Why would I walk with a walking pole?
There's four main reasons to use walking pole of some type:
- They reduce the impact forces of walking, especially if you are carrying a heavy pack or going downhill. By taking some of the load on the poles, your knees, ankles, hips and spine take a little bit less. If you are older or have existing joint problems this can make a huge difference.
- They give extra stability on rough terrain and reduce the chance of slips or falls by providing an extra point of contact with the ground
- They can help you walk faster, especially on the level or downhill by using your arm muscles as well as your legs. The Nordic walking style poles especially focus on this.
- They can be useful for checking snow depth, water depth, rigging a shelter, creating an emergency anchor or even splinting a leg.
Some people will use poles all the time. I tend to only use them for longer or steeper routes where the benefits are more obvious, and stow them when not needed - many packs have a loop specifically to take them, or you can fit more compact poles in your pack.
Types of walking poles
Ordnance Survey walking poles
Walking poles are normally used in pairs, and tend to be the most popular type nowadays.
A walking staff is a single pole. You will often see traditional wood, but modern materials are also used.
Leki walking poles
Nordic poles are specialist walking poles, used with a technique more like cross country skiing. See a Beginner's Guide here.
Getting the right size
For walking poles and staffs, you would normally be holding them so that your elbow is at 90 degrees when the pole is held upright on the ground. Most modern poles are adjustable, but if you are taller or shorter than normal you might need to check the minimum and maximum heights. Many (especially walking staffs) have large grip areas, allowing you to adjust your grip as needed to deal with the terrain.
Being able to quickly adjust the height, either by adjusting the pole or how you hold it, allows you to use them more effectively. On uphill slopes, shorten them by about 10-15cm so you can easily plant them uphill and use the extra leverage to support your step. On downhill slope lengthen them by 10-15cm so you can plant them ahead of your feet without leaning forwards
Nordic poles tend to be slightly longer - typically your height x 0.68. If sizing to your body, when held upright your arm should be at an angle of slightly more than 90 degrees. Nordic poles are planted behind you and used to push forward on flatter terrain, so on uphill slopes you will need to shorten them a bit.
Credit: Black Diamond
Walking pole technology
There's a lot to consider for what used to be a simple stick, so here's some of the things to look out for.
- Materials: Poles can be made from wood, steel, aluminium, fibreglass or carbon fibre. Most basic ones are aluminium, which provides a good balance of weight, strength, durability and cost. Higher end poles are now available in carbon fibre and similar materials. These can be lighter (or stronger for a given weight), but tend to cost more, so are aimed at those doing more demanding activities.
- Folding: There's two main options - telescopic and sectional. Because they do not have to slide into each other, sectional ones can be slimmer and fold smaller, so are ideal where a small pack size and light weight are critical. The more common telescopic poles are often quicker to get ready, and have a greater height adjustment range. Traditional wooden walking sticks and staffs are usually a single piece, although some will unscrew into sections.
- Grips are critical to comfort, and can be made of:
The more shaped a grip is, the easier it will be to control the pole, but the more it limits how you hold it. Some poles, especially staffs, will have an extended foam grip allowing you to hold it at different points which is much faster than stopping to adjust height if you are on variable terrain.
- Cork which is a natural material, and good for hot weather. It also tends to mould a bit to your hands over time, so can make a really comfy grip.
- Rubber, which is tough and warmer in low temperatures (especially for metal poles). Can cause blisters as they get a bit sweaty.
- Foam: soft and easy to add to poles with extended grips. Can get squishy in the wet, and cheaper foam tends not to be very durable.
Credit: Black Diamond
- Height adjusters allow you to easily lock the pole to the height you want. There are two main types. The clamp type has a small lever, and is quicker to adjust, especially wearing gloves. Twist to lock types tend to be more compact. Top tip: If there are two or more adjustors, ensure the top one is roughly centralised when it's at the right length. It makes it easier to adjust pole length as needed.
- Shock absorbers reduce the impact forces, and are now seen in some poles. They can use springs or rubber bushes, and may be in the handle or part of the shaft. Most only move a small amount, but it's enough to reduce the sudden impact force on your wrists and shoulders, especially downhill
- Wrist straps stop you losing your poles down a scree slope. For most poles, this is a simple strap that's over the wrist. Adjust it to be a fit where you can get just your hand in and out easily, and the strap can be used to apply a bit more force on the uphill, reducing grip effort a little. For Nordic poles, the wrist straps are a critical part to allow you to get more force on the push, so will be more elaborate, and usually made from some moisture wicking material like neoprene.
- Tips can be hard spikes for digging into earth and sand, with carbide being more durable than steel, or rubber for grip on tarmac or stone - most poles can have a rubber tip fitted over the spike to convert them. The rubber tips will wear out, but replacements tend to be fairly easy to find. Some poles also some with an optional 'basket', which stops it sinking as much in very soft materials, especially snow or bogs. If your poles come with baskets, you normally remove them unless conditions warrant it.
Choosing your walking poles
There's lots of choices out there, so lets outline the main users:
Casual walkers / for the looks
If you mainly want one for the looks and practicality or weight are not the main considerations, a wooden walking staff is a traditional favourite, from a shepherds crook to gentleman's cane. You will even find different styles of walking staffs from different parts of the country.
Aluminium is durable, light and there's a wide range of price points depending on the other features you want. If you do a lot of hills look for ones that are easy to adjust the height. If you do a lot of walking on hard-packed tracks or paved roads ensure you can fit rubber tips for better grip.
For long distance walkers, wild campers and extreme adventurers, every gram counts. Modern materials like carbon fibre give lighter poles which reduce fatigue in use, and smaller size folding poles allows you to get them in a pack more easily. Make sure baskets are available for snow.