Why and How to Use Trekking Poles

Boost Stability on the Trail

Hiking and trekking poles are designed to give you extra confidence and stability. Whether you are hiking rugged mountain trails or need stability on sidewalks and park paths, knowing how to use trekking poles can be very helpful.

Poles may help relieve stress on your joints, especially when going uphill or downhill. This is a benefit if you have osteoarthritis or are overweight. People with Parkinson's disease or multiple sclerosis can also benefit from improved stability when walking with poles.

You will get the best benefits if you use your trekking poles correctly. Learn how to grip the poles, use the right arm and leg motion, and adjust them for going uphill and downhill. With poles, you'll feel more confident walking and hiking.

Why Use Trekking Poles

The chief benefit of trekking poles is to provide extra stability, while the purpose of Nordic walking poles is to use a technique that burns more calories and provides an upper body workout.

Trekking pole technique is not meant to add any more exertion or calorie burn. That makes it suitable for long walks and hikes, such as on the Camino de Santiago, or anytime you need better balance and stability—wherever you walk.

Trekking poles reduce the strain on your joints, especially when going up or down hills. They increase balance and decrease muscle activity, which helps you hike for longer with less muscular fatigue.

How to Use Trekking Poles

Trekking Pole Strap Use
kupicoo/E+/Getty Images

Start with the grip. Relax your hold on the pole so that the pole can rotate forward and back between your thumb and forefinger. The handgrips are usually angled to assist with their use.

If you keep your grip relaxed, it will take minimal effort to flick the pole forward with each step. Hold it between your thumb and forefinger without using the other fingers to get used to the proper grip. That's all you'll need. You can close the other fingers loosely.

A tight grip on the pole isn't necessary and can tire your hands and wrists. Don't worry; you will naturally tighten your grasp if you feel yourself slipping or need a point of stability for a moment while walking.

Use Proper Arm Motion

Keep your elbows close to your sides as you walk and use the poles. With each step, flick the opposite side's pole forward. This is a small upward motion of the forearm or a slight wrist flick. If you have a loose grip, it will cause the pole to pivot forward correctly.

The opposite arm/leg motion is essential. If you bring the same arm and leg forward, you will have a swaying gait. You may need to practice this at first if it doesn't come naturally. Walk simply, dragging the poles behind you with a natural gait, and you should see that you fall into the opposite arm/leg pattern. Now you can bring the poles up enough, so the tips touch the ground with each step.

There is no need to plant the tip into the ground firmly. Your arms can move forward and backward naturally as you walk. You don't need any forced or exaggerated arm motion. Adjust the length of the poles, so you maintain an angled elbow as your poles contact the ground.

Plant the Pole

For stability, the tip of the pole will plant lightly. It simply touches the ground before you flick it forward again with the next step. If you want to add a definite action and get a little upper body work, you can bear down on it.

This can add a bit of thrust when going uphill or on the level or be a braking action when you are going downhill. When using a plant/push technique, make sure you apply pressure back and down.

When to Double Pole

When you are going uphill, downhill, or negotiating curbs or stairs, you may want to place both poles in front of you simultaneously.

Use the swing and drop technique, flicking both poles forward with an easy motion, then walking one to four steps ahead. Swing the poles forward again at the point you think you can use their stability.

If you feel confident and want to pick up the pace, you can relax your arms and put a little shoulder action into each poling movement, with the tip of the pole planting slightly behind your body. This is similar to the Nordic walking technique. By planting the pole a bit with each step when it is behind your body, you can give yourself a little extra propulsion.

How to Use Poles on Hills

When you go downhill, you may want to loosen the straps or take your hands out of them, as they can get too tight with the increased angle. You can lengthen the poles by 5 to 10 centimeters. Now, rather than planting the poles parallel with your body, you will plant them slightly ahead to give a bit of a braking action.

Pick your way down with small steps, keeping your knees soft. Keep the poles ahead of your body. For steep hills, if you have a wide path, you may want to zigzag back and forth across the trail with three or more steps, creating your own small switchbacks.

You may want to shorten your poles for going uphill. Keep the poles close to your body and don't plant them ahead of you. You want to give yourself a little push up the hill, not a pull.

How to Use Poles on Stairs

For stability going down stairs, place both poles on the next lower step and then step down. Plant, step, plant, step. Don't let your poles get behind you.

For stability going up stairs, you will be pushing yourself up rather than pulling. Plant both poles next to your feet, step up, bring the poles up to meet your feet. Push, step, push, step.

