How to Use Hiking Poles

Hiking poles are a common sight on the trails, they’re used by many hikers to improve their backcountry experience. Trekking poles can come across as a hindrance to those who don’t use them, and they definitely are if you don’t use them properly. However, when used in the proper manner, hiking poles can make your trek much more enjoyable. There are a lot of small elements that come together to form an ideal hiking trip, for example, it’s important to make sure your hiking boots fit correctly. In the same way, you need to know how to properly use a hiking pole if you want your expedition to be successful.

Hiking with trekking poles is similar, but not the same, as nordic walking. Nordic walking is a technique used to engage your upper body muscles while walking, in order to obtain a more well-rounded workout. Nordic walking poles are similar to hiking and ski poles, however, they’re specifically designed to work out much more of your body. 

Trekking poles can make a big difference on your hike, and they have a lot of benefits. Using hiking poles can increase your stability, decrease joint pain, and allow you to hike for much longer. Research suggests that you can also burn a significant amount more calories if you use trekking poles on your hike. We’ll explain all the benefits, as well as the downsides to hiking with poles, and the technique you’ll need to employ to get the most out of them. Now, let’s jump in and find out everything you need to know about how to use hiking poles. 

 

A man with hiking poles in the snow.

Hiking poles, ski poles, and nordic walking poles are similar, but they each serve a different purpose.

 

Different types and options for hiking poles

Not all trekking poles are created equal, and there are several different options available for different purposes. Your first task needs to be figuring out which setup works best. Trekking poles or hiking poles are sold in a pair, used with one in each hand. A pair of trekking poles can enhance your stability on the trails, a useful feature for older hikers in particular. Hiking poles also reduce the force on your knees, especially important for backpackers with heavy loads. Some of these adjustable poles feature internal springs as shock absorbers. 

Instead of using a pair of trekking poles, some hikers use a single pole in one hand. Also known as a hiking staff, it’s best used on flat terrain when you have little to no load. These single walking poles are also adjustable, and some include a built-in camera mount so you can use it to stabilize your photographs. 

Some hiking poles have different features and additions, depending on their intended use. In order to get the most out of your hiking poles, read over these features to see which type suits you best. The majority of trekking poles are adjustable, to ensure you have maximum stability no matter the terrain. Fixed-length poles are available, but they’re more useful if you can change the length. When hiking, you can shorten or lengthen the poles to go up and downhill, and this has a marked effect on stability. Non-adjustable hiking poles are generally lighter-weight, ideal if you’re an ultralight backpacker and know you only need one length of a hiking pole. 

Some hiking poles are foldable, collapsing like tent poles rather than telescopically. Foldable poles are easier to pack, and usually quick to deploy. Generally more lightweight, foldable hiking poles are more popular amongst speed hikers. 

Internal-shock absorbers are available in some trekking poles, springs inside the poles to decrease the impact on your joints. Many poles have the option to disable this feature when it’s not needed, such as going uphill. Poles without internal springs are usually lighter and less expensive, so consider if you need this feature. Extra shock-absorption is a valuable addition for any hiker, but it’s especially important if you have troublesome hips, knees, or ankles. 

One other use for trekking poles is to create ultralight shelters. Hiking poles can be used in the place of tent poles to prop up a tarp, creating a lightweight waterproof shelter. 

 

Benefits of using hiking poles

There are numerous benefits to using trekking poles while you’re hiking, most obviously the impact reduction on your knee joints and leg muscles. Instead, your arm and shoulder muscles take on more of your weight, relieving some pressure on your legs. Studies have shown that using a hiking pole reduces strain on the opposite leg by about 20%, and when walking on level ground the poles reduce body weight on each step by 5 kg. On an incline, this can increase to 8kg, which over the course of a two-hour hike can amount to tons of weight. 

Trekking poles can be incredibly beneficial to those with painful or troublesome hip and knee joints. By taking some of your body weight on your arms and shoulders, pressure on these joints is decreased. If you’re backpacking with a heavy load, hiking poles can also decrease back pain by spreading weight. Hiking poles are also great at reducing leg fatigue, so your muscles will ache less and you can hike for longer. 

