How to Use Hiking and Trekking Poles for Stability

Add Confidence on the Trail or the Sidewalk

Hiking and trekking poles are designed to give you extra confidence and stability. Whether you are hiking difficult mountain trails or need stability on sidewalks and park paths, a set of poles can be very helpful.

Poles may help relieve stress on your joints, especially when going uphill or downhill. This is a benefit if you have osteoarthritis or are overweight. People who have Parkinson's disease or multiple sclerosis can also have better stability when walking with poles.

You will get the best benefits if you use your trekking poles correctly. Learn how to grip the poles, use the right arm and leg motion, and adjust them for going uphill and downhill. With poles, you'll feel more confident walking and hiking.

Trekking Poles vs. Nordic Walking Poles

Senior Couple With Trekking Poles
Anouk de Maar/Cultura/Getty Images

The chief benefit of trekking poles is to provide extra stability, while the purpose of Nordic walking poles is to use a technique that burns more calories and provides an upper body workout. Trekking pole technique is not meant to add any more exertion or calorie burn. That makes it suitable to use for long walks and hikes, such as on the Camino de Santiago, or to use if you need better balance and stability wherever you walk. Here are the differences and similarities between the two kinds of poles:

  • Straps and gloves: Trekking poles may or may not have a strap. If they do, it is simply to prevent them slipping out of your hands. Nordic walking poles always have a strap or demi-glove that keeps the poles in your hands and allows you to release them from your grip on the backstroke and have them snap back into your hand. With trekking poles, you may want to wear bike gloves if you find the strap irritates your hand, as they are reinforced between the thumb and forefinger.
  • Grips: Trekking pole grips are usually larger and anatomically designed while Nordic walking pole grips are slimmer and minimal in design.
  • Adjustable length: Both trekking poles and Nordic walking poles may be adjustable in length. Both are usually made of aluminum, but some higher-end designs are made with carbon fiber or other materials.
  • Tips and baskets: Both types of poles usually have a carbide tip suitable for biting into ice and soft trails, a rubber paw to use on asphalt or pavement, snow baskets, and sand/dirt baskets to use to keep the tips from sinking deep into soft surfaces. To use the poles on pavement, you can remove the baskets and use the rubber paw over the carbide tip.

While you can use Nordic walking poles for stability if you prefer their grips, you can't use trekking poles for the Nordic walking technique.

What Is the Right Trekking Pole Length?

Trail Shoes and Poles on Rocky Trail
gaspr13/E+/Getty Images

When you are using poles for stability, you want them to be the length at which you can hold them with your elbow at 90 degrees when the tip is on the ground next to your foot. This gives you best leverage for the times when you need to bear down on the poles for stability.

Adjustable-length poles have markings in centimeters. When going uphill, you may want to shorten your poles by 5 centimeters to 10 centimeters. Likewise, when going downhill, you may want to lengthen them by 5 centimeters to 10 centimeters. Sometimes you will be on a slanted trail for long enough that you may want to shorten one pole and lengthen the other.

Most adjustable poles have a range for people who are from 5 feet to 6 feet tall. If you are shorter, there may be poles designed for kids that will fit you well. If you are taller, look for poles for the higher height range. Fixed length poles can be suitable if you mostly walk on level ground.

Start by Adjusting the Length of Your Poles

PaceMaker Stix Expedition Trekking Poles
Wendy Bumgardner ©

Get acquainted with how to adjust the length of your poles. Stand with your elbows bent at 90 degrees and adjust the length so the grip fits into your hands at that level.

If you find that you have to lift the poles often over rocks or grass, you may want to shorten the poles a little.

If you have 3-section poles, one suggestion is to set the top section at the midway point and then adjust the bottom section to the right length for walking on the level. Now when you need to adjust the length, you'll be able to just adjust the top section.

Using the Strap

Trekking Pole Strap Use
kupicoo/E+/Getty Images

If your poles have a strap, bring your hand up through the strap and then grip the pole. This results in the strap being over the back of your hand (and not twisted), with your thumb over the strap. Adjust the length of the strap so the pole is secure in this position. Some poles have straps labeled left and right for your convenience. By using the strap in this way, you'll be able to release your grip on the pole for a brief time without it falling to the ground.

Gripping the Pole

Hiker Gripping Trekking Poles
Rachid Dahnoun/Aurora/Getty Images

Your hold on the pole should be relaxed, with the pole able to rotate forward and back between your thumb and forefinger. The handgrips are usually angled to assist with their use.

If you keep your grip relaxed, it will take minimal effort to flick the pole forward with each step. To get used to the right grip, hold it between your thumb and forefinger without using the other fingers. That's all you'll really need. You can close the other fingers loosely.

A tight grip on the pole isn't necessary and can tire your hands and wrists. Don't worry, you will naturally tighten your grip if you feel yourself slipping or need a point of stability for a moment while walking.

Arm Motion

Using Trekking Poles
Betsie Van der Meer/DigitalVision/Getty Images

Keep your elbows close to your sides as you walk and use the poles. With each step, flick the opposite side's pole forward. This is a small upward motion of the forearm or a slight flick of the wrist. If you have a loose grip, it will cause the pole to pivot forward correctly.

