Hiking poles are simply walking sticks, and though used to aid formal hiking rather than everyday walking the principle is just the same. They take many forms, ranging from single staves made from found wood to pairs of sophisticated height-adjustable poles made from lightweight (and expensive!) composite materials. This article is aimed at the user, or potential user, of purpose built trekking poles, which either are, or are similar to, ski touring poles which have been popular with walkers in the Alps for many years now. The information may be of use to other users who favour more traditional staves, but it is concentrated on the specifics of ski-type poles.
Hiking poles, like any hand-held walking support (sticks, crutches, zimmer frames, etc.), are designed to provide additional stability and to spread the load on your legs onto your arms. Many people feel no need for this support when hiking, but there is a substantial minority who suffer for their pleasure in the backcountry, usually from knee pain, and they usually encounter it on hills and/or carrying heavy loads. If you end your days wishing your knees or whole legs were in better shape you may well benefit from using poles, as you can lower the amount of stress on them by taking the weight onto the poles through your arms.
Here are the main pros and cons of hiking poles:Pro: reduce knee pain - The typical knee has spent most of its life supporting body weight around on reasonably flat surfaces. Add additional pack weight, keep going for longer than usual and add in the additional stress on the joints and muscles caused by ascents and descents and it is not too surprising that quite a few hikers suffer from some discomfort in their knees. If you don't, you are not so likely to want or need poles, but if you do they will probably make things better, especially coming down hill.
Pro: increase hill climbing power - The steeper the hill, the greater the relative benefit of poles vs. no poles. You can use them to switch into 4x4 mode, and do some of the work against gravity with your arms so you get up quicker and spread the load more evenly around your muscles.
Pro: can increase endurance - By spreading the load away from your legs, which are the bits that typically get tired on a hike, you can increase your total endurance. This is not necessarily a "given" though, as poles do increase total energy expenditure.
Pro: aid crossing soft ground - By enabling you to spread your weight onto two baskets as well as two feet, there is much less tendency to sink in snow and marshy ground. When traversing bogs, they also make aided jumps across particularly squishy bits possible, though if you do not have a basket at the bottom none of this will work.
Pro: can aid balance for activities like river crossing, scree running, etc. - Three or four legs are better than two when trying to cross rivers towards the limits of fordability. As well as making the experience easier, they can make it a lot safer too. On scree they just lower the amount of time you spend sitting down, though they can increase the fun factor of a good running scree by letting you ski reasonably effectively, and certainly aid turning under control.
Con: Financial outlay may be required - Many walking staves are made from found materials, but a dedicated ski-type pole will cost money. It is not necessary to buy the most expensive models for a tangible benefit (in fact I prefer cheaper ones, finding them just as effective as the top-of-the-line models), but you are looking at money you may be better off spending on something else. Poles are not a must-have like, say, a good compass in many areas, so if the budget is tight, consider the need for a purchase carefully.
Con: Increases total energy expenditure - A fact not often proclaimed by marketing departments or pole advocates is that using them will increase your total energy budget. Using your arms to prop you up is not something they were designed for, so they do not do it very efficiently. The flipside is that despite using more energy, you are spreading the load more evenly around your body, so the legs are not doing all of the work. Thus, if you have tired legs and knees then poles can be a win, but if you have a tired body, with your cardiovascular system at its limits, then poles may be more of a hindrance than a help.
Con: Keeps hands full - Or one of them, at least... With pole(s) in hand(s), it becomes more awkward to use handholds on rock faces in tricky sections or to consult with a map, take quick snapshots and the like. For fine navigation in difficult conditions, you will generally have to stow poles to allow compass and map to be used most effectively.
Con: Get in the way on technical sections - As well as keeping hands full, there are places where poles just plain get in the way. Dense undergrowth, or climbing chimneys, poles can even get in the way when they are stowed. Three part poles stow smallest, so suffer least here, but it is a hassle if you have to repeatedly collapse them to keep them out of the way.
Con: Often ineffective due to poor technique - Judging from the people I see using poles, the majority of folk get little or no benefit from them. There seems to be some strange perception that by carrying a pole and planting it softly on the ground every couple of paces then your knees will feel a lot better, but alas it is not necessarily so. Getting a real benefit requires the user to do work and to adopt a useful technique. Without these two factors, poles do no good.
There has not been a shortage of models for years, and now their popularity is taking off there is even more choice. This section looks at general features rather than specific models, so you can assess the suitability of any model you see.
One or two? - One pole is a benefit, but two is a bigger benefit. Unless you need a hand free or find using two poles difficult for some reason, most users will recommend twin poles: you will save weight getting onto both knees, have more push for uphills and more balance points on nastiness like river crossings.
