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Hiking Poles And Walking Poles Guide

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1 – Introduction To Walking And Hiking Poles

Uphill using hiking poles.

Hiking Poles, also known as walking poles, trekking poles, hiking sticks, walking canes, hiking canes are an increasingly popular item of hiking equipment.

Other terms used are walking staffs or hiking staffs but a walking staff or hiking staff is a slightly different product to a pole.

Hiking over uneven surfaces is considered a dangerous activity by some unless precautions are taken.

At times you will need to cross shallow bodies of water as well as encountering many obstacles in the road.

To deal with these challenges you will need to maintain good balance and stability. Hiking poles can help you with both of these.

Using hiking poles in effect means that you temporarily have more legs.

Whether you have three or four legs, it means that you are more likely to have a greater degree of balance and stability, and therefore greater comfort and safety.

Although as humans we don’t bend over and touch the ground with our hands, using hiking poles is like being a monkey, using two legs and two hands on the ground, and having a greater level of balance and stability.

Walking, Trekking or Hiking Poles

This video covers the benefits and features of hiking poles and how to use them.

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Contents On Poles For HIking & Walking

Use the following guide to aid you in your choice of Hiking poles, walking poles:

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2 – Why Use Poles For Hiking & Walking?

Hiking Poles In Use

The use of hiking poles is a personal preference but they can prove to be very helpful to you whilst hiking. There are a number of reasons for using hiking poles:

2.1 – Balance and Stability

Many people already use hiking poles and they are considered the traditional way to move on uncertain tracks and when crossing difficult terrain. This is the main reason for using hiking poles. They serve as an extra pair of legs to maintain good balance and stability. As a result, they also help maintain your safety and comfort:

  • Safety – Using Hiking poles can help prevent you from falling over, or making a bad step. Hence, they keep you safe by helping you avoid accidents and injuries. Even if you don’t fall over, they could help you avoid having aching or sprained knees or ankles, or even backache.
  • Comfort – Hiking with poles feels comfortable because you can walk in your natural posture while ascending or descending inclines. This should also mean that you are less likely to feel back pain. Your hands also remain in a comfortable position. In addition, your arms are bent and your hands are close to or above your heart level which is also a comfortable position. As a result of the posture taken up whilst using hiking poles, there is an additional benefit of improved blood circulation that ensures your body is less stressed body after completing your hike.

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Uphill Weight Distribution Using Hiking Poles

2.2 – Weight Distribution

As hiking poles act like your legs, they also bear some of the weight and reduce the load on your feet and legs. Poles therefore help distribute your weight evenly on to the whole of your body instead of just your legs. Your leg muscles are therefore also eased from the stress. This is especially the case when climbing steep inclines, the hiking poles bear much more of your weight than during level walking. Poles therefore also help to minimize the impact of hiking to your leg muscles and knee joints.

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Uphill Pacing Using Hiking Poles

2.3 – Pacing

When climbing a steep incline, hiking poles help you to pace yourself. However, because hiking poles take up your weight and allow you to maintain good stability, be aware that they can easily speed you up also. However, what this means is that you should be able to maintain your speed without exerting too great a level of effort. The “rhythm” created by walking with poles leads to relaxed, more regular breathing and increased stamina. Thus you should be able to complete your hike without a painful level of effort.

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Using walking poles on level ground.

2.4 – Arms & Hands

Whilst undertaking normal walking activities, your arms do not usually get much exercise. When using hiking poles your arms and shoulders get extra exercise and this helps maintain the muscles in your arms and shoulders. Hence you get a whole body workout.

In addition, the use of hiking poles provides the benefit of relieving your hands from swelling, particularly on warm days. Using hiking poles helps maintain movement of your arms and blood does not therefore just pool in your hands.

This later scenario is safer than putting your hands high on your backpack straps whilst hiking, as this tends to reduce blood circulation and you run the risk of falling flat on your face.

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2.5 – Health Benefits

The findings of one landmark research study in 1981 published by Dr. G. Neureuther showed that there are cardiovascular, orthopaedic and other health benefits to using hiking poles. As a result they advocate that not only is your circulation improved but your heart rate is also said to be reduced. Therefore, many seasoned and experienced hikers use them and advise others of their benefits.

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Using One Hiking Pole

2.6 – Two Poles Are Better

A single pole is of benefit, but two are better.

