By Michael Lanza
If you’ve opened this story, you probably already recognize this truth: For backpackers, dayhikers, climbers, mountain runners, and others, trekking poles noticeably reduce strain, fatigue, and impact on leg muscles and joints, feet, back—and really on your entire body. And that’s true no matter how much weight you’re carrying, whether a daypack, an ultralight backpack, or a woefully heavy backpack.
But if you’ve opened this story, you also probably already have a sense of this often-overlooked truth: How you use poles matters. If you use them correctly, you’re gaining their benefits on virtually every step of your hike; if not, they become dead weight. This story provides 10 highly effective tips on using poles, from basics like adjusting pole length, gripping the strap, and moving uphill and downhill on trails, to managing steep terrain, fording streams, advanced tips for aiding balance, and more.
The tips below are based on my experience of many thousands of trail miles and more than three decades of backpacking, dayhiking, climbing, trail running, and taking ultra-hikes and ultra-runs—plus a quarter-century of testing and reviewing gear as a past field editor for Backpacker magazine and for many years running this blog. I believe this story will give you expert tips on hiking with trekking poles that you will not find anywhere else.
With practice, using trekking poles can become so second-nature that you don’t have to think about what you’re doing—your body works on muscle memory, and your pole plants and movement become more efficient and effective. Mountain runners can even get skilled at rapidly swinging poles to assist with balance and braking when running trails downhill.
Tell me what you think of my tips, ask any questions, or share your own tips in the comments section at the bottom of this story. I try to respond to all comments. And click on any photo to learn about that trip.
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#1 Set the Pole Length
For hiking on well-graded, flat to moderately steep trails, adjust the pole length so that your elbow is at a 90-degree angle when holding the pole upright, its tip planted on the ground, right in front of you. On many well-graded (not terribly steep) trails, you may not feel the need to adjust this length setting.
But on steeper terrain or trails, your poles may feel too long when going up or too short when going down. If so, shorten the pole by 5-10cm for hiking uphill and lengthen it a similar amount for hiking downhill. With a little practice, you will quickly learn your preferred length in different terrain.
The adjustable sections of poles typically employ one of two different mechanisms. Here’s how to set each of them correctly:
- Twist-lock cams tighten and loosen, of course, by twisting them. Don’t over-tighten them: Turn the mechanism until you feel the cam tightening, then secure it with just another quarter-turn. If you’re applying much effort to twist it, you’re over-tightening it.
- Locking levers have a small screw for adjusting the lever’s tension, so that it’s not so loose that the sections collapse easily, or too tight to open and close the lever. That screw will only require slight adjustment, and depending on the design, you might be able to do it with your fingers, or it will require a tool like a Phillips screwdriver (the size found on many multi-tools and Swiss Army knives) or an Allen key. Take note of whether your poles have shafts whose diameter varies slightly from end to end, so that you find the lever tension setting that’s not too tight or loose with the poles either extended or collapsed.
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#2 How to Grip the Pole Strap
To use poles properly, slide your hand through the strap before grabbing the pole grip, and wrap your thumb over the strap; that enables you to pull down on the strap—and lean onto the pole—without over-gripping and fatiguing your hands.
Pole straps are generally easily adjustable. Set them so that the strap wraps your hands comfortably when holding the strap as described above. Adjust straps if needed for wearing gloves (which is usually only necessary for thick, warm gloves).
A tip: Sometimes when hiking down steep, rocky terrain—when the risk of falling is elevated—I remove the straps from my wrists to avoid the poles getting in my way and somehow worsening injuries if I trip and fall. My concern is tripping over the pole or having the pole cause a severe twist of my arm or shoulder because my wrist is in the strap when I’m falling. Plus, when descending, we primarily lean on the poles and use them for balance and supporting our weight rather than to help propel us forward, so the straps are less important, anyway.
At just about all other times when hiking, without the wrist straps, you lose the major benefit of having poles: their ability to help you move forward and conserve energy
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#3 Use Poles to Propel Yourself Forward
When hiking relatively level terrain or gentle uphills, take a cue from cross-country skiers: Use poles to help propel yourself forward by planting the pole behind your back foot—which is the foot on the same side as the pole you’re planting when you swing your arms in a normal walking gait—and pushing off.
This will not, of course, feel or look quite the same as Nordic skiers who are sliding rapidly on skis over snow. The effort shouldn’t, for instance, cause serious fatigue in your arms and particularly your triceps muscles. But thousands of slight push-offs over the course of several miles translates to a significant, cumulative amount of weight taken off your leg and back muscles. Hikers using this technique will notice the energy efficiency gained.
Plus, if your goal is exercise, as with Nordic skiing, this technique will give you more of a full-body workout than just walking.
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#4 Using Poles on Steep Ascents
On steep ascents, plant poles alternately in front of you, swinging your arms the same as when walking gentler terrain (right arm forward with the left foot, left arm with the right foot); but plant each pole close enough that your elbow is bent, so that you can lean on the pole strap to gain a bit of upward leverage. A straight arm doesn’t convey much leverage onto the pole.
Some heavier, more-versatile poles have extended grips on the upper shafts, useful for holding the poles below the grips on exceptionally steep uphills without your hand slipping or holding cold metal. This is most useful for climbers and backcountry skiers.
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#5 Using Poles on Steep Descents
On steep descents—both on-trail and especially off-trail—use poles for balance and to reduce the impact of constantly stepping down. Employ these two techniques depending on the steepness (and follow tip #1 for lengthening your poles):
Whether you’re a beginner or seasoned backpacker, you’ll learn new tricks for making all of your trips go better in my “12 Expert Tips for Planning a Wilderness Backpacking Trip” and “A Practical Guide to Lightweight and Ultralight Backpacking.” If you don’t have a paid subscription to The Big Outside, you can read part of both stories for free, or download the e-guide versions of “12 Expert Tips for Planning a Wilderness Backpacking Trip” and the lightweight backpacking guide without having a paid membership.
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NOTE: I tested gear for Backpacker Magazine for 20 years. At The Big Outside, I review only what I consider the best outdoor gear and apparel. See my Gear Reviews page at The Big Outside for categorized menus of all of my reviews and my expert buying tips.