As regular visitors to Outdoor Andrew know, hiking is one of my favorite things to do, and it’s a great way to get in some exercise while also enjoying the beauty of the outdoors. However, many hikers, both seasoned veterans and beginners, often overlook a tool that can make it much easier: trekking poles.
When I first started hiking, I never thought I needed any hiking poles or walking sticks. But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized how helpful they can be on long hikes. In this comprehensive guide, I’ll teach you everything you need to know about how to use trekking poles while hiking.
No matter if you’re brand new to using hiking poles or you’re just looking for some extra help, I’m confident this article will help you. In it, we’ll cover everything from understanding the basics and adjusting them correctly, to mastering the techniques for various terrains, and even how to maintain them.
This isn’t all just coming from me either. Over the years, I’ve learned a trick or two from hiking experts and enthusiasts alike, and I’ve thrown some of them into this article to make sure you know as much as possible before hitting the trails with your hiking poles.
What Are Trekking Poles?
Before we delve into how to use trekking poles effectively, let’s start with understanding the basics. A trekking pole, at its core, is a tool designed to aid walkers, hikers, and trekkers as they navigate through various terrains. Often called hiking poles, they are often used in pairs and can help distribute weight, provide balance, and reduce the impact on your knees and lower body.
Overview of Trekking Poles and Their Parts
This is the part you hold. Grips are often made from foam, cork, or rubber. Each material has its advantages. For instance, foam absorbs sweat well, cork conforms to the shape of your hands over time, and rubber insulates from the cold and is durable.
This is the long body of the pole and is typically collapsible for easy storage and transport. Shafts can be made from aluminum (strong and inexpensive) or carbon fiber (light but more prone to damage from sharp impacts).
The bottom of the trekking pole often features a metal tip, usually made of carbide. This tip is designed to grip the trail surface and provide stability. Many poles come with removable rubber or plastic caps that cover the tip when hiking on hard surfaces.
Different Types of Trekking Poles
There are several types of trekking poles available, each with their unique features. Let’s take a look at the three most common types of hiking poles you’ll come across.
Standard Trekking Poles
These are the most common type of trekking poles. They usually have an adjustable length and come in two or three sections that collapse into each other. Most standard poles feature a comfortable grip with a strap, and often include a mechanism to absorb shock, making them ideal for a wide variety of terrains and hiking styles.
Compact Trekking Poles
These are designed for lightweight trekking and easy transportation. Unlike standard poles, foldable poles have sections that fit together similarly to tent poles, which allows them to pack down smaller than telescoping models. They are particularly favored by backpackers and trail runners who appreciate their lightweight and compact size when packed.
Walking (or Staff) Trekking Poles
These are typically single, non-adjustable poles, longer than most trekking poles. They are sometimes known as hiking staffs or walking sticks. These are best suited for less challenging terrains, or for those who prefer a more traditional, natural approach to hiking. They can be a good option for those who primarily need a pole for balance, rather than to reduce load on their joints.
Expert Tip #1: Choosing the Right Trekking Poles: When selecting trekking poles, consider your hiking style, typical terrain, and your body’s needs. If you hike in diverse climates, you may want poles with different tips for snowy or icy surfaces. Similarly, if you plan on long-distance hiking, lighter poles may be beneficial to conserve energy.
Additionally, consider the grip material. if your hands sweat a lot, foam grips can help absorb moisture, while cork grips are comfortable and conform to your hand shape over time. It’s worth spending a bit more time trying out some different poles and finding the right pair for you.
How to Use Trekking Poles: Everything You Need to Know
Now that you know exactly what trekking poles are and have a bit more general info about them, let’s get into the good stuff. Here’s everything you need to know about how to use hiking poles.
How to Adjust Your Trekking Poles
Once you’ve got your hands on the right set of trekking poles, the next step is to adjust them to the correct length. Proper adjustment is critical for comfort and effectiveness. If your poles are too long or too short, they can lead to awkward positioning and increased strain on your body.
Step-by-Step Instructions on Adjusting Trekking Poles to the Right Length
- Stand straight with your arms by your side.
- Bend your elbow to a 90-degree angle. The pole handle should rest in your hand when your forearm is parallel to the ground.
- Adjust the length of the pole so the tip touches the ground. If your poles have multiple sections, distribute the length evenly to ensure stability.
How to Properly Lock the Poles to Prevent Slipping
Most trekking poles feature a locking mechanism that secures the length once you’ve adjusted it to how you want it. These mechanisms vary depending on the brand and model, but twist locks and clamp locks are common.
- Loosen the section by twisting it to the left.
- Extend or reduce the pole to the desired length.
- Secure the length by twisting it to the right until it feels firm but not overly tight.
- Open the clamp.