Provided you don’t need to keep one hand free, or you find using two hiking poles problematic for whatever reason, two hiking poles are recommended:

  • You’ll reduce the load on both knees;
  • Have greater push power uphill; and
  • More balance points for troublesome terrain.

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2.7 – Other Benefits

Hiking Poles For Resting

If we put our mind to it I’m sure we could all think of many uses and hence benefits of using hiking poles. Here are a few more:

  • Resting Pole – When you are getting tired and want a brief rest you can lean on your hiking poles to take some weight off your knees and ankles.
  • Guide Stick – When walking in poor light you can use your poles to discover holes in the ground, stones and bushes in your way.
  • Self Defence – Use could use your sticks to warn off any potential attacker such as domestic animals, wild creatures such as snakes and spiders, or even other human beings.
  • Tent Pole – Some tents are designed to use hiking poles as tent poles. This is especially useful for backpackers or trekkers looking to minimise the weight they carry.

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3 – Why Not Use Poles For Hiking & Walking?

Although the use of walking poles has a number of benefits, that doesn’t mean that they don’t have any disadvantages:

  • Greater Overall Effort – Experts believe that the use of walking poles could increase your overall energy expenditure. This is because your hands are now acting like extra legs, and is a purpose for which they were not designed. In essence, you are using your arms to prop up your body and re-distribute weight. In addition, those people with a weak upper body and strong legs may be unaware that they actually may run out of energy more quickly by using walking poles.
  • Get In The Way – Your hands were designed for tasks such as: opening up your map; carrying your beverages; eating your food, taking photographs; or moving branches aside in dense undergrowth; etc. To perform these tasks with walking poles in your hands would either be: impossible; uncomfortable; relatively clumsy; time consuming; sometimes frustrating; or even dangerous.
  • Dangerous – Some people consider walking poles a danger to other walkers, especially when used by walkers that haven’t taken the effort to learn how to use them properly. Keep your distance or be prepared to be scarred. Also, if you want to avoid lightening strikes during a storm and if you have walking poles made with metal parts place them on the ground at least 100 feet away.
  • Environmentally Unfriendly – A few consider the scratches they can leave behind a scar on the landscape, especially in places of special interest or conservation areas. However, there are worse culprits than walking poles such as mountain bikes. And don’t hiking boots damage the natural environment? I’ll leave it at that.

Although there are a few disadvantages and certain limitations to using walking poles, as you gain experience in their correct usage, these limitations may fade into insignificance.

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4 – Features of Poles For Hiking & Walking

Three Section Hiking Poles With Different Handles

When it comes to hiking poles, there are many different makes and different features.

Hiking poles are made from a range of materials that vary in weight and strength. And of course all of these aspects will affect the price you will pay.

So what are the main features and materials commonly available today and which ones will best fit your needs and budget:

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4.1 – Pole Materials

Most modern lightweight hiking poles are made with Aluminium or Carbon Fibre. If you are considering the weight of everything you take with you on your hike then carbon fiber poles are generally lighter than Aluminium. However, all other factors being equal, always compare the weight of hiking poles when you are considering a purchase and go for the lightest within your budget. Minimising the weight you carry, either in your hands or stored on or inside your backpack will contribute to more enjoyable hiking.

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4.2 – Hand Grip Materials

Hiking pole extended grip and adjustable wrist strap.

Expensive hand grip materials such as cork are comfortable for the hands. The shape and feel of grips vary from product to product, so you should try some different models to see which one you prefer. Some hiking poles are ergonomically designed for comfort and some have an extended grip down the shaft. An extended grip enables you to hold the hiking poles lower down on short uphill sections without having to shorten the pole length. Some even have left-hand and right-hand poles on either the grip or the strap. The three main materials, or blends of materials used are:

  • Cork – Resists moisture from sweaty hands, decreases vibration and is the best material for conforming to the shape of your hands.
  • Foam – Absorbs moisture from sweaty hands and is the softest material used.
  • Rubber – Insulates hands from cold, shock and vibration. Rubber is therefore popular for use in cold weather. Unfortunately, rubber is more likely to chafe or blister your hands when sweaty and is therefore not so suitable during warm weather.

Although it is nice to have this luxury, as long as you learn to fit the straps and hold the hand grips correctly, cheap rubber or plastic handles will suffice.

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4.3 – Fixed Length Or Telescopic

Telescopic walking pole.

