Hiking poles? Or no poles? It’s a question that many walkers will ponder at some point. Here’s our advice to help you make an informed choice.
Hiking poles (also known as trekking poles or walking poles) look a lot like stocks for skiing. People use them while hiking to aid with propulsion along the trail or to assist with joint support, balance and stability. Some hikers swear by them – but others can’t see the point.
We’re going to take a look at the different reasons that people use hiking poles and the different pole options that are out there. With all the information, you can make your own decision about whether they will help you and what sort of poles you should choose.
How do people use hiking poles to help them hike?
You can read articles or brochures on the correct way to use hiking poles, but the reality is that each person will use them differently, in a way that supports their own physical needs.
We spoke to walkers on a recent Park Trek tour – five out of the ten walkers used hiking poles. Some used one pole, some used two, and each of them had different reasons and techniques. Here’s an overview of their thoughts on walking poles.
Lesley uses two poles, mainly for balance. She has broken her ankle twice in the past and is cautious about protecting her weakened ankle. When she walks along level ground, she holds both poles in one hand and doesn’t use them, but when the ground starts to become rocky or unstable she puts one pole in each hand and uses them to absorb the impact on her ankles and to offer additional stability.
Carol uses two poles and she uses them to propel herself along the track, applying even pressure to each pole in time with her stride. She feels that the technique aids in propelling her forward and that it uses her arm strength as well as her leg strength to assist in walking over a long period. She also notes that using the poles in this way improves upper body strength and for women with grand kids, that is a side bonus – upper body strength is required to pick up your grandchildren.
Paul uses one pole adjusted to a short length so his hand can be placed on top of the pole rather than gripping around the hand grip. He places his pole beside him as a third point of contact on the ground to create a tripod effect, adding to his stability and balance.
Susan is a doctor whose work has led to an acute awareness of how broken bones contribute to declining health and mortality. She started using walking poles as a precautionary measure – as an aid to balance to protect herself from potential falls and broken bones. Since she has been using the poles, she has also found benefits in using the poles to aid propulsion along the trail and improved upper body strength.
Joan uses one pole for balance and to absorb impact on her joints, placing it carefully to offer additional support on uneven ground. Joan will lean onto the pole and rely on it to help support her for large steps up or down or for rock-hopping across a creek.
Other people who use walking poles emphasise the value of using poles to take stress off knees, ankles and hips, and of increasing the walking ‘workout’ as using your arms with poles increases heart rate and calorie burn.
Other uses of walking poles include checking water depth and wobbly rocks in creek crossings, poking things (like a unusual lump of bark) along the trail, using the poles to lean on for a quick rest beak, using them as emergency tent poles and using them as a camera mount or selfie stick (this requires a special attachment feature).
All of these different reasons and uses point to an answer to the question ‘should I use hiking poles?’
The answer is ‘if they help you’.
How to choose and use different hiking pole features
Let’s take a look at the issues to consider when shopping for walking poles and using them on the trail.
Hiking pole weight
The weight of walking poles is an important consideration. While hiking, your arms will need to lift the poles with every step. The heavier the pole, the faster your arms will fatigue. If you can’t easily lift and place the poles, they will become a hindrance rather than a help to your walking.
Poles can weigh anywhere between around 250 grams and 600 grams per pair. The weight of the pole is determined by the pole design and the pole shaft diameter, length and material.
Hiking pole shaft material
Most poles are made from aluminium or carbon fibre. The heavier poles are usually made of high-grade aluminium which is unlikely to break under pressure. The lighter, more expensive poles are usually made of carbon fibre which is a strong material however it may splinter or break under stress more easily than aluminium.
Carbon fibre is lighter – but more expensive but weaker. Aluminium is stronger and cheaper – but heavier. When choosing new poles, you’ll need to make your own personal choice on the weight – strength – price equation.
The correct hiking pole length
As a general rule, to find the right pole length for your height, try this simple technique. Hold your arms with elbows beside you bent at a 90 degree angle and hold the poles by the hand grips. With the correct pole length the poles should be straight up and down resting on the ground in this position.
