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Some hikers use wooden sticks that they find on the way or make themselves. However, manufacturers were not going to limit themselves to that and developed poles that are powerful, lightweight, practical, comfortable to use, and that they can sell more expensively than a piece of wood.
As with any hiking equipment, the models and prices vary quite a bit, and it is not always easy to find your way around.
Here we will focus only on folding walking poles and leave aside Nordic walking poles (fast walking with specific sticks) and walking staffs which are often single-sectioned. These types of poles are a little less suitable for hiking.
What is the problem with single-section poles?
They can’t fit in the backpack when you don’t want to use them or when you need your hands to do something else. And unlike a wooden walking stick, you can’t get rid of them by the wayside.
Below, we will show the important characteristics and choice criteria to consider according to your needs.
Prices vary greatly between models. Generally, the lighter the walking stick for hiking, the more expensive it is. Everything that adds comfort tends to increase the price (handles material, anti-shock system, etc.). As for the majority of hiking equipment, be careful – high price is not necessarily synonymous with quality. You can find good hiking poles for a fairly low price.
Warning: Some models are sold individually and others in pairs, so keep that in mind when comparing prices.
The weight of the trekking poles depends mainly on the materials and storage systems used, which will be discussed later. The lighter the sticks, the more pleasant and less tiring it is to walk with them – whether you have them in your hands or on your backpack. But the lighter the sticks, as we said before, the more expensive they are generally.
Warning: Some ultralight sticks are quite fragile (often made of carbon). These are poles to avoid for large-size people.
Overall volume and bulk
Hiking poles have different storage systems to reduce their size – which is convenient for storing when not in use. Imagine hanging a 47-inch (or longer!) pole on your backpack! It would cling everywhere, be bothersome and dangerous for your teammates.
The overall dimensions depend mainly on the folding system of the poles and the number of sections. The majority of multi-sectioned poles have 2 or 3 sections (sometimes 4).
The more sections a hiking stick has, the less cumbersome it is and the more convenient it will be when you put it away. 4-section sticks are specially reserved for people who want to store their sticks in their backpacks.
Most hikers hang their poles on the outside of their backpacks when not in use. Make sure that the folded sticks snap onto your bag.
The larger your backpack, the fewer sections you need – just make sure the poles don’t protrude too much from the top of the backpack.
The folding and storage system
Here is a point that is often overlooked when choosing hiking poles: the storage, folding, or unfolding system.
Each brand uses different technologies, the systems are not of the same quality from one brand to another but 3 main systems can be distinguished with some advantages and disadvantages:
Principle: Simply select the desired length (using graduations) by sliding the sections and tightening these sections together. To store them simply loosen and slide them into each other.
Advantages and disadvantages: This system is the oldest and surely the most common. It is now mainly used on cheap hiking poles and allows you to adjust the size of the poles quite easily.
The first disadvantage of these sticks is that they sometimes get out of adjustment during the walk. This can be done gradually or suddenly. And when a stick suddenly shrinks, it can be dangerous.
You ask: “Why don’t you tighten it harder? ». And it’s true, the more you tighten, the less likely it is to fail. And that’s where the second drawback comes in: the sections are sometimes difficult to unscrew – especially if you tightened them too much.
Fortunately, these systems have evolved and this rarely happens with quality poles.
Uses: I would especially recommend the twist-lock system for day hikes (without a large backpack), for occasional use, and on fairly easy terrain.
Principle: Simply select the desired length by sliding the sections and then clip the system. To store the sticks, simply unclip the system and slide the sticks into each other.
Advantages and disadvantages: This system is very practical and very fast, but generally more expensive than the twist-lock system. It does not have the two disadvantages of the latter. It may lose the adjustment, but this is done gradually after strong pressure and the stick does not “shrink” all at once.
Uses: It is therefore a good choice for people who regularly hike and lean heavily on their sticks (rigid descents, heavy backpack, large people, etc.).
Z Folding system
Principle: An elastic thread holds the strands together. To mount the sticks, simply unfold the sections and insert them into each other by pulling the handle and the first section until the locking knob (located under the handle) locks. To store them, simply press this button to unlock the system, push the top section into the handle, then separate the sections and fold them.
Advantages and disadvantages: It is a very practical, fast, and risk-free system. This system also makes it possible to have lighter sticks.
The main disadvantage is that the size of the poles with this system is not adjustable. This type of system, however, can be found in combination with a lever lock system – which makes it possible to enlarge or shorten the length of the poles a little (about 20 cm).
Uses: poles equipped with this system are therefore preferable for use on flat surfaces or on terrain with low gradients.
It is also an excellent choice for people looking for a lightweight and using the poles on only one type of terrain – only for steep to steep descents, for example.
These sticks usually have sleeves (extensions under the handles), which allow you to position your hands lower according to the terrain instead of adjusting the size of the sticks.
But why adjust the size of hiking poles?
You are not growing anymore, so why have trekking poles that are adjustable in size?
For optimal use of a walking pole, your elbows should form a right angle (your forearms should be horizontal), when the tip is in contact with the ground and you have the stick in your hand.
If you are climbing or descending, the optimal length is not the same. It is smaller upwards and larger downwards. (See image below at “The Size” paragraph.)
Pole shaft materials
The long part of the pole sections can be made from different materials.
- The most common is aluminum alloy because it is a good compromise between sturdiness, price, and lightness. Not all alloys are the same – some are lighter than others – but we won’t go into the details here. It is important to know that aluminum can bend but rarely breaks.
- Some walking poles contain carbon fibers (with different percentages). These are lighter, reduce vibrations better, but are less strong and more expensive. If you’ve been paying attention so far, you know that carbon is light but fragile. And unlike aluminum, it doesn’t bend before it breaks.
- Finally, models with titanium are also appearing on the market, making the hiking poles ultra-light and strong.
Have you ever felt the difference between a good and a bad bike handle? Between the one that causes blisters and the one that you can ride comfortably for hours?
With walking poles, it’s a bit similar – the choice of handles is essential – because it’s by grasping them with your hands that you transmit your weight and that of your backpack to the ground.
They must therefore be pleasant to hold, not slippery, and not create unpleasant rubbing that could cause blisters (no, it doesn’t just happen to the feet).
In the following section, we will see that the strap also plays an important role in transmitting your weight and avoiding friction.
There are four different types of handles:
- Plastic Handles: They are uncomfortable and sweaty but durable and inexpensive. They are more likely to be used for short periods of time or by people with “lumberjack hands”.
- Rubber Handles: They are durable, inexpensive, and quite comfortable. Depending on the person, they can be used comfortably for long periods of time.
- Foam handles: They are very comfortable, lightweight, and absorb perspiration but are not very durable and are quite expensive.
- Cork handles: These handles are comfortable and durable, wicking away perspiration, but also quite expensive.
The more you use your hiking poles for long periods of time or for intense use (rigid descents, heavy backpacks, difficult terrain…), the more I advise you to have comfortable handles.
The best way to do this is to try in-store if you have a preference between different materials and models. Also, check that the ergonomics of the handle fits the morphology of your hand – this will avoid blisters or unpleasant rubbing.
Note: Some models are available in a left-hand and right-hand version. Be careful to check this during fitting.
Some handles have a grip extension that allows you to use your sticks in steep uphill sections without having to adjust them again. It is also very practical for steep crossings. So it’s a plus if you have to hike in this kind of terrain.
The practicality of straps is not so much to not lose your trekking poles (as it can happen sometimes for ski poles). When hiking, you don’t have to go back for half an hour to get your poles back!
Straps are mainly used to relieve tension in the hands and forearms by resting the wrist on them. This way, you don’t need to hold the handles too tightly to transfer weight to the poles. This minimizes fatigue in your hands and forearms and reduces friction.
- Some simple straps are made of a classic adjustable strap. Usually found on cheap poles, they are not extremely comfortable. Rather they are made for short-term use.
- Some are padded (with neoprene for example) and are therefore more comfortable. These are found on somewhat more expensive hiking poles and are more pleasant for prolonged use.
When choosing your hiking poles, make sure that the straps will tighten and loosen easily and quickly (even with gloves) and that they are not loosened when walking.
The size of your hiking poles
The choice of size is especially important for poles that use a folding Z-shaped extension system – because they are not adjustable. They come in several sizes, therefore you must choose these carefully.
Choose the size of your sticks so that your elbows form a right angle (90 degrees) when you have the sticks in your hands and the tip is in contact with the ground.
Make sure your poles are the right size for the types of terrain you will use most: flat, downhill, uphill. If you only use your sticks when going downhill, take longer sticks than you need on the flat for example. All this is illustrated in the diagram I prepared for you (you can’t miss it, it’s the most beautiful!).
Generally, poles with a twist or lever lock systems have a unique length. But still, check that the size of the sticks is right for you if you are short or very tall. There are also models for children and women that are shorter and have smaller handles.
If you order them online, you can easily measure the distance between the ground and your elbow when your arms are along your body. Remember that this length is the length you need to use on flat terrain and that you must have room to lengthen and shorten the poles if you want to use them downhill and uphill.
How to choose your hiking pole size
An adequate length is essential for a good grip of the stick. So you are able to enjoy it to the maximum in each discipline: Alpine Skiing and Racing, Nordic (classic technique or skating), Blading, Hiking, Trekking, or Nordic Walking.
The pole must support the user’s technique, avoid unhealthy movements, cushion possible falls, and transmit force effectively.
Only the right length of the stick allows you to do this and it varies according to the discipline. For this purpose, we provide you with a pole length calculator that determines the optimal length for each discipline according to your individual size.
Trekking pole tips
These are very important elements because they are the parts that are in contact with the ground. They are a bit like car tires or hiking shoe soles. The tips have to cling well on the ground and be durable enough to withstand use.
- There are steel spikes that are cheap but not durable. Rather, they are intended for occasional use of the walking poles.
- Tungsten carbide tips are a good compromise between grip and durability but are generally more expensive. They are more durable than steel and are a good investment if you plan to use your trekking poles regularly.