When you hike with poles, your hands remain positioned above your heart throughout. This improves your circulation while hiking, and reduces your heart rate. Another benefit of this position is your hands won’t swell in warm weather. As you know, keeping your hands swinging by your sides can cause blood to pool in a highly uncomfortable way, while holding and swinging trekking poles will keep your blood flowing. Similarly, the rhythm you walk in while using trekking poles leads to more relaxed and regular breathing, improving your stamina so pole users can hike for longer. 

Balance is another element greatly improved through the use of hiking poles. Specifically, when navigating stream crossings and uneven terrain, hiking poles can be a godsend for hikers with balance issues. Whether you’re crossing soft and unstable ground, or traversing icy and slippery terrain, trekking poles can be the difference between staying on your feet, and landing flat on your face. 

So, the use of hiking poles clearly has it’s benefits. By allowing you to hike better, for longer, with less pain and discomfort, they’re clearly worth considering to improve your experience on the trails. But if trekking poles can help you be a better hiker in so many ways, why isn’t everyone on board? Next, we’ll discuss the possible reasons you might not want to use hiking poles. 

 

Man running near a rocky mountain in the daytime.

Hiking poles are especially beneficial when trekking uphill.

 

Downsides to using hiking poles

Like almost every other backcountry issue, hiking poles are divisive. Some swear by their many benefits, while other hikers won’t go near. One element which can be considered both a benefit and a downside is energy expenditure. Using hiking poles can increase the number of calories you burn while decreasing perceived exertion. This means you’re expending a lot more energy without feeling it. Although this is a benefit if you’re hiking to lose weight, for example, it means you aren’t expending energy the optimal way. All the weight that you remove from your knees is transferred to your shoulders, which aren’t designed to carry your body weight. If you’re interested, find out more about the calories you burn while hiking here. There are a lot of factors that go into our energy expenditure on the trails, so check it out and optimize your hiking style. 

Hiking poles also require the full use of your hands at all times, which can make stopping to take a photo more of a struggle. Even when using the wrist straps, you’ll still feel clumsy and encumbered. The largest drawback to the use of hiking poles is that most hikers don’t use them correctly. Although they can be extremely beneficial when necessary, most hikers don’t need to use trekking poles on every hike, so their use is more of an encumbrance than an improvement. However, that’s why we’ve produced this guide, so you know how to use hiking poles the right way. 

 

How to adjust your hiking poles

In order for hiking poles to be used in a beneficial manner, it’s paramount that you adjust them correctly. If your poles aren’t correctly set up, then you won’t be able to use them as intended. The wrist strap is an often overlooked but incredibly important element of trekking poles, it isn’t just there to stop you from dropping them. If you use your wrist straps properly, it can be a big help in preventing aching hands and sprained wrists, even injuries. 

Put your hand through your hiking pole’s wrist strap from the bottom, so the strap is around your wrist. You should be holding the grip of your hiking pole as well as the top of the strap. To adjust your wrist straps, just remove the tension block and tighten or loosen as necessary. Once you’re finished, just replace the tension block. When properly adjusted, the length of the strap should be tight enough to help support your hand on the pole, without limiting circulation or being difficult to remove. 

Using this technique will support your wrist and the heel of your hand, allowing you to relax your grip a little. It’s very important to hold your trekking poles correctly, so avoid hand fatigue and pain, and avoid the risk of sprained wrists. 

Pole height is also very important if you want to use hiking poles correctly. Having the wrong pole length can make your hiking or backpacking trip much less enjoyable, so make sure you have the right length for every trail. For general hiking using trekking poles, your arm should be at a 90-degree angle at the elbow. The pole tip should be on the ground by your foot, this is the ideal setup for most hiking terrain. You may need to adjust the length of your trekking poles depending on changing ground, but we’ll explain that later in the article. For detailed instructions, check out our article on how to adjust a trekking pole

 

Person walking in the green forest.

When used the right way, hiking poles can vastly improve your time in the backcountry.

