How To Adjust Hiking Poles For Various Terrain
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Trekking poles are commonly used by hikers and other outdoor adventurers for improved stability on various terrains and to reduce the force placed on joints in the lower body.1 But if you don’t adjust your poles to the right length you won’t get the benefit. In fact, they might increase the strain of hiking instead of reducing it.
Before we look at how to adjust hiking poles, let’s first look at the different types…
Trekking Poles: You may have also heard trekking poles referred to as hiking poles, hiking sticks, walking poles, or walking sticks. These are sold as a pair and used in tandem. They are the preferred choice of those who hike uneven terrain and especially so if the extra weight of a pack is involved.
Hiking Staff: A hiking staff, also known as a walking staff or travel staff, is a single pole. The use of a hiking staff does not provide the same support as two poles.2 Hiking staffs are primarily used on relatively flat terrain and by hikers who are not carrying a heavier pack.
Related content: How To Protect Your Knees While Hiking?
Trekking Pole Length
When purchasing trekking poles or hiking staff, it’s important to get a pole of proper length. If your poles are improperly sized, you won’t achieve the desired benefits and you could strain to your arms, shoulders, neck, and back as well.
Trekking poles and hiking staffs can be purchased in fixed-lengths but adjustable-length trekking poles are the preferred choice if you plan to hike variable terrains.
Choosing the Pole Length for Adjustable-Length Trekking Poles and Hiking Staffs:
If you’re 6 feet or taller, your adjustable trekking poles or hiking staff should have a maximum length of 51 inches or greater. If you’re under 6 feet, most adjustable poles will shorten to the length you need.
Choosing the Pole Length for Fixed-Length Trekking Poles and Hiking Staffs:
Use the guide below to find the right fixed-length poles for your height.
|Your Height (ft in)||Your Height (cm)||Suggested Pole Length|
|< 5’1″||< 154||100 cm (39″)|
|5’1″ – 5’7″||154-171||110 cm (43″)|
|5’8″ – 5’11”||172-182||120 cm (47″)|
|> 6″||> 183||130 cm (51″)|
Fixed-Length Pole Sizing According to Use:
Hiking, backpacking, or walking: If you’re on the cusp, sizing up will improve stability and support when going downhill.
Running: If you’re on the cusp, sizing down will improve uphill propulsion.
Adjusting the Length of Your Trekking Poles For Various Terrain
Adjustable-length trekking poles can easily be adjusted to your terrain. Let’s take a look at how to set the proper length of your poles. It’s pretty simple.
First, is to start out on flat terrain. Flat terrain is the baseline or general hiking position for adjusting your trekking poles. After establishing this length, you can make slight adjustments for whatever terrain you’re hiking.
How to Adjust Hiking Poles for Flat Terrain
The most common position for trekking poles is for flat terrain, so we’ll call this the general hiking position.
For general or flat terrain, the perfect length for your trekking poles will be the length that allows you to hold the poles perpendicular to the ground with the tips near your feet while keeping your arms at a 90-degree angle.
Let’s break that down into steps…
4 Easy Steps to Adjust Trekking Poles for Flat Terrain.
- Stand straight on a flat surface.
- Bend your arms at a 90-degree angle.
- The poles should be straight up and down.
- Adjust the length of your poles so the tips are firmly on the ground.
NOTE: If you have a hiking staff, it should be adjusted for flat terrain. If you’re going to hike terrain that varies, you should to consider trekking poles.
How to Adjust Hiking Poles for Hiking Uphill
When hiking uphill, shorten your trekking poles 5–10 cm from your general hiking setting to secure your pole plants and improve the load-bearing pressure. The steeper the slope the shorter your poles should be.
The length of your poles should help position your torso over your hips. Leaning forward or backward too much will increase the strain on your joints.
If your poles are too long, you can overstretch when planting your poles which leads to shoulder strain and fatigue. If you find you’re awkwardly lifting your shoulders, decrease the length of your poles.
How to Adjust Hiking Poles for Hiking Downhill
When hiking downhill, lengthen your trekking poles 5–10 cm from your general hiking setting. The steeper the slope the longer your poles should be.
This increased length will keep you from leaning forward on your descent. You want to lean back slightly when hiking downhill for better stability and distribution of weight. Doing so will take strain off your knees.
How to Adjust Hiking Poles for Hiking Along the Contour of a Slope
When hiking distances along the contour of a slope, shorten the pole on the uphill side 5–10 cm from your general hiking setting and lengthen the downhill side by 5–10 cm for improving comfort and stability. This will keep you upright instead of leaning toward the downhill side of the trail.
Related content: How To Protect Your Knees While Hiking?
Trekking Pole Locking Mechanisms
There are three common locking mechanisms for adjustable poles. Some poles may use these three in combination.
- Twist Lock: This lock twists to open and close expanders to securely keep your poles at the right length.
- Lever Lock: This lock clamps to hold the pole at your proper length. Open the lever to release the lock and make length adjustments. Close the lever to lock.
- Push-Button Lock: Consists of a numb-like button and adjustment holes. The button is spring-loaded. Push the button in to unlock. Slide the pole to the desired adjustment hole for length and allow the button to pop into the locked position.
Trekking Pole Tips
- Two poles provide better support and protection than one.2
- Adjustable poles are best if you plan to hike on varied terrain.
- The height of your poles should allow your arms to be at a 90-degree angle when standing straight on a flat surface.
- Buy a pole designed for your intended use. The size of the handle and the weight may vary accordingly. Having the proper size will reduce muscle fatigue.
- Consider poles with hand straps. Straps support your wrist and hand while allowing for a more relaxed grip which reduces hand and forearm fatigue.
- Trekking poles are made for kids, women, men, or unisex. There isn’t much of a difference. The kids’ and women’s may have a smaller grip and may also be a little shorter making them a fraction lighter.
Looking for great trekking poles for a reasonable price? Check out the Black Diamond trekking poles over at Backcountry.
- G. Bottoni, D. Heinrich, P. Kofler, M. Hasler, and W. Nachbauer. The Effect of Uphill and Downhill Walking on Joint-Position Sense: A Study on Healthy Knees. Journal of Sport Rehabilitation. 2015 November; 24(4):349-52.
- Bert H. Jacobson, Bryan Caldwell, and Frank A. Kulling. Comparison of Hiking Stick Use on Lateral Stability While Balancing with and without a Load. Perceptual and Motor Skills. August 1, 1997. Volume: 85 issue: 1, page(s): 347-350.