You will also find poles with rubber tips that perform well on hard and rocky surfaces. They have the advantage of being relatively silent as well as leaving a few marks on the ground. These tips are often interchangeable. We will see in an upcoming section that there is an alternative to interchangeable tips if you want to use rubber tips.
Some models have an anti-shock system, which, as its name suggests, is used to reduce vibrations transmitted to the arms and upper body. This not only adds comfort to the descent but also weight and extra money. If you have fragile wrists, elbows, or shoulders, this can be a good choice.
If you choose this type of pole, make sure that the shockproof system can block itself to walk on the flat or uphill. This way, you won’t lose power – and don’t make unnecessary efforts.
Accessories are sometimes supplied with the sticks or can be purchased separately. Here are the most common ones:
They are often interchangeable objects that fit on the end of walking poles to prevent the poles from sinking too far into soft or even very soft terrain – especially snow. With baskets, you can use your hiking poles for snowshoeing.
The wider the washers, the more “load-bearing” they are, and the more they are intended for soft terrain. Small baskets (summer baskets) are also used to prevent your sticks from getting stuck between rocks.
They fit over the tips to prevent them from damaging your clothes, your backpack or hurting a teammate when you’re not using your poles.
They are made of rubber and can also be used on hard ground (roads, rocky slabs…) or to avoid damaging sensitive soils.
They also reduce noise during walking. Some tip protectors have an angle and are designed for Nordic walking on roads or hard terrain.
These accessories are not essential but may be a plus depending on the type of hiking or other outdoor activities you are doing.
There are of course other accessories, but many are more gadgets (like a built-in camera mount to be used as a monopod).
How to properly use and adjust your hiking poles
Did you know that trekking poles reduce by 25% the impact of backpacks and loads on joints when hiking, especially knee joints?
They can also increase your balance and reduce the chances of slipping, the leading cause of accidents in hiking.
So even though walking with hiking sticks at first may seem complex, awkward, and unnatural, you’ll see that once adopted and used properly, you won’t be able to do without them.
To help you take the first step, here’s how to properly adjust and use your poles.
How to adjust and choose your trekking poles size?
An adequate length is essential for a good grip of the stick.
The pole must support the user’s technique, avoid unhealthy movements, cushion possible falls, and transmit force effectively.
Only the right length of the stick allows you to do this and it varies according to your height. For this purpose, we provide you with a pole length chart below that determines the optimal length according to your individual size.
Unlike ski poles, hiking poles are adjustable by means of a twist or lever lock system.
The lever is an external adjustment system because it is located on the outside of the pole. It has the advantage of being easy and quick to handle and it makes it easy to see if your pole is secure.
Twist lock is an internal adjustment system, a little difficult to handle at first glance but a little lighter.
Before you start your hike, always make sure your poles are properly clipped or tightened. For those with twist locks, screw them tightly but without excess. For example, do not use tools to tighten them, as they may not be able to be adjusted later.
Also, be careful and do not exceed the “stop line” of the poles, otherwise, they could break during use.
With regard to the adjustment itself, the forearm holding the pole must be perpendicular to your body. Small adjustments will be necessary according to the terrain on which you will evolve. I explain this in the following paragraph!
How to use your hiking poles?
When you are traversing flat terrain, you have two options:
- You can use your walking poles to give you rhythm, walking alternately, ie. by advancing your left pole at the same time as your right leg and vice versa.
- You can put away your poles by slipping them into your backpack or by using its external attachments provided for this purpose.
On a downhill slope, the sticks are there to restrain you. You can progress alternately, like on flat ground, or move the 2 poles at the same time and stick them in front of you, without interfering with your feet.
The second option is particularly recommended for steep descents. In any case, for more comfort, remember to lengthen your sticks by about 5 cm to face the slope.
Conversely, for the ascent, I recommend that you shorten your poles by about 5 cm, depending on the gradient of the slope. And to walk, either place the two sticks in front of you and push them so that you pull yourself upwards, or you can alternate.
Extra tip! Holding your chest straighter allows you to balance the effort between your arms and legs, but it also keeps the rib cage well open. Your breathing and walking pace will improve.
What are the straps for and how do you use them?
First of all, the straps give you better propulsion when you lean on them to walk, especially when climbing uphill.
They also reduce fatigue by relieving the strain on your hand and forearm. If you don’t use them, you will have to squeeze the handle of your stick harder and you will get tired more quickly.
For proper use, I recommend putting your hand in the strap from below, placing the top of the strap between your thumb and forefinger, and closing your hand on the handle.
When descending, it is preferable to remove the straps. If despite the poles, you happen to fall, not having your straps on allows you to quickly separate from them and not get caught up in them.
Walking with 1 or 2 trekking poles?
For a short walk on flat ground, you can use only one stick, remembering to change hands regularly.
On the other hand, for trekking use, I strongly advise you to walk with two sticks, especially for reasons of balance, stability, and muscular impact.
I hope that you now have everything you need to choose your trekking poles and how to use them. You should at least be able to tell the difference between the ones costing $20 and the ones at $150 (besides just the price!).
Thank you for reading this article to the end. If you enjoyed it, share it with your friends. It would be my pleasure!