Walking Pole Guide
20th June 2019 by Emma Mathias
‘In my experience, there are only two types of walker - those who use walking poles and those who haven't tried walking poles yet.’
Why use walking poles?
Walking poles are such an under appreciated tool when it comes to walking. Many people assume that poles aren’t necessary for them when, in fact, they have so many advantages that can benefit people of all ages on all terrains. Read on to find out why you need walking poles and what to look for.
- Taking some of the load off your knees and ankles - During long days out in the hills or on steep descents there’s a lot of impact on your joints, especially when carrying a heavy pack. Poles spread the weight through your arms as well as legs and absorb some if this impact, allowing you to keep moving for longer as well as reducing muscle fatigue.
- Depth testing – when walking through bog or crossing rivers, poles act as an excellent depth tester allowing you to ‘test the waters’ before taking the plunge. They also offer valuable support when having to wade through water.
- Balance – Whether you’re tackling rocky paths, ridge walks, technical terrain or thick vegetation, poles offer you that extra support to keep you upright and moving forward. Because four legs are better than two.
- Propelling you uphill – By digging your poles into the ground and pushing yourself forward with your arms you share the effort, so your legs don’t take all the strain.
- Taking a rest – They’re great to lean on when you’re tired and need a quick rest. Just angle the poles away from you, put the top of the handle directly against your backpack straps and lean forward. It takes the load off without having to unload!
So you’ve decided to take the plunge into walking poles. But where do you start in choosing the right pair for you?
What will you be using them for?
- 3 season walking – For days walks and short overnighters your main concern will be durability rather than weight or packability. A pole that offers stability and comfort all day long and is proven to stand the test of time.
Black Diamond Trail Pro Trek Poles
Trail Pro Trek Poles Mens
3 season telescoping walking poles with FlickLock Pro clamping system to keep your poles in place no matter how roughly you treat them.
- Moving fast in the mountains - Weight and packability will be your primary concern. Any extra weight will just slow you down. A Z pole gives you the flexibility of easily packing them away for those technical scrambles and their low weight will mean you barely feel them in your pack.
Black Diamond Distance Carbon Z Z-Poles
Distance Carbon Z Z-Poles
Ultralight Carbon Fibre fixed length Z poles. Durable enough to take anywhere but light enough to stash away.
Black Diamond Distance FLZ Z-Poles Mens
Distance FLZ Z-Poles Mens
Light and strong Z poles with the added ability to adjust the length with ease on trail.
- Alpine pursuits and carrying heavy loads - A strong and durable pole that is comfortable yet reliable will offer you the support you need and give you the peace of mind to get you to your destination. Yet weight is also an important factor for those long days out in the mountains. For 4 season use a pole with snow basket compatibility is important to keep you upright and on your way.
Black Diamond Alpine Carbon Z Z-Poles
Alpine Carbon Z Z-Poles
4 season, snow basket compatible, fixed length pole made of ultralight Carbon Fibre. Available in 4 lengths.
Black Diamond Alpine FLZ Z-Poles
Alpine FLZ Z-Poles
Strong and durable 4 season z poles with additional height adjustability. Available in 3 sizes.
Z Poles vs telescopic poles
- Fixed length Z poles are light and packable, making them great for fast and light days out when you may not be expecting to use your poles for the entire trip. They fold up small and don’t have attachments that could catch on things whilst stowed in your pack. However, they are a fixed length so have no versatility in terms of height adjustment and you will need to ensure you get the correct size. They can also be slightly less durable than telescopic poles as they don’t have the added joint support.
- Extendable Z poles have the packability of standard Z poles but with the added ability to adjust the height making them more versatile on varied terrain. A great all-rounder. However, you do pay a slight weight penalty for this dual ability.
- Telescopic poles are the traditional style of pole. Each part slides out of the previous section and lock in place using a clamping mechanism. This mechanism needs to be both strong and durable to hold the poles in place. Telescopic poles have the ultimate height adjustability and tend to be in the mid weight range. They are slightly harder to pack away as the adjustment system can easily catch on things.
There are 2 main materials that you will need to decide upon – the handle and the shaft of the pole.
Handles are generally made from cork, foam or rubber.
- Cork is environmentally friendly and provides the most comfort in both warm and cold weather. Its great at wicking sweat and doesn’t freeze when cold. Cork doesn’t tend to rub as much as other materials but it’s also the most expensive option.
- Foam grips are soft and cool against the skin but they do absorb a lot of water. This means that they are great in hot weather as they wick sweat from your hands but can become water logged in very wet weather. Foam is the lightest option and slightly more breathable than cork.
- Rubber can be great in lower temperatures as it insulates your hand from the cold. However, in warmer weather it can rub, causing blisters, as it is less breathable than both foam and cork. It is the heaviest of the 3 options but also the cheapest.
Some poles also have an extended UVA Foam grip under the handle, allowing you to move your hands up and down the grip depending on the terrain, saving you from adjusting the pole length.
The shaft is either made for Carbon Fibre or Aluminium
Carbon fibre is an extremely strong and very light material. If you’re covering long distances then this weight saving can reduce fatigue. However, if carbon fibre does break, it shatters making it unusable.
Aluminium is strong and durable but slightly heavier than carbon fibre. It bends rather than shatters and so can be repaired in field if necessary, so if you know you’re going to be hard on your gear then aluminium may be the better option.
Fitting your pole.
Thread your hand through the strap and gently grip the handle. Your weight wants to go through the strap for support rather than gripping tightly on the handle itself. On flat ground your arm wants to sit comfortably at a right angle. When going uphill you’ll want to shorten the poles slightly and on steep downhill you’ll need the poles to be longer.
Now you’ve chosen your poles, what’s the best technique to get the most out of them?
Like most things in life, practice makes perfect and you will develop a style that works for you. But there are a few useful techniques you can use to get the most from your poles.
- When holding your poles, it’s important that you’re not gripping on the handle too tightly as this can cause your hand to cramp. Instead, loop your wrist through the strap keeping a loose grip on the handle. As you walk, the weight should go through your wrists. When walking in areas where there is a high risk of falling you should take your wrists out of the straps and just hold the handle – so if you do slip you can drop your poles rather than falling on them and potentially breaking them.
- For steep uphills, shortening your poles slightly will give you the best results. Swing your poles forward in tandem with each other so they are in front of your feet. Then push down with your arms whilst walking forward. When your arms start to pull back, bring the poles forward and repeat. This motion helps propel you up.
3. For steep downhills, lengthening your poles will help reduce impact on your knees and ankles. Bend forward and place both the poles in front of you. Lean your weight onto the poles and step down.
4. When walking on flat ground it’s easiest to pendulum the poles back and forth to give you momentum going forward.