My Website
The Art of Poling December 2021

A Better Way to Use Trekking Poles
The Strategy
We substantially raised our hiking game in 2015 by each adding a pair of fixed-length, ultralight poles to our long hike kits. We’d previously hiked with a pair of poles, without poles, and also with a single pole, and are now ardent believers in using them only as a pair.

The potential benefits of using poles are:
..increased stability and therefore, safety
..improved posture, which enhances endurance
..decreased impact on the knees and hips when descending, which improves durability
..increased speed, which comes from all of the above

The downsides of poles are:
..that they are nothing but a burden when scrambling
..the risk of overuse, resulting in weakened core muscles and diminished balance
Stacks Image 17

Lazily using a single pole to fetch her half of the chocolate bar.

We break most of the rules in our use of trekking poles by:
..buying-up a size in length of folding, fixed-length poles to maximize their utility on the descents
..pulling ourselves uphill with the overly long poles instead of pushing, like Nordic walkers do, for increased power and improved posture
..primarily using forefoot striking in minimalist shoes and a short gait for stability longer using the straps for simplicity
..holding the poles mid-shaft in each hand with gently curled fingers on straight-aways to rest the hands, create a little traction on the forearm muscles, and shift our posture to decrease overall fatigue
..limiting significant weight-bearing on the poles to tricky vertical descents and strong uphill pulls to improve stability

Whether you use poles or not, a key element in walking or hiking efficiently and with the greatest care for your body, is to maintain your center of gravity over your feet. We do that by:
..maintaining an upright posture, with our heads balanced over our feet and keeping our shoulders and hips in that same vertical line
..being pristine about keeping our chins back, like when closing a drawer, to keep the head centered
..pivoting the head to look down towards the trail rather than leaning forward or jutting the head out, which increases the odds of falling on one’s face because you are already part way there
..taking small steps and using small arm movements
..keeping the upper arms against the torso most of the time
..using the flick of cocked wrists to propel each pole forward rather than using big arm movements
..maintaining a tight, compact, upright posture to minimize muscle movement and conserve energy

Big, bounding strides can feel faster without actually being faster and certainly can be fun and flashy, but they come at a price of:
..increased impact and therefore increased wear and tear on those precious knee and hip joints as well as the spine
..increased risk of taking a tumble

The reasons for using poles will influence how you use them. If you are rehab’ing from an injury or have an irritated knee, you may want to use poles all of the time and bear a lot of weight on them. For most of us, heavy reliance on poles can backfire. We intentionally don’t use them on moderate hikes to challenge our bodies to maintain our finely-tuned sense of balance and hard-won core strength. An easy compromise is to take them with you almost all of the time so if you misjudge your readiness or ability to be without them, you can pull them out.
Stacks Image 48
Upright, Step-Down Video
Here’s what a fully-upright, step-down looks like when the center of gravity is maintained over the feet, reducing the strain on the leading knee by using overly long poles. These fixed-length, 120 cm poles, are 10 cm longer than recommended for her height. Note her head position in relation to her feet.
Stacks Image 53
Forward-Leaning, Step-Down Video
This video captures the use of poles 10 cm shorter, the proper length for her height. Note the destabilizing, forward-leaning position needed on the same step-down as before. This maneuver puts substantially more unwelcome, ballistic, force through the leading knee because her upper body is so far forward.
The classic “this isn’t working" look in the second video above on the right is a hiker whose poles are 12-18” too short for the given descent. She is leaning far over her feet to anchor her poles for a difficult step downwards. She is already on the verge of falling on her face while she leans farther and farther forward hoping her poles will make contact with something solid as she steps down. Her normally 11 pound head generates forces equivalent to double that weight or more when her head is forward of her feet.

A better strategy is to stop, lengthen her adjustable poles much farther than deemed necessary, resume an upright posture, plant the long poles on the rock or dirt, and lower the advancing foot to the ground between the poles in a controlled manner. This upright position then allows her to transfer the considerable, potentially knee-straining, excess force generated by stepping down from the leg to the upper body.
Stacks Image 99
A light grip on the pole handles with cocked wrists allows the overly-long poles to be propelled well forward for a snappy pace with upright posture on the straight-aways.
Stacks Image 101
Softly curled fingers & almost straight arms combined with a trail-skimming shuffle allows her to pick-up speed while resting the hands & putting gentle traction on her forearms.
Stacks Image 117

Scramble with your poles in a DIY quiver using a length of cord & a carabiner.

A Pole “Quiver”
Make a simple “quiver” for a quick way to stash your poles for a scramble whether you have a pack or not:
..Slip a rubber band around the non-handle end of your folded poles to keep the segments compact.
..Tie a loop in one end of a length of cord into which you slip the non-handle ends of your folded poles.
..Tie the other end of the cord onto a carabiner.
..Hook the carabiner onto both pole straps.
..Toss the cord over 1 shoulder to determine the correct length of the cord.

The video below demonstrates a terrific neck exercise to restore or maintain neck mobility. We do this simple, quick exercise almost every day. It can be done while walking on easy trail segments. It is from this retracted head position that you pivot your head down, drawing your chin towards your chest, to look down instead of jutting your head forward to maintain your center of gravity over your feet.

This link is to our early experiences with selecting and using poles: