Trekking Poles, Hiking Poles, Walking Sticks

Trekking Poles
from Bonnie & David Alley


There was a time when I laughed at what I termed as "yuppies" using trekking poles for hiking. If a backpack was not carried, I was even more amused. Who in their right mind would pay good money for telescoping aluminum trekking poles ? They are toys -- right?

On earlier backpacking trips I would use a single hiking pole. It was heavy, but good for balance, especially on steep slippery terrain. Later the heavy pole was traded for a much lighter bamboo version. As time progressed my interests moved to mountaineering. At that time my perception was that "real mountaineers" did not use hiking poles, so neither did I. Long day climbs were very tiring and painful, but that was just "part of the experience."

Introduction to Trekking Poles

In July 1995 while on a steep talus slope below Blanca Peak, CO (4,372m - 14,345'), I saw a man and woman descending the slope with incredible speed and apparent ease. Each was using a pair of telescoping [yuppie] hiking poles. My partner and I exchanged glances and commented on how easy they made it look. That event became stuck in my mind.

Then on another Colorado trip in 1996 a member of our group used a single hiking pole and claimed that it helped his knees significantly. I subsequently purchased a single hiking pole. Later that year, while on a long day hike, I borrowed my wife's hiking pole and together with mine experimented using two poles. The experience of using two hiking poles, as opposed to one, was similar to riding a 21 speed bike after struggling with a single speed model on mountainous terrain! I was now absolutely sold on the two pole configuration, and ordered a pair of Leki Super Makalu Hiking Poles for my next backpacking trip.

The trip was in May, 1997. We traveled the Appalachian Trail north from Sam's Gap, NC for 127 km (79 miles) to Walnut Mountain Rd., TN. My beginning pack weight for the 8 day trip was 24 kg (53 lb.). During the trip I spent a lot of time experimenting with the hiking poles, building on the experience I had gained during pre-trip day hikes. After about 3 days using the poles, it became almost "second nature."


Each hiking pole, when planted, reduces weight on the legs and back by at least that of the arm (4 - 6 kg / 9 - 13lb). Applying pressure to the poles can easily raise this number to 7 - 11 kg (15 - 25 lb.) per step! Anyone who does not believe this should try hiking with a 18 kg (40 lb.) pack for 30 minutes while effectively using hiking poles, then continue without the poles for a few minutes. They will notice the difference -- It is major!

Effectively using two trekking poles reduces fatigue, increases speed (level, uphill and downhill), provides excellent stability, increases the distance that can be comfortably traveled in a day, and reduces accumulated stress on the feet, legs, knees and back by an estimated 8,877+ kg per kilometer (31,500+ lb. per mile).

Pole Adjustments

  Pole Length

The first step is to adjust the poles to fit you. Some trekking pole manufacturers suggest adjusting the length as the terrain changes. I have found this to be burdensome and unnecessary. Adjust the length of your poles as follows:

  1. "Unlock" the upper and lower sections of both poles.
  2. Extend the lower section of both poles to just below the maximum limit and "lock" the lower sections.
  3. Stand up straight with shoulders relaxed.
  4. Place one pole under an arm and adjust the length so that the top of the pole is 5 - 8cm (2 - 3in) below the armpit.
  5. "Lock" the upper section of that pole in place.
  6. Use the fully locked pole as a "ruler" to adjust the length of your second pole.

Completing this procedure should result in a pole length that is a good compromise for both ascending and descending.

Note: Adjustments to pole length should be made within the limits of the manufacturer's recommendations.

  Wrist Straps

The wrist straps are critical to getting maximum efficiency from your poles. They should be adjusted so that when the hand is inserted through the loop, the wrist can comfortably apply pressure to the pole. It should not be necessary to grip the pole tightly with your hand in order to apply the pressure. Your thumb and fingers should merely form a "U" or an "O" around the grip. The area between the thumb and index finger becomes a point of articulation -- somewhat like a pseudo joint or a second elbow. While walking, the poles should act and feel as though the arms extend to the ground creating a second pair of legs. The poles should swing forward for the next step just as though they were legs.