Hiking pole sections and locking system
Most poles are made with shafts that deconstruct into two or three sections, either by folding or telescoping. The compacting and locking systems vary, but the end result is about the same – a compacted pole for easier transit. (Note that hiking poles will generally not be allowed in hand luggage on a plane.) When shopping for poles, try the different pole types to ensure that you can work the locking mechanism easily.
Fixed-length pole versus adjustable-length pole
When extended, some poles are a fixed length and others are adjustable. Fixed length poles lock in place at one point and adjustable poles have the ability to adjust the length by a few centimetres. You may find that fixed-length poles are lighter-weight and cheaper as they have simpler construction with less moving parts.
The benefits of adjustable length are that you can vary the length of the pole depending on the terrain. Many users suggest lengthening poles for heading downhill and shortening them for heading uphill. You can also lengthen the pole on your downhill side when walking along an extended traverse and it can be helpful to lengthen the poles for a creek crossing.
Hiking pole hand grips
Each manufacturer has their own hand grip design, so try a few to consider their comfort in your hand. Hand grips are generally made out of rubber, foam or cork or a combination of those materials. Rubber absorbs shock and insulates against temperature, but it is more likely to cause chafing on your hands. Cork resists sweat and may mould a little to the shape of your hands, while foam feels the softest and absorbs sweat but may be weaker in the long term.
Some poles have an angled hand grip to keep your wrist in a more neutral position while using the poles. Some poles have a long hand grip section, designed so that your hand can move up and down the grip enabling you to move your hand to change the effective pole length depending on terrain.
Hiking pole wrist straps
Most poles have adjustable wrist straps, which will allow you to secure the strap comfortably around your hand. A firm wrist strap will be an aid when using poles for propulsion over even ground, providing a secure point of pressure that utilises your skeletal frame rather than hand strength. This adds a lot of strength that doesn’t rely on the strength of your hand grip. This can be an advantage for users with RSI or other issues which impact on hand strength.
Some pole users express concern about potential injuries as a result of using wrist straps. If you lose your balance and fall with your hands secured in the strap, your hands are not free to support you as you fall, leading to increased likelihood of wrist, elbow and shoulder injury.
Others find the straps inconvenient if they wish put down and pick up the poles regularly, or pass them from one hand to the other. Using the straps may also increase the likelihood of pole breakage – if your pole is wedged and you stumble, the pole may be more likely to break.
Hiking pole tips and baskets
Hiking poles usually have a carbide tip or a rubber tip. Rubber tips are best for hard surfaces to absorb some of the impact of the pole hitting the ground and the metal tips work best on softer ground.
Poles may also be fitted with baskets – round disks that sit above the tip. Baskets are useful when hiking in snow, sand or in soft muddy ground. Larger and smaller baskets are available, and you can use them depending on the type of hiking you’re doing. You may find the baskets are more likely to get caught in shrubby undergrowth or cause awkwardness in placement in rocky ground, and some users find it best to simply remove the baskets for many hiking purposes.
Some poles have an internal spring system that aids in shock absorption which can be useful for those who are using poles to alleviate stress on joints. Some poles have replaceable parts and accessories and some come with a stopper for the tip to protect your luggage. Some poles feature a camera mount enabling you to use the pole as a ‘monopod’ or selfie stick.
Hiking pole price
The general price range of hiking poles is between about $50 and $300.
So… which hiking poles are best? And should I use them?
There is a broad range of hiking poles, with different design, materials, construction, features and brand style. There is no ‘right’ choice – you’ll have to be guided in your choice by the pole that feels comfortable to you and an understanding of the features you want.
The best advice we can give is that if you are considering poles as an aid to supporting joints, balance and stability while walking or as an aid to propulsion while walking, them give them a try. Perhaps ask a friend if you can try theirs for half an hour, or visit an outdoor shop and do a few laps of the store with the poles.
And if you can see a benefit for you, don’t hesitate to give them a try. If the result of using hiking poles is that your walking ability, balance, confidence or enjoyment is increased, then it’s a worthwhile outcome.