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Walking-pole manipulation and quest for ideal poles

2009/02/05 - 12:37 - Laurence in Arrochar Alps.  We two carried a huge amount of load, for our stay of three nights wildcamping, including three ice axes for each, a pair of trekking poles for each, a snow shovel, a snow stake, all the winter climbing gear, a good deal of dinner, two sets of stoves etc.Hard way of walking uphill

Situation where a pair of poles comes especially handy… (Laurence Davis in Arrochar Alps (The Cobblers), Scotland)

Carrying a sack of 25 kg on the back on an uneven trail, which eventually turns into hardly distinguishable trace, bog, scree, is taking its toll. Walking uphill with just two legs unaided is tough. But in fact, occasional downhill is worse, as it is so easy to lose balance. Tumbling with this heavy sack would be a bad idea. And you are aware you could easily twist your ankle. What would you need? A pair of walking/trekking poles!

Note: Some people call them (walking) sticks. However, a walking stick usually refers to a cane to aid walking with a T-shape or U-shape head commonly used by elderly or disabled people for centuries. In this article I consistently use the word “pole” to refer to a stick to be designed exclusively for hill/mountain walking (or trekking).

When I was young, I didn’t own or use walking poles — walking poles looked like a sign of the unfit. In my biased view, those who used a stick in town were elderly frail people and no one in my (young) circle was using one on hills or mountains. How wrong! If someone walks faster than you with the same effort as you, clearly s/he is fitter than you — oh, it is because s/he used poles would be the poorest excuse imaginable. Walking poles are just tools like your boots. Unless you insist to walk naked unaided with no man-made tools whatsoever, use whatever tools you can find! (OK, let’s exclude a quadbike or chopper or any vehicles, in case you argue…)

Walking poles help your move significantly. Use of walking poles enhances not only safety but also your enjoyment of walking on the hill. Let’s face it. A commonsense (and physics and mathematics if you are a nerd like me) tells this world of three dimensions requires at least three points of contact for a thing to be stable in a gravity field. Therefore, to maintain stability with just two legs is by definition a very difficult task! That is why we have to be awake to keep standing freely. That is why pretty much every (land) animal but humans use 4 legs and so is called “quadruped”. Allegedly, to have two free limbs (that is arms) not engaged in the task of moving the body was a source of the intellectual evolution of our race. Then, by all means, use them for your intellectual activity, but when it comes to moving the body effortlessly (or with a less effort), it is wise to back to basics, that is, to emulate 3 or more points of contact; in other words, use (a pair of) poles!

In this article I overview how walking poles are and should be used, summarise the various characteristics of walking poles, and discuss what sort of pole is best for what purposes.

1 Pros and cons

Here I explain pros and cons of the walking pole.

1.1 Benefit

Benefits of walking poles include:

2013/07/09 - 08:51 - Taken by one of our group members.Setting off to Austrian Bivourc
Ron Kenyon (in the left) is using his poles like a walking-cane to help support the weight of him and his heavy sack, pressing down the pole on the head with Press-down Grip (see below). At Безенги (Bezengi) in Northern Caucasus, Russia.
  1. To keep your stability while walking so that you do not (or much less likely) stumble or fall, or twist your ankle.
    • This benefit is more significant in uneven terrain than the flat.
    • This benefit is more significant on downhill than uphill.
    • This benefit has two parts: one is to prevent you from losing the balance in the first place while walking, and the other is an insurance to avoid potential disaster (fall or injury) at the moment you lose your balance, such as a split-second pole-manipulation to support your body at the very moment of your slip.
  2. To probe potentially hazardous terrain, such as deep bog or unstable rock.
  3. To take some weight off from other parts of your body like feet/legs and spine.
    • This helps point (1) (i.e., keeping the balance), potentially massively on descent.
    • This helps easing a strain on your jelly-tired legs after a long ascent.
    • This can be essential on very soft terrain, such as soft snow or bog, so you maintain yourself staying on the surface without sinking too much.
    • You can take a little rest at times from tough walking by leaning towards a pole(s), as cane users in town sometimes do (see the photo above).
    • This reduces a strain on your leg joints, most notably knees, which is often a serious problem for, though not limited to, senior walkers.
  4. For anything which a solid straight object is useful for, whether planned or for emergency, such as,
    • as a monopod for a camera,
    • as a supporting pole for an impromptu shelter like one with tarp,
    • as a supporting stick to stabilise an injured leg or even for a stretcher.
EDIT (note added)(2019-05-09): Another important benefit, particularly in hot weather, of using a pole(s) is to reduce swelling of a hand(s). This article by Grayson Cobb (2017) is the most thorough explanation I have found over the Internet about it. (Note I do not agree with the factor of rucksack shoulder straps as he argued, simply because the law of physics, which comes before any physiology, does not work like that; the conclusion is nonetheless the same – use of walking poles is beneficial in that respect.)

