Hikers and trekkers who frequently tackle different terrain or regularly traverse difficult types of terrain know about the knee and back pain that can develop after repeated bending of the upper body to scramble over rocks on otherwise flat terrain or going uphill just to go downhill later on mountainous trails. Well-seasoned hikers have probably already found the best method for a straight upper body in the ultralight carbon fiber trekking poles that have become nearly ubiquitous on really challenging hiking trails all over the world.
The low-tech cousin of trekking poles, a hiking stick or walking stick found on the forest floor and employed as a load-bearing crutch, should be relatively familiar to anyone who was lucky enough to spend the majority of their childhood in the great outdoors. Trekking poles, especially adjustable-length trekking poles with features like carbide tips and wrist straps, have built on the simple utility of that wooden walking stick and saved the knees of many a trekker from giving out in the middle of a hike.
Trekking poles are fairly easy to figure out. They’re a huge relief for many hikers who find their knees sore or in sharp pain during or after trekking for an extended period. Because load-bearing trekking poles take some of the pressure off the knees, hikers’ knees are not in so much pain after a long hike. Hiking poles can also help hikers with balance issues on slick surfaces while going uphill or just on flat terrain covered in a friction-reduced substance like sand.
The part of using trekking poles that’s less obvious is the need to adjust the height not only to the height of the user but also to various different heights based on the elevation grade and the material of the trail being traversed. Maybe the popular conception is that walking sticks are for old people, but any hikers with a long trail back to the campsite after a long day spent going uphill over different terrain and then going downhill over several new types of terrain will be glad to have a pair of trekking poles along with them.
You’ll definitely want to read through this guide to learn more about trekking poles and their application in the backcountry because knowing how to adjust a trekking pole will probably save your life (okay, probably just your knees) one of these days.
Selecting the right trekking poles
Before we get into adjustable lengths and the shock-absorbing features to be on the lookout for in trekking poles, it’s important to note that hikers and backpackers interested in the added support of load-bearing trekking poles need to select trekking poles that are the correct height for them. To find trekking poles that are the correct height, stand on flat ground and hold your arms at your side with your elbows bent at 90-degree angles. Your thumbs should be facing up. Keep your upper body completely straight. The correct height of a trekking pole is the distance from the top of your palms to the ground. The top of the handle should fit in your palm in this position, more or less reaching hip-level.
<5 ft 1
5 ft 1 – 5 ft 7
5 ft 8 – 5 ft 11
6 ft +
As you get used to hiking with trekking poles, you’ll also get a feeling for what size hiking poles work best for you. Keep in mind the types of terrain you generally hike on most. For hiking trails with lots of roots or rocks to walk over, a slightly shorter trekking pole might be advantageous. Of course, the benefit of adjustable trekking poles is that they can be shortened for different terrain or any other purpose that calls for it.
Construction material of trekking poles
Sleek carbon fiber hiking poles are generally designed to be ultralight as easy to attach to the outside of a rucksack, but that might not be the most important consideration for every hiker. Walking poles made with aluminum are heavier but generally more durable. Depending on hikers’ person preference, a sturdier walking pole might be more desirable than the ultralight carbon fiber variety. Aluminum is probably the better construction material for first-time trekking pole users, as hikers who aren’t used to hiking or backpacking with trekking poles may mistakenly be putting too much weight on them while going downhill. It would be a shame for a hiker to abandon the very beneficial use of trekking poles because an ultralight carbon fiber trekking pole snapped during rough or incorrect usage. Trekking poles are designed to be load-bearing but that doesn’t mean they will necessarily support the entire weight of a hiker.
Hikers selecting new trekking poles should also look at the material used to build the wrist straps and the pole tips. Pole tips are usually built with a soft and shock-absorbing material. Rubber tips are the most common and provide nice shock-absorbing protection. Frequently manufacturers like Black Diamond and Leki design their trekking poles to have interchangeable carbide tips that can be used on more rugged terrain. The carbide tips can dig into more rugged types of terrain for added stability but hikers should keep in mind that this will affect the pole length and should be factored in when adjusting the pole height.
Types of locks on adjustable-length trekking poles
There are a few different ways manufacturers have designed the locks at fix adjustable-height trekking poles at the height hikers set them for. The decision between the various locks is mostly up to personal preference. Some hikers swear by one or the other lock as sturdier and firmer, but it’s up for debate. Some trekking poles fasten with a twist lock, which functions like any twist-top gear. Imagine twisting the lid off a thermos and you have the idea. Turn it left to open the twist lock and turn it the other way to fix it at a certain height. Twist lock trekking poles are generally less expensive and some hikers are big fans.
Clamp locks are the other most common variety of fixing trekking poles at the correct height. Clamps are basically rings that loosen enough to resize adjustable poles and tighten to fix trekking poles at the correct height. The clamp flips up to loosen and snaps back in place to close. Clamps are designed to fit flush to the trekking pole to secure them at the right height to keep the upper body straight and weight off of hikers’ knees.
Many hikers swear by clamp locks because they think they fix the pole height more securely. Some complain that twist locks can jam or get stuck in the lock position. Hikers who prefer twist-lock hiking poles claim clamp locks can open easily if the clamp is caught on something during the hike, while hikers who prefer clamp locks to twist-lock trekking poles claim that twist-lock trekking poles are hard to twist closed and tend to open up on the trail as well. Obviously, a hiking pole opening in the middle of a trek is a huge annoyance but neither the twist-lock or the clamp lock will have a 100% no-open rate for its entire lifetime.
