My guide to using trekking poles on your hikes, and some expert tips for finding the right pair for you.
I’ve used trekking poles for long hikes for years, and will wax lyrical about them whenever I’m asked. And often even if I’m not. During training walks for a Three Peaks challenge back in 2007 I found that going downhill was aggravating an old knee injury. After asking around for advice and reading a few articles, I borrowed a set of poles to try them out on steep descents and found they helped my knee and helped to keep off fatigue. So I bought myself a pair with some birthday money.
And then I started using them for trail running, especially for ultra distances, and for multi-day backpacking trips, to help with balance under a heavy pack* and take some of the strain off my back. I’ve even been considering using them to pitch a tarp for an overnight bivvy.
*Lightweight backpacking? Hahaha. Not me. With half a kilo of peanut butter, a pair of binoculars and an actual HARDBACK book about birds, and my collection of shiny pebbles gathered on the way, I’m a lost cause to the lightweight movement.
The benefits of walking with poles
Reduced strain on joints: Trekking poles introduce other muscles to your movement by sharing the load more evenly across the whole body, reducing stress on ankles, knees and legs, particularly on descents. This is especially true with a heavy pack on your back. This is an important benefit, not just for people with existing issues, but also as a preventative measure for other hikers.
Improved endurance: Trekking poles can help on both descents and ascents, but also help you to push on for longer without fatigue. They emphasise the natural marching rhythm of your walk and help to push you forwards with a spring in your step, even on flat, easy-going terrain.
Help on ascents and uneven ground: On uphill stretches, poles help to spread the load to all your limbs to propel you upwards. They also help make sure you stay upright when the going gets muddy or slippery underfoot, and aid balance on uneven trails, especially at the end of the day when you’re more likely to make a misstep.
Reduced swelling in extremities: Do you get sausage fingers when you’re hiking? I do, especially when it’s warm out. Keeping my hands raised by holding my backpack straps helps a little, but it’s not a natural movement. Trekking poles engage the arms, and keep your blood pumping, to prevent the worst swelling.
Improved posture: Using trekking poles helps to keep you upright as you walk or run, especially on ascents, keeping your back straight and preventing slouching. This has the benefit of helping you breathe all the way from your diaphragm, and staving off fatigue that little bit longer.
Are there any disadvantages?
Well, yes. Walking with poles isn’t ideal for everyone, and there are a few things to consider before you make the decision.
Greater energy expenditure: Using trekking poles burns more calories by working your upper body in addition to the workout your legs get from your hike. Research suggests its as much as 20% over your hiking baseline level. More calories burnt means that more will inevitably need to be consumed (unless you’re working out to lose weight). On longer hikes, especially multi-day trips, that means having to carry more food with you to compensate.
Whole-body workout: As trekking poles work more than just your lower body, you might find that you have unexpected aches and niggles in your arms, shoulders and back, until you become used to the technique involved.
Risk of injuries: Injuries are likely to be the result of improper fit or technique, so it is important to ensure that you adjust your poles correctly for your height and activity. If the trail requires any scrambling, it is usually better to pack away poles to leave your hands free when you need them.
Trail damage: All walking causes wear and erosion to trails, plus with the scratches on the rock and small holes in the mud from trekking poles, the cumulative impact of all visitors over the years can result in significant degradation to the route. Be sure to stick to the trail in sensitive areas, and be considerate about where to place your poles to minimise damage.
Other uses for your trekking poles
- A useful extra pole for a tent or a tarp shelter (or a substitute if one breaks).
- A monopod for photography (like a tripod, it helps provide stability for your camera).
- Testing the depth of snow, or water, or bogs. For crossing streams, trekking poles help you keep your balance, probe depths, and test the stability of stones.
- An emergency splint in a worst-case scenario.
- Pointing at distant wildlife or birds as you try to convince people there really is something there (my favourite use!).
How to set up your trekking poles correctly
Most manufacturers of trekking poles will give guidelines as to the right length for your height. As a general rule, they should be set at a length which allows your hand to lightly grip the handle while your elbow is bent at a right angle and your forearm parallel to the ground. Roughly, this corresponds with the height of the hip belt on your backpack.
Some people find that the poles should be adjusted for the terrain, reduced for ascending and lengthened for a downhill walk. However, you may find that your hands will move up and down as you need, so look for poles with long handle grips, and play around with what feels good for you as you go.
The wrist straps let you walk with a more relaxed style. The key is to not take a tight grip on the handle, but to let your wrist rest on the strap as you push down to propel yourself forward. As you stride, the poles become an extension to the movement of your wrist, transferring the momentum from your arms and the rest of your body.
Always remember that your legs are stronger than your arms Don’t put too much of your weight onto the poles, as you might be risking injury.
What to look for when buying poles
Trekking poles are available across a wide range of budgets, from as little as £10 to as much as £200. I found buying the best I could afford, Leki Makalu Lite poles, and by not skimping on the budget, it meant I had a really great bit of kit that has lasted and lasted.
The most important factors to consider when choosing what’s right for you, and within your budget, are durability and comfort (especially the handles). The more lightweight the poles, the more expensive they will be, due to the materials used in their construction, such as carbon fibre or titanium, or cork handles.
Some poles fold into three parts, others have a telescopic system for packing away, and some are a fixed length. If you’re going to be packing the poles into your bag, consider the length that they fold down. Telescoping poles are adjustable, though not as lightweight as collapsible poles.
Some poles have a built-in shock absorber system, designed to give additional protection to your joints. It will add weight to the poles, and add to the cost, and may not have that much of an impact on performance.
Travelling with trekking poles
If you’re planning on using public transport to get around between hikes, or to travel overseas with them, be sure to look for poles that can be folded or shortened. If you can pack them into a travelling bag or on the outside of a rucksack, they are much easier to travel with.
When it comes to flying, it’s unlikely trekking poles will be permitted luggage in the cabin. It’s worth making sure the poles fit inside your bags, and also checking with individual airlines for their policy.
Looking after your trekking poles
Like with the rest of your kit, it’s important to ensure your trekking poles are clean and dry before packing them away after use. Telescopic poles are best stored unlocked.
Do you walk with trekking poles? What tips can you share with me?
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