Hill Skills Series – Top Tips for using Walking Poles
walking poles

Many hikers use walking poles when out in the hills, and with good reason.  They help maintain balance, reduce the impact on our knees hips and ankles, (particularly in descent and when carrying a heavy pack), and are a useful support on slippery ground and when negotiating a river crossing.
Using poles will also give you more of a full body workout, by exercising the upper body as well as the legs.

Unfortunately, some folk using walking poles gain little of these benefits because they are either using them incorrectly or they are incorrectly adjusted.

Walking poles are often placed too far out in front or too far to the side of the body, and they are often set at the wrong length for the height of the user.

Some hikers will prefer to use their poles continuously throughout the day, but there are occasions when they can be more of a hindrance than a help, when moving through thick vegetation or scrambling up rocky terrain, for example.

By making slight adjustments to the way they use their walking poles, many more people would get the full benefit of their use when out hiking.

Here are my top tips for getting the most out of using your walking poles:

  • With your hand on top, adjust the length so that your elbow is at a right angle and your forearm is horizontal or at a slight downward angle.
  • Putting your hand through the wrist loop before you grip the pole will put less strain on your wrist. However it can be hard to get your hand out of the loop if you take a fall, and in some conditions it is preferable to place your hand over the top so that if you fall it will drop away from you and not flail around with the potential to do injury.
Walking poles
Using the wrist loop as support and keeping the arm at the correct angle.
  • It is preferable to use two poles, one on it’s own can cause imbalance and muscle strain. However, one is often better in winter when an ice axe is held in the other hand for security. 
  • As you walk place each pole and opposite foot on the ground together, i.e. left foot and right hand pole. This will make for more efficient and comfortable movement.
Walking Poles
Avoid using the wrist loop when the risk of a fall is higher.
  • Try to angle the pole so the top is slightly ahead of the bottom, this will give you a good forward thrust action, rather like a ski pole.
  • Put them away when on terrain where secure placement is difficult, e.g. deep heather or rocky ground.
  • Shorten the poles on steep ascents, (or grip them lower down the shaft) and lengthen the poles slightly for long and steep descents.
  • In ascent use them to the side or slightly behind you, this will give added propulsion up the slope. On a steep descent, place them ahead of you, for support and braking.
Walking Poles
Gripping the handle without using the wrist loop also helps to avoid a flailing pole if you fall.
  • Poles can become a trip hazard for you and those around you when not in use and should be put away when you are using your hands on a steep or difficult section of the route.
  • Rubber tips on walking poles often come off, and consequently litter the hills, please leave them at home.
  • A ‘snow basket’ on the bottom of your pole will stop it sinking into soft snow or boggy ground, but can become a trip hazard in heavy vegetation.
Winter hiking
Using poles in winter conditions
  • Be prepared to put them away to read your map, or to navigate with your compass.
  • Clip lock poles are quicker and easier to adjust than the twist tightening types, and are less prone to freezing in cold weather.
  • In winter conditions, walking poles are not a substitute for an ice axe, if you find yourself on frozen ground then get out your axe.

Russ Mills runs Mountaintrails, a guided hiking and skills training outdoor provider based in Dublin. To find out more go to Mountaintrails.ie.