One claim about twist-lock trekking poles that is worth considering is that they are more difficult to grip with gloves on, so snowy environments tend to be easier with clamp lock trekking poles. Clamp locks are slightly bulkier so ultralight backpackers and hikers might be better off with twist-lock models. Clamp locks also feature screws that need to be tightened once a while, but it’s a simple chore that can be done at home when necessary. Hikers just breaking into the trekking pole market might want to start with twist-lock trekking poles and see if they cause any undue annoyance on the trail.
How to use trekking poles
Some common misconceptions about trekking poles are that they are for older hikers or will cost hikers on the trail too much time to adjust when moving through different terrain. For this reason, like other skills built backpacking and hiking in the great outdoors, the use of trekking poles should be undertaken slowly. Your body will need to adjust to the use of trekking poles. The upper body might be in some pain the first time you use trekking poles if you’re using them as load-bearing crutches and putting too much weight on them. Hikers often make this mistake when going uphill and going downhill. Hiking with walking poles in your hand will take some getting used to, to say nothing of the proper techniques to use with trekking poles.
The key to using trekking poles successfully is to hike at an easy pace, paying special attention to your upper body and posture as you move over various types of terrain. Plant the trekking pole a little bit ahead of where you plan to place your footstep and follow the trekking pole naturally with your feet before removing the trekking pole from the ground and placing it for the next step. This process will engage your arms and shoulders much more than walking without adjustable trekking poles, so you might feel some soreness at the beginning. Don’t take giant steps and stab your trekking poles deep into the ground. Take it nice, slow, and easy, especially when you first start out.
How many trekking poles should I use?
It may seem like a no-brainer, but there are some advantages and disadvantages to hiking with one trekking pole versus hiking with two trekking poles. Some hikers might pack three trekking poles in case one of them breaks during the hike. When you first start using trekking poles, you should absolutely try using two before you switch to one. Using just one walking pole will work out one side of your body (probably your favored side) so it’s always better to switch off which hand you carry it in. If you’re the type of hiker who only uses the trekking pole when going downhill or making difficult river crossings and traversing different terrain, then one trekking pole might suffice for you.
How to adjust a trekking pole
The vast majority of trekking pole manufacturers included millimeter pole height rulers on the lower section of the trekking pole. As you learn how your particular use of trekking poles works out, you’ll start to know a few lengths that you use according to personal preference. Always maintain the walking poles at a length that allows for the handle to sit comfortably in the palm of your hand and still reach the ground easily over different types of terrain. Rocky terrain traversed while going uphill or going downhill may require one or both of your trekking poles to be adjusted to a shorter length to compensate for objects on the ground in different terrain. Flat ground won’t require much adjustment of the pole height if it requires any at all.
Adjusting the height of the poles is pretty intuitive. Undo the clamp lock or the twist-lock and then hold the trekking pole by the lower section in one hand and the top of the handle in the other. Push toward the center of the walking pole with both hands and the trekking pole should slide into itself. Look at the ruler if you’re adjusting the height of the poles to a specific number. If you’re trying to adjust the height of the poles to a specific type of terrain, you can always undo the clamp or twist-lock and place the pole tips on the ground and adjust to the correct height by pushing the trekking pole into the ground until it feels right. If you use this method, remember to keep your arms at a 90-degree angle while adjusting the height of the poles to make sure and get them to the correct height.
It’s probably going to be easier to adjust the pole height of each trekking pole individually, especially when you first start out. Getting to know what height suits your personal preference will take many hiking trips, so don’t despair if you’re caught adjusting the height of the poles really frequently on your first time out. Try alternating between carbide tips and rubber tips and see if one or the other accommodates usage of the trekking poles at your personal preference for pole height.
Adjustable trekking poles frequently come with added design features like cork handles that will stay in your grip better. Without slippage on the top of the handle, you’ll be able to get a much more accurate feel for your personal preference of pole height. Using something like a snow basket, which is what they called a plastic or metal ring that fastens to the pole tips and makes traversing snowy and icy types of terrain much easier, will require different pole heights as well for comfortable use.
Adjustable trekking poles are versatile and pain-sparing tools for trekkers, backpackers, and hikers. Some studies have shown that they increase the speed at which hikers can travel. Every trekker who has used an adjustable trekking pole knows it makes traversing different types of terrain much easier and saves hikers’ knees from overexertion and next-day pain. Hikers with balance issues will feel much more capable and able to traverse different terrain and river crossings if they have trekking poles along with them.
Some hikers have even come up with ingenious alternate uses for adjustable height trekking poles, like using them like a tent pole to make a one-person lean-to tent with a tarp. There are some hikers and backpackers who prefer to travel without trekking poles, but it’s really up to personal preference. Many hikers don’t go on long hikes without their trekking poles.
The most important feature of adjustable height trekking poles is obviously their adjustable height, so hopefully, this guide was able to illuminate the method for doing so. Now that you have a better idea about methods of use for your trekking poles, get back out on the trail with confidence in your balance, added strength, and increased speed, all gained from knowing how to adjust a trekking pole.
Bonus tip: Watch this instructional video for a quick overview of how to use trekking poles!