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.
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.
Put your hand up through the bottom of the strap loop.
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:
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.
- 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.
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.
Brake: Plant in front of your foot.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Resize poles so that uphill side is shorter; downhill side, longer.
Technique 8: Going Strapless
When the terrain is rough and varied:
- 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!