 

How to use hiking poles

When you start using hiking poles, there’s a steep learning curve. Luckily, most hikers will quickly find their ideal walking rhythm and technique, but we’ll share the best advice we can about how to properly use your trekking poles. We’ll start with some simple tips on moving the pole forward. When walking naturally, we step forward with one foot and the opposite hand swings forward automatically, for example, your right foot moves forward with your left hand. This is how our body automatically maximizes our stability, by balancing out each side. You should use your hiking poles in the same way. 

When you take a step, your trekking poles should move forward with the opposite leg. If you plant your pole on the same side as your forward leg, you’ll alter this walking pattern and destabilize yourself. So, always swing your trekking poles the opposite way to your legs, planting the pole on the opposite side to each step. Some hikers don’t need to plant their pole with every step, and this movement pattern might be more ideal when traveling without a heavy load.

However, the most sustainable and stable technique is the one we’ve outlined, especially if you have a heavy pack. If you fall out of rhythm when alternating your arms and legs, just hold your trekking poles up for a moment while you continue walking. As soon as you’re ready, you should be able to begin planting your poles naturally again. 

Sometimes, you may need to double plant your poles while hiking. If you’re on a steep climb or a perilous descent, you may need additional stability. Plant both your poles at the same time, take two steps and plant them once more. If you step up onto a ledge, you can use both poles to help yourself up. This is a great technique for minimizing leg fatigue when gaining elevation. 

When walking uphill, you may want to shorten your pole slightly. To get more leverage, reduce the length of your pole by 5-10 centimeters, shorter for a steeper slope. You want your hiking poles to help pull you up the hill, rather than push you away. When planting your pole walking uphill, keep it closer to your body. The tip of your lead pole shouldn’t be in front of your foot. If you feel that your shoulders are in an unnatural lifted position, or perhaps they are pushing into your backpack straps, you can shorten your hiking poles even more. 

When traveling downhill, especially for an extended period, or over particularly uneven terrain, you should adjust your trekking hole to be a little longer. You can increase your pole length by 5-10cm to help you keep good posture. With longer hiking poles, you won’t bend to plant the pole in front of you and can remain properly upright. On a sideways-sloped trail, you may need to adjust your trekking poles so one is longer than the other. Make sure you test out your pole adjustments on new terrain first to make sure they’re suitable. 

 

How to use hiking poles to negotiate obstacles 

One of the best ways you can benefit from using hiking poles is when crossing the most challenging terrain. The extra stability hiking poles can provide is very useful when you encounter obstacles out on the trails. When crossing rivers and streams, trekking poles can provide some much-needed additional stability. Wading through water can easily overbalance a hiker, but if you securely plant your trekking pole on the bottom of the stream then you’ll feel much better moving forward. You may need to lengthen your poles in deeper water and be aware that poles may sink if the terrain is soft. 

When using a pair of hiking poles, you can “pole-vault” over obstacles such as puddles. Simply plant both poles and hop over to the other side, keeping your hiking boots clean and dry. Hiking poles can also be useful when getting over large rocks and boulders, to give you a helpful push. Use a double planting technique in this situation, for optimized stability as you climb up on the rock. 

 

A man with hiking poles on a mountain.

When you need a little extra balance or stability, a hiking pole is perfect.

 

Final Verdict: 

Hiking poles can be very beneficial when used in the correct way. To use hiking poles properly, you first need to have them properly adjusted. In general, the pole length should be set so your elbow is at a 90-degree angle, and can be increased and decreased depending on the incline of your trail. 

You can use your hiking poles to help cross uneven terrain, improving your balance and stability in stream crossing for example. When hiking downhill, use trekking poles to reduce the impact on your knee joints, and take some pressure off your legs in general. Always try to walk in a natural pattern, swinging the opposite pole and leg with each step. If you use hiking poles in this proper way, then your time on the trails will be much more enjoyable. 

 

Bonus tip: Check out this video on how to adjust hiking poles!

 

 

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Riley Draper

Riley Draper

Riley Draper is a writer and entrepreneur from Chattanooga, Tennessee. As a world traveler, he has been to more than fifty countries and hiked some of the most elusive trails in the world. He is the co-founder of WeCounsel Solutions and has published work in both national and global outlets, including the Times Free Press, Patch, and Healthcare Global. When he's not writing, he's probably on a hiking trip or climbing in the mountains.