Adjustable and fixed length poles - Fixed length poles are usually ski poles crossing into a different use. The advantages of a fixed length pole are greater strength in a pole of comparable cost or quality, plus if you have got some ski poles of a suitable length tucked into an attic somewhere over summer, they may not cost you anything extra. More commonly, trekking poles are adjustable, usually in three telescopic sections, though if you are using ski touring adjustable poles then they may have just two. A two part pole is stronger, but does not pack down so neatly so gets in the way more when stowed, which is an important consideration moving in densely vegetated areas or scrambling and climbing. The locking mechanism of the poles comes with two different systems. The more common twistlock, that expands or contracts the locking grommet, thus releasing or locking the pole. Twist locks can be awkward to (un)set with sweaty hands or gloves, but in practice have proven simple and reliable enough in general use. The more recent cam lock, which uses a lever to set the tension at the same level each time. They are easier to operate with gloved hands (important in snow conditions), and suffer less from too little tension leading to a collapse when heavily weighted.
Grip and strap - A very important part of the pole, and sadly one which is misused more often than not. Since this is the bit you hold on to, and where your weight goes onto the pole, it is vital that it is as comfortable as possible. Though this is fairly obvious, the fact that the most crucial element is the strap is not, with those not used to ski pole grips often getting it wrong. The important thing is to let the strap take the weight, which means it should be snug and allow a loose, comfortable grip from the fingers which are just there to guide the pole, not to take a load. If you have a pole where the strap varies in thickness you want the thinnest section to cross the palm of your hand, which minimises chafing. Poles with variable thickness straps have distinct left/right poles. Using a snug strap under the heel of the hand as the basis for a grip reduces the need for expensive materials on grips, such as cork, for comfortable hands. Though such luxury grip materials do make a difference, the fact that you do not actually grip the grip very much or very hard means that they are not nearly as significant as you might first think. Another innovation of perhaps marginal usage is a design point borrowed from high performance downhill ski poles, where the grip is canted forwards at approximately 15 degrees to make it easier to plant the pole ahead of you downhill. With the relaxed pace of walking, and resultant relaxed grip, it is very easy to swing pole ahead of you if you are not holding it in your fist. Thus, a canted grip is probably not as significant for walking as some marketing folk may try and make out, at least if you adopt a comfortable, relaxed grip based on the strap as the main loading point.
Shock absorbers - Some poles have shock absorbing springs built into the shafts or handles, and a frequent question is, "Are they worth it?". Based on my own experience I have found the answer to be "No, not really", but it is not quite that simple because my arm joints are in good shape and my previous experience with poles for ski touring and walking has given me a fair dose of technique to avoid the sort of problem they are designed to relieve. From looking at walkers using poles for the first time, especially those relying on a tight grip rather than a loose one, there appears to be a common tendency to push the pole down, where better technique is to place the pole and then load it. This is actually a fluid action and just as easy, but it does need some practice, and before the technique is established it is quite likely that an anti-shock pole will be more comfortable. Once you have got that technique, however, you have got something that does not generally do you much good. My feeling that this is so is based mainly on a gear review I did on poles, and finding no difference in my comfort levels between the two types after extensive use. One of these tests involved a 10 hour day on the hills with about 2000 meters of ascent and descent with a standard pole in one hand and an otherwise identical anti-shock in the other, and no tangible difference at the end of the walk. Since most people can develop good technique with practice, and a rigid pole is still comfortable enough in the first instance for most, for most I would recommend saving the extra money, though again this is not a cut and dried case. Some people may simply find the technique of place then load difficult to acquire, especially if they only occasionally use the poles, and others may have special considerations such as arthritic joints to consider. If there is a point where they will help, it is most likely to be coming downhill. Uphill and on the flats, poles should swing into place sideways so there is quite simply no shock to absorb. Downhill, with placements ahead of you and weight loading straight down, straight away, some people may experience a benefit. Since shock absorbing poles cost more (sometimes considerably more), do try and find out if they help before parting with money, as it is quite possible you can save it.
Baskets and tips - The tip is the base of the pole, where it meets the ground, and a basket is an optional load spreader that sits above it. There are several varieties of each to choose from. A rubber foot is what you typically see on a conventional walking stick, and is designed for slick, hard surfaces (like pavement) or surfaces that need preservation from damage (like carpet). In the backcountry, these are of less use than spike tips as the ground rarely conforms to either characteristic, but if you are road walking, or are on bare rock for significant periods they can be good. Some can be placed over the top of spike feet. A sharp spike tip has a single, sharp point. They are most often seen on ski poles designed to deal with ice. On relatively hard surfaces they grip very well, but as an overall performer they are rarely significantly better than a semi-sharp spike and have far more potential to stab yourself or those around you. A semi-sharp spike is the most common tip, as it is generally the most useful in typical backcountry situations. The tip has several small, blunted spikes or ridges in a circular pattern at the base, so although the spikes have less holding power individually than a single, sharp spike, there are more of them. Much less ripping and stabbing accident potential than a single sharp spike. And onto baskets. Baskets are there to stop the pole sinking into soft ground (boggy/marshy or snow, for example). The bigger the basket, the more effective it is, but the more it gets in the way, especially catching in low vegetation. On most terrain, a compromise cone is used, that will stop the pole sinking in most ground but only being about an inch (5 centimeters) across, they are less likely to catch. If you find your poles sinking, get a larger basket, or if you find them catching, get a cone or remove the basket altogether.