A backpack is ideal if you need to carry more than your essentials while using trekking poles. It keeps the load out of the way of your arm movement. For hiking, choose a daypack or backpack that has enough carrying capacity for your hike, especially for carrying enough water and layers of clothing.

How to Adjust Your Trekking Poles

PaceMaker Stix Expedition Trekking Poles
Wendy Bumgardner ©

When you are using poles for stability, you should be able to hold them with your elbow at 90 degrees when the tip is on the ground next to your foot. This gives you the best leverage for the times when you need to bear down on the poles for stability.

When to Adjust Your Poles

Adjustable-length poles have markings in centimeters. You may want to shorten your poles by 5 to 10 centimeters when going uphill. Likewise, you may want to lengthen them by 5 to 10 centimeters when going downhill. Sometimes you will be on a slanted trail for long enough that you may want to shorten one pole and lengthen the other.

Most adjustable poles work for people who are from 5 feet to 6 feet tall. If you are shorter, poles designed for kids may fit you well. If you are taller, look for poles for the higher height range. Fixed-length poles can be suitable if you mostly walk on level ground.

How to Make Adjustments

Get acquainted with how to adjust the length of your poles. Stand with your elbows bent at 90 degrees and adjust the length, so the grip fits into your hands at that level. If you often have to lift the poles over rocks or grass, you may want to shorten the poles a little.

If you have 3-section poles, one suggestion is to set the top section at the midway point and adjust the bottom section to the correct length for walking on the level. Now when you need to change the length, you'll be able to adjust only the top section.

If your poles have a strap, bring your hand up through the strap and then grip the pole. This results in the strap being over the back of your hand (and not twisted), with your thumb over the strap.

Adjust the strap length, so the pole is secure in this position. Some poles have straps labeled left and right for your convenience. By using the strap in this way, you'll be able to release your grip on the pole for a brief time without it falling to the ground.

Trekking Poles vs. Nordic Walking Poles

The two kinds of poles have some key differences. They are meant to be used for different purposes.

Straps and Gloves

Trekking poles may or may not have a strap. If they do, it is simply to prevent them from slipping out of your hands. Nordic walking poles always have a strap or demi-glove that keeps the poles in your hands and allows you to release them from your grip on the backstroke and have them snap back into your hand.

If you find that the straps on your trekking poles irritate your hands, you may want to wear bike gloves. They are reinforced between the thumb and forefinger.

Grips

Trekking pole grips are usually larger and anatomically designed. Nordic walking pole grips are slimmer and minimal in design.

Materials and Adjustability

Both trekking poles and Nordic walking poles may adjust in length. Both are usually made of aluminum, but some higher-end designs are made with carbon fiber or other materials.

Tips and Baskets

Both types of poles usually have a carbide tip suitable for biting into ice and soft trails, a rubber paw to use on asphalt or pavement, snow baskets, and sand/dirt baskets to use to keep the tips from sinking deep into soft surfaces. To use the poles on the pavement, you can remove the baskets and use the rubber paw over the carbide tip.

While you can use Nordic walking poles for stability if you prefer their grips, you can't use trekking poles for the Nordic walking technique.

A Word From Verywell

Trekking poles can help you walk on a variety of terrain with confidence. They are a standard hiking accessory that is valuable for anyone who needs more balance and stability. If you need more tips for using the poles when you have a condition that affects your balance, discuss using them with your doctor or physical therapist. Get out and explore all of the beautiful places there are to enjoy.

3 Sources
Verywell Fit uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Kocur P, Wiernicka M, Wilski M, et al. Does Nordic walking improves the postural control and gait parameters of women between the age 65 and 74: a randomized trial. J Phys Ther Sci. 2015;27(12):3733-7. doi:10.1589/jpts.27.3733

  2. Hawke AL, Jensen RL. Are trekking poles helping or hindering your hiking experience? A review. Wilderness Environ Med. 2020;31(4):482-488. doi:10.1016/j.wem.2020.06.009

  3. Cho SY, Roh HT. Trekking poles reduce downhill walking-induced muscle and cartilage damage in obese womenJ Phys Ther Sci. 2016;28(5):1574-1576. doi:10.1589/jpts.28.1574

Additional Reading

By Wendy Bumgardner
Wendy Bumgardner is a freelance writer covering walking and other health and fitness topics and has competed in more than 1,000 walking events.