How to Walk With Poles - 16 Steps to Max Efficiency
Walking poles; convert or sceptic, there is no denying that they've become increasingly popular on the British hills in recent years, as we catch up with our Continental counterparts in embracing them. The benefits are many. Poles aid balance on tricky ground; they boost your pace; studies suggest they can reduce loading and stress on the joints of the lower limbs; they may cut down on damage to muscle and cartilage; they lower your chances of injury; and they help delay fatigue. However, you won't feel these benefits if you just wave your poles around ineffectually. They may seem a trivially simple bit of kit, but believe it or not there is a right way to use them - and it takes a certain amount of practise. Here's how:
1. Try to have two poles rather than only one. It's better for balance, makes locomotion more more efficient, and avoids unnecessary twisting.
2. Adjust the length to fit your frame. Convention suggests that when the pole is held straight, your elbow should be bent at a 90 degree angle. This may suit some people, but others will prefer a little shorter or longer. There is no definitive right answer, so experiment with what works best for you.
3. Take time to change the length as you progress through your walk, perhaps shortening them for uphills and lengthening them for descents, for instance. For long traverses you might even consider a shorter pole on the uphill side and a longer one in the downhill hand. Alternatively, grip the uphill pole by the shaft, instead of the handle (see point 5).
4. On steeper snow slopes put one pole away and replace it with an axe in your uphill hand. The remaining pole helps with balance, but it can be instantly dropped if the worst happens and you do need to arrest a slip with your axe. For this to work, you must always keep your hand out of the pole's wrist loop.
5. Wrist loops are a bit of a Marmite feature. In theory they help you control the pole and get the maximum mechanical efficiency out of it; and at least on paper, leashes are integral features on most designs of handle on the market. But many experienced pole users dislike them, and find they can get by perfectly well without. The best advice is to experiment, and then make up your own mind. Disadvantages of straps include:
- Their restrictive feel. You are effectively tied into your poles, which is often uncomfortable and tends to be fiddly if you want to use your hands for anything else.
- You are not free to slide your hands up and down the pole when walking on uneven ground. Without loops holding you in place, it's surprising how often you will find yourself repositioning your grip on the handle, down onto the shaft and even up over the top of the pommel as the ground undulates beneath you.
- If you fall when wearing the wrist loops, you are at greater risk of injury. For a start you cannot put out a steadying hand. Worse still, there's the leverage effect of the pole. Broken wrists are not uncommon in this situation. In descent in particular, when you're using poles more for balance than to power you along, it's wiser to remove your wrists from the loops.
If you do decide to use your wrist leashes then make sure to do it properly: pass the hand upwards through the loop so that it sits across the back of your hand; drop your hand onto the handle and grip it in the correct place; then tighten the strap so that your hand is held at the right height.
6. Do not over-grip. Even without loops, your hands ought to be reasonably relaxed on the pole or they'll get tired. If you consistently white-knuckle your poles, over time you may conceivably risk long term stress injury.
7. Plant the tips with precision rather than at random.
8. Try to maintain an upright posture, particularly when ascending. This keeps your back comfortably straight rather than hunched, and your lungs working at maximum efficiency. Placing poles in front of you in an attempt to pull yourself uphill makes you stoop and offers no mechanical advantage whatsoever: when climbing you can get a lot more power into each pole if they are planted to the side or even slightly behind, so that you can push down on them. Conversely on the downhills, planting poles in front gives you something to lean into and aids the balance.
9. For maximum locomotive efficiency use the pair to augment your natural walking action, establishing a rhythm that effectively turns you into a quadruped by swinging an alternate pole and leg with every stride (left leg, right pole: right leg, left pole...etc). This can be particularly satisfying when striding along on the flat, giving a noticeable boost to your forward momentum.
10. Consciously engage core muscles, arms and shoulders to help propel yourself along. This takes some of the strain off your legs, reducing lower body fatigue over a long day while at the same time giving you an upper body workout. It makes you go faster, too.
11. Using a pole as a third 'leg' when crossing rivers really helps you balance; if the water's deep then lengthen it first, making extra sure that the sections are fully tightened so that it doesn't suddenly telescope up on you mid-stream.
12. Unless it is a very brief section, put your poles away for ground on which the'll be more a hindrance than a help. On very narrow trails through deep vegetation for instance, they just get in the way. Meanwhile on all but the very easiest scrambles it is far better to have two hands free than only one to grip the rock while the other holds the poles. On short rock steps you might pass the pair to someone else so that you can scramble freely, or even throw them ahead if descending. On a more sustained scramble, collapse the poles, and either strap them onto your rucksack or stow them safely out of the way inside. Lashing a pair of fully extended poles to your pack may be an appealing time saver, until that is they get dangerously in the way at just the wrong moment.
13. When walking in a group with the poles held idly in your hands, take care not to spear your friends. This goes double on steep ascents, when your stray pole tips may be waving around at face height and present a genuine risk to those coming up behind.
14. Poles are not just for walking; with a bit of imagination they can have a variety of other roles too. Employ them as oversized tent pegs; make them an integral part of your shelter for the night (some lightweight tarps are designed to be used in combination with trekking poles for instance); hang your clothes up to dry; fend off savage farm dogs; probe bogs to assess the solidity of your next step... If needs must they can even double as an improvised splint.
15. Don't be afraid to modify your poles. Wrap tape around the shaft just below the handle to improve the grip and make it warmer on the hands. If you never use the wrist loops then why not cut them off...?
16. Perhaps you are a firm convert to poles. Even so, try not to use them all the time but instead consider the situations in which they're worthwhile, and when not so much. For carrying a heavy load or covering a big distance, poles are obviously beneficial; ditto in deep snow or high wind. However on shorter walks, easier terrain or scrambling days they are either less necessary or even a nuisance. There's a school of thought, too, that always walking with poles could lead to a long term reliance on them, as your strength, balance and coordination without their assistance become compromised. No matter how true this really is, and we've never seen a study proving it, it's probably a good idea not to get completely habituated.