Trekking poles

[I posted an earlier version of this page in my Climbing Mt Kinabalu blog.]

When I started planning for the Mt Kinabalu climb, my hiking experience was somewhat limited. I started doing a lot of research about hiking in general and Mt Kinabalu in particular. Naturally, the topic of trekking poles (or hiking sticks, or whatever) came up. After reading a few articles and watching several Youtube videos I decided that they were essential equipment for what I had in mind. I managed to acquire a pair of Coleman poles and immediately set about learning how to use them effectively.

The thing is with trekking poles is that there is no single technique that you use. Rather, there are a variety of ways to use them depending on terrain and slope. Here, then, is a brief summary of the ways we can use them.

  1. Over relatively flat, well-defined trails have the poles set for medium length and use them to assist your hiking. Alternate the poles and your legs when walking: it feels more natural and it’s the easiest way to get into a rhythm.
  2. Shorten the poles when going uphill, lengthen… blah, blah, blah. You know the drill.
  3. I’ve found that for moderate uphill stretches planting the pole next to the foot takes a lot of pressure of legs and hips.
  4. For higher steps, rocks, logs and so on, double planting the poles and using them to haul you up works well.
  5. On uneven, rocky terrain, I don’t even worry about technique. I just plant the poles in suitable places as I go along, not worrying about rhythm.
  6. Keep your elbows close to your sides. This gives you better leverage as well as improving your pole placement accuracy.
  7. If your hands start to feel fatigued, it’s a sure sign that you are gripping the handles incorrectly. Hold the grips loosely, with just enough pressure to maintain control. Put your weight on the wrist straps, not the poles.
  8. One web site recommended resting your palms atop the grips when going downhill. When I first tried it I didn’t like it. I felt it was too hard to be precise when planting the poles. With a bit more practice I learned how to do it properly. The first time was a fairly steep downhill section, hard clay covered with tiny pea gravel. My traction was, to say the least, almost non-existent. I carefully planted the poles some distance in front of me, transferred my weight to the poles, then moved and planted my feet. It was slow but very effective – and safer.
  9. I used the same technique when I started following a rocky stream bed uphill. I ended up having to backtrack because it went the wrong way, but I learned that not only are poles useful when clambering up big rocks, they’re even better when making your way down. Again, the trick is move slowly and carefully.
  10. Without poles I normally lean back when going downhill; with poles, I lean forward with a significant amount of weight on my arms – and off my feet!
  11. Sometimes trekking poles just get in your way. Dense, overgrown tracks are one of these times. Carry or stow your poles until the trail opens up again.
  12. Rubber tips: there are times to use them and times to take them off. I use them on solid rock and concrete (for example, on my training steps) because they’re quieter, absorb shock and offer better grip when planting the pole. I take them off when I go off road and hit the dirt.

Like any skill, using trekking poles takes practice.  After a while it becomes second nature. I feel naked if I set off without my poles now.