The grips can be used as necessary, but for 98% of the time, the hiking poles should be loaded using the wrist straps. Note that some models have left and right hand poles.

Effectively Using Trekking Poles

As of November 1997 I have hiked over 323 km (200 miles) using two poles, and have perfected four basic techniques for effectively using them for locomotion over varied terrain. Please note these methods are very effective, but not the only ways in which poles can be used. You should experiment for yourself.

  Level to slight upgrade:

Hiking poles are used the same as in cross-country skiing. Tips of the poles are behind the body. Left foot is forward while left pole is back and similarly with the right. Aggressively load the poles to aid in forward movement.

  When the upgrade becomes steep:

Left hiking pole is planted at the same time as the left foot and similarly with the right. Load the pole to reduce the weight that the leg has to lift. Poles are even with the body for moderate upgrades and can be moved in front of the body for steeper inclines. This method is extremely effective when combined with the rest step*.

  Slight to moderate down hill:

This configuration is the exact opposite of "level to slight upgrade". The hiking poles are in front of the body. Left foot is back while left pole is forward and similarly with the right. Load the poles to brake forward movement.

  Steep down hill grades:

This configuration is nearly the opposite of "when the upgrade becomes steep". Left hiking pole is planted just before the left foot and then the right. Load the pole to help control placement of the foot. On slippery surfaces lean forward (the natural tendency is backward) and trust your poles. The poles will help maintain downward force on the feet to prevent them from slipping. On extremely steep and slippery slopes you may find it necessary to use the grips. Poles with springs add comfort when moving rapidly down hill.

Arguments Against Using Trekking Poles

Argument: When climbing they have to be packed away during the technical portions of the climb.

Response: Unless most of your adventures start at the base of a technical route, there are often more than a few miles to travel before getting to the beginning of the climb. The value of the hiking poles during the hiking portion of the trip usually far outweighs the effort necessary to carry them on the technical portion of the climb. Telescoping poles making stowing easier.

Argument: I need free hands to hold a map and/or compass.

Response: When using hiking poles as described in this article, there is no reason why a map cannot be carried and viewed while using the poles.

Trekking Pole Potpourri

After 323 km of aggressive use, the tips of my Leki poles are worn by about 10%. At this rate, the estimated life of the tips on my poles would be about 7 years.

There are some situations where using hiking poles could result in injury. I met a hiker this year who fell while using poles. Somehow one of the poles became wedged during the fall and his wrist became caught inside the strap. His elbow was hyper-extended to the point of fracture -- Ouch!

Each section of collapsible hiking poles should be checked about once each hour to insure that they are not beginning to work loose; tighten as necessary. This is not usually a problem except when traveling over soft forest mulch where they can work loose very quickly. This problem is caused by the natural twisting action that occurs from normal use of the poles when the tips are sunk up to the baskets in the soft forest floor. One way to reduce this tendency is to swap the standard trekking baskets for snowflake baskets. Another option is to temporarily remove them. Note, however, that using the poles without baskets could damage the threads that keep the baskets in place, possibly making it necessary to replace the tips before baskets could be used again.

It is a good idea to carry a spare pole tip and an extra pair of expanders. Expanders are plastic friction devices that secure the segments of the poles in position. They should be replaced as they become worn, probably once per year with heavy use.

I have heard all sorts of silly comments and questions thrown at me: "Forget your skis?", "Where's the snow?"; and I have felt the stares. When the situation permits, I would give my inquirers (tormentors) a lecture that contains the highlights of this article. Most of the time, I just smile knowing that at the end of the day I will be feeling better than most of them : - ).

* The rest step is a hiking technique where with each step, the rearmost leg is locked completely straight for the time that it takes to transfer weight to the leg that has just been moved forward. While the leg is locked in this fashion, the muscles are given a very short moment of complete rest. It may not seem like much, but these "little rests" add up over thousands of steps. This technique is primarily used for hiking uphill, and does require practice to master just as in the use of trekking poles.

Copyright Bonnie & David Alley 1998. All rights reserved.
Edited by Jark Lau, PhD

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