Hill Skills Series – Top Tips when using walking poles

Many of us now use walking poles when out in the hills, and with good reason.

They help up maintain balance, reduce the impact force on our knees and other leg joints, (particularly in descent and when carrying a heavy pack), and are useful as a support when negotiating a river crossing.
Using poles will even give you more of a full body workout, by exercising the upper body as well as the legs.



Unfortunately, some of the people I see using walking poles gain little of these benefits because they are either using them incorrectly or the poles are poorly adjusted. 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.

When is the right time to use walking poles? Some folks will use their poles continuously throughout the day, but there are occasions when poles can be more of a hindrance and 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:

  • Adjust the length so that your elbow is at a right angle and your forearm is horizontal.
  • Put your hand up through the wrist loop before you grip the pole, this will put less strain on your wrist.
  • Always use two poles, one on it’s own can cause imbalance and muscle strain. (However, one pole is often better when negotiating a river crossing, acting as a third leg, and helping you make a stable ‘tripod’ stance.)
  • Correct height adjustment of poles is important
  • Place pole and opposite foot together on the ground, i.e. left foot and right hand pole.
  • 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 your poles away when on terrain where secure placement is difficult, e.g. deep heather or rocky ground.
  • Shorten the poles on long and steep ascents, (or grip the pole lower down the shaft); lengthen the poles for long and steep descents.
    Ensuring the correct pole grip to avoid wrist fatigue.
  • In ascent use the poles to the side or slightly behind you, this will give added propulsion up the slope. On a steep descent, place the poles ahead of you, for support and braking.
  •  Unused or misused poles can become a trip hazard for you and those around you, 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, leave them at home.
  • A ‘snow basket’ on the bottom of your pole will stop your pole sinking into soft snow or boggy ground, (but can become a trip hazard in heavy vegetation.)
  • Be prepared to put away your poles to read your map, or to navigate with your compass.
  • Clip lock poles are 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.

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