Learn Gear How to use trekking poles when hill walking

How to use trekking poles when hill walking


Poles are a matter of personal taste, some people don’t hill walk without them, others prefer not to add an extra bit of kit to their pack. This article looks at some of the benefits and how to use poles for hill walking:

Why Should I Use Poles?

Walking poles help reduce stress on the knees. Stepping down causes the cartilage of the knee joint to be squeezed dry of its lubricating fluid, which is why your knees will feel sore after a day of long descents. As the miles add up over time, this can cause inflammation, pain or even damage to the cartilage. When using poles, a proportion a walker’s bodyweight is taken on the arms during each step down, which reduces the stress on the lower body - especially the knee joint, helping reduce wear and tear. This is even more important if you regularly carry a heavy rucksack or are planning to cover very long distances.

Poles help keep your body more upright, which aids breathing. They also take a lot of stress off the back, which can reduce some types of back pain, improve upper body tone, aid balance and can prevent injury, especially when crossing streams or awkward scree-covered terrain, carrying a heavy pack. Using poles doesn’t save on energy expenditure but your legs do feel less tired, especially when walking uphill because the strain is shared with the arms and shoulders.

How To Use Walking Poles

Initially poles feel alien to use, but very quickly they become a welcome extension of your arms, and you’ll soon venture into areas where the ground becomes steep, rocky and complicated whilst still using your poles. Beware! Poles are useful but they don’t grip rock well and can become a hazard. If your hands are still in the loops the poles may well stop you reaching for that vital handhold causing a fall. So on technical ground (boulder fields, river crossings, etc) take your hands out of the tape loops so that the poles can be discarded in the event of a slip or fall.


How to use walking poles

In winter, assess the changing snow or ice conditions early. If there is any risk of a fall get your ice axe out and carry the poles on your rucksack sooner rather than later.

If you use poles all of the time you’ll get out of practice at balancing naturally as you step up, walk over uneven ground or boulder hop. If you’re only taking a short walk with a light pack, leave the poles behind or save them for the steep descents.


Firstly adjust the poles to the correct length - so that the pole handle touches the floor when you grip the pole above the basket with your elbow bent at 90°. Then make sure all elements are properly tightened and adjusted, and you’re good to go.

The most common technique to adopt is the “cross-country skier” style. The poles are angled backwards and alternately pushed into the ground and then dragged forward with each arm swing and step. With a little practice a smooth rhythm is found and the benefits can be easily felt when moving uphill. When negotiating short, rocky steps keep both poles slightly behind you and push down on them as the step is made. Placing the poles above the step and pulling up on them is another technique but it is more tiring. When descending or stepping down place the hands on the top of the pole handles lean forwards placing the poles below the step. Transfer some of your weight onto the poles and step down lightly. With practice you’ll find other ways of using poles.

What To Look For

For summer walking poles with small baskets and a screw adjustment system (e.g. Leki) are most suitable. In winter this adjustment system freezes up and slips so the clip system is best (e.g. Black Diamond), and these types are often also fitted with a snow basket. If poles are to be used for approaches to climbs too then it’s best if they can be stored inside the rucksack rather than on the outside - look for three section poles. Some poles have shock absorbing capabilities and others have ergonomic handles. Finally, don’t get Nordic Walking poles, these aren’t suitable for hill use.