- Adjust the pole to the desired length.
- Close the clamp. If it’s still loose, most models have a screw for further tightening.
Expert Tip #2: Optimal Length Settings For Different Terrains
While the 90-degree rule is a good starting point, the optimal length may vary with the terrain. For uphill climbs, you might want to shorten your poles slightly to provide better uphill push and stability. Conversely, for downhill paths, lengthening your poles can help reduce the impact on your knees and maintain balance.
A good rule of thumb is to adjust so that your hand is slightly lower than your elbow for uphill, and slightly higher than your elbow for downhill. Always remember to adjust your poles before starting the ascent or descent.
Proper Holding and Grip Techniques
Correctly holding your trekking poles is essential for maintaining balance, reducing fatigue, and ensuring your safety during hikes. The way you hold and grip your poles can significantly influence your hiking experience.
The Correct Way to Hold Trekking Poles
- Insert your hand through the bottom of the strap, then bring it down to grasp the handle. This will allow the strap to carry some of the weight and reduce stress on your wrists.
- The handle should rest naturally in your hand with your thumb wrapped around it and your fingers loosely gripping it. Your grip should be firm enough to control the pole but relaxed enough to prevent hand fatigue.
- Your wrist should be straight or slightly extended, never bent upwards. The pole should make a natural extension of your arm.
Different Grips for Different Situations
- Standard Grip: This is the usual holding position where your hand is through the strap and on the handle, as described above.
- Contour Grip: Most poles have a secondary grip below the main handle. This is useful on steep uphill stretches where you can choke down on the pole for better leverage without adjusting the length.
- Over-the-Top Grip: In flat or slight uphill terrain, you can grip the pole over the top of the handle like a walking stick, providing another comfortable alternative.
Expert Tip #3: Avoiding Common Grip Mistakes to Prevent Hand Fatigue: Avoid gripping your trekking poles too tightly. This common mistake can lead to hand and arm fatigue. The strap is there to help carry the load, so let it do its job.
Additionally, keep your elbows close to your body for the most efficient pole use and to maintain good posture. This reduces strain on your shoulders and arms and helps maintain balance.
Trekking Pole Walking Technique
Proper usage of trekking poles involves more than simply holding them correctly; it’s equally crucial to synchronize your steps with the poles for optimal support and stability. It might seem a little confusing at first, but it almost comes naturally once you start walking with your poles in hand.
The most common and effective method is the alternate technique, where the pole in your right-hand moves forward as your left foot steps forward and vice versa, mimicking the natural arm swing while walking. This creates a rhythm and helps to maintain balance, especially on challenging terrains.
When you plant your pole, aim for a spot on the ground that’s level with your foot. As you progress, push off the pole, engaging your shoulders and core for additional power and stability. Remember that hiking poles are not merely for balancing; they should actively contribute to your forward movement.
For uphill climbs, shorten your poles slightly and use them to help push you up the slope. You can plant the pole in front of you and push against it, reducing strain on your legs. On downhill stretches, lengthen your poles and use them as a braking tool, planting them in front of you to slow your descent and reduce the impact on your knees.
Remember to adjust your technique for different terrains. On flat surfaces, you may not need to plant your poles with each step but instead, use them for rhythm and balance. On uneven or rocky terrains, use your poles for added stability and to probe for secure footing.
Expert Tip #4 Use Your Energy Efficiently: Remember that the poles should aid your movement, not hinder it. Aim for fluid, natural movements, avoiding excessively wide or forceful pole plants. The more naturally you can integrate the poles into your walking rhythm, the more energy you can conserve for those long, rewarding hikes.
Using Trekking Poles on Different Terrains
Mastering the use of trekking poles requires adapting your technique to the specific demands of various terrains. Whether you’re ascending steep hills, descending slippery slopes, or navigating flat trails, your poles can significantly enhance your balance, efficiency, and safety.
Strategies for Trekking Uphill
- Shorten your poles: By reducing your pole length by about 5-10 cm for steep inclines, you can keep your body more upright, which improves balance and reduces strain on your back.
- Double planting: For a tough incline, plant both poles at the same time and then step forward. This technique helps you push with your arms and upper body, saving energy in your legs.
Techniques for Downhill Trekking
- Lengthen your poles: For downhill paths, extend your poles by about 5-10 cm. This extra length helps you lean on the poles more effectively, reducing stress on your knees and improving stability.
- Planting poles before stepping: Plant your poles in front of you before stepping down. This method allows you to test the stability of the path ahead and distribute the weight from your knees to your arms.
Approaches For Flat and Tricky Terrains
- Standard length: On flat terrain, your poles should be adjusted to their standard length (elbows bent at a 90-degree angle when holding the poles).
