HOW TO CHOOSE THE RIGHT TREKKING POLES
By Merel Dalebout, Auswalk Guide
When it comes to trekking poles, Australians need to adjust their thinking. Unlike age-related walking sticks, trekking poles can improve your overall fitness by working different muscles in your body while you walk and give you a power boost if and when you need it. In the northern hemisphere they are as essential as hiking boots, even the most experienced guides use them.
Here are some FAQs to help guide you with your pole selection:
One pole or two?
If you’re new to poles, you may think that using only one is the way to go. Think again. We are bipedal quadrupeds – meaning upright walking on two feet with 4 limbs swinging. We are not tripods – three is not a magic number! We naturally swing both arms as we walk, so two poles make a lot of sense. You’ll feel more balanced and more natural. Yes, poles can take a bit of getting used to. Use alternate legs and arms, just like when you are walking without them. The only situations in which I would recommend using only one pole is if you have shoulder, arm, or hand problems on one side and can only use one comfortably (better than nothing!), or in really rough terrain where need to keep the other hand free to brace yourself on rocks or trees (of course, in extra rough terrain that involves a bit of rock scrambling, you will want to stow your poles so both hands are free). If you do actually have a bad leg or hip, and already use a single pole when you walk, note that your other leg/hip will thank you if you start using two poles instead.
Cheap or expensive
You can pick up a pair of walking poles for as little as $10 at Kmart. Will they be any good? There is truth in the saying that you get what you pay for. Cheaper poles tend to be heavier, are not as strong, have less comfortable hand grips, and their locking mechanisms (usually “twist lock” style) tend to fail very easily. It’s worth paying a bit more for a good brand which will mean lighter weight poles, a comfortable moulded hand and a built-in shock absorption mechanism. Good brands to look out for include Black Diamond and Leki.
Many poles use a “twist lock” camming mechanism that allows you to adjust the length of the sections and then lock them into place – remember “righty tighty – lefty loosey”. In cheaper poles (and even some of the more expensive ones), these mechanisms often fail and stop locking properly, especially once you make the mistake of extending your pole sections a bit too far. Look at the measurements on your poles and there will be a “STOP” mark at some point. Never extend the poles further than this mark. Become familiar with these measurement marks and note the position (measurement) at which your poles are the right length for you. All good poles should be able to slide or fold down to their shortest length easily in order to fit comfortably into your suitcase or backpack.
The brand Black Diamond uses a trade-marked “flick lock” mechanism which is a lot more trustworthy than the “twist lock” option. But you will pay a bit more for this.
You might also want to consider “fixed length” poles. Here, the sections of the poles are joined together by a flexible rubber connection and simply lock into place when you extend the poles to their full length. You can’t adjust the length of the poles, and you’ll need to buy the right length poles for your height. This type of pole tends to be more expensive and are generally lighter (carbon fibre).
I use two “Black Diamond Distance Carbon-Z” poles when I walk. These are designed for mountain running and are very light. As a result, however, they may not be as strong as heavier poles. If you were to trip and need to catch all your weight on your poles, make sure they are strong enough for the job. This is worth discussing with a knowledgeable shop assistant if you are uncertain.
How long should my poles be?
Your elbows should have a 90-degree (right angle) bend in them when you are standing on the flat and holding your poles with the tips touching the ground. You can adjust the length to be a bit shorter when you go uphill, and a bit longer when you go downhill if you want (or just reposition your hands a bit further down or further up the pole grips themselves – some poles have a padded section below the main hand grip to allow you to do this).
What’s the best way for me to use my poles?
The most effective motion is to move the poles from knee to hip as you are walking (alternate arms, alternate legs). It’s a short motion and you want to keep your poles pointed in the direction you are wanting to go, or rather, in the direction, you are wanting your poles to push you. Refer to this short video from Chase Tucker of Base Camp Training for some excellent technique tips https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7q2YwOE4okA
Moulded hand grips & other comfort features
The cheapest poles have simple moulded plastic handles and basic webbing wrist straps. These will not be as comfortable as poles which have softer foam grips (sometimes over cork or hard rubber rather than plastic) and softer padding on the straps. Wrist straps that can be adjusted by a cam within the handle can be good, as this means you will not have an uncomfortable buckle sitting on the back of the hand (but see below for more about wrist straps). Good quality poles will also have a bit of an anti-shock spring mechanism built into them – you should feel a bit of a “bounce” when you push the tip of the pole down onto the ground. This will give you far more comfort for your hands, arms, and shoulders when walking, especially over a few hours.
Wrist straps – yes or no?
Wrist straps can definitely make it easier to keep hold of your poles. You won’t need to maintain quite as much of a death grip if you use them. Be sure to come up into the straps from underneath to ensure you are using them correctly. However, be aware that if you are using straps and you suddenly trip and fall, you will not be able to drop your poles and easily use your hands to catch yourself. If walking side by side with someone, you might also end up entangling your poles in their legs (or even your own – I’ve done it!) and with straps on, you can’t drop the poles. Just something to keep in mind. Note that I do not use wrist straps on my poles – and have actually removed them to get them out of the way and save on weight!
Should I get rubber tips for my poles?
Rubber tips or “stoppers” can be very useful if you are doing a lot of walking on rocky ground or rocks in general. They make the impact of your pole tips a lot gentler (you’ll feel that in your arms) and can give you a far more secure pole placement by reducing the unexpected skidding of your poles that can happen when you put the bare metal tips on rock. Note that to avoid poles skidding on rocks even with rubber tips, be careful where you place them. Specifically aiming your poles so the tips sit in small cracks or depressions on the rock will keep them positioned far more firmly, especially when you are going downhill.
From a personal point of view, I can absolutely recommend that you don’t buy cheap poles, it’s definitely not cost effective. My pick for a robust and quality product are these Black Diamond lightweight carbon fibre poles.
NB: some poles come with clear plastic cups or sleeves over the tips when you buy them. Take these off before use!