If you already use trekking poles, you probably understand why they can be so helpful for hikers of all interests and abilities. If you haven’t ever tried them, they’re well worth considering. We talked to Brandon Winchell, a hiker and doctor of physical therapy in Edmonds, for some information on the value of trekking poles — and some advice on how to use them properly.
Why use poles? The biggest benefit of poles is that they help take some of the load off of your legs, Brandon said. Especially when going up or down hills, poles transfer a bit of the work to your upper body, which can keep your legs from wearing out as fast. Additionally, adding poles turns you into a four-legged animal. Instead of having one or two points of contact on the ground, you can have three or four. That really decreases your risk of a fall or an ankle strain if you hit an unstable surface.
How tall should your poles be? To properly size your poles, Brandon says to stand with your arms relaxed at your side and your elbows bent at 90 degrees. That’s how tall your poles should be. (Make sure your shoulders aren’t shrugged up toward your ears.)
What about hills? When going uphill for a long period of time, consider shortening your poles. The steeper the hill, the more you should shorten them. And for downhills, lengthen your poles.
What about traversing? If you’re traversing a very steep slope, consider using only your uphill pole. Plant it firmly and then step forward with the opposite foot first. Then follow with the uphill foot before moving the pole again. You can either let the downhill pole hang or put it away while you’re traversing.
How do the wrist straps work? For poles with wrist straps, put your hands up from the bottom of the loop, let your hand rest on the wrist strap and then grab the handle of the pole. The idea is that, when you hike, you shouldn’t have to grip the handle too tightly. Adjust the wrist straps so they’re a length that works well for you.
Any safety considerations? If you put a pole on a potentially unstable surface, be sure to test it before you trust it with your weight. On particularly uneven surfaces, for instance on a boulder field, consider removing your wrists from the straps. If your pole gets stuck and you lose your balance, you’ll be able to quickly move your hands to help catch yourself.
Do hand grips matter? Brandon says to pay attention to the hand grips when picking out poles. Foam or cork might be more comfortable while poles with firm rubber ridges might be more likely to cause blisters. If the poles have a relatively long grip, it can make it easier to make small adjustments as you go up and down hills.