1.2 Disadvantage

  1. Extra weight
    • A counter-argument is that the weight of a pole is much less significant than that of objects in your pack, while you are using the pole during walking. Nevertheless, a gram may count in some cases like races.
    • If poles have to be carried without being used for a length of time, such as on technical terrain (which may need climbing etc), their extra weight counts.
    • For air travels, where a serious weight restriction is in place, it may count.
  2. Extra bulk
    • Any unnecessary bulk is hindrance while climbing or scrambling.
    • It can be problematic for air travels (though it may be allowed to take them as a carry-in luggage, if you pretend you would need sticks to walk to board a plane?!).
    • You might just want simplicity of travelling or walking minimum. For example, any extra stuffs can be troublesome in congested mountain huts.
  3. Potential over-reliance
    • If you weigh a pole too much and if a thing (like a rock) underneath moves or collapses, your balance might be badly broken with a potentially serious consequence. Technically, the same thing could happen underfoot, too, and so whether this actually is a problem or not is debatable. Anyhow, walkers do need practice to use walking poles properly, given that to use poles is less intuitive than walking without, the latter of which you do all the time except while you are sitting or lying (or swimming, biking, etc).
    • Some walkers, especially inexperienced, may carry on using their poles in scrambling or on serious terrain where they should rather stow away their poles and use their hands. In fact, even if they stow away their poles, some poles may remain too long, sticking out untidily, and as a result their poles may accidentally catch something on the way at the places most unwanted, that is, exposed steep terrain. In other words, you may argue walkers may marginalise their safety with or without being aware of it, because of the poles.
  4. Potential fatigue of the upper body
    • The fact poles can help take a weight and strain off the spine and legs (especially knees) does mean some weight is taken by your upper body, particularly by your arms. Some people’s upper-body fitness (such as skinny runners?) might not like it. Or, climbers in approach to a hard route, where they are expecting to use their arms to the limit, may want to save their upper-body energy for it.
  5. Hands exposed to the elements
    • While you are using poles, your hands, whether bare hands or in gloves, are exposed to the elements, and hence you may end up having cold hands on a cold and/or windy and/or rainy/snowy day. In contrast, if the hands are free, you can place them somewhere protected behind wind (like on your lower back in a head-wind situation) or at least you can naturally keep your hands low free-hanging (as opposed to 90-degree bends from your elbows) so that blood flows more freely, which helps keep your hands warmer.
    • If you are using a strap of a pole handle in a constrictive way around your wrist, the blood flow to the hand is even more restricted, and hence you have a more risk of having a cold hand.
  6. Potentially more risk of injury if you fall
    • If you fall (or slip) despite using a pole(s), your hand/arm move is limited and thus you may have a slightly more risk of injury (note if you manage to let go your pole at the moment of your sudden fall, providing you are not using the straps of your poles in a constrictive way, the risk is more limited, but whether your body reacts so instantaneously or not may be debatable — I can usually do, but I would not claim 100%).
    • If you are using a strap, especially in a constrictive way, your thumb may get trapped and hurt when you fall.
    • Having said these, you are less, potentially greatly less, likely to fall if you use poles than you don’t in general. You had better consider everything on your risk balance sheet.
  7. Inability of any activity that requires your hands
    • It is at best troublesome to eat or drink something, let alone to do any serious real-time navigation with a map or ropework or (heaven forbid) to manipulate your smartphone, while walking with poles in hands.

1.3 Balance sheet

In consequence, whether you should or may use a pair of poles (or a pole in some limited cases) depends upon the balance between the above-listed pros and cons.

