I have hiked and backpacked for years without trekking poles. I’ve seen plenty of people using them, but always thought they would be more of a nuisance than a help. My views have changed, with this caveat: trekking poles are great when you use them correctly. Sadly, most people I see on the trails do not — something easily remedied.
How do trekking poles help?
There are several reasons for using trekking poles:
- Trekking poles can relieve the strain on your back and legs. A landmark study published by Dr. G. Neureuther in 1981 proved that use of “ski poles” while walking reduces the pressure strain on the opposite leg by approximately 20%.
- Poles can help your balance, especially important for stream crossings with a heavy backpack.
- Trekking poles can improve your workout, allowing you to burn 20-40% more calories.
Last year on a hike up Mt. San Jacinto, I borrowed a pair of trekking poles from my friend Richard. Beforehand, I studied the proper technique for holding and using the poles over at Pete’s Pole Pages — a great resource.
The verdict? I’m hooked. Trekking poles make a huge difference, especially on hilly terrain or with a backpack. I bought a pair of Black Diamond poles before my recent backpacking trip on the Trans-Catalina trail, and they saved my back, my knees and my butt more than once. The steep inclines of the Trans-Catalina trail would’ve been treacherous without them, and my legs would’ve given out long before reaching camp.
There are some negatives, but those are pretty obvious. First, they can be a nuisance when you want to take a photo or pull out a map — anything that requires your hands. And they tend to get in the way on narrow trails with thick plant growth. You get pretty good at learning to stow them soon enough.
What is the proper technique for hiking with trekking poles?
There are three basic rules you need to follow:
RULE #1 – Adjust the height properly. This is a subjective adjustment, but adjusting the top of the pole to line up with your belt-line is a good starting point. You may go shorter for steep uphills, or longer for steep downhills. EXPERT TIP: keep the top section completely collapsed and use the lower section to adjust to the proper height. Then tweak the top section as needed for up-or-downhill hiking.
RULE #2 – Use the wrist straps properly. This is the number one problem that I see — most people haven’t learned how to use the wrist straps. It’s not really intuitive, but when used properly, your wrist strap will support your weight without requiring you to grip the hand at all!
RULE #3 – Swing the poles with rhthym. This is something you never really stop to think about, but even without poles your arms swing as you walk. When you put your right foot forward, your left arm swings forward as well. Our body does this to help maintain smooth balance as we move. With trekking poles, it’s no different. Plant the left pole forward as you step forward with your right foot (and vice versa). Develop a rhythm and put some energy into each “plant” and you’ll find you can literally propel yourself forward with the poles.
A few bonus pole tips
Here’s a few words of wisdom that you may not find at the store or in the manual:
- Given the choice between twist-lock or flick-lock adjustable poles, get the flick-lock. They are more reliable and much easier to use.
- Regardless of what type of locking system, store your poles unlocked. This will increase the longevity of the locks.
- Stow the baskets in your pack. They are not only good for snow, but also useful in loose scree.
- Backpacking? Wrap a 3 foot length of duct tape around the top-most section of the pole. Now you’ve got an on-the-go repair kit that’s easy to find.
More Trekking Pole Resources
- Black Diamond Trail Ergo Cork Trekking Poles – For the record, these are the poles I own. Very functional and comfortable.
- Pete’s Pole Pages – Truly one of the best resources on how to properly use your trekking poles. Highly recommended!
- POLES for Hiking, Trekking and Walking – This instructional DVD is a little cheesy, but I picked up some good pointers.