The following factors highlight the pros and cons of fixed length and telescopic hiking poles:

4.3.1 – Fixed Length

Single section hiking poles are stronger than telescopic hiking poles, which may be more suitable if you are tall or heavily built. However, you have to pick a length and stick with it. On the plus side they generally cost less than the telescopic type.

4.3.2 – Telescopic

These hiking poles are more adaptable to a variety of situations, which includes easier ability to pack away: – Adjustability

Adjustable hiking poles with telescopic sections give you the flexibility to set the pole to the length most suitable for different situations:

  • On Level Ground – You can set it to the correct height for your height when on level ground.
  • Hills & Mountains – They give you flexibility to change the length for particular sections of your hike, that is, shorten them for long uphill sections or make them longer for steep descents.
  • On The Backpack – When you want to store your hiking poles on your backpack whilst hiking through thick undergrowth or scrambling over rocky sections, adjustable hiking poles can be reduced in length to help prevent them from catching or jamming between rocks.
  • Miscellaneous – When ultra lightweight backpacking, some tents offer a great weight saving design that allows you to use your telescopic hiking poles in place of carrying tent poles.

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3 Section Hiking Pole – Number Of Sections

They mainly come in either two or three sections. Most have three sections which offer the shortest compressed length but also cost more. Depending on the pole this could be as short as 57 centimeters, which makes them ideal for storing them out of the way on your backpack when you’re not using them. Even better they could fit inside a good sized backpack. Nordic poles or Nordic Walking poles are usually a single section and provide greater load bearing capacity. However, a Nordic walking pole won’t fit inside your backpack.

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Hiking Pole Twist Lock
Hiking Pole Cam Lock – Adjustment Type

Telescopic sections are a great feature and come in two main types of adjustment:

  • Twist Lock – This is the most common type. However, it can be a little awkward to adjust their length during a hike. You usually need to take your gloves off to adjust this type. If your hands are either wet due to rain or sweat then your hands may slip around the hiking poles, or worse still the locking mechanism may slip or slide. When the locks slips, or fails, as they can sometimes, the sections will compress down as you put your weight on the hiking poles and you could stumble over.
  • Flick Or Cam Lock – An alternative adjustable pole is the flick lock. This is a handy lever you can easily and quickly open and close to make length adjustments, even with gloves on. Additionally, the sections tend to slip or slide far less than the twist lock type.

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Hiking Pole Shock Absorber – Shock Absorber

Some hiking poles have shock absorbing springs between the telescopic sections to reduce the impact on your wrists, elbows and shoulders and are of most benefit when descending. However, the shock absorbing type of hiking poles are often more expensive.

Trekking poles, or antishock trekking poles, as the name suggests, usually have a shock absorber due to their prolonged use over a number of days.

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4.4 – Baskets

Pole cone basket.
Snowflake basket.

The basket is designed to spread the load on the ground and is located above the tip. The basket also helps prevent the pole from sinking into soft ground, such as bog land, marsh land or snow. The larger the basket, the more effective it is. However, the converse is also true in that it can also get in the way more, especially when passing through low vegetation.

The standard size of basket is about 5 centimetres across the diameter. If your hiking poles are sinking into the ground then a larger basket may be needed. On the other hand, if you find your baskets catching on things, then either: try and obtain a smaller basket; replace your snowflake tip with a solid cone; or remove your solid tip altogether.

There are two main types from which to select:

4.4.1 – Solid Cone

This type of basket can be used most of the time as it will stop the pole sinking in most types of terrain, and as they’re fairly small, they’re less likely to catch on things.

4.4.2 – Snowflake Cone

This type of basket has a pattern shape cut out in the cone, and as its name suggests, is designed for use on snow.

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Pole rubber foot.
Pole blunt tip.
Pole tip with rubber foot.
Pole tip with rubber foot and basket.

4.5 – The Tip Of The Pole

The tip is the base of the pole, where it meets the ground. There are a number of types to choose from:

4.5.1 – Rubber Feet

You’ll often see these on conventional walking sticks. They are designed for hiking on smooth, hard surfaces such as roads or where you’re walking on bare rock for long periods of time. Some rubber feet can be placed over the top of spike feet.

4.5.2 – Blunt Point

Being the most common type of tip, you’ll typical see these in countryside locations as they are generally the most useful type of tip. The tip usually comprises of a number of small blunted spikes or ridges in a circular pattern on the bottom. Even though each individual spike has a lower gripping effect compared to a single point tip, their combined gripping power is good. They are also less dangerous to yourself and other hikers as they have a lower ripping and stabbing capacity compared to a single point tip.