I believe the pros overwhelm the cons for most people in most situations. And so I seriously recommend any hill-goers to get a pair of walking poles in their earliest carrier, perhaps even before their first day out. The exceptions whereby you had better not carry ones are, for example,

  • you do not have functional arms,
  • you are running a fell or orienteering race or similar (many ultra-long distance fell-runners, such as those for The Spine Race, do use poles),
  • weight is a serious concern, such as, you are going for multi-pitch or alpine climbing for which you must carry everything you take on the route, or
  • packability is a serious concern, such as for scramblers who are concerned with potentially serious sections of the intended route and do not have easily packable walking-poles.

2 How walking poles are used

In this section I categorise the “mode” of manipulations of walking poles into 4 modes and the type of “grip” into 3 types, designating their names for use later in this review. Any experienced walking-pole user uses all of them semi-intuitively, depending on the situation.

2.1 Manipulation modes of walking poles

The manipulation of walking poles for walking is roughly categorised into four types or modes:

  1. Ascent mode: pulling downwards for an upward move
  2. Support mode: pressing downwards for balance
  3. Propelling mode: pressing backwards for propelling the body forwards (or forward-upwards)
  4. Descent mode: pressing downwards and slightly forwards, perhaps in a leaning-forward posture, used for descent

The boundary between them is not clear cut. More importantly, the mode in use may transit from one to another even within a single pole move (see sub-section below: Mode transition in actual pole manipulation).

2013/02/23 - 15:47 - Zoe competing in Skimo, a ski-mountaineering race, held in Glencoe, February 2013Zoe competing in Skimo, a ski-mountaineering race, held in Glencoe, February 2013

Ascent Mode used to its maximum (Zoë Procter in Skimo Race 2013 in Glencoe, Scotland — women’s winner).
2019/05/01 - 12:49 - Double Pacerpoles in Ascent ModeDouble Pacerpoles in Ascent Mode

Type of terrain where archetypal Ascent Mode is used (Lorraine Mccall).

Ascent Mode is perhaps the way a majority of uninitiated people imagine as the way of most typical use of walking-poles in mountain walking. It does help. However, this manipulation requires a similar muscle move for pull up, if much weaker. How many times can you pull up with a rucksack on? I guess not hundreds of times. That means this pole manipulation is not a sustainable use of walking poles while you may walk for thousands of steps. Don’t be over-reliant.

Another note of caution is one should change the Gripping methods of a walking pole flexibly for a high step, not mindlessly sticking to the Standard Grip. Employing a pole in this mode for a high step with the Standard Grip is the most unstable way of using a pole and hence is often unsafe, unless your arms and upper body are so strong you can control the force very precisely according to required varying optimum angles as you move up during a high step.

2014/03/05 - 12:10 - Outside of Piedra del Fraile.Yuki during approach to Piedra Negra
Yuki Sakano supporting her weight with a heavy sack in Support Mode. In Patagonia.
Support Mode is the most common move you see in town by elderly users of a walking stick (cane), and is pretty common among hill walkers, especially those with heavy sacks. When you carry something heavy on your back, you upper body naturally leans forwards to counter the weight. The pole manipulation in this mode would help to take a part of the weight off your back. Or, this is the move required when you break your balance and your pole manipulation is (unideally) the last hope to preventing you from falling or slipping. This pole-manipulation is essential when you want to spread your weight to a wider surface area, such as in walking on deep soft snow.
2019/05/01 - 12:15 - Pacerpoles in Propelling ModePacerpoles in Propelling Mode
Flat-land walking in Propelling Mode. Both the poles are pressed backwards. (Lorraine Mccall in Glenlivet, Highland)

Arguably, the most basic manipulation with “trekking” poles is Propelling Mode. Each pole is pressing backwards whose tip is touching the ground behind you so that it assists to propel your body to move forwards, perhaps in brisk walking on a flat-ish ground. In other words, this pole manipulation gives you a forward momentum rather than helping you keep upright and stay put on the spot like Support Mode. It is the most efficient and hence least tiring way of using poles. Your elbows should and would be bent lightly, but no more than 90 degrees for the maximum efficiency.

This mode is not exclusive to flat-field walking. When you ascend, pole manipulation in this mode (downwards and slightly backwards) would give a final upward push (see sub-section: Mode transition in actual pole manipulation).
2019/01/08 - 12:53 - Descent with walking polesDescent with walking poles
Poles pressed forwards and downwards in Descent Mode for a sizeable drop. (Yuki Sakano in Mt. Kai-Komagadake, Southern Japanese Alps)

Descent Mode is the underrated yet very important pole manipulation. In descent, it is often the case each step carries a risk of serious consequences — if you make a wrong footing or if the ground underfoot collapses, you will fall. This pole manipulation helps body’s downwards travel and gives a little but significant insurance.

