Walking Poles 101: Part One

To use them or not?

Originally published in the Trailwalker magazine: August 2022, Aug 2022

There is not much science when it comes to walking poles. Just opinion and plenty of it. I have seen biomechanical studies showing 20 to 30% reduction on your knees, but they have all been very small studies in laboratory settings. Alternatively, there are counter claims that they increase the work load on inefficient arm muscles. So, I do not invoke any evidence, simply relate opinion from two decades of use.

Why do I use them? In order of value;

  1. Primarily as stabilisers so that I do not have to do much foot gazing. I prefer to gaze on the landscape and look to the horizon. Then if I trip or stumble on the unexpected, my arms stabilise and correct. This is particularly useful if you are navigating a trail or terrain, when your vision is determinedly distant. For this to work you have to be using them as stabilisers. This is a matter of technique, which we will come to. On broken ground, such as creek beds, scree and boulders, two stabilisers save time and energy. I was taught this lesson many years ago in New Zealand walking through scree covered by snow grass. I was only a solo pole user and would be left floundering way behind my more experienced double poling partner.
  2. Downhill propping would be the second most common function, facilitating fluid, flowing descents which preserve both energy and your knees. Once again it depends upon technique.
  3. Propulsion, in true Nordic style, but this only applies to a flat level track. It can be very useful on road sections and climbing slippery slopes when shortened poles can act like ice axes.
  4. Stop my hands swelling in hot weather, and I love walking arid mountain terrain which can get quite warm.
  5. Protection from dogs and mad cows, but I have never had to use them so in 20 years.

There are two principal reasons not to use poles:

  1. You do not have the coordination to master them, but I think this is rare. Double poling feels awkward just like every new skill.
  2. You do not have the upper body strength to use them to maximal advantage, in which case you can use them just as the occasional prop.

There is also an environmental consideration because they can increase the damage to fragile alpine terrain as well as inoculate fungal diseases. Both can be mitigated with good handling and knowing when to use rubber stoppers or when to put your poles away.

Before discussing technique, it is necessary to deal with safety. Being poked with a sharp stick is never fun, worse if it is tungsten tipped. Just covering the tips is not enough and the tips are too valuable to sheath permanently, as you will see when we discuss technique. The safety rules are very simple, but require constant vigilance. Never let your pole/s point backward. That means if you are not using them let them drag along, hanging from your wrist strap, or hold them with the tips forward. Too often I see someone swinging their arms with their poles scything the trail behind them! A very effective technique to become a solo walker.

Never walk too close to the person ahead. Spiking the front walker is the commonest mistake. This rule is just as important to the non-pole user. A pole slipping during an ascent can catch the walker behind. I have seen this too often and one eye injury too many.

Do not walk too packed shoulder to shoulder. Your poles are tripping hazards to the parallel walkers. And now we come to the great strap debate, which can get very fervid. Many propose that if you put your hand through the strap, you can break your wrist. I am sure you can, but I do not think it makes it more or less likely mechanically. Gravity is doing the damage. The advantage of using the straps far out weighs the risks as you will see when we come to technique.
I have heard of professional guides berating pole users as soon as they ‘strap in,’ citing the risk of tripping to your death on a defile because you could not let go of your pole. This may be so on a narrow ledge in which case your poles should always be in front of you anyway. However, be aware that in the absence of evidence, dogma takes over, so do not debate the issue.

Poles can collapse on you at critical stages, particularly downhill, so it is always safer to maintain them well, and check the locking mechanisms at the start of each walk.

So, how to be safe around them and with them may be all you need to know about walking poles. However, if you want to use them to their full bushwalking potential (and lift your eyes to the horizon) then it is all about technique.

Part Two: Technique