“I would caution you against accepting any one source's opinion about which technique (as well as which type of equipment) is "best." People who walk with poles come in all ages, abilities, and will have many different goals when it comes to exercise and health. Different people with different goals, ages and abilities may differ widely in their opinions about what is "best" — and that's good! . . . . I decided that I wanted to preserve all that was good, enjoyable, safe and natural about walking, and at the same time attempted to discover how to realize the greatest additional benefit from the addition of poles and upper body involvement.”
—Tom Rutlin, Nordic pole walking instructor, excerpted from <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Central Issues Addressed in This Article
How important is technique when using trekking poles? What poling techniques will maximize my hiking and backpacking goals? What are my primary goals and purposes when using my poles? Speed? Power? Endurance? Stability? Health and exercise? Fun and enjoyment?
From my observations, many pole users don’t pay much attention to technique, especially in the backcountry. This is a mistake. Good poling technique can go a long way to improving the efficiency and enjoyment of both hiking in general and pole use specifically. The following two sections (“Basic Poling Techniques” and “Specific Techniques For Specific Purposes”) provide a comprehensive overview and synthesis of poling techniques recommended by poling instructors (especially those associated with the Nordic Walking movement) who are strong on technique. Both sections integrate basic and more advanced techniques.
Basic Poling Techniques
Basic Swinging Movement of Poles: When the leading foot strikes the ground the opposite pole arm swings forward to waist height; the opposite pole then strikes the ground near the heel of the opposite foot, essentially mirroring your stride—right leg/left pole, left leg/right pole. If you are having trouble coordinating this basic movement, start with just one pole. Since most people are stronger on their dominant side, practice vigorous poling with only the weaker side pole.
Stride and Cadence
—natural, comfortable stride that maintains good poling technique;
—because your poles push you along, stride length will generally lengthen as your poling technique evolves;
—as your stride lengthens, cadence will generally decrease a bit.
—walk tall with head up; posture is straight not bent at waist;
—lift rib cage which will slightly arch your back;
—shoulders and arms are relaxed and down; make sure you are not raising them and tightening them during your poling;
—accentuated arm swing and trunk movement and shoulder stretch;
—on the forward motion, the forearm is generally horizontal to ground in a handshake type motion;
—the elbows are slightly bent (soft) during the poling motion;
—slight forward lean at the ankles to let gravity assist in the forward leg swing.
Hips and Pelvis
—tilt or lift pelvis up (“flat pelvic core”) to better utilize your core muscles (a strong core is absolutely essential to good technique);
—accentuated pelvic rotation (but do not wiggle or sway the hips from side to side);
—shoulders and hip/pelvis should rotate in opposition;
—check hip rotation by imagining a line in front of you with your body lined up in the center as you walk; if you are rotating your hips to maximum effect, your feet will land close to the center line (“centerlining”).
—knees are relaxed and not totally straight at any point in your stride;
—leading leg should have some knee bend when heel strike occurs;
—foot placement has toes pointing straight forward.
—extend arm forward as if shaking hands;
—keep poles close to the body; thumbs lightly brush the hips;
—poles remain pointed diagonally backwards, seldom vertical unless going up or down steep hills;
—most of the pole (except near your hands) is behind and never in front of the body.
Pole Grip With Straps or Half Gloves
—if your poles have straps, use them most of the time;
—if your poles have half gloves, they will be designated for the right and left hand;
—most of the pole thrust should be channeled into the straps; not in your hands and fingers, but on your wrist and arms;
—only a light finger action is needed to control the poles back and forth movement;
—these suggestions are especially important when using Nordic Walking poles which have specially designed wrist straps or half gloves.
—plant the pole tips behind your hips (at roughly a 45 degree angle), not in front of them;
—poles need to be long enough to plant them slightly behind the opposite foot;
—do not apply downward force until fractionally after contact has been made with the ground.
Pole Thrust/Back Swing
—pole thrust and back swing are the most important part of the poling technique;
—push firmly into the straps (“Working The Straps”) as your arm swings to the back;
—a successful back swing pushes the hands well past the hip;
—successful back swing improves the rotation in the shoulder and hip joints;
—the lighter the poles, the easier the shaft’s perpendicular swing.
Body and Mind
—start with what feels natural and then begin to experiment with new techniques;
—enjoying yourself is paramount; technique is important only if it contributes to this enjoyment.
The above suggestions indicate there are many subtleties in good poling technique. Experts often work at perfecting them over many years. Besides the subtleties, there will also be differences from instructor to instructor. Sometimes there is vigorous debate among the experts, even on the basics. Technique is not an end in itself. The goal should be to have fun and get good exercise.