Also, this manipulation is a bliss for those who have or will have a troubling knee, that is, all of us. It helps reduce a strain on your knees and leg joints.

Note there are other modes of use of walking poles, such as, pressing a pole length-wise like a ski on to very soft snow (to maximise your chance to stay on the snow surface), or fighting against an angry bear (just out of my imagination), or whatever any stick might be useful for….

Other uses of walking poles include (Left/Upper panel) dancing and (Right/Lower) pointing out something… Seriously, the latter can be combined to assess the gradient of a slope around you, which is useful in avalanche-prone terrain, i.e., 18 degrees for 1:3 crossed-pole-length ratio and 27 degrees for 1:2, roughly corresponding to the threshold safe line-of-sight viewing angles for surface-layer and full-depth avalanches, respectively (Fujisawa et al. 1993, Annals of Glaciology, 18, 239-244) (Rob Goodman in (L/U) Ishinca Valley and (R/L) Santa Cruz Valley, Cordillera Blanca, Peru in The Andes)

2.1.1 Mode transition in actual pole manipulation

2019/05/01 - 12:49 - Small Mitts are in place. (Model: Lorraine Mccall)On a steep slope with Pacerpoles
Pole manipulation on a steep terrain: left hand in Ascent Mode and right hand in Support Mode or Propelling Mode. (Lorraine Mccall)

In an actual manipulation with a pole, a particular positioning and move with a pole are not always defined unequivocally. For example, the difference between pulling (as in Ascent Mode) and pressing (Support Mode) may not be obvious. Take a look at muscle-up with the bar; it starts from pulling overhead and ends in pressing the body over the bar. Where does pulling end and pushing begin exactly in a single move?

In actual pole manipulations, it is common the “mode” of a pole transits from one to another during a single move. Similarly, the poles in each hand may be employed in different modes at a given moment.

For example, in uphill, one may first place the left-hand pole in [Ascent Mode] and right-hand pole in Propelling Mode. As s/he moves up a step, the mode of the left-hand pole transits from Ascent to Support Mode. Then as s/he takes the next step, the same left-hand pole keeps pressing the ground, which is Propelling Mode. Depending on the designs, some poles are more suitable in one mode than others and vice versa, as discussed below.

2.2 Gripping methods of a walking pole

Most of commercial walking poles have a designated handle with a more or less straight-shape (as a simple extension of the rest of the shaft), with the top end being a slightly fatter (plastic) than the rest, and usually a weight-bearing strap is attached at near the top. There are three typical ways of gripping walking poles, as shown in the following photos.

2019/05/01 - 12:48 - Standard Grip (in Ascent Mode)Standard Grip (in Ascent Mode)

Standard Grip: Gripping the pole handle as designed — the most standard way with a choice of a strap on or off.
2019/05/01 - 13:27 - Shaft GripShaft Grip

Shaft Grip: Gripping a pole at a point on the shaft somewhere lower than the standard designated handle (n.b., the strap has to be off).
2019/05/01 - 13:27 - Press-down GripPress-down Grip

Press-down Grip: Gripping the top to press down the entire pole (n.b., the strap can be kept on but does not help).

Standard Grip is by far the most popular way, and it should be, as that is what the pole is designed for.

Shaft Grip is useful when you encounter a high step that is too awkward or off-balance to use Standard Grip. In fact, in the situation in the photo of Standard Grip above, the grip is probably too high and Shaft Grip would suit better. It is also often the case in contouring, where the uphill side of the slope is much higher than the ground a walker is standing on.

Press-down Grip is frequently used in descent when you encounter a big drop (Descent Mode). You may also use it in contouring for the downhill side (Support Mode).

For Standard Grip, you can use a strap attached to the handle of each pole. A strap has two purposes:

  1. so that you don’t drop your pole, either accidentally or when you release a pole temporarily from your hand to use the hand for another job (such as, unzipping your jacket),

and, if you choose to put a strap around your hand/wrist tightly in a constrictive way (Left panel in the figure below),

  1. so that your strength is transferred to a pole more efficiently, or in other words, so you can use a pole more effortlessly.

