10 Expert Tips for Hiking With Trekking Poles

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.


Hi, I’m Michael Lanza, creator of The Big Outside. Click here to sign up for my FREE email newsletter. Join The Big Outside to get full access to all of my blog’s stories. Click here for my e-guides to classic backpacking trips. Click here to learn how I can help you plan your next trip.


A backpacker on the Teton Crest Trail in Grand Teton National Park.
Jeff Wilhelm backpacking the Teton Crest Trail in Grand Teton National Park.

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.

See my picks for “The Best Trekking Poles” and my story “How to Choose Trekking Poles.”

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.

Ready for new poles? See my picks for “The Best Trekking Poles.”

A backpacker on the Redgap Pass Trail in Glacier National Park.
Todd Arndt backpacking the Redgap Pass Trail in Glacier National Park. Click photo to see my e-guides to Glacier and other parks.

#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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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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A hiker in Spain's Picos de Europa National Park.
My son, Nate, hiking toward the Refugio Jou de Cabrones in Spain’s Picos de Europa Mountains.

#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

Plan your next great backpacking trip in Yosemite, Grand Teton, Grand Canyon, and other parks using my expert e-guides.

Backpackers on the Tonto Trail in the Grand Canyon.
Mark Fenton and Todd Arndt backpacking the Tonto Trail in the Grand Canyon. Click photo to read about “the best backpacking trip in the Grand Canyon.”

#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.

I can help you plan the best backpacking, hiking, or family adventure of your life.
Click here now to learn more.

Hikers ascending steep snow in Idaho's Sawtooth Mountains.
Hikers ascending steep snow in Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountains.

#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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A young teenage girl descending from the Fenetre d’Arpette on the Tour du Mont Blanc in Switzerland.
My daughter, Alex, descending from the Fenetre d’Arpette on the Tour du Mont Blanc in Switzerland. Click the photo for my e-guide to the Tour du Mont Blanc.

#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):

See my picks for “The 10 Best Trekking Poles” and all of my reviews of trekking poles at The Big Outside.

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.

Tell me what you think.

I spent a lot of time writing this story, so if you enjoyed it, please consider giving it a share using one of the buttons at right, and leave a comment or question at the bottom of this story. I’d really appreciate it.

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.

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