How to Use Your Walking Poles

By William Armstrong

Walking poles are now an essential part of our walking gear and should be packed along with walking boots on all our independent or guided walking trips and holidays. But if we don't use them correctly, then their effectiveness is greatly reduced and they can even become a hinderance. Before we look at how you should use your trekking poles, here are a few good reasons to use them:

They help you to retain balance on uneven, unstable and rocky terrain, they help to reduce tiredness in your legs (see our article on keeping going on ascents), they provide additional power which in turn increases the speed of your walk, and they reduce the strain and shock on your body (blisters on feet) and joints, especially the knees. The weight of the poles themselves are negligible compared to these benefits.

Telescopic 3-piece walking or trekking poles can be purchased from most outdoor retailers. Prices range from about £30 for a pair up to well over £100. Make sure they are telescopic so they can be reduced in length and strapped to your rucksack when they are not needed or when difficult ground means that it is safer to have your hands free for direct purchase on the rocks.

Some trekking poles have shock absorbers which can help reduce the shock on your arms when the tips hit the ground. However this is not essential and is not to everyones liking as the poles tend to bounce off rocky terrain. Soft grips that are properly designed to fit your hand and have some give will be easier to use for a long period of time. Grips that are hard can get wet with sweat and be uncomfortable to hold.

 

Two is better than one

Most outdoor experts advise using two walking poles rather than one. This is also backed up by research. Two poles provide additional stability and protection for your joints as you are able to reduce your own weight to a maximum. Used correctly they also allow you to increase the power supplied to each step.

Everyone should find the style that works best for them. However, a number of basic principles will help to ensure that you make best use of your trekking poles.

Walking Pole length

Set the pole length so that your arms are bent at 90 degrees when the tips are on the ground and your hands are on the grips. This is a good setting for flat, or shallow ascents and descents. For extended or steep uphill sections shorten the poles a bit so that you can get better leverage to help you up the ascent when you plant the pole. For extended or steep descents, you should extend the length of the poles so you’re more upright as you plant the poles in front of you. Make sure you correctly set the poles at equal length using the locking mechanisms. Ensure that they are fully tightened so as not to give way under your own weight, as this could cause a fall on rocky or uneven ground. If you are traversing a slope, shorten the uphill pole and lengthen the pole used on the downhill side as needed to support both sides of your body equally.


Wrist Straps

Your hand should go up through the wrist strap and then down onto the handle. The strap should pass under the thumb and across the back of the hand. This ensures that you are holding the walking pole securely and that you will not lose your pole accidently, if you loosen your grip.

Planting your walking poles

This is often a matter of personal preference. Planting your poles with each step will give you maximum power and assistance on the uphill sections, and provide maximum support or weight reduction on the downhill sections. It takes only a short while to develop a rhythmic coordination between your steps and planting the poles. The poles will then become an extension of your arms as you trek. Most advice suggests that as you step forward with one leg, plant your pole with the opposite arm as this provides maximum stability. If the terrain is exceptionally difficult, use the same leg as your pole plant side to give yourself added assistance. On descents make sure you swing your pole further in front of you to give you greater support.

On flat terrain, the poles could be planted at more irregular intervals (say every other step) as the amount of work done by the poles is reduced.

Watch out how you plant the pole in rocky areas because if it slips down between two rocks as you propel yourself forward, you could be pushed off balance or end up snapping or bending the trekking pole.

Sometimes, if you have a heavy load on steep terrain, or if you need to jump, planting both poles can help cushion the knees and provide extra security.

Check the pole length every so often, perhaps every hour or two, while walking to make sure that the pole hasn't collapsed and reduced its effectiveness.

Finally, the best way of perfecting your walking pole technique is to go out and practice, so get walking.

 

walking poles are great for stability when walking through difficult terrain like crossing a stream

Using two trekking poles for extra purchase of difficult terrain such as walking up a snow slope

Using one walking pole is better than none such as on this guided walking holiday in Jura, France

Walking poles are also handy for leaning on when you stop during trek

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