There is not too much to do with poles, so this bit is quite short. Although they won't rust, being alloy, you will generally get some corrosion appearing, especially if they have been in a cupboard for a few months. This will usually make the pole sections stick together if stored compressed down, so a good idea is to store them in their separate sections. If you keep the open ends down, any water will tend to drain out.
If you do find spots of corrosion after storage, fine grade abrasive paper can be used to clean off any spots spots as necessary, and this will also keep the surfaces smooth for consistent locking performance (though you may need to re-mark any length indicators, I use a magic marker).
I am told that brushes for cleaning gun barrels are excellent for cleaning the inside sections, but never having seen such a thing cannot report personal experience. Certainly some means of removing dirt, dust and corrosion spots from the inside sections would be a good thing.
Twist lock poles tend to suffer from the powder of corroded aluminium blocking up the locking grommet, so always make sure the grommet is clean before re-assembling for action. Storing poles in separate sections tends to reduce this problem.
Pole locks will occasionally malfunction in the field, but are usually easy to cure. For a flicklock, the tensioning cam can often come undone a little, or getting the poles wet may reduce the friction a little too much. This is easily cured by tightening the screw on the locking cam (easily cured, that is, if you have a screwdriver with you, or a suitable substitute: don't leave home without one). With a twistlock, the problem is usually that the grommet is rotating with the lower pole section, instead of expanding and locking. This is usually caused by a dirty grommet: pull the sections apart and wash off any corrosion and clag build up from the threads. If this is not possible, you can usually start the thread turning a little with the grommet just exposed, and once started you can push it back in and then get some results.
Three part poles are designed to be extended with all sections lengthened equally, as this is the strongest configuration. Don't extend one section a lot and another not at all, or you will compromise overall strength and be more likely to bend the pole (which makes telescoping them very hard). To extend 10 centimetres, always expand each section 5 centimeters, though an exception to that rule may be if a taper on the lower section has not been completely passed out of the mid section. Fully extend any taper first so that the full width of the pole has a snug fit at the entry to the mid section before extending the mid section itself.
Now you've looked at pole anatomy, let's look at how to use them. There are several different techniques for using poles, mainly separated by the gradient they are used on. Note that this is all about two-pole technique, as it is the most efficient way to pole. You can adopt it for single pole on one side quite easily, though slightly more contrived methods using long poles become more useful with just one. Also note that what is presented here is a way, not the way, but it works for me. If you find something works better for you then that is what you should use.
On the flats, and gentle uphills - Some people assume that poles are only useful on hills, but not so! By using them effectively on the flats you are reducing the overall work of your legs and knees, so when you get to the hills they are fresher and better up to the task. The method is very similar to cross country ski technique, only with shorter poles, and you are putting the emphasis on pushing down rather than back. However, the basic technique remains the same, letting the poles swing in a natural rhythm, just as your arms do without them. As your arm comes up, it pulls the pole forwards and it plants opposite the falling foot, allowing you to load the pole as your foot comes down.
Descent - Things have to change a bit here, as the method of letting the pole tip swing into the ground is defeated by the ground falling away ahead of you, so as a result you have to get the poles ahead of you and get your weight forward onto them. This is not as natural, and needs more practice. Still plant the leading pole opposite the falling foot, but the body weight is placed forwards, to get the weight onto the poles and off the legs. The faster you go, the more you lean into it.
Steep stuff - The techniques covered so far are the most generally useful, designed for typical trail hills and flats, but every now and then you'll get something steep where a different approach can help. Going up, lean into the hill and get the poles above you, still pointing back but with your arms higher and further forward. This posture tends to be easiest to actually push your body up the slope, rather than just helping the legs support your weight which is the usual task. Some people prefer to plant same side rather than opposite doing this. For a real big push, plant both poles together and heave on them at the same time. As you step through, keep pushing, and maximise the duration of the power by moving the heels of your hands to the pole top as you go past them. Ssame things work coming down, using the top of the pole to extend your reach without resetting the length and using both poles together for extra support. Like normal downhill, weight and poles start well forward.
Rough stuff - The techniques presented so far assume it is easy to plant your poles, but it ain't necessarily so... Where there is considerable vegetation around narrow paths, for example, placing a pole can be awkward. In such instances it can often be easier to place a pole well ahead and keep it in place over several strides (a longer pole may facilitate this).
Variations - As was pointed out earlier, the techniques presented are not the only way to use poles effectively. Some users like to use a single plant/multi-step technique as suggested for rough areas all of the time, especially downhill, for example. Do not be afraid to "mix and match" according to terrain, or just how you feel: the point is to get weight and stress off your knees, not get hung up on poling techniques. And finally, do not forget that there are times when putting them away is a way to enjoy yourself more!
Run The Planet thanks Peter Clinch (www.personal.dundee.ac.uk/~pjclinch/poles.htm) for the permission to reprint the article "Pete' Pole Page", here partially reproduced and slightly adapted. Text copyright © by Peter Clinch. Illustration by Frank Walter.