The second point is helpful indeed, and I think constrictive strapping is the norm for skiers (see, for example, the article “Poling Principles” in Cross Country Skier).

Three ways to use a strap of a walking pole
Three ways to use a strap of a walking pole

However, constrictive strapping has several downsides:

  1. If you fall, your thumb (or wrist) can be trapped with the strap and get hurt.
  2. You have to undo the strap to change into the Shaft Grip.
  3. The blood flow to your hand is more restricted, and so your hand is more likely to get cold than otherwise.
  4. When only one pole is used, swapping the pole between the hands is more awkward than otherwise.
  5. After many hours of use, your hand may hurt due to the pressure.

An underrated point is point 2 — it is very annoying. As a result, many walkers who use strapping with a constrictive way have inclination not to bother and tend to mindlessly stick to Standard Grip even for high steps, where they really should use Shaft Grip or even should use a hand instead of a pole. That means they are taking an extra risk by not changing the grip modes.

Personally, I have once broken my thumb due to point 1 (in a fall in skiing), and I stopped using constrictive strapping of poles ever since.

If you don’t like constrictive strapping but value the first purpose of a strap (that is, not losing a pole), you can grip a handle with the wrist just through a strap without wrapping it around your wrist (Middle panel in the figure above). Then, the strap does nothing except preventing you from dropping the pole. In that case, the risk of injury would be somewhere between constrictive strapping and not using a strap at all.

Note the Pacerpole eliminates the weight-bearing straps, thanks to its radical handle design (Allegedly Chris Townsend uses them for ski touring, too).

2.3 Optimum length of the walking pole

It depends!

—— It depends largely on the terrain and to some extent each user’s preference and sometimes on the model of a pole.

A reference would be the use on the flat field, that is, usually Propelling Mode. In that case, the standard grip of a walking pole should be held in the position with the forearm held out in front of you with the elbow bent for no more than 90 degrees. The exact angle depends how fast you walk and how actively you are expected to use your poles (on flat fields). If in doubt, choose a slightly shorter length (more people tend to keep their poles too long than too short in my observation).

If you expect long uphill (ascent) or downhill (descent), adjust the length accordingly beforehand or even on the spot. How much? Adjust them according to the typical gradient. As a very rough measure, if the averaged expected gradient is 10 cm per step, then shorten/lengthen it by 10cm. That means if it is a staircase, shorten/lengthen it by about 20cm, in which case the difference in the pole length between the steep uphill and downhill would be 40cm.

In reality, the difference may not have to be as large as that. In downhill (descent) you can compensate the lack of pole length to some extent by using Press-down Grip.

In addition, personal tastes may vary. If you have a strong upper body and arms, you may get away with and may even prefer a somewhat longer pole length, for example.

Mind you, your “preference” may not be yet optimised, though. A friend of mine, who was an experienced walker, once complained a discomfort on her wrists in using her walking poles. I was not sure, but noticed her poles were much longer than mine, and so suggested her to shorten them as trial. She shortened them by 15cm and then her discomfort was gone for the rest of the day. You may experiment various lengths with your poles and find out your true optimum.

3 Difference among walking poles on the market

A pole is after all a long (say, 90-160cm) stick. The construction therefore is rather simple and the following three points are the major apparent differences among models. They account for comfort in use, usefulness, applicability, weight, durability, and safety (and price).

  1. Adjustability design
  2. Handle design
  3. Tip design.
Various walking poles
Various walking poles, demonstrating (visually) notable differences among models.

The design of the handles subtly varies from model to model, from straight to slightly bent (except for the radical design of Pacerpole at the bottom in the figure), from hard plastic to cork. All models but Pacerpole (bottom one with a rubber cord) have a wrist strap attached to the handle. Most walking poles are in 3 sections, except for the second (from the top) one (BD Traverse Ski Pole), which consists of only 2 sections and is very sturdy. The 4th one has a shaft of a significantly smaller diameter, and so is super-light weight (it didn’t take long to get damaged, though…). The 4th and 5th ones are foldable (so-called Z-construction); although both are length-adjustable (which are actually not very common for Z-construction poles), the range is much more limited (15cm) than that of the other models — 36cm in the case of Pacerpole (bottom), for example. The locking system (for adjusted length) is either Twist-lock (the top one) or Flick-lock (all the other models). Baskets are installed 3-10 cm above the tip; three of them (2nd, 3rd, 5th) have snow baskets installed, top and bottom have medium-size baskets, and 4th one has a tiny built-in unreplaceable basket (another price of light-weight construction?). A (universal) cap (tip protector) is attached to the tip of the 5th one.

