.
After reading this article you should be well on your way to using your hiking poles efficiently and more frequently. Remember, it is important to find hiking poles to suit your adventuring needs.
Think about where you’ll be taking them and how you will be using them; it will make all the difference in your purchasing decisions. Take the time to find your trusty hiking companion and also take the time to learn how to use them properly. It will make all the difference.
Do check out our must-read article on how to choose the best hiking poles for your next adventure!