Last updated: March 7, 2017 at 12:54 pm
Many first-time hikers are unsure whether they should be carrying walking poles or not. In reality, the answer is that walking poles are completely optional and have their supporters and detractors. Walking poles generally provide stability and support but you’ll find that you can get along just fine without them. However, if you decide you want to try them out, many people find using them to be a pleasant addition to their hike.
How to Use Walking Poles
- Pole use should to be built up gradually, rather like wearing in a pair of shoes. While initial comfort is vital, your body needs to adjust to the use and movement of the poles.
- Many people find that when they first use the poles, their upper body becomes tired so try to build up the mileage in stages when first becoming familiar with the poles.
- Aim to walk in a relaxed fashion but still with awareness of posture and good pole use. Plant the pole a little ahead of your step and follow naturally with your feet and body before removing the pole and bringing it to your front again.
- It’s the same as walking without poles, except you engage your arms and shoulders far more. Giant steps and plant poles are not the way forward. Keep it neat, relaxed and flowing.
Walking Pole Benefits
Research (this time, scientific) has found that there is a lot to recommend the use of walking poles, such as reducing the accumulated stress of walking on the feet, legs, knees and back. The poles help to share the load of your own weight – and any pack that you carry – more evenly across the whole body.
Walking poles can also:
- Protect your knees from the impact of walking, especially when walking downhill
- Increase your walking speed, especially going downhill
- Improve power and endurance when walking uphill
- Aid balance and stability on uneven trails
- Improve your posture so that you walk in a more upright position. This can help to prevent back pain and boost your breathing
- Strengthen the muscles that support the spine
- Reduce fatigue and improve endurance
- Burn more calories by providing an upper body workout as well as a legs workout
- Build muscles in arms, shoulders and neck
Cons of Walking Poles
- If used incorrectly, walking poles can actually be more of a hazard than a supportive measure. People can trip over them, put too much weight on them on uneven terrain or even cause damage to the surrounding area with improper use.
- Carrying the poles can be tiring. Not only is it more weight in addition to your person but they also add extra arm movements to your already strenuous activity. They take the strain off your knees and ankles but distribute that strain among your whole body.
- They can be a nuisance. Trekking poles keep your hands busy and stop you from getting water, snacks, checking your map, etc. Also, when you need to scramble or use your hands, they get in the way and can’t be stowed away easily. However, most modern rucksacks have trekking pole loops included.
One or Two Poles?
While many people carry two poles for hiking, many people will only carry one. A downside to this is that if you use one pole for a prolonged time, you’ll work out one side of your body more than the other, causing an imbalance. However, many hikers who carry one pole only use it for river crossings and downhill sections for that extra stability when it’s most needed.
Buying the Right Walking Poles
To gain the most benefits from walking poles it’s important that they feel right for you. There are lots of different types and in a range of budgets but if you do not feel comfortable then you will not use the poles.
Most walking pole brands provide guidelines as to the right length for your height, or you can buy extendable poles to suit a range of heights.
As a general rule, the pole should be set to a length that allows your hand to lightly grip the handle while your arm is at a right angle to the ground. That is, your forearm is parallel to the ground and bent at the elbow.
Some walkers say that poles should be adjusted according to the terrain. So poles should be set longer for descending and shorter for ascending.
Some poles also have long handles so that walkers can move their hands up and down the handle according to the terrain.
Walking pole straps make a useful addition to the poles because they allow you to walk with a looser grip and a more relaxed style.
Using the straps is simply done. Place your hand through the strap and form a large O-shape with your thumb and forefinger around the handle. Now gently grip the handle.
The straps can help when walking because you will tend to use a looser grip on the handle when engaging the pole to propel yourself forwards. Try walking with the strap and without the strap to see the difference.
As you walk your poles become an extension to the flow of your wrist, arms and whole body movement.
Look for handles that feel comfortable in your hand. Trespass Transcend x Walking Poles, for example, has an ergonomic rubber handle that feels very natural to hold.
Trespass Valeas Trekking Poles have an extended grip area that is useful for changes in terrain, such as when walking uphill and downhill.
Cork rather than rubber can feel more comfortable when walking for extended periods or if you tend to get sweaty hands.
And a handle that has a curve, or crook style, will prove useful when walking on terrain that requires lots of balance. The crook aids balance. This would also prove very useful when crossing rivers and balancing on stones. Check out the Trespass XCountry Walking Pole.
If you will be walking longer distances it’s better to choose a lighter pole. The strongest, yet lightest, poles are made from carbon fibre (but these are also the most expensive).
Pick up the poles and try them for weight. Some poles will simply feel better for you and your style of walking. A pole that is really lightweight might end up being too “floaty” and not sturdy enough for you when walking on rough terrain or in windy conditions.
You can get different accessories to adjust to different circumstances. Walking pole baskets will prevent you from sinking into soft ground but can get themselves caught on thick foliage. Other additions are the tips that can be swapped from spikes for soft ground to rubber tips for purchase on rocks and other tough surfaces.
Most walking poles include hand straps, although these will have the poles inflexibly fastened to your wrists if you fall and could potentially cause you serious injury so it may be worth taking the wrist straps off in certain conditions.
Other Walking Pole Features to Look For
There are poles to suit all budgets from £5 to £150. These will generally reflect the materials used and the amount of technology in the poles. But the most important factor when buying poles is comfort. Try them for weight and feel.
If you will be travelling with your walking poles or carrying them on a rucksack, make sure they fold up as small as possible. Some will fold to a length of as little as 33cm, which makes them very easy to stow in a bag or rucksack.
But fold-away will not be so important if you plan to use them most of the time. (Note that you will tend to pay more for poles with fold-away options.)
Other Uses for Walking Poles
- Walking poles can nicely double up for other uses when enjoying time outdoors. For example, a pole could make a useful extra (or substitute) pole for a tent or tarp shelter.
- Use a pole to test the depth of water in a river or snow on the ground.
- Some poles have a camera attachment s they can be used as a photo “mono-pod”.
- Some poles have an extra attachment to adapt them for use as skiing poles.
- If in doubt about your walking pole choice, ask a sales assistant to talk you through your needs and best choice.