Walking poles and staffs are standard equipment for many walkers and hikers. The reasons why are simple: They enhance your stability and provide support on all types of terrain.
To get the most out of trekking poles or a hiking staff, follow these steps:
Walking Poles: Sold as a pair and used in tandem, walking poles enhance your stability and can reduce force on your knees while hiking and backpacking. Most are adjustable in length and some include internal springs that absorb shock to further reduce impact.
Walking Staff: Sometimes called a walking staff or travel staff, this is a single pole that’s most effective when used on relatively flat terrain and with little or no load on your back. Hiking staffs are adjustable and some include a shock-absorbing feature. They may also include a built-in camera mount under the handle so the staff can be used as a monopod.
Properly sized poles will put your elbows at a 90-degree bend when you hold the poles with tips on the ground near your feet. Many walking poles come in adjustable lengths, which makes this easy to use. However, some are sold in fixed lengths or in ranges of sizes. Use these guidelines to help find the right length poles for you:
For adjustable-length walking poles and staffs:
If you have walking poles that adjust in length, it’s important to know what height to set them at. Improperly adjusted walking poles can cause distress to your arms, shoulders, back and neck.
For general walking, adjust the length so that when you hold the pole with the tip on the ground near your foot, your arm makes a 90-degree bend at the elbow. This will be the right length for most of your walking.
If you have poles with three sections, it’s helpful to set the top adjustment so it’s in the middle of the adjustment range and then set the bottom adjustment to the length that puts your arm at the correct angle. Then if you need to make adjustments while walking, you can use only the top adjustment to fine-tune the length.
For long uphill sections, you can shorten each pole by about 5–10cm to get more leverage and more secure pole plants. The steeper the slope, the more you shorten your poles. Your walking poles should assist you in moving uphill without causing strain or fatigue to your shoulders and your shoulders should never feel as if they are in an unnatural, lifted position or as if they are being pushed up into your backpack straps. If so, you need to shorten your poles even more.
For long downhill sections, try lengthening each pole by about 5–10cm from the length you set it at for general walking. Doing so will keep your body more upright for better balance.
If you’re on a long traversing section, you can shorten the pole on the uphill side and lengthen the pole on the downhill side as needed to improve comfort and stability.
Depending on how you plan to use the poles, you may want to consider poles with some of these features:
Adjustable: Many walking poles adjust in length to enhance stability on different terrain. They generally adjust from about 53 to 120cm long. Typically you’ll want to shorten the poles when going uphill and lengthen them when going downhill.
Non-adjustable: Some walking poles don’t adjust in length. These fixed-length poles tend to be lighter weight than adjustable poles because they operate with fewer parts, making them popular among the ultralight crowd. They are great for activities where you know you only need a certain length.
Foldable: Foldable walking poles function like tent poles rather than collapsing into themselves like adjustable poles. Foldable poles are typically the most packable and often are very lightweight and quick to deploy.
Shock-absorbing poles: These offer internal springs that absorb shock when you walk downhill. With most poles, this feature can be turned off when it’s not needed, like when you’re walking uphill. Shock absorption is a nice feature for any walker, but is particularly recommended if you have unstable hips, knees or ankles or have had any previous injuries to those joints.
Standard poles: These do not have a shock-absorbing feature and are lighter and less expensive as a result. While they don’t absorb as much impact when going downhill, they do provide a similar level of balance and support as shock-absorbing poles.
Ultralight: Ultralight poles offer the advantage of less swing weight, which makes them easier and quicker to move. Over the course of a long walk, this means less fatigue. Ultralight poles are also easier to pack. The pole shaft’s material is a key determinant of the pole’s overall weight.
Camera mount: Some walking poles and staffs include a built-in camera mount under the handle, enabling the pole to be used as a monopod.
Whether adjustable in length or not, all walking poles have locking mechanisms to keep the poles from slipping in length while in use. For non-adjustable poles, the mechanisms lock and unlock so you can extend them to full length for use and collapse them for stowing. Adjustable poles operate in a similar way, but the locking mechanisms also let you adjust the length of the two or three interlocking sections.
Most poles use one of these four types of locking mechanisms:
External lever lock: A lever-based, clamp like mechanism that is quick and easy to adjust, even when wearing gloves.
Push-button lock: Poles with this locking mechanism snap into place and lock with a single pull. Press the push button to release the lock and collapse the poles. Some of these poles do not adjust in length.
Twist lock: Uses an expander and screw setup that is consistently strong and durable.
Combination lock: Some poles use a combination of the other locking mechanisms to achieve a balance of strength, light weight and ease of use. For example, a pole might use an external lever lock on the upper shaft and a twist lock on the lower shaft.
The pole shaft’s makeup is a key determinant of the pole’s overall weight.
Aluminium: The more durable and economical choice, aluminium poles usually weigh between 18 and 22 ounces per pair. The actual weight (and price) can vary a bit based on the gauge of the pole, which ranges from 12 to 16mm. Under high stress, aluminium can bend, but is unlikely to break.
Composite: These poles feature shafts that are made either entirely or partially from carbon. The lighter and more expensive option, these poles average between 12 and 18 ounces per pair. They are good at reducing vibration, but under high stress, carbon-fibre poles are more vulnerable to breakage or splintering than aluminium poles. If you walk in rugged, remote areas, this is something to keep in mind.
Some poles and staffs include ergonomic grips that have a 15-degree corrective angle to keep your wrists in a neutral and comfortable position. Also, some walking staffs have grips that look like the grip you’d find on a walking cane. This shape provides good support for casual walking and very light walking.
Grips come in a variety of materials that affect how the poles feel in your hands.
Cork: This resists moisture from sweaty hands, decreases vibration and best conforms to the shape of your hands. If you sweat a lot and will be hiking in hot weather, go with cork grips.
Foam: This absorbs moisture from sweaty hands and is the softest to the touch.
Rubber: This insulates hands from cold, shock and vibration, so it’s best for cold-weather activities. However, it’s more likely to chafe or blister sweaty hands, so it’s less suitable for warm-weather hiking.
Wrist straps: It’s actually pretty common to see walkers using their walking pole wrist straps incorrectly. To use them the right way, put your hand up through the bottom of the strap and then pull down and grab the grip of the pole. This technique supports your wrist and heel of the hand and allows you to keep your hand relaxed on the grip.
You can adjust the length of the strap so that when you bring your hand down on the strap it lines up with where you want it to rest on the grip. Proper strap adjustment allows you to let go of the pole to take a picture, grab a snack or adjust your backpack and then easily grab the pole again in the right place.
Note that many walking poles have right- and left-hand specific straps, and that some have padded or lined straps to help prevent chafing.
Baskets: Trekking poles usually include a small, removable trekking basket at the tip end. Larger baskets can be substituted for use in snowy or muddy ground.
Pole tips: Carbide or steel tips are commonly used to provide traction, even on ice. Rubber tip protectors extend the life of the tips and protect your gear when poles are stowed in your pack. They are also good for use in sensitive areas to reduce impact to the ground. Angled rubber walking tips (usually sold separately) are for use on asphalt or other hard surfaces