Effectively Using Hiking Poles: The Gas-Brake-Coast Method

Poking poles around for added stability is fairly intuitive, but the full promise of two more legs - greater endurance, building upper body strength, and reducing injury from stress or falls - requires some technique. Try Skip's straightforward and effective approach!

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by Skip Spitzer | 2011-10-11 00:00:00-06

Introduction

So you have a pair of trekking poles. Now what?

Adjusting Pole Length

First off, your new legs need to be a suitable length:

  • For general use, set pole height so that when the tip is at your foot, your elbow makes a roughly 90° bend. Setting the height a little shorter allows you to clear plants or rocks with less lifting.
  • On a typical three-tier pole, set the top adjuster so the upper section is telescoped halfway. Then fix the lower section to achieve the desired height. Make any adjustments en route using the top adjuster.

Why? It is hard to load (bear down on) your poles with your arm grossly extended or bent. (See how much less force you can generate at 180° or 0° than at 90°, for example.) Setting pole segments as suggested lets you change pole length using just one adjuster, the closest and least likely to be muddy and contaminated with poison oak/ivy oil.

Effectively Using Hiking Poles: The Gas-Brake-Coast Method - 1
Your elbow should make a roughly 90° bend

Attaching your Poles

Next up, you have to attach your new legs to your original equipment.

  • For each pole, put your hand up through the bottom of the strap loop and then pull the strap down by holding the grip.
  • Adjust the length of the straps such that your fingers land where they fit on the grips.
  • Hold the grip loosely. You don’t even need to close your bottom three fingers around the grip (a good way to ensure that you aren’t over-gripping). Change how your fingers (loosely) hold the grip as needed to prevent hand or wrist soreness.
  • Keep your elbows close to your sides.

Why? You are making a joint by using the strap as a strong, tireless ligament. If you grip tightly, your hands and wrists will needlessly work and stress. Keeping your arms close to your sides conserves energy and keeps your poles traveling where the path is most likely to be clear: down the center.

Effectively Using Hiking Poles: The Gas-Brake-Coast Method - 2
Put your hand up through the bottom of the strap loop.

Effectively Using Hiking Poles: The Gas-Brake-Coast Method - 3
Pull the strap snug by loosely holding the grip.

The Multiple Uses of Poles

Poles are primarily for endurance, building upper body strength, and reducing injury, but they serve many other functions:

  • Checking for critters in high brush
  • Moving poison oak/ivy, nettles, and other no-touchies out of the way
  • Making a stand for a dromedary bag or gravity filter
  • Poling a tarp or tarp tent
  • Making noise to avoid bear, lion, and other unwelcome encounters
  • Bluffing off an animal attack (swing poles over your head)
  • Defending yourself in an actual attack
  • Temporarily marking a trail
  • Resting and stretching while standing
  • Probing depth of water and mud
  • Probing trail obstacles in the dark
  • Stabilizing a camera
  • Poking companions, as needed

Moving Poles Forward

Limbs attached, check. Now we have to move them forward, from “plant” to plant, as we hike.

  • Jog the forearm up slightly to cause the pole to swing forward and then back down to plant the tip (for now don’t worry about where to plant). Or, move the pole with a slight flick of the wrist.

Why? These minor motions get the job done with a minimum of movement and energy.

Movement Patterns

  • 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 (or simultaneous) pole: Both poles move forward at the same time. This pattern is useful for stepping up or down, or as a change up.

Load, Load, Load

The pedal-pushing analogy reminds us that it is essential that you load your poles! Without loading, you are basically just hauling stabilizers to engage in case of slipping. A lot of pole users are not loading enough. If your upper body doesn’t feel “worked” after an arduous trek, you are likely not loading enough.

Three Basic Techniques:
Gas, Brake, and Coast

OK, let's get in gear. Conventional advice tells us where to plant (and how long the poles should be) based on the type of terrain: flat, uphill, and downhill. Instead, the Gas, Brake, Coast Method focuses on what we want our poles to do for us:

  • Adding thrust (or gassing), which you might do on flats, uphill, and even downhill.
  • Slowing assistance (braking), on downhill stretches.
  • Nothing (coasting), which you might choose on any terrain.