The opposite arm/leg motion is important. If you bring the same arm and leg forward, you will end up with a swaying gait. You may need to practice this at first if it doesn't come naturally. Walk simply dragging the poles behind you with a natural gait, and you should see that you fall into the opposite arm/leg pattern. Now you can bring the poles up enough so the tips touch the ground with each step.

There is no need to firmly plant the tip into the ground. Your arms can move forward and backward naturally as you walk. You don't need any forced or exaggerated arm motion. Adjust the length of the poles so you maintain an angled elbow as your poles contact the ground.

Planting the Pole

Mature Couple With Trekking Poles
Pupeter-Secen/Getty Images

For stability, the tip of the pole will plant lightly. It simply touches the ground before you flick it forward again with the next step.

If you want to add a definite action and get a little upper body work, you can bear down on it a bit. This can add a bit of thrust when going uphill or on the level, or be a braking action when you are going downhill.

When using a plant/push technique, make sure you are applying pressure back and down.

Double Poling

Double Poling Going Uphill
Lumi Images/Pupeter-Secen/Getty Images

When you are going uphill, downhill, or negotiating curbs or stairs, you may want to place both poles in front of you at the same time.

Use the swing and drop technique, flicking both poles forward with an easy motion, then walking one to four steps forward. Swing the poles forward again at the point you think you can use their stability.

Using Poles for Speed Rather Than Stability

Nordic Walking Couple at Lake
Scott Markewitz/Photographer's Choice RF/Getty

If you are feeling confident and want to pick up the pace, you can relax your arms and put a little shoulder action into each poling movement, with the tip of the pole planting slightly behind your body. This is similar to the Nordic walking technique. By planting the pole a bit with each step when it is behind your body, you can give yourself a little extra propulsion.

Stability Going Downhill and Down Stairs

Downhill With Trekking Poles
Lumi Images/Pupeter-Secen/Getty Images

When you go downhill, you may want to loosen the straps or take your hands out of them, as they can get too tight with the increased angle. You can lengthen the poles by 5 centimeters to 10 centimeters. Now, rather than planting the poles parallel with your body, you will plant them slightly ahead to give a bit of a braking action.

Pick your way down with small steps, keeping your knees soft. Keep the poles ahead of your body. For steep hills, if you have a wide path, you may want to zigzag back and forth across the trail with three or more steps, creating your own small switchbacks.

For stability going down stairs, place both poles on the next lower step and then step down. Plant, step, plant, step. Don't let your poles get behind you.

Assist Going Uphill and Up Stairs

Uphill With Trekking Poles
Rachid Dahnoun/Aurora/Getty Images

You may want to shorten your poles for going uphill. Keep the poles close to your body and don't plant them ahead of you. You want to give yourself a little push up the hill, not a pull.

For stability going up stairs, you will be pushing yourself up rather than pulling. Plant both poles next to your feet, step up, bring the poles up to meet your feet. Push, step, push, step.

Making a Turn

When you are making a turn, be sure to keep your poles at your sides rather than crossing them in front of you. Otherwise, you might trip yourself with your poles.

Assist Sitting Down and Standing Up

Your poles can give you an assist in standing up from a sitting position. Don't put your hands through the straps. Position them with the tips angled backward and use them to help you rise up. You can also use them to give you better balance when sitting down. Take your hands out of the straps and grip them as you lower yourself.

Using both poles, one on either side, gives good stability when sitting down or standing up. Or, you can place one pole in the center in front of you to make assist you.

Carrying Your Stuff When You Use Poles

Wearing Backpacks on Walk
Dougal Waters/Getty Images

A backpack is ideal if you need to carry more than your essentials while you are using trekking poles. It keeps the load out of the way of your arm movement. You may want to look at daypacks that are well-designed for school or commuting. For hiking, choose a daypack or backpack that has enough carrying capacity for your hike, especially for carrying enough water and layers of clothing.

A Word From Verywell

Trekking poles can help you walk on a variety of terrain with confidence. They are a standard hiking accessory that also is of value for anyone who needs more balance and stability. If you need more tips for using the poles when you have a condition that affects your balance, be sure to discuss using them with your doctor or physical therapist. Get out and explore all of the wonderful places there are to enjoy.

Sources:

Cho SY, Roh HT. Trekking poles reduce downhill walking-induced muscle and cartilage damage in obese womenJournal of Physical Therapy Science. 2016;28(5):1574-1576. doi:10.1589/jpts.28.1574.

Foissac MJ, Berthollet R, Seux J, Belli A, Millet GY. Effects of Hiking Pole Inertia on Energy and Muscular Costs During Uphill Walking. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise. 2008;40(6):1117-1125. doi:10.1249/mss.0b013e318167228a.

Howatson G, Hough P, Pattison J, et al. Trekking Poles Reduce Exercise-Induced Muscle Injury during Mountain WalkingMedicine & Science in Sports & Exercise. 2011;43(1):140-145. doi:10.1249/mss.0b013e3181e4b649.

Continue Reading