- Probing: On tricky terrain, like rocky paths or streams, use your poles to probe for stable spots before placing your foot down. This approach can help prevent slips and falls.
Expert Tip #5: Using trekking poles to increase stability: For challenging terrains such as loose gravel or slick mud, plant your pole at an angle against the slope of the trail, rather than straight down. This wider angle can provide better stability.
In snowy or icy conditions, consider using trekking poles with larger baskets to prevent them from sinking into the soft surface. It’s all about adjusting your technique and gear to the demands of the environment for a safer, more enjoyable hike.
Additional Uses of Trekking Poles
Trekking poles are multi-purpose tools, capable of serving various functions beyond aiding in balance and propulsion while hiking. Their versatile nature can prove to be quite handy in several unexpected situations.
One of the more creative uses of trekking poles is as a makeshift camera monopod. Steady your camera by using a pole as a support to capture stunning wilderness photographs, particularly useful when you need to reduce camera shake for long exposures.
They also come in handy when setting up camp. Lightweight tents and tarps often use trekking poles as supports, reducing the need for carrying additional equipment. This feature can significantly lighten your backpack, making your hike more enjoyable.
Trekking poles can also be used as a probe to check water depth or stability of the terrain hidden under vegetation or snow. In the event of an injury, a trekking pole can serve as a splint or can even be used to construct a makeshift stretcher in emergency situations.
Expert Tip #6 Use Your Trekking Poles for More Than Just Hiking: By leveraging their versatility, you can increase your preparedness, safety, and enjoyment on the trail, while possibly lightening your load. Remember, a good hiker is not only defined by their fitness but also by their resourcefulness and adaptability.
Maintenance and Care for Your Trekking Poles
Trekking poles are resilient tools designed to withstand the rigors of outdoor activities. However, they still require some regular care and maintenance to ensure their longevity and performance.
After each hike, it’s crucial to clean your poles, especially if you’ve been trekking through muddy or sandy areas. Use warm water and mild soap, and ensure you clean the sections where the poles extend and retract. Avoid using harsh chemicals that could damage the material.
Thoroughly dry your poles before retracting them. Storing your poles while they’re wet or damp can cause corrosion, particularly in the locking mechanisms.
Regularly inspect your poles for damage. Check the integrity of the tips, as they bear the brunt of the impact and can wear down or become damaged over time. Many models offer replaceable tips, which can extend the lifespan of your poles.
When you’re not using your trekking poles, store them in a dry place with the sections slightly loosened to take the tension off the internal locking mechanisms.
Expert Tip #7: Regular Maintenance is Key: Don’t wait until you’re planning your next hike to inspect and care for your trekking poles. Regular maintenance, including cleaning and checking your poles after each hike, will help them last longer and perform better.
It also provides an opportunity to spot any potential issues, such as a worn tip or a failing lock, before you hit the trail. By taking care of your poles, they’ll take care of you on many adventures to come.
Wrapping Up: Mastering the Art of Trekking with Poles
Embracing the use of trekking poles can profoundly enhance your hiking experience. They not only offer increased stability, reduced stress on joints, and improved balance on diverse terrains, but they also have a range of additional uses that can be invaluable in outdoor settings.
Remember, using trekking poles involves more than simply holding and walking with them. It’s about synchronizing your stride, adjusting them to the right length, and adapting your technique to the demands of different terrains.
By taking proper care of your poles and carrying out regular maintenance, they can last for years and be some of the best hiking companions. Besides dogs, of course. Dogs are the best hiking companions out there. Just make sure you’re keeping them cool if you’re hiking in the dead heat of summer!
As with many things in hiking and life, the devil is in the details. So, apply these expert tips, and you’ll be well on your way to mastering the art of trekking with poles. Here’s to safer, more efficient, and more enjoyable hikes!
See you on the trails!
- Proper Usage: Using trekking poles is more than just holding and walking with them. They should be adjusted to the correct length, held with the right grip, and synchronized with your stride to improve balance, reduce fatigue, and enhance propulsion.
- Adapting to Terrain: Adapting your trekking pole usage to different terrains can greatly enhance your hiking experience. Shorten poles for uphill treks, lengthen them for downhill walks, and use them for stability and probing on tricky terrains. The more fluidly you can adapt to changing conditions, the more effectively you’ll be able to hike.
- Versatility: Trekking poles have a multitude of uses beyond walking. They can serve as camera monopods, tent supports, probes for assessing the depth of water or stability of terrain, and even as splints in emergency situations. Understanding and utilizing their versatility can enhance your preparedness and safety on the trail.
- Maintenance and Care: Regular cleaning, drying, inspecting, and properly storing your trekking poles extends their lifespan and ensures optimal performance. Caring for your poles also provides an opportunity to spot potential issues before they become problematic during a hike.