Technique 1: Gas

When you want forward thrust:

  • Plant the tip of your pole at the rear of or behind your foot. On long assents, you can help maintain the roughly 90° bends at your elbows by lengthening your poles (as opposed to the common counsel to shorten them).

Why? Planting and loading a pole to the rear gives forward thrust. In contrast, planting and loading at the foot gives lift (see below) and then forward thrust (if you keep loading as the pole moves behind you). Loading in front of you causes braking. Exactly how far you should plant to the rear depends on pole length, arm length, degree of body lean, the pitch of the trail, and other factors. Just plant it back where you most feel forward thrust. If needed on ascents, lengthening is the adjustment to make because the trail is dropping away from your pole tips.

Effectively Using Hiking Poles: The Gas-Brake-Coast Method - 4
Gas: Plant the tip of your pole at the rear of or behind your foot.

Technique 2: Brake

When you fancy help in slowing down:

  • Plant in front of your foot. For extended descents, you can again maintain your 90° lever by lengthening your poles.
  • You can use an alternate hold when braking, in which you rest your palms atop the grips.

Why? Planting and loading forward creates resistance. Again, you should plant in the forward location where you most feel the intended effect. On a long stretch, lengthening poles helps since the trail is dropping away from your pole tips.

Effectively Using Hiking Poles: The Gas-Brake-Coast Method - 5
Brake: Plant in front of your foot.

Effectively Using Hiking Poles: The Gas-Brake-Coast Method - 6
You can use an alternate hold when braking.

Technique 3: Coast

When you don’t need gas or brakes, or when you need an upper body break:

  • Plant, but do not load your poles; or
  • Swing them one per hand, holding at their center of gravity.

For hiking hands-free:

  • Tuck your poles under one arm; or
  • Attach them to your pack.

Why? No load planting will give you a break. (It is, however, like leaving your car idling: It still uses some energy.) Swinging your poles brings them into the rhythm of your stride. Tucking can be cumbersome, but it does free your hands. Packing poles away gets them completely out of the way.

Other Techniques

After committing the basic techniques to muscle memory, you might learn these other useful maneuvers.

Technique 4: Step Over

When you need to tread over a large obstacle, say a downed tree:

  • Plant and load at or close to your foot.

Why? Planting at the foot creates lift.

Effectively Using Hiking Poles: The Gas-Brake-Coast Method - 7
Plant and load at or close to your foot to create lift.

Technique 5: Step Up

To go up a big step:

  • Plant and load on the upper surface and step up. You might double pole here.
  • As needed, un-strap and choke up on the poles to make them effectively shorter (or actually shorten your sticks).

Why? Planting on the surface you are stepping up to will give you more lift than planting at your foot, especially if you double pole. You may need a shorter effective (or actual) length to load the poles efficiently when they are planted up high.

Effectively Using Hiking Poles: The Gas-Brake-Coast Method - 8
Plant and load on the upper surface and step up.

Technique 6: Step Down

To move down a large step:

  • Plant and load on the lower surface and step down. Again you might double pole here.
  • Extend your arms. Or, for longer step-like descents, lengthen your poles.

Why? This will give you a strong braking assist as you step down, especially if you double pole.

Effectively Using Hiking Poles: The Gas-Brake-Coast Method - 9
Plant and load on the lower surface and step down.

Technique 7: Traverse

When you hike across a significant slope (off-trail hillsides, narrow switchback and ridge trails, beaches, etc.), your uphill pole and arm will ride unusually high, and your downhill pole and arm low. For a long traverse:

  • Resize one or both poles accordingly (uphill side shorter, downhill side longer).
  • On switchbacks, rather than readjusting length, simply switch poles when you change direction.

Why? Resizing maintains an efficient angle at the elbow. A longer downhill pole will also help keep you from leaning down the slope and falling should your pole slip.

Effectively Using Hiking Poles: The Gas-Brake-Coast Method - 10
Resize poles so that uphill side is shorter; downhill side, longer.

Technique 8: Going Strapless

When the terrain is rough and varied:

  • Unstrap.
  • Switch between techniques as needed.

Why? This will allow you to go rapidly from standard grip techniques to choking up for steps and traverses to coasting for scrambling up or down chutes, over large talus, and other hands-required territory. Always unstrap if scree or talus can catch and hold your pole tip. If a pole locks when moving at a good clip, and you are tethered to it, bad things can happen!


