Hiking poles, also known as trekking poles, walking poles or hiking sticks, are an indispensable piece of equipment for many trail walkers, hikers, trekkers, and backpackers. When used correctly, they can change the way you move in the backcountry—transforming strenuous treks on uneven terrain into smoother rambles.
Whether you are considering adding hiking sticks to your adventure kit or just bought a shiny new set, this guide will help you learn how to use hiking poles properly to make sure you get the most out of them—and stay safe. Here’s what we will cover:
Let’s get started.
The first thing you need to know is that not all hiking poles are the same. In fact, there are three different types:
Here, we are focusing on the benefits and use of hiking or trekking poles.
While hiking poles are popular among seasoned adventurers, most hiking beginners are hesitant to bring them along. Here are a few reasons for you to pick up a set of hiking poles for your next adventure.
The trails are full of many dangers, from loose gravel, tree roots, logs, and rocks to uneven sections that can cause slips, trips, falls, and awkward foot placements. Trekking poles act like an extra pair of legs, providing two additional contact points with the ground, thus increasing your steadiness—and decreasing your risk of injury.
Like all hand-held walking support equipment, hiking poles spread the load on your legs to your arms as well. This helps reduce stress on the feet, legs, knees, hips, and back, preventing muscle fatigue and injuries.
Distributing some of the weight to your upper body also allows you to burn more calories and helps improve your overall fitness. While your legs will still bear most of the weight, a pair of sticks will help engage your arms, shoulders, and neck muscles.
Since trekking poles minimize the stress on your hips, back, leg muscles, ankles, and knee joints, your body will be less susceptible to injuries that may cut your hiking trip short. If you want to extend your body's abilities on the trail, poles can help you do just that.
Note that if you want to harvest the full benefits of hiking poles, always use a pair instead of just one stick. Using two will give you symmetrical support that one pole can't provide and strengthen your upper body muscles equally.
To maximize the benefits of using trekking poles, it's essential the poles you chose feel right for you. Here are five factors to consider when shopping for poles.
You need a trekking pole you can adjust depending on the terrain you are walking on. One that's too short will cause you to lean forward excessively, while one that's too long will push your posture back and cause discomfort.
If you're taller than 6 feet, go for an extendable pole with a length of at least 51 inches. If you are under 6 feet, most adjustable hiking sticks will work for you.
Wrist straps are useful additions to trekking poles. Yet, few people appreciate their importance. They help you walk in a more relaxed way by eliminating the need to grip the handles too tightly. Using them correctly will prevent your hands and wrists from aches and sprains.
You want handles that feel comfortable in your hands. Generally, they should be made of a material that decreases shock and vibration, absorbs sweat, and insulates your hands from the cold ground.
Grips made of cork material are best at wicking away sweat from your hands and preventing blisters.
If you're trekking a long-distance or adventuring for days, it’s better to choose a light and sturdy walking pole. Less swing weight means you can move them faster and cover long distances without fatigue. Carbon fiber poles are lighter than most other poles.
If you plan to sleep in the woods, don’t forget the importance of packing a lightweight hiking tent. Coupled with a light sleeping pad, it can make your overnight adventure more comfortable without weighing you down when trekking.
Prefer sleeping on a hanging bed instead of a tent? This hammock-compatible sleeping bag is ultra-light and highly compressible, allowing you to save weight without compromising warmth.
Hiking poles come with removable accessories meant for trekking in different terrains. The essential two are baskets and tips. Baskets are little disks that hikers add to a slot on the body of the pole at the tip. They come in different shapes and sizes for different terrains. Essentially, they prevent your narrow sticks from sinking into snowy, muddy, or sandy surfaces or jamming deeply into small cracks between rocks.
Rubber tips can be put over your pole tips (the part of the pole that interacts with the ground) to help decrease wear on your poles. Most poles have a plastic body with a metallic point. While a steel or carbide pole tip may be great for rugged terrains, it leaves behind ugly scratches on the trail, and it's noisy. Using rubber tips will also improve traction on slippery surfaces, absorb vibration, and reduce your impact on the trail. Eventually, all tips wear out, get lost, or suffer damage, so be sure to stock up on extras.
Before starting off on your trek, you will need to set your walking poles to the correct height.
Standing on level ground, adjust the top of the pole to line up with your belt line. That should put your elbows at a 90-degree angle when the pole tips are on the ground and your hands are on the handles. This is a suitable setting for walking on flat terrains or trails with moderate ascents and descents, as it will help you maintain a natural movement of your arms.
When walking uphill, shorten your trekking sticks by 2-4 inches depending on steepness and inclination. Likewise, when using hiking poles downhill, you'll want to lengthen them by 2-4 inches.
If you’re walking on a slanted trail for a prolonged period, shorten one pole and lengthen the other. Or, if you have to lift your walking poles over obstacles such as long grass and rocks, you'll want to shorten them until you're in a clear area.
Note that different trekking poles have different adjusting mechanisms, so you'll need to closely follow the manufacturer’s recommendations to avoid damaging your sticks.