3.1 Adjustability and packability design

The simplest design is a fixed-length design, as some (or many?) of ski poles are. Ski poles are often expected to take a full and dynamic body weight if momentarily and hence need to be robust. For the sake of weight-vs-robustness, fixed-length design certainly has an advantage.

2019/05/06 - 10:35 - Rucksack as a reference is Mountain Equipment Tupilak 45L (in a compact state).  The lengths of the collapsed poles are 34, 65, and 75 cm from right.Collapsed lengths of various poles
The poles in this figure are, from right, Z-construction, standard 3-section, and 2-section construction with collapsed lengths of 34, 65, and 95 cm, respectively (in my measurement). The rucksack as a reference is Mountain Equipment Tupilak 45L (in a compact state).
2008/05/24 - 17:15 - In Cyfrwy Arete, Cadair Idris, Wales.Standing on the airy arete
Packability of walking poles is sometimes important, especially when on an exposed steep route… (Adam Webb on Cyfrwy Arête, Cadair Idris, Wales).

However, for walking poles, a fixed-length design sucks, because the ideal length varies, depending on not only a user’s height and ape-index and preference but also the gradient and nature of the terrain in each time and even in each half hour of use. Rather, they should be adjustable for at least 10cm for either side of your optimum length for the flat ground, that is 20cm in total, or desirably more.

Unfortunately, adjustability, packability, and robustness (or durability) are contradictory demands for one another. More split sections a pole has, greater the packability is in general, whereas robustness suffers, and vice versa. For example, Black Diamond Traverse Ski Pole is I testify one of the sturdiest models as a walking pole with 2-section construction, but its collapsed length is a whopping 96cm, whereas the adjustability is good for a range of 40cm. It is good for skiing (as the name implies!) and also is for walking as long as packability (and a bit of weight) is not a problem.

If a packability is of concern, foldable poles are handy; foldable construction is sometimes called Z-construction, where a pole is folded into three (still-connected) sections and it is the current state of art. Unfortunately many of them on the market are not adjustable in size at all, though, and if it is, the adjustable range is small. For example, Black Diamond Alpine FLZ Trekking Pole is the latter, one of the length-adjustable Z-construction models, but its adjustable range is mere 15cm ish (slightly larger for longer models). Another downside of Z-construction poles is that they are usually not very durable[] — I too can testify the fact with a BD Distant-series one, which did not last long, and even its more durable cousin BD Alpine FLZ. However, the collapsed length of Alpine FLZ is as short as 34-40cm (depending on the original length) and those of other Z-construction models are similar. So, they can be easily packed inside even a small rucksack, and that is a big pro in some situations.

Note[†]: I do not know lack of durability is inherent in engineering of the Z-construction or is due to some marketing-oriented bias. A potential marketing-oriented bias I can think of is, for example, manufacturers may tend to prefer lighter weight for Z-construction poles because they are designed to be packed and carried in a sack, in which case users may care about the weight more than otherwise.

If you do use non-Z-construction poles, yet encounter a serious section in your chosen route that requires scrambling (including via ferrata) and/or climbing, and need to stow them away in or on your rucksack and carry them for a period, it is advisable to make sure to pack the whole poles inside your rucksack, rather than to attach them outside (such as, using a wand pocket on the side of your rucksack). Most of 3-section-construction walking poles including non-Z-construction ones would manage to fit in a 40-litre sack, if not very neatly. If they stick out (or worse, dangle) as it happens when they are attached outside a rucksack, they may catch all sorts of things from rock edge to rope, and marginalise both your safety and enjoyment. A tip is to take a pair of tip protectors for your poles with you and use them when you pack the poles inside your rucksack; otherwise the (hard-metal) tips of your poles could easily damage something in your rucksack or penetrate the fabric of your rucksack (I’ve done that…).

3.1.1 Risk of shaft slippage and locking systems

Adjustableness almost always means a potential risk of slipping of a shaft while in use, that is, a pole may shrink from the length you set, say, from 120cm to 110cm, when weighted with some (or even no) momentum. Many ski poles are not adjustable for a good reason, because skiers tend to use poles very actively for turns (pole plants) and ski poles must cope with it.