Citation

"Effectively Using Hiking Poles: The Gas-Brake-Coast Method," by Skip Spitzer. BackpackingLight.com (ISSN 1537-0364).
http://backpackinglight.com/cgi-bin/backpackinglight/hiking_poles_technique.html, 2011-10-11 00:00:00-06.

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Forum Index » Editor's Roundtable » Effectively Using Hiking Poles: The Gas-Brake-Coast Method


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Addie Bedford
(addiebedford) - MLife

Locale: Montana
Effectively Using Hiking Poles: The Gas-Brake-Coast Method on 10/11/2011 14:04:25 MDT Print View

Companion forum thread to:

Effectively Using Hiking Poles: The Gas-Brake-Coast Method

Mary D
(hikinggranny) - MLife

Locale: Gateway to Columbia River Gorge
Multiple uses of poles on 10/11/2011 14:26:56 MDT Print View

The author hardly scratched the surface on the multiple uses of trekking poles! Here are some more:

Splints
Hand crutches
Digging catholes (literally scratching the surface, hee hee!)
Flipping branches/rocks off the trail
Clearing drainage ditches along the trail
Propping up your backpack to make a chair
Fishing pole
Used around home, turns exercise walking into a whole-body exercise that works on the core muscles (rubber tips on the points are a good idea on pavement)
Prop up sagging clothesline

I'm sure there are lots more!

Roger B
(rogerb) - MLife

Locale: Here and there
Re: Effectively Using Hiking Poles: The Gas-Brake-Coast Method on 10/11/2011 14:36:39 MDT Print View

The information provided in this article is ideal for users of poles. Whilst Pacer Poles are different in some ways they are essentially the same. The following link provides some excellent discussions on the biomechanics of walking poles, much of which is relevant to this article. Pacer Poles

Luke Schmidt
(Cameron) - MLife

Locale: The WOODS
Picking things up on 10/11/2011 15:11:28 MDT Print View

Another us of poles is to pick up things you've dropped when you don't feel like bending over. For a while I was pretty good at using poles to pick up Nalgeens, dropped hats and whatever else could be hooked with a pole or pinched between two.

I don't know about using them to move poison ivy though. Seems to me you might get it on yourself at some point. If I suspect the ends of my poles have touched poison ivy I don't touch the bottom half until I can rinse them off in a creek.

Hamish McHamish
(El_Canyon) - M

Locale: USA
hand straps on 10/12/2011 11:22:56 MDT Print View

"You are making a joint by using the strap as a strong, tireless ligament. If you grip tightly, your hands and wrists will needlessly work and stress."

This is how I use trekking poles, to be able to load my arms and take stress off of my legs, while NOT gripping tightly and wearing out my hands/forearms. Let the straps and your triceps take the load, not the little forearm muscles and tendons.

I've never understood how people can get much benefit from no-strap poles. If you load such poles with any signficant weight (which is the main point of using them in the first place), your hand has to apply lots of force to maintain the connection. That's a high price in energy and fatigue in order to save, what, 1 ounce per strap, perhaps less?

Edited by El_Canyon on 10/12/2011 11:26:10 MDT.

Maxine Weyant
(Maxine) - MLife
downhill/hand straps on 10/12/2011 13:53:38 MDT Print View

When I hike downhill, I usually take my hands out of the straps and turn the poles backwards. I wrap my hands around the straps and the palm of my hand rests on top of the pole. This does several things:

It usually keeps me from having to lengthen the poles on the downhill.

By holding the strap, I can just move my wrist slightly as I'm lifting the pole and tip of pole lands right where I want to place it next. So my arms aren't working to lift and place the poles.

Palming the top of the pole really offloads my knees a lot more on the downhill.

Holding the straps really gives my hands and forearms a break. My wrists can maintain a more neutral position for awhile, my skin gets a break, and the sweat can evaporate. I often do this even when I'm not walking downhill. And when it's hot, I'll dunk my pole handles and straps in a cool stream to remove the grit and cool my wrists and hands, until the straps dry out.
Maxine

Don Jones
(djfrogg) - MLife

Locale: Pacific Northwest
Results of Good Poling Techniques on 10/12/2011 16:30:16 MDT Print View

Skip does a great job of explaining the basics of trekking pole use, especially valuable for those new to using poles in the backcountry. The main point of his article—that technique is important —is right on. I observe few with good poling technique. I have found the Nordic Walking community a great source of information on poling techniques.