It is good to practice these techniques on relatively flat terrain. Many are difficult to fully utilize in the steep and rough terrain. Because of the many facets of good poling technique and the difficulty of translating word descriptions (like the above) into proper technique, most experts recommend formal instruction from a certified instructor. Obtaining a video (or go on line to watch video clips) demonstrating good technique would be a second choice.
Specific Pole Techniques For Specific Purposes
There are a variety of poling techniques advocated by skilled experts. The variety comes partly from differing personal preferences and terrains. But much of the variety comes from the different purposes for which poles are used. A competitive Nordic walker on relatively flat ground will use a very different technique from a backpacker going up hill. I count at least seven main purposes for using poles while hiking and walking:
BALANCE and STABILITY
EFFICIENCY and ENDURANCE
HEALTH and EXERCISE
RELIEVE STRESS and REDUCE INJURIES
ENJOYMENT and FUN
Following are specific variations of technique that can be tied directly to the first six purposes identified immediately above.
Balance and Stability
—shorter stride and pole swing;
—wider pole and leg stance.
—Lean into the hill keeping your heels flat on the ground;
—posture should still be straight though leaning forward;
—pull in your abdominals (draw your navel to your spine) to use more core muscles;
—More arm bend at the elbows which allows a straighter pole plant and a stronger thrust downward;
—shorter stride and pole swing (pushing the poles back only to the hips);
—slower cadence to allow stronger pole push;
—wider pole and leg stance;
—occasional double poling.
—shorten poling motion to the front to increase back swing;
—full arm swing pushing the poles as far back as possible;
—on the back swing the arm straightens to form a continuous line with the fully extended arm, the hand opening off the grip by the end of the arm swing;
—on the backswing, the palm of the hand opens out slightly and the final thrust is made via the pole strap;
—”centerlining” the feet which maximizes the involvement of large core muscles in the trunk as well as the back, shoulders, arms and chest (see “Hips and Pelvis” above for centerlining technique);
—increase cadence and stride length only as long as good form is maintained.
Health and Exercise
—All uses of poles provide exercise, but some techniques utilize more muscles in the body than others; full arm swing with released grip in the back-swing, using long strides and full hip and shoulder rotation, utilizes the most muscles in the body;
—steeper and rougher terrain also increases the exercise level.
Efficiency and Endurance
—Good basic poling techniques;
—shorter stride and pole swing;
—minimum use of forearm strength;
—accentuated hip and arm swing by “center lining” the feet;
—rear leg on the pole side is extended out until it is nearly straight.
Relieve Stress and Reduce Injuries
—deemphasize the need for speed;
—on descents, move poles well out in front using the upper body to absorb impacts;
—modify recommended techniques as needed to adjust for existing deformities and medical conditions.
The above information on poling techniques focusing on “Pole Use For Specific Purposes” is synthesized from many sources, including my own experiences over many years. This synthesis does tend to simplify and gloss over some of the subtleties, complexities and disagreements in pole technique.
I claim only expertise in this subject; I am not an recognized expert. My purpose here is to present a sufficient breath and depth of information so any pole hiker may advance their technique level.
Use of Wrist Straps
There does not seem to be a consensus among experienced polers on this issue. However, some generalizations are in order. The more experienced one becomes in poling techniques, the more advantageous wrist straps can be, especially on relatively level ground. Straps can also be useful when there is a lot of uphill (using the straps rather than hand grip to lever oneself upward). Straps are quite useful when doing some hand-over-hand scrambling on steep terrain. However, even experienced polers find it difficult to fully utilize the wrist straps on relatively uneven terrain. Over long distances straps add some weight, another consideration. I own poles with and without straps and make my choices based largely on the terrain to be traveled.
Number of Arm to Leg Cycles?
Pole placement for inexperienced polers is sometimes haphazard with no particular rhythm (and with minimal value received?). There are three basic options for serious pole users (when using two poles). The most common is a pole thrust for each stride of the opposite foot (one-to-one). The second option is double poling (two-to-one) thrusting with both poles for each stride (useful for steep up and down hills). The third option is less common: one left-right cycle of arms for every two-leg cycles (one-to-two). In my experience, the more skilled and conditioned polers will vary their cycles, using the first and second options exclusively.
Additional Issues For Reflection
1. When should I take poles and when is it best to leave them home? Is having adjustable poles that will fit into or tie onto my pack the best compromise?
2. How well can the techniques of Nordic Walking on relatively level and even surfaces be transferred to trekking pole technique in the mountains?
3. How important is it to take poling lessons from a certified Nordic Walking instructor? How important is it to avoid developing bad habits and to maximize technique?
4. How important are wrist straps? Should the wrist straps be an integral part of poling technique or are they mainly for security to not drop them?
5. Is it best to let the wrist straps take most of the pressure on the downward thrusts of poling rather than griping tightly with the hands?
6. What about gender and body type difference? Does the average female and male body types suggest different poling techniques?