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Trekking Poles: Not Just For Seniors Anymore

Copyright 2005 by Michael Brochstein

When I was younger I thought that only much much older people used trekking poles. Later I learned that they were much more common in other parts of the world for people of all ages.  In the last few years I have noticed more and more hikers in this country of all ages using them. There are generally two reasons that hikers use trekking poles (sometimes referred to as “sticks”). The most common reason is to "save" their knees by reducing the stress on them through the use of poles (especially going downhill).  The other main reason is for extra help in balancing on tricky or steep terrain and/or with very large loads to carry.

Features to look for in trekking poles include an anti-shock system where the poles are spring loaded to reduce the harshness of their impact on your hands and arms when the poles hit the ground as you walk, the ability to collapse (they usually have either two or three telescoping sections) to a manageable size, and a positive angle grip (a 15-degree forward leaning grip which is thought to be ergonomically superior to a straight/upright grip). Other features to consider are lighter weight poles (i.e. using titanium in the construction of the shafts), grips made with a cork like material that seems very popular among hikers, and various systems that make height adjustments easy to make. 

While the use of trekking poles is somewhat intuitive (i.e. don't poke anyone with their points!), certain aspects of their use may not be.  On level ground the conventional wisdom is to adjust the length of the poles so that your elbow is at a ninety degree angle (a right angle) when holding the grips of the poles in a vertical position with the tips touching the ground.  It is also conventional wisdom to lengthen the poles when going downhill and shorten them for going uphill. I have personally not found it necessary to shorten or lengthen poles for hilly terrain but others may prefer it.

I thought it was obvious how one might hold the grip of a trekking pole and adjust the straps around one’s hand but I was wrong.  I had thought one just grips the pole’s hand grips (period).  I didn’t see the need for the hand straps other than to avoid accidentally dropping a pole.  I was wrong.  Just gripping the pole’s grips can result in very tired and possibly injured hands.  I have a friend who has been using poles for a long while who does this and it seems to work for him.  For myself and hopefully you, you’ll learn what is considered the proper way to grip poles and your hands and fingers will thank you.

Poles are generally marked “left” or “right”.  Use the correct pole for the appropriate hand as the straps may be threaded differently for each hand.  The secret to properly gripping a pole is to properly adjust the hand straps on each pole.  Adjust them so that your hand can naturally grip the hand grips of the poles.  When walking with your poles, one may only need to use your thumb and index finger to control the pole directionally. 

The hand strap is adjusted so that the part of your hand that is facing downward in the strap bears all the weight you will put downward onto the poles. Adjusted properly one should be able to walk with poles on level ground using a "two fingered swing". Point your index and thumb forward and swing the poles back and forth as you walk.  They do not need to be gripping the poles anymore than necessary to guide its swing.  The downward pressure, that is when you push off on the pole, is felt by the downward facing side of your hand that is in contact with the strap on the bottom part of the loop of the strap.  Your fingers should not be squeezing hard on the grip as your hand, not your fingers, should be pushing down on the straps. In hilly terrain, gripping the poles with your entire hand may be necessary at times.

One relevant article I read (page 12 in the October 2005 edition of AMC Outdoors magazine) after initially writing this article had two pieces of advice in regards to knees and hiking.  The first is obvious but I think needs to be stated here.  That is, the less weight you put on your knees, the less stress there will be on them.  There are generally two ways to lesson the load on your knees (other than using trekking poles) and that is to reduce your pack's weight as much as possible and to also lesson your own weight as much as possible.  The other piece of advice and one which I have not heard elsewhere was to always use two trekking poles and not just one as the use of one pole can increase the "stress" on the "unaided" knee.

Trekking poles are not a cure-all.  Knee problems can be caused and cured in many different ways.  Trekking poles simply lessen the impact of hiking on one’s knees.  I felt the difference after using them on just one hilly hike and now hike with them all the time.  I hope you will also consider using them.


An instructional video that I found very useful is "Adventure Buddies - Hiking Poles: Techniques and Tips” (see http://www.adventurebuddies.net/ for more information). There are a multiple of manufacturers that make trekking poles.  One very popular brand on hiking trails is Leki.

Comments: Michael_Brochstein@MABsystems.com

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Last revision: October 3, 2005

Copyright © 2008 Michael Brochstein. All rights reserved.