At the top of the article, Skip mentions four purposes (“promises”) for using good pole technique. In my own website article on this same subject (http://highcountryexplorations.com/Poling_Effectiveness.html), I have identified seven different purposes: BALANCE and STABILITY; POWER; SPEED; ENDURANCE; HEALTH and EXERCISE; RELIEVE STRESS and REDUCE INJURIES; ENJOYMENT and FUN. The point being that technique is closely related to purpose—different purpose means modifying basic techniques.

An overriding purpose for using poles is fun and enjoyment. I derive much enjoyment by learning and applying good form and technique. The most fitting analogy here is that of skilled cross-country skiers or speed skaters on the ice. When they have mastered their respective forms, they are examples of power and beauty and grace. Not only fun to watch, but fun to experience first hand. While my analogy is a stretch applied to hiking with poles, good poling technique can add much to the enjoyment of being in the backcountry.

Alice Hengst
(Moondust) - MLife

Locale: Southern Sierras
Sometimes I just carry them on 10/12/2011 20:11:40 MDT Print View

If I'm on an obstacle-free trail, I will usually just carry the poles by holding them towards the middle so that they balance in my hands. I can hike much faster if I don't touch the poles to the ground, so when I don't need them I don't use them.

I also use the palm on top method that Maxine mentioned when I'm going down a steep hill.

Edited by Moondust on 10/12/2011 20:12:18 MDT.

Steve Horne
(shhQuiet) - F - MLife

Locale: Southeast
To carry or Use? on 10/12/2011 21:46:07 MDT Print View

I use them very much like using poles with cross-country skis. You're pushing with your legs and arms at the same time. But I do find it clumsy to take off the straps when switching between carrying and using them. I really depend on them for the downhill. I'd rather trade off some upper-body energy to save my knees.

Luymes Ted
(start2day) - M

Locale: So Cal.
Another use on 10/18/2011 22:08:32 MDT Print View

When going fast downhill, I use them to hop over rocks or obstacles. Plant the poles on either side of the obstacle and use momentum to lift yourself over. Use the same technique to "jump" from a taller object to a lower surface. It's fun and saves my knees.

Bruce Johnson
(BCJBCJ) - F
Hiking poles on 11/03/2011 13:02:54 MDT Print View

The article is okay,as far as it goes. However, Pacer Poles are far better than Lekis or any of the other usual brands (all of which basically adapt cross-country ski poles to hiker use). Pacers offer a distinct, hiker-centered design. I am 70, and my Pacers are a crucial part of my gear for continuing to backpack seriously at this age. One other commenter offers a link to the Pacer website.

Steve Genest
(srfish59) - M

Locale: SoCal
Hiking Poles on 10/01/2013 12:55:56 MDT Print View

Great article, Skip. The truth is, for me, they are indespensable. They hold up my tent and there's simply no way these old legs could hit the trail without them. I've recently begun using them on my weekly afternoon walks.

Eric Blumensaadt
(Danepacker) - MLife

Locale: Mojave Desert
FINALLY! on 01/17/2014 12:59:13 MST Print View

Finally an article on this much-needed topic and one that nicely addresses the absolute need for properly using hiking pole straps.

As a Nordic (XC) skier my use of hiking pole straps comes naturally. But others may be very resistant to any advice on this point.

TO WIT: Once on a Virginia section of the AT I tried to help a through hiker on the use of his hiking poles and was met with outright anger and resentment that I, a mere section hiker, would dare to tell him anything. OK, buddy, HYOH and, in this case, suffer. Ya can lead a horse to water...

Randy Cain
(bagboy) - MLife

Locale: Palmdale, CA
To strap or not to strap...... on 01/17/2014 22:37:55 MST Print View

Eric,

Your post seems to imply that not using straps will mean inevitable suffering. Could you elaborate?

Lloyd Long
(longlw) - M

Locale: Central Cascades
Proper use of trekking poles on 02/27/2014 10:13:11 MST Print View

Yes, if you grip the handles too tightly you will get tendonitis (tennis elbow). That happened to me before I learned how to let them swing free. It took me almost two years to get rid of the condition.