It is obvious sudden slipping (that is shrinking) of a pole for a significant length when weighted is dangerous. Unfortunately, whatever adjustment system a pole employs, some people argue every length-adjustable pole slips more or less sooner or later inevitably and I do not disagree. In that sense, a rare millimetre slip may be tolerated. However, if you find a pole to slip regularly, it is time to retire the pole and get a new one. The risk of slippage depends on the model of walking poles, but it also certainly increases as age and use of a pole.

If the length of a walking pole is adjustable, it usually uses the system of either twist lock (called Super Lock by Leki, for example, rather confusingly) or spring-loaded clasp-type lock (called Flick Lock by Black Diamond and Speed Lock by Leki, for example). I do not think the range of adjustable length varies much between the two. However, they do have pros and cons.

The twist lock is by definition greatly adjustable how tight it would be. Tighter you lock, less likely a shaft would slip. In other words, how likely it may slip may be slightly unpredictable. Also, tighter the lock is, a more trouble you will have in undoing the lock to readjust the length or collapse it completely, in particular if the lock has been tightened by someone stronger than you.

By contrast, the flick lock has more consistency; every time you lock it, it always either works with no slippage or doesn’t (i.e., it always slips when a certain amount of force is applied to). Note that some models of flick locks are adjustable in tightness, in which case the achieved tightness by locking may still vary, though. Undoing a flick lock is usually a doddle.

In cold climate, the flick lock wins because the twist lock has a vulnerability of potentially freezing up. Also, if something may go wrong inside the twist lock (as I have experienced), repairing can be difficult or impractical, whereas personally I have never experienced twist locks went wrong. On the other hand, the twist-lock has nothing to stick out significantly from the pole as the design and so is neat and catches nothing accidentally, such as something in the sack while packed or rock edge while in use. Also, the twist-lock seemingly tends to be lighter in weight, and may be cheaper.

3.2 Handle design

The handle shape of a walking pole is either straight or slightly bent, with a notable exception of Pacerpoles, which have a completely different principle of gripping from almost any other walking poles (In the following discussion, I ignore Pacerpoles; instead see my forthcoming full review about them).

On the flat ground, the curved handle design is more ergonomic and so is better. For example, Black Diamond often name their trekking poles with a curved handle with a prefix of “Ergo”, such as, “Trail Ergo Cork Trekking Poles” as opposed to the straight-handle design counterpart (“Trail Trekking Poles” in this case), for a good reason. However, on the modulated and rugged terrain, this simple ergonomic design is more debatable. You might feel a curved-handle slightly more unstable in employing Press-down Grip and might find it more awkward in Ascent Mode.

The detailed curve of the handle design, as well as the radius of it, varies from manufacturer to manufacturer and from model to model. If you have particularly small or big hands, you may find some models to be not very comfortable on your hands.

Handles are usually constructed with hard plastic coated by something, such as rubber and cork. Some designs can be more slippery, especially with a glove on, and/or may hold moisture longer than others. Also, it is partly down to user’s preference.

The design of the top of the handle, though often neglected, also matters, as it is the primary contact point in the Press-down Grip. Models with a larger flat-ish area would be marginally better. To be fair, I have never found a great deal of trouble of the design of this part in any of the walking poles I have ever used. As a different note, serious cameramen may fancy a few models, such as Leki Photosystem Camera Trekking Pole and Pacerpoles, that come with an (optional) camera mount at the top of the pole so that the pole can be used as a monopod.

Another concern is usability of Shaft Grip, usually on highly modulated terrains. For that sake, the shaft of the pole just below the standard top handle should be comfortable and not slippery for it; in short if the part of the shaft is exposed metal (or carbon fibre), it is slippery. Some models do take it into consideration for its design, such as, Leki Micro Vario Carbon Strong. If the part in a model is not up to your taste, it is not impossible to DIY it, such as, taping up (a photo DIY-ed shaft). It is true Shaft Grip is the least-frequently used grip, and so the priority for this point would not be high in choosing the model.