Now, let’s learn how to correctly use hiking poles.
Unknown to many, there’s a right and a wrong way to wear the wrist strap. To use it correctly, slide your hands through the loop from the bottom of the wrist strap, then grip the pole. The strap should pass under the thumb and across the back of the hand with no twists.
Next, set the length of the wrist strap to a comfortable size but make sure it's not too loose. Adjusting the strap ensures you're able to release your grip on the pole without losing it, and it prevents you from death gripping the pole handle, which can lead to hand and wrist aches.
Also, a strap with some allowance is safer for your wrists and thumbs when you need to catch yourself while falling.
Your grip on the handle should be relaxed, and the pole should easily move between your thumb and forefingers. This will allow you to flick the stick forward with minimal effort. The proper grip is where you hold the pole between your thumb and forefingers and close the hold loosely with the other fingers.
For most of the hike, let the straps do the work for you, but keep a firmer grip when navigating technical sections.
For the trekking poles to act and feel like an extension of your body's natural movement, you'll need to develop a rhythm. It may feel clumsy and frustrating when you first start using the sticks, but with some practice, you’ll get the rhythm, and you won’t even be thinking about the process. Here are three different walking techniques to use with hiking poles.
After you position your hands correctly in the straps and adjusting the poles’ height, keep your elbows close to your side, step forward with one leg, and flick the pole on the opposite hand forward.
In other words, if you’re stepping forward with your right leg, your left hand should simultaneously flick the stick forward and plant it. The flick involves a small upward motion of your forearm or a slight flick of the wrist.
Using the opposite arm/leg pattern matches the natural inclination of our arm movement while walking, making this strategy easy to learn.
If it doesn't come naturally, drag both sticks behind you while walking in a normal posture, and you should automatically fall into the opposite arm/leg motion. From there, you can slowly lift the poles up so their tips touch the ground with every stride.
This next technique can be used when navigating through challenging terrain or when you want to minimize leg fatigue. The parallel legs trekking pole technique is where you place the pole next to the foot with which you're stepping.
This method will give you greater propulsion in those moments when you want to increase your pace. You can alternate between the opposite and parallel legs strategy based on the terrain (keep reading for more on how to use poles in different terrains).
When you want to step up or down obstacles like boulders or fallen logs, place both poles in front of you to get some extra support. Also, use this double poling method when walking on steep terrain while carrying a heavy load or if you need to jump.
Planting both poles forward when going over obstacles cushions the knees and adds a layer of security in case you land awkwardly.
To create stability, you don't have to firmly plant the tip of the hiking stick on the ground. Simply plant it lightly before flicking it forward again with the next stride. A light plant is enough to provide steadiness.
The only times you should apply pressure on the stick are when you want to brake when going downhill, when you need some extra thrust on the uphill sections, or when you want to give your upper body an extra workout.
If you want to use the hiking trek poles to pick up speed, relax your arms, use some shoulder energy to plant the pole slightly behind your body, and push yourself forward.
To prevent twists, slips, and tumbles when walking downhill, the support of hiking sticks is invaluable. First, increase the length of your trekking pole and loosen or take off the straps.
Next, grip the top of the handles, keep your knees bent, plant both poles ahead of you, and get your weight forward onto them. After each plant, you can leave the poles in place and take small steps to catch up. The biggest safety tip whenever you use hiking poles downhill is to make sure the sticks don’t get behind you. Always keep them in front of you and planted while you move your feet.
First, shorten the length of your walking sticks when you approach a steep ascent. Lean into the hill and plant the poles close to your body and behind your lead foot, then push off the ground with them.
This method allows you to propel your body up the slope using the sticks instead of just relying on your legs. If it’s a stairs section, plant both poles on the upper level, and use your poles to launch yourself to each step.
Face upstream if the currents are strong and slowly move sideways through the water while using the poles for balance. Make sure you use the trekking poles to probe the depth of the water and other potential hazards.
If you need extra balance when crossing an unstable log bridge, extend your hiking poles so they can touch the bottom of the stream on both sides of the log.
If you expect snow, loose scree, or other soft ground on the trail, bring your pole baskets. They prevent your poles from sinking too deep into the soft surface and offer better traction. Use the pole tip to check the stability of the soft ground before you step in.
If you come across a long bedrock section or a trail that requires consistent boulder hopping, add rubber feet onto the tips of your poles and carefully set the tips into the rock to avoid slipping.
When you venture off the beaten path and come across dense vegetation, use your poles to move the branches and foliage out of your way.
Here are some additional uses for hiking poles:
When wielded correctly, hiking poles can make a massive difference on your trail adventures. They’ll make your life easier when going up hilly terrain, descending steep slopes, traversing rocky sections, and crossing rivers. If you want to get the most out of them, make sure you adjust them to the right length and rehearse your walking technique.
Do you have some experience using hiking poles? Feel free to share your tips and tricks in the comments section. And if you have a question, don’t hesitate to drop it below.
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