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Hiking Poles - Selection and Use

Russ Bik

I set out to write an essay on how to pick and use hiking poles.  I had some ideas based on my own experience over the years and conversations I have had with other members of our hiking group.  Before giving advice, I thought I should Google the Internet to make sure my thinking was correct.  After doing that, I was completely confused. There are over a hundred separate websites dealing with the subject, and they frequently DO NOT agree with each other.  Some of the sites, like REI, offer advice alongside over 45 different trekking poles they sell—not to mention the hiking poles.  They have one pair made of carbon fibre that sells for over $220.  The ones that Brad Parkinson and I use are $22 a pair including delivery from Amazon (Click Here) (if you like Plum Purple). Then there is Bob Mott, who makes his own from reeds left over from the clearing of river beds.

Although I am sure most of the published advice is valid, our group is not hiking extreme terrain or long distances over many days.  Our needs are comparatively simple, and so I am going to attempt to distill the information into its essential elements.

Do I Need Hiking Poles?

In my youth (twenties and early thirties) I was an avid backpacker.  I would venture into the backcountry of places like Yosemite for days either alone or with a friend.  I did a lot of the dumb things a young man in his twenties does.  I see myself in the twenty-somethings that run past me on their way up Bishops Peak without any equipment or cares.  But times have changed, and I have had to admit that I am not as sure-footed as I once was.  There is no shame in this because most people our age would not dream of going on the hikes we do.  If I am on a hike which involves significant up and or down hiking, I carry two poles and always keep one in contact with the ground.  I know that doing this has saved me from falls particularly in the down direction.  When the trail is rocky, wet or muddy, the benefits of poles increase.

There are other reasons to use poles.  They take some of the load off your lower body (i.e. knees) and transfer it to your upper body.  They can be used to push branches and poison oak out of the way.  When attacked by unleashed rabid dogs belonging to other hikers, they can be used as a weapon.  And if all else fails, and you slip off the trail and roll down the hill into a huge patch of poison oak, you can mount your handkerchief on the end of your pole and raise it as a marker for your rescuers.  

Whether this any of this applies to you, is a personal decision.  I recognize that there is a certain pleasure in heading out into the outdoors with a minimum of artificial encumbrance.  The need for poles depends on the person and the particular hike. 

There are two different types: STAFFS or STICKS, and POLES:

TYPE #1 STAFF or STICK  It doesn’t get much simpler.  A piece of round wood, typically of fixed length, that somebody would use when walking or hiking.  They are sold individually rather than in pairs.  Some models have a right angle handle at the top like a cane and are more fashionable in design. The more fashionable they are, the more they cost.  

Perhaps the most simple and economical are the hiking sticks that Bob Mott has made for himself.  He has a pair of made from the Arundo Donax reed which can grow to 33 ft.  It is similar to bamboo which can also be used.  Once you find a good piece, you need to dry the wood while tied to a stiff straighter.  When cut to length, the ends should be secured or they will split lengthwise.  Bob uses a circle of duct tape around each end.  He also uses a different color tape on each end so he can tell which end is up.  We all need this from time to time.  The typical stick diameter is slightly over one inch.  

One of the “features” of the simple wood “stick” has to do with the fact that it’s length is NOT adjustable as opposed to “poles” which are.  As a result, the stick can be gripped anywhere along its length.  You can better understand the benefit of this when we consider that hiking POLES are adjustable in length so as to place an improved grip at just the right height. The preferred pole length sets the grip to an above-ground height determined by simply reaching out straight in front of you.  Your arm should form a right angle to your body.  This adjustment is done on a FLAT surface with your walking shoes on.  But if you are going uphill or downhill, the ideal length changes.   Typically our hikes are a mixture of up, level and down.  It is not practical to

be constantly stopping and starting to adjust poles.  As a result, those of us with adjustable length poles typically hike with the fixed adjustment we set on a level plane.

With a simple STICK, you can grip it anywhere and change the distance from your hand to the ground on the fly.  However, adjustable POLES often have cork handles that provide a secure grip and a strap to further reduce wear and tear on your wrist.  Which type you use boils down to personal preference.


TYPE #2  Trekking, Hiking and Walking POLES:

As explained above, a “pole” has an adjustable length which provides you a firmer grip and a strap to reduce wrist stress.  Poles also come with an assortment of tips specialized for use in snow, mud, rock, and inclines.  They are usually made of metal tubing instead of wood.

When you go to look at “poles” you will see that there are three kinds: Trekking, Hiking and Walking.  So you naturally ask what the difference is.  For our purposes, it is a difference without a distinction.  A “trek” is a long or difficult journey, especially on foot.  A “hike” is a long walk over variable terrain and elevation.  A “walk” is like going down the Bob Jones Trail, which is flat, paved and suitable for wheelchairs.  Other than that one “walk”, all of the trips we take in the RAM Hikers are “hikes”.  When it comes to searching for equipment, all three terms (trek, hike or walk) will get you to the same products.  To keep things simple we are going to use the term “hike” to refer to what we do in the RAMs.

How to Adjust Hiking Poles:

Properly adjusted poles will put your elbows at a 90° bend, as shown in the picture below,  when you hold the poles with tips on the ground near your feet while wearing your hiking shoes/boots.  Some poles have latches and others twist and lock.  Both work fine.

Most likely, your poles will come with wrist straps.  It’s actually very common to see hikers using their poles with the wrist straps either unused or adjusted 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 as shown in the picture below.  This technique supports your wrist and heel of the hand and allows you to keep your hand relaxed on the grip.  Remember that although it may not look like it, the strap length is adjustable. 

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.

How To Walk With Hiking Poles

This is a case where a picture (or video) is worth a thousand words.  There is a video below which you should watch after reading what I am about to say.  

You are going to want to keep one pole in contact with the ground at all times.  Imagine taking a step forward with your RIGHT foot.  At that same time, you raise the pole in your LEFT from the ground and move it forward along with your right foot.  You place it on the ground as your foot lands.  

At this point you raise your LEFT foot from the ground and with it the pole in your RIGHT hand.  You move it forward along with your foot and place it on the ground as your foot lands. That’s it!

Naturally, there are going to be times when you are picking your way through some rocks, moving through mud or over a stream where the timing and placement of the poles will be determined by the surface you are walking on.

Click on this link for a short 5 minute video

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