Hiking Sticks—Benefits, Sizing and Proper Techniques
Gone are the days when people believed hiking sticks were only reserved for older folks. The benefits of hiking poles—for hikers and walkers of all ages—is now well known! Here’s what you need to know about these handy hiking tools.
The Benefits of Using Trekking Poles
- Hiking sticks can increase balance and stability.
Once the initial awkwardness of learning how to use trekking poles goes away, you won’t have to think twice about how and when to use them. By having four points of contact on the ground, you’ll have much better balance and increased stability.
Best uses for hiking sticks include uneven terrain, steep ascents or descents, water crossings and treks over loose rocks, wet trails and snow.
- Hiking poles can reduce fatigue and help lessen impact on joints.
Backroads trip leaders in Alaska always encourage their guests to carry trekking poles, regardless of age or fitness level. Some hikes have more than 3,500 feet of ascent over wet rocks, mud and snow. In these kinds of conditions, using trekking poles means you have the advantage of using your core and upper body to help you up and over obstacles along the way. On the way down, you can rest your weight on your poles to counter the strong gravitational pull on tired legs.
Backroads Pro Tip
A 1999 study in the Journal of Sports Medicine found that trekking poles can reduce compressive force on the knees by up to 25 percent!
- Trekking poles are multifunctional.
Depending on your circumstances, trekking poles can serve several functions beyond their main use. Walking sticks can be used as splints to repair broken tent poles or to immobilize broken or injured limbs. They can also clear away sticks or overgrown trail vegetation or be used as makeshift probing devices in snow.
How to Find the Proper Set
- Look for features that suit your needs:
- Ease of use. Be sure it’s easy to extend or shorten the poles.
- Packability. Most poles are telescopic, which allows for easily storage and packing.
- Weight. Aluminum is slightly heavier, and carbon is ultralight. Lighter means a higher price tag.
- Durability. Get hiking sticks that can withstand the activity you plan to pursue.
- Comfort. Do you want cork or plastic handles? Soft wrist straps? What other features are important to you?
Proper Fit: Adjusting Pole Length
1. Remember your number.
a. Almost every trekking pole in the industry has numbers on the telescopic sections. Those numbers correlate to the total pole length when adjusted to that number.
b. Once you know your number, you can easily pick up a trekking pole and set it immediately to your optimal fit.
2. How do you find your number?
a. Your pole (with the tip planted firmly on flat ground) should be long enough that it creates a 90 degree angle from your fist to elbow to shoulder.
b. Start on any number (115 is a good start), and find which number suits your height best. Remember to set all sections to the same number. If 115 cm is too long, work your way down by 5 cm increments. If you’re tall, go to the higher numbers first.
3. Use the strap properly.
a. There is a right and a wrong way to use the strap. Doing it wrong results in less comfort.
b. The right way to use a strap is to have it wrapped around the back side of your hand—not holding the underside of your wrist. To properly do this, put your hand up through the strap before grabbing the grip, rather than down through the strap. The strap should be wrapped nicely behind your hand .
Backroads Pro Tip
Remember, you can always adjust the strap length if it feels too loose or too snug. These kinds of adjustments might seem minor, but getting everything right can lead to increased comfort throughout the hike.
Proper Use on the Trail and Best Practices
- Plant poles in an alternate pattern to your steps. (Step left; plant right.) Give it some time. After a few times on the trail, you won’t even have to think about this anymore.
- On gradual ascents, pole points should be slightly behind you to help push you up the hill.
- When terrain gets steeper on the way up, it can be beneficial to shorten poles a bit.
- When terrain gets steeper going down, it can be beneficial to lengthen poles a bit. This lessens how far you have to reach.
- When stowing poles, be mindful of sharp ends snagging on trees, rocks or hiking partners. Always shorten the pole back to its most compact size before placing on or in your pack.
- When walking in front of people, always be mindful of where your poles tips are.
Whether you’ve been hiking all your life or you’re just getting into it, a good set of hiking poles offers numerous benefits, including increased stability and reduced fatigue. This makes the mighty hiking stick a tool many Backroads guides don’t leave home without when hard hiking’s on the agenda!