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Tips for Using Hiking Poles

Make them more than fancy sticks

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Tips for Using Hiking Poles

If you're not completely confident in your stability, hiking poles come in especially handy on uneven ground.

Photo © Lisa Maloney

A walking stick doesn't have to be high-tech; I'm pretty sure nobody has a patent on grabbing a sturdy, fallen branch and using it for support as you stride along. Walking with sticks can be fun, too -- when I was a little girl, I often grabbed a "walking stick" more for the chance to swing it around, and for the thump it made at every step, than for actual support.

I still do most of my hiking without hiking poles because I like having my hands free. But there are definitely times when having a pole along comes in handy.

No matter what kind of hiking or trekking poles you're using, your elbow should bend at a right angle when you grip the handle and rest the pole's tip on the ground, upper arm relaxed at your side. (Here's more about pole sizing.)

Now that you've got the right poles, here's what to keep in mind as you hike:

  • Do use your poles as extra points of stability, but don't lean all your weight on them. This is especially important if you're wearing a heavy pack or going downhill. Keep your body weight centered over your feet instead; this makes you more stable in the end.
  • Stand up straight as you walk. If you have to slouch to use your hiking poles, they're too short.
  • Swing your arms naturally as you walk -- no need to master any exaggerated poling technique.
  • Don't worry about using the poles to push yourself forward with every step. Although you might use your hiking poles to help you up a steep slope, they're more for balance, and lessening the load on your upper body somewhat, than for propulsion. (That's a marked contrast to nordic walking, which can look a lot like vigorous hiking with trekking poles.)
  • Wrist straps are entirely optional. Wrist straps make it easier to hold onto a hiking pole, but can get uncomfortable -- and if you fall, they could increase your risk of injury. Scratch a dozen hikers and you'll get a dozen opinions about whether wrist straps are helpful or a hindrance; just try hiking with and without your wrist through the straps, then decide which way feels best to you.

It doesn't take long to get comfortable using hiking poles. As long as they're the right size, you'll be a pro by the end of your first hike. Here are some examples of the various uses you can get out of your hiking poles:

  • They're great for crossing rivers. First use your hiking poles to gauge how deep the river is, then use them to create three evenly spaced points of contact (you, the left pole, and the right pole) for optimal balance as you cross.
  • Use hiking poles to probe for solid ground when you're hiking in mud or thick brush. If you can't go around the mud, use the poles to probe for depth before you commit your weight to a particular patch of ground.
  • Use them to move thick vegetation out of the way. This is especially useful for plants that can cause an adverse reaction, like poison ivy, poison oak, cow parsnip, or devil's club. It's also a nice way to hold vegetation or a tree branch back for the hiker in front of or behind you; just make sure you don't release the branch or bush until they're clear, otherwise they might get a face full of greens.
  • Hiking poles also become part of your emergency kit -- they could come in handy for splinting a broken bone or sprained joint, or as a central support for an emergency shelter.
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