How to use walking poles for a better hiking experience

Our guide to choosing the best walking pole options, and how they can help you reduce injury and increase your workout.

Why use trekking poles? Whether you’re a daywalker, a backpacker or seasoned trekker, you may not have explored the use of walking/trekking poles in your hiking kit – but we have more than a few reasons for you to pick up a pair for your next adventure.

Up until now, you might have only thought of hiking or walking poles as aids for newbies or those who need a little extra help during their hike – but not only do they provide extra stability and comfort while walking on uneven terrain, they can also increase your workout and help you to reduce fatigue over long distances. 

The differences between walking poles

Ever wondered, 'what are hiking poles for?' Did you know there are two types? 

Hiking or trekking poles (but often just known as walking poles) are primarily used to lend stability for more challenging outings, frequently amongst steep or rocky terrain. Often the handgrip is more ergonomic and larger in design. They can also include shock-absorbing materials and can sometimes have three sections to be folded into a bag, rather than hang on the outside. 

Nordic walking poles are used primarily for adding calorie burn and an upper body workout to your regular hike. They are generally slimmer in design and have a more minimal hand grip. They will often also feature a strap that allows you to release and snap the pole back to your hand on each stroke. These are not always suitable for hikes, as they don't work well on hills. 

Two people on a hike in New Zealand with mountains in the backgroundTwo people on a hike in New Zealand with mountains in the background

The health benefits of walking poles

There are so many benefits to using walking or hiking poles during your next adventure, especially when it comes to your health. 

  1. Walking poles can work to prevent injuries and back pain by improving your posture as you walk. Oftentimes, hiking uphill causes you to lean forward, putting more strain on your back. While using poles to climb that hilly ascent you’ll stand straighter and reduce the impact on your back muscles.
  2. Walking poles can also reduce damage to your joints, particularly your knees. By spreading the work across different muscle groups to take all the load off your legs, you’ll also be taking that stress off your knees and reduce fatigue while you’re at it.
  3. Looking to go faster, stronger, longer? It might seem like a contradiction but using walking poles helps you burn more calories by providing an upper body workout. Plus, that extra stability and safety on difficult terrain help to avoid injury.
Hikers using walking poles in a shallow streamHikers using walking poles in a shallow stream
Walking poles are valuable aids on both wet and dry riverbed crossings

Using walking poles on hills

Walking poles are ideal for both sides of the mountain.

Walking poles aid in your stability when taking on hills, especially for any hairy switchbacks. They also help share the load that can be placed on your knees and leg muscles by better incorporating your shoulders and back muscles into your movement. 

Walking poles can be used to protect yourself on steep sections when heading downhill. However, never rely solely on walking poles to protect you from a fall and never place all of your body weight on them. A failure in the pole's locking mechanism can mean a large fall for you. Use them as a stability aid only and not a crutch. 

While some people like to adjust the length of their poles specifically when scaling a hill, this isn't always necessary, but the general rule is that you want shorter poles going uphill and longer poles going down. 

Man using walking poles up hill on a trekMan using walking poles up hill on a trek
Walking poles aid stability and alleviate pressure up hill

Your hiking or walking pole will come with a range of features to allow you to adapt them to different types of terrain. A key feature is the three interchangeable additions to the end of your pole, which you can swap out according to your needs.

The ‘tip’ is a pointy end that bites into soft earth and ice (and is the most commonly replaced part of the pole as these can loosen or get stuck between rocks and lost mid-trek). The ‘paw’ is a rubber end that is best used for walking on pavement, and the ‘basket’ is mostly used for sand, snow or soft dirt surfaces.

How to use walking poles

Step 1: choose the right walking poles for you

The first step is to choose the correct walking or hiking pole for your needs. Heading on long, flat hikes and want to up your workout game? Go for a Nordic-style walking pole. Hiking mountainous terrain? Try a supportive hiking pole to make your climb easier. Climbing Everest? You might need a little more than a set of walking poles for that one.

Step 2: set up your walking poles

Start with your arms at a 90-degree angle bent at the elbow. Adjust your pole sections from the bottom up, lengthening or shortening so that they fit comfortably and make contact with the ground when your arms are bent. Generally, you’ll find that the handle should be in line with your hip level.

If you feel that the length is too long or short once you start your hike due to long grass or uneven terrain, simply adjust the sections. 

Next, loop your hands through the wrist strap, gripping the handle and ensuring the strap isn’t twisted. Tighten the strap so that the pole won’t fall if you release your grip, but also so that your hand isn’t restricted or uncomfortable.

Step 3: come to grips...

Once you have set up your walking poles, spend a little time mastering your grip with a quick stroll around the neighbourhood. Slip your hands through the strap, securing the strap in place with your thumbs. Start by gripping the pole with your thumb and forefinger, then closing the rest of your hand loosely around the grip.

Don’t hold your walking poles with an overly tight grip – the wrist straps will keep your poles secure from falling.

The straps on your poles act as shock absorbers as you walk. They free your hands from vibrations that run up the pole. With this in mind, try adjusting your strap so that as you grip the handle just with your fingertips, the strap should support your hand. Doing this will help to reduce any fatigue in your wrists that may come from flicking your poles ahead of you during an entire day of hiking. So remember, let the straps do the work during the majority of the hike, but keep a firmer grip when navigating descents or unstable footing. 

Step 4: learn how to walk all over again

One of the biggest mistakes people make when using walking poles is to use too much arm motion. Try keeping your arms in a neutral position, using your shoulders to push yourself forward rather than the poles themselves. Pivot the opposite pole forward with a flick each time you take a step.

A great way to start is to just let your poles drag behind you as you walk. As you begin to forget that they are there, slowly introduce them into your walking style, digging the tips into the dirt sightly ahead of you. This will help you use your walking poles as an extension of your gait, rather than a separate propellant. 

If you’re planning to up your workout, try applying a little more pressure every time you plant the tip down, flicking the opposite side forward with a loose grip on the next step.

Step 5: store your walking poles correctly

Before storing your poles away after a hike, make a mark on each adjustable section in permanent marker so that you don’t have to measure the height each time.

If you’ve been trekking in wet climates, disassemble and dry your poles before storing to ensure they stay in the best condition possible. If you find your poles become dirty or the mechanism becomes stuck, follow the manufacturer’s instructions to clean them.

Browse walking poles below...

More from the Summit Journal...