Trekking Poles – The Why and The How
by Andy Dappen
Should you walk with or without them? Certainly they’re not needed by everyone, but anyone with tweaks and/or injuries to the ankles, knees, hips, or lower back will attest that that trekking poles make a world of difference in making walking more enjoyable or even feasible.
On the down side, trekking poles are a crutch and younger users relying too heavily on them may degrade both their balance and the fluidity of their movement. Pole users do tend to sway from side-to-side too much and, too often, to rely on poles rather than technique for balance.
On the upside, poles do reduce spills on rough trails or cross-country routes. They also diminish the abuse that difficult terrain (or long days) place upon the lower body.
Adam Vognild, owner of the Inner Circle Gym in Wenatchee and an avid outdoorsman, is now in his 40s but started using trekking poles in his 20s for the long approaches and descents of alpine climbs. “Without poles, my knees would ache at the end of the day and I’d need to take Advil. Once I started using poles, I didn’t get the end-of-the-day ache and I didn’t need the Advil.” Vognild sees the benefit of poles as being 60 or 70 percent about the downhill and perhaps 30 to 40 percent about the uphill. “You can get into a nice rhythm where your arms help move you efficiently uphill–this spreads some of the work involved to the upper body.” Another nice advantage for Vognild is that even with heavy loads he feels safe using light footwear if he’s also using poles. The lighter footwear reduces fatigue and extends the distances he can travel while the poles greatly reduce the odds that he’ll tweak a joint through a misstep or a roll of the ankle.
Outdoor enthusiasts who have entered the middle or sunset years will find the same advantages Vognild enjoys and more. On tricky terrain, they’ll find four points of contact with the ground make slips (and injuries from slips) far less likely. They’ll also find poles reduce the stress that walking (especially downhill walking) places upon weak, injured, or arthritic joints in the leg.
Finally there are few benefits to poles that don’t apply to everyone but are worth noting. If you’re an ultralight backpacker, for example, there are a variety of featherweight tents and tarps that use trekking poles for support and, thereby, eliminate the weight of tent poles. Here in Central Washington, poles are also recommended for walking through snake country in late spring and throughout the summer– you can sweep the ground ahead of you to warn snakes of your coming and/or to shoo away snakes that you encounter.
Now for a few technique tips to make more effective use of poles.
When they’re not needed to help propel you uphill or to protect an injured/weak joint, don’t always use them. Hold them in the middle of the shaft, parallel to the ground. This helps keeps you from becoming too reliant on poles and encourages you to maintain good balance as you walk. Use the poles when they will help prevent a slip, will propel you up steep ground, or will take load off a weak joint, but spend a good portion of each walk with the training wheels raised.
Poling Techniques for the Uphill
- Cane Technique. If you have adjustable poles, shorten them for a substantial portion of the uphill so that the top of the poles are about groin height. For this technique, place the heel of your hand on the top of the pole as if it were a walking cane. As you walk, your arms will hang low and your hands will be near, or often below, waist level. When the poles are being used to propel you uphill, place the bottom of the pole near the back of your foot and push on the top of the pole with the heel of your hand . As you move upward, lock out your arm and use this skeletal advantage (rather than muscular strength) to move efficiently upward.
- Skiing Technique. Occasionally mix things up and lengthen the poles to standard downhill-skiing length (i.e., an inch or two higher than your belly button). Grab the handles like a skier and use crosscountry-skiing pole placements (i.e., plant and push on the pole that is opposite to the foot you’re moving) to help propel yourself uphill. The cane technique is more efficient but the skiing technique uses different muscles and loads your arm joints differently. Mixing things up is important for reducing upper body aches.
- When the uphill becomes quite steep, requires the occasional high step, or calls for some scrambling, choke way up on the shaft of the uphill pole. You want your hands on this pole to be near waist level. If you don’t choke up, your uphill hand will be near or above shoulder level. This high-hand placement is fatiguing if it is repeated step after step. High-hand placements also stretch out your body into an unbalanced position–if your foot or pole slips, you won’t be poised to make an easy recovery. Whether you’re walking with poles or not, low hands will maintain much better walking balance.
Photo: Using poles like a cane (hands on top of the handles). Note the straight arms and the weight-forward body position.
One of the better downhill techniques also entails using a short, cane-length pole and using the heel of your hand on top of the pole as if using a walking cane. As you descend, place the tip of the pole downhill of your foot; then use the skeletal advantage of a locked-out arm to take some of the load off your legs as you step downward. One advantage of keeping the poles short is that it’s quicker and easier to swing the poles into position for placement. More importantly, short poles force you to lean forward and to get your weight over the balls of your feet as you make pole placements. Having your weight forward is a balanced body position and, if your foot slips, you are in position to slide with the slip rather than take an awkward fall onto your hip or bottom.
Photo: Heel strikes on the downhill indicate you’re weight is is too far back. This is not a big concern on flat or easy trails, but on loose or tricky terrain this will lead to more slips and falls. On tricky terrain, plant poles far enough downhill that your weight comes over the balls of your feet.
For long downhills, occasionally lengthen your poles to ski-pole length and grip them like ski poles.
Photo: When using longer poles and a ski-pole grip,make pole placements farther downhill so that your weight is forward and your hands are low as shown. Avoid high hands and heel strikes.
Even when using longer poles and gripping them differently, it’s important to make your pole placement far enough downhill that you’re forced forward over the balls of your feet. Especially on tricky ground where slips are possible, avoid leaning back so that your heels become the first point of contact with the ground. Mix up this use of the poles with the first technique – each technique uses different muscles and loads up different parts of your arms and shoulders. Be mindful that if you’re using arms and shoulders to compensate for injuries and weaknesses in the lower body, it’s quite possible you’ll eventually transfer some soreness, over use, or joint problems uphill to your wrists, elbows, or shoulders. Mixing-up pole techniques will reduce the likelihood of injuring body parts that are still in good shape.
In the end, the greatest gift from poles is that they distribute work and wear around the body, thereby extending the total mileage your body can log in a day or in a life. Rather than being sidelined prematurely by one joint that simply gives up before the rest, poles spread out the wear and tear so that the entire body can rust as a whole.
Editor’s note: Here’s an interesting article from Science Daily showing the recovery benefits of using trekking poles.
This post was originally published on 5/20/19.