Hiking poles aren't strictly necessary on the trail, but they sure do come in handy sometimes. Of course if those poles aren't the right length, they're not going to do you much good when you need them. Here's how to make sure your hiking poles are the right size for you:
Stand flat-footed in the same boots (or shoes) you plan to hike in. Hold one hiking pole in each hand, poles vertical and tips resting on the ground, and let your upper arms stay relaxed at your side. If the poles are the right size for you, your elbows will naturally bend at a comfortable 90-degree angle. There are just two main exceptions to this rule:
- If you're hiking straight uphill, shorten your poles (if you can -- more on that in a minute); on the way down, lengthen your poles so you can use them for support and balance without having to bend over.
- If you're sidehilling, or walking across a hill at an angle to the actual slope, you'll usually want the downhill pole to be longer than the uphill pole. This way you can use both to support yourself in spite of the uneven ground.
Adjustable hiking poles make switching from uphill to sidehill to downhill or flat terrain easy, but if your hiking poles aren't adjustable, you can compensate by gripping below the handle to "shorten" the pole, or gripping higher on the handle to "lengthen" the pole. (Obviously there's a limit to how much extra length this can give you.) If you're not comfortable holding onto the bare pole, you could wrap some cordage evenly around the body of the pole to create a "handle" partway down.
The cordage also makes an excellent emergency supply if something goes wrong on the trail; you can use it for a number of things, from replacing broken shoelaces to tying together supports for an emergency shelter or steadying a splint on a broken bone.
Another reason adjustable poles are great: When they're not in use, you can usually collapse them short enough to attach to the outside of your backpack for hands-free hiking. Otherwise you'd have to keep carrying your hiking poles in your hands, even when you don't need them. This also eliminates one of my biggest pet peeves on the trail -- careless hikers that swing the points of their hiking poles around behind them.
Of course nothing is completely perfect, so there are a couple of minor downsides to adjustable hiking poles that you should be aware of:
- Adjustable hiking poles are usually a little heavier than non-adjustable poles. In my mind this is more than balanced out by the adjustable poles' versatility and the way you can collapse them and stow them attached to your pack -- but I suppose that a few extra ounces might matter more to others.
- The adjustment mechanism creates a potential point of failure. If you're buying sturdy hiking gear, I wouldn't worry too much about your poles falling apart or breaking -- and if they do, you can (hopefully) just grab a sturdy stick and make do. But it's worth keeping in mind that the more moving parts any piece of your hiking gear has, the more can go wrong with it, especially if you're traveling through harsh conditions or tend to be particularly hard on your equipment.
Finally, if you plan on sharing hiking gear with friends or family, adjustable poles are definitely the way to go; that way people of different heights can all share the same gear comfortably.