Beginner's Guide to Walking Poles
Anyone who's been out of the hill regularly over the past few years will have noticed the increasing amounts of Walking Poles (or Trekking Poles if you prefer), and they've been popular on the continent since the 1970s, but have only really gained a following in the UK over the past 10-15 years...but why use them and what're the differences?
Why Use Walking Poles?
Far from being just another fad, and piece of gear to carry around, walking poles have a three massive benefits, and these alone should pique your interest, but let me just say that the following info is based on poles being used as a pair. You can of course just use one if you prefer, but you won't experience the full benefit! (Yes, I feel slightly silly swinging two around but you get used to it!)
>> Stability & safety.
Need to step down from a thigh high rock? Place your poles on the ground and use them to guide yourself down.
Using a pair of poles effectively gives you more points of contact with the ground and thus on up- or down-hill sections, allows you to use them for balance and stability. This makes it safer and reduces the risk of over-balancing and toppling forwards off the hill!
Obviously for scrambles or short sections of steep terrain you'll want your hands free, so just about all poles fold or telescope up small, and most rucksacks and daysacks now have loops for storage.
>> Reduce strain on ankles, knees, hips and back.
You all know that feeling after a long day of ascents and descents, especially on rocky and uneven ground? The one where it feels like your knees have swollen and locked up? If you don't then you're lucky!
Walking poles can help reduce these impact forces by a huge amount. The extra points of contact allow you to gently lower yourself down bigger steps. so it's far less strenuous on the ankles and knees, and therefore the back as well.
You can do an experiment at home to show you the theory. (But I accept no liability should you injure yourself or your property!)
- Stand on the second or third step from the floor
- Step to the floor and just fell the impact sensation which travels up your leg. Now imagine the fun your knees have doing this for hours on a hill-walk with the extra weight of a rucksack.
- Repeat but instead of simply stepping down, lightly rest your hands on the banister and use it to guide your weight down...you should immediately notice the difference in impact.
Most outdoor shops will let you test this out with real poles if you visit them.
>> Improve stamina.
The last major benefit of walking poles is also a big one, they improve your stamina!
When we've been walking for a period (especially with a pack on), most people will start to lean forwards. This causes the lungs and diaphragm to be compressed and they're unable to operate at their optimum, in turn leading to your breathing becoming less effective, and muscles not receiving as much oxygen as they'd like (not to mention waste products not being removed from muscles as fast as normal.) Eventually this leads to fatigue, and a sore back from lumbar muscles doing more work than they really should.
A pair of correctly set up poles help you to keep your back and shoulders upright, and lungs can work efficiently, plus your lower back doesn't need to hold your upper body up so much.
To be honest, any of these benefits is justification for a set of poles, but when combined it's easy to see why the generally active countries of Europe have loved them for such a long time.
Anatomy of a Walking Pole
Most walking poles are comprised of three sections, and are usually made from lightweight aluminium for strength. The bottom section will have the tip and the top section will have the handle. They usually be telescopig (slide into each other when packed), or attached via elastic (like a tent pole).
There are some poles with shorter sections, ideal for travel and other poles which use thinner diameters for weight saving. See product descriptions to tell the differences.
>> Internal vs External Locking
There's a few different ways of adjusting the poles but the most common are via internal screws or external locks.
Both have advantages but really unless you intend to use the poles in very cold weather and with gloves on, you can go with either. (In cold weather the external locks have the advantage)
Pro-Tip - Never lubricate the insides of your poles, they'll not be able to lock properly!
Most poles use a tungsten carbide tip as the point of contact with the ground. These are extremely durable and I don't ever recall of one breaking. They are however encased in plastic, which can break, especially on concrete, or if the tip is jammed into a crack and then twisted.
Pro-Tip - Be careful where you place your poles, and use a pavement tip on very hard surfaces.
This is where the most obvious differences between poles occur, and as the interface between hands and poles, the place you'll notice the differences most!
Generally speaking, walking pole handles are made from either plastic, cork & plastic mix or plastic covered foam.
- Usually the heaviest..
- On hot days they can get slippery from sweat. In colder months, or when using gloves you won't notice this however.
- More expensive.
- Weighs roughly the same as a plastic handle.
- Generally feels nicer against bare skin, and will also absorb sweat in warm weather.
- You can also sometimes file cork handles to match your own hands (but we don't recommend you do this unless you're sure of what you're doing, it's irreversible!)
- Very lightweight.
- Comfy in summer or winter.
- Not quite as durable as plastic or cork, although we're sure you can repair them pretty easily from your local B&Q (unlike plastic or cork)
In summary, if you're using your poles with gloves or you won't use them very often then plastic is your best bet. If you use your poles a lot all year round then cork is a good option, and if you need lightweight and year-round comfort then foam is worth a look.
>> Handle Angle
The angle of the handle is also an option. Poles are usually available in a 'straight' handle - which runs in-line with the sections, or a 'positive' handle - where the handle is at a slight angle to the sections.
The straight handles tend to be cheaper, and the poles will usually fold up smaller.
If you hold your elbow to your side at a right angle and keep your forearm parallel to the floor, then relax your wrist, you'll notice that your hand drops slightly. This angle is around 15°.
Positive handles are set to this angle and allow your hands a more natural and comfortable position. It should also mean you can keep a good grip through the entire swing of the pole. The downside of positive angles is that they're a bit more expensive, an the poles won't pack up as small.
>> Anti-shock or Spring System
Some poles come with an anti-shock spring system. This is basically a shock-absorber. On hard ground or for extended treks it can help reduce the shock loads your wrists and elbows experience.
The down side is that they're more expensive than non-sprung poles. If you're going to use your poles a lot, especially on hard ground it's worth the investment. If you're just trying them out, or won't use them much then it's not so important.
How to adjust your poles.
- Loosen the poles and then tighten the bottom section roughly at roughly halfway, or consult the chart for a better estimate.
- Adjust the top section so it's at its highest, but don't tighten.
- Stand with your back straight, poles in hand, then move your hands down (sliding the poles as you go) until your elbows are against your body at right angles so your hands are in front of you.
- Tighten top pole section. (You may wish to mark the poles for future adjustments, although once you've done it once it's simple!)
Hopefully the bottom and middle pole sections should be tightened around the middle of each. If not then adjust the bottom poles section up or down a bit and repeat. Ideally you don't want one section fully extended and one compressed.
On up- or down-hill sections of walks you may wish to adjust the top poles slightly. Make it longer for downhill, and shorter for uphill (trying to keep elbows at right angles). Some poles have a foam section down the top section to allow you to simply move your hands up and down the poles, rather than having to keep making adjustments.
Pro-Tip - NEVER force an internal screw, do them up finger tight only. If you over tighten you make break the screw which although fixable, is a bit of a pain.
To see our range of trekking poles, including market leaders Leki, and Grivel, click here.