Why get poles?
Hiking poles serve 3 main purposes:
- Efficiency. Whilst legs typically have the larger, stronger muscles, arms can also help drive you along. This means you spread the effort over more muscles and use your legs more efficiently. On the downhill sections, poles can help reduce the shock to your knees.
- Balance. On uneven, slippery (including potential water crossings), steep sections poles can help stop a fall. Given that a high percentage of hiking accidents are attributed to falls, poles are almost always a wise thing to have. Poles with baskets are used in snow and deeper mud. Poles are no substitute for grip, in deep snow and ice, snowshoes or crampons are required.
- Other. Poles can be used to support a tarp or tent – either eliminating or reducing tent poles. Mountainsmith has a great slingback chair which is both tiny and light because it uses hiking poles for support.
How to Choose
Hiking poles come in a variety of shapes and sizes. The first choice is whether to get fixed length or adjustable. Fixed length poles tend to be lighter, because no clasps are required, however, they are more limited in their use. Carbon fiber poles are lighter than aluminum ones but tend to be more expensive. Most poles come with baskets for snow or heavy mud, these can usually be removed to save weight.
Adjustable poles can be more easily used for tarps and cloth chairs. Ensure that the maximum or fixed length is correct. Standing upright, on flat ground, the hand grip should be fixed or adjusted to be held when the elbow is at a right angle.
Proper use of poles depends somewhat on the terrain but should usually be kept holder width apart. On upwards sections, plant the tip around an arm’s length ahead of you, vertically and when your body reaches the pole, when the pole is vertical and the elbow is at a right angle, push and propel yourself forwards/upwards. On downward sections, plant the tip further forwards and push down to reduce your speed and impact on the ground.