How to use walking poles

Exploring the spectacular Walls of Jerusalem National Park | Caro Ryan
Exploring the spectacular Walls of Jerusalem National Park | Caro Ryan

Have you ever thought of adding trekking poles to your trekking gear? Hiking poles can provide extra stability for trekkers while bushwalking on uneven terrain. By taking the load off the legs and knees during steep descents, they can transform a tough walk into a walk in the park (well, almost!).

Benefits of walking poles

Avoid risk of injury

Trekking can place extraordinary stress on your hips, leg muscles, ankles and knee joints, and many hikers feel the stress during steep ascents and descents. Prolonged stress to these joints can lead to muscle fatigue and injuries from tippings, stumbling or even falling while on the trail. Using hiking poles reduces the impact of hiking on the leg muscles and knee joints, and can help to lessen the impact of the load by as much as five kilograms when walking on a level ground and as much as eight kilograms when descending.  The poles reduce the effort placed on the leg muscles by sharing the load with the muscles of the upper body and transferring the weight, strain and stress evenly across other muscles. By doing so, there is less stress on your muscles and joints, leading to a more enjoyable and injury-free hike.

Help with balance issues

When navigating through shallow streams, rock hopping, scree-running or walking through muddy forest floor, trekking poles can be worth their weight in gold by providing two extra points of contact with the ground, essentially converting two-fooed hikers into four-legged hiking machines. This can be particularly beneficial for trekkers carrying a full pack, as the added weight of up the 15 kilograms can increase instability around obstacles like streams, traversing rocks and over logs.

Reduce back pain

When trekking, most people tend to look down a lot, watching where we place our feet. The problem with looking down is that by doing so, we round our shoulders and bend our heads forward, putting strain on our necks and upper backs. Additionally,  when you look down while walking uphill  this shifts the center of gravity and increases the risk of stumbling or even falling on uneven surfaces. Using a trekking pole while bushwalking corrects your posture and engaging muscles in the body that help strengthen your core muscles, which in turn protect your back and improve upper back muscles.

Increase blood flow

Thanks to the additional stability, posture and injury avoidance benefits that walking poles have on your bushwalk, trekking poles can also increase the pace in which you walk, which in turn increases your heart rate. Normal walking engages 35% of the muscles in your body, however this increases to 90% when you walk with trekking poles. As a result, you increase oxygen use and blood flow in your body by 20%, even if you don’t actively increase your exercise intensity. In fact, research shows that you can burn 20% more calories while using trekking poles!

How to use trekking poles

Set up length: setting the trekking pole height

Before starting off on your trek, you need to adjust the trekking pole height. Standing on a flat surface, unlock the top and bottom sections of the pole by either twisting or opening the lever. Adjust the length of your pole so that your arm forms a 90 degree angle, ensuring your shoulders are relaxed and your elbows are by your side. Some people like to adjust the upper and lower sections equally, however some poles are designed to have the lower section extended to the maximum height before adjusting the top section. We recommend speaking with a local gear shop about your specific poles and ideal adjustment recommendations. When heading up hills, you may want to adjust your pole length so it is slightly shorter, and similarly, make it longer for when you are descending downhill.

Wrist straps

Wrist straps are important to use as, when properly adjusted, they help to support your weight without the need to grip the pole too tightly as you walk. When adjusting your straps, open the loop wide enough to put your hand through to grab the pole. Your grip should be a loose and relaxed grip on the pole. Ensure that the strap crosses the palm and wraps beneath the thumb to secure it in place. Then, tighten or loosen the strap as needed. Ideally, the strap should be tight enough to support the weight of your hand in the pole, but not too tight that it restricts movement or circulation. By spending a few minutes correctly adjusting your wrist straps, you are able to better maintain your control over the grip in case you stumble,or your grip becomes slippery due to sweat.

One pole versus two?

Although one pole gives stability and support, using only one pole can unilaterally relieve pressure yet add stress in your shoulder and wrist joints, as well as add torque to your spine. For the best experience possible, use two poles: it allows you to strengthen your upper body muscles equally, using more muscles and facilitating better posture.

Walking Techniques

Walking on even ground

The reason some trekkers aren’t a fan of using walking poles often comes down to the fact that they have not trained themselves in using the poles properly. After you position your hands correctly in the straps, adjust the height of the poles and are ready to take off, remember that there are three main ways you can move with poles that could work for you. Try one method, and if it’s not ‘you’, give one of the other methods a go:

Alternate legs: Each pole goes forward when the opposite leg does. This pattern maximizes balance and lets your arms swing the way they do naturally when hiking. Parallel legs: Each pole goes forward when the same-side leg does. This pattern provides the most relief to your legs, so use it to minimize leg fatigue and stress as needed. Double pole: Both poles move forward at the same time. This pattern is useful for stepping up or down obstacles.

Walking downhill

Walking downhill can sometimes be taken for granted. After all, with the help of gravity, you don’t need to use your muscles as much, right? Not necessarily! Twists, slips and tumbles are much more likely while walking down hill and for this reason, it’s important to learn how to walk effectively downhill, and use the support of trekking poles when available. Ensure your centre of gravity is low and over your legs. That means don’t lean forward or backwards. Your trekking poles, when adjusted for a slightly longer length than on a flat surface, should help you here!

Keep your downhill leg slightly bent upon impact to reduce stress on the knees. By doing so, you are encouraging your muscles to take the brunt of the strain rather than your joints. Believe us, your knees will thank you for it later!

Shorten your stride to lessen the impact of strain on the knee joints, especially if you are carrying a backpack. If terrain is very steep, icy or muddy, consider walking sideways to reduce your chances of slipping. When using poles, place the tip of the pole on the ground and position your foot right beside it for optimal balance. Focus on where you are placing your feet. You may feel tempted to ‘let it all hang out’ on the descent, however this can lead to mistakes. Poor foot placement, centre of gravity or not paying attention to obstacles can lead to slips, falls and tumbles and can turn a good day into a bad one pretty quickly!

Walking uphill

Trekking poles are also handy when walking uphill as they encourage a healthy balance of weight. Slightly shorten the poles so that they are used to push off (rather than pull yourself upward) as this ensures correct body positioning and exertion placed on the right muscles. When walking uphill, consider:

Loosening your hip straps from your backpack as they may constrict your stride and ability to breath properly while ascending. Placing the poles close to your body as you ascend and pushing off the ground with them to give you added propulsion. This engages your upper body strength during the ascent and takes some of the strain away from your lower body. Take regular breaks. Sometimes, no matter how many poles you walk with, it can be a battle going uphill. Take regular breaks and try to keep your heartbeat constant. Remember the tortoise and the hare story? Be the tortoise!

Trekking poles can make a huge difference to your bushwalking experience if you use them correctly. They are useful especially for hilly terrains, crossing streams and when walking with a heavy backpack. They help you to walk quickly, give you additional support and reduce your risk of injury. While there's no right or wrong way of using trekking poles, training helps you to use them efficiently for a more satisfying trekking experience.

 

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