4.5.3 – Single Point

You’ll often see these on ski poles. They are designed for travelling over ice. They can grip very well on solid surfaces but they’re rarely much better than blunt point type on overall performer. Also be aware that they have a great potential for stabbing yourself and fellow hikers around you.

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5 – Etiquette When Using Your Poles

Be Careful With Your Hiking Pole

Although hiking poles can be of great benefit to people in terms of balance and support, they can also be a dangerous weapon in the wrong hands. Consider the following if you want to evade the annoyance or anger of your hiking companions:

  • Be Aware – Make sure you are aware of hikers both ahead of you and behind you.
  • Put Away – If there is a section of the hiking trail where you don’t need your hiking poles then pack them away.
  • Swing Back – Show fellow hikers how much room you need when you are striding out by swinging your hiking poles back, particularly on steep uphill sections.
  • Don’t Wave – Try not to wave your hiking poles around in the air needlessly.
  • Don’t Drag – Try not to drag your hiking poles over stiles or fences because there is the danger of poking someone in the eye. Instead, push them through or over the stile or fence and collect them on the other side.
  • Don’t Bang – Don’t annoy fellow hikers by banging the metal tips of your hiking poles on hard surfaces, use a rubber tip.
  • Don’t Erode – Also, use your rubber tip to avoid damaging areas prone to erosion.

For a detailed description on the use of poles for hiking and walking read our post entitled “how to use walking poles“.

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6 – Looking After Your Poles

Cleaning Hiking Pole With Toothbrush

The locking mechanism of hiking poles can occasionally slip whilst in use but can usually be prevented with regular cleaning and drying of the locking mechanism. In turn, this should help prevent corrosion and prolong the life your hiking poles. Read the manufacturer’s leaflet for specific instructions for your hiking poles but here is a general procedure:

  1. Unlock and completely pull apart all sections;
  2. Remove any dirt or moisture from the shaft and the locking mechanisms;
  3. Dry all parts with a soft cloth as much as possible. If necessary, use a soft nylon brush to remove debris. Inspect component parts for damage and if necessary, replace parts if you can get hold of them.
  4. Once you have dismantled and cleaned the hiking poles, allow them to air dry for at least several hours before reassembling.

Note: You should never use any lubricants or alcohol-based solutions as these could cause corrosion.

If you have any problems with your poles not tightening after cleaning then this post on how to fix poles that don’t tighten may help.

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7 – Some Brands of Poles

Black Diamond LogoLeki Logo
Trekrite LogoKomperdell Logo

Some famous name quality brands include Leki poles and Komperdell trekking poles. Other brands include Black Diamond, Trekrite, Mountainlife, Vango, Coleman, Summit, Brasher and others. The most famous are Leki, who have a number of poles including Leki hiking poles; Leki walking poles; and Leki Trekking poles. Within the Leki pole brand range, there are names like: leki wanderfreund; leki makalu; and leki super makalu. Take a look at our list of hiking pole brands in our post entitled Best Hiking Poles Brands.

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8 – Summary On Walking And Hiking Poles

Down hill using poles.

Hiking poles, walking poles and trekking poles are descendants of the common walking stick.

Whether you call it a hiking pole, walking pole or trekking pole, a pole helps provide some rhythm to the hikers pace and extra support.

They are not really essential on flat, smooth ground but using them can increase the exercise gained by the hiker as well as speed of the hike.

Poles are perhaps your best friend when walking on relatively difficult, snowy or muddy terrain. On uncertain terrain, or steep slopes, they are useful for stability, and many people say they help to minimise knee pain. They can also be used as aids when climbing rocks or boulders, to check the depth of mud and water and help facilitate a safe crossing.

Selecting the right hiking poles for your adventures, like other types of hiking equipment, can require more thought than you might first think.

Summing up, the lighter the pole the better. Telescopic hiking poles are the best feature for flexibility. If you want shock absorbers then be prepared to pay more.

We have tried to make this article on hiking poles as complete as we could. We trust that we have helped you decide: whether hiking poles should be part of your hiking gear; what type to look for to suit your needs; and that these decisions facilitate a comfortable, safe and enjoyable outdoor adventure.

If you want to learn some details about how to use poles for hiking and walking then read our post here“.

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