Most poles come with weight-bearing built-in straps (again except for Pacerpoles). Their primary purpose is to make a weight or force transfer to a pole from your body easier by strapping your hand in a constrictive way. Indeed, you would need a bit, or sometimes considerably, less grip strength to use a pole in that configuration, although there are some downsides as discussed in the previous section. The level of comfort may vary from model to model (I do not know, as I do not use straps in the constrictive way, being put off by its downsides). The strap can be used as a convenient attachment point of security lanyard so as not to drop accidentally and lose it.

3.3 Tip design

2019/05/06 - 10:37 - Not all of them come from the same model. The smallest and largest ones have diameters of 36 and 95 mm, respectively.Various sizes of baskets of walking poles
Baskets of walking poles (not all of them come from the same model). The smallest and largest ones in this photo have diameters of 36 and 95 mm, respectively.

The tip part here means the end of a pole that touches the ground and parts around it. The very tip itself is usually hard metal. In some cases, such as in environmentally sensitive terrain or if you don’t like the hard noise a tip of your pole in use generates, you might prefer to cover it up with a rubber cap. Mind you, the rubber cap might fall off, which is undesirable in multiple senses. Note that the rubber cap is useful in packing the pole away to protect the things around the pole tip, such as fabric of a rucksack.

Usually it is useful to have a “basket” 10 cm or so above the tip. Most models come with a couple of sizes of user-replaceable baskets, depending on your need, though some models like some ultra-light ones may not. For example, you would definitely want a wide basket (snow basket) in walking on deep fresh snow or deep Scottish bog, whereas they may have a risk of getting damaged on rocky terrain, and certainly they make packing of the poles more awkward if kept attached.

Some models of poles are equipped with a little suspension system to absorb shock in use, often (usually?) just above the basket part. Opinions about it vary. A little shrinking of a part of a pole may be good in absorbing shock, whereas too much extra vertical travel of a pole can be counter-intuitive and less predictable in using it on rocky rugged terrain where you do not want any incalculable moves.
2013/03/30 - 09:05 - Approach in Torridon in EasterApproach in Torridon in Easter
A situation where snow baskets are definitely useful, or a must (Kyle Wood in Torridon, Highland).

3.4 Other points to consider in design

The most important point in choosing a pair of walking poles is its usable length. If it is too long or too short for you, then it is not for you, full stop. Any other add-on features come nowhere close to it in terms of priority!

Robustness (or durability), including the risk of accidental shaft slippage, would be a significant concern about walking poles for many users. Though some general guidelines have been given in this article, robustness varies considerably from model to model, and maybe from manufacturer to manufacturer.

The primary material for walking poles is either carbon fibre or aluminium. The former is usually lighter (for the same robustness), but has a higher price tag. Be warned some models on the market have exactly the same model-names for the carbon-fibre and aluminium versions, yet have some different features between them other than the weight, confusingly.

EDIT (note added)(2019-05-09): Apparently there is a myth carbon fibre becomes more brittle in cold climate than metal (alloy). Wrong. After all, carbon fibre is used widely in space and aeronautical engineering, replacing traditionally metal components with, where the material must cope with an extremely low temperature (down to −270 degC to be precise in the former case). I should note that actual walking-pole models made of carbon fibre on the market are not necessarily strong(er) – as an extreme example, if a pole was made of wafer-thin carbon fibre, it would be very fragile! Carbon fibre has a better strength-vs-weight ratio than alloy, and that is all. Therefore carbon-fibre models can be made lighter than their exact alloy counterparts if and only if their rated strengths are the same. In reality, manufacturers can easily go too far – they may make carbon-fibre models too light, compromising the strength – regardless of the operating temperature.

The shaft of poles is usually circular. However, some poles have oval-shaped shafts. In my (admittedly limited) experience, whether circular or oval does not matter except in Shaft Grip —— but to be fair I think the radius of the shaft matters more than its shape for Shaft Grip. Considering the handles of any tennis rackets and iceaxes are slightly oval, the oval shape should not be a problem in itself, or may be rather preferable, for Shaft Grip.

4 One pole or a pair of poles?

In town, when you see (mostly elderly) people using walking sticks, they usually use only a single stick. Those who use a pair are almost exclusively injured or disable people.

2013/07/09 - 09:56 - On ледник Уллучиран (Glacier Ulluchiran).  Tough place for youngstars.  While we were having our first break on our ascent.Family group of a dozen people descending
Some parents, while they use a pair of poles, do not give their children a pair but just a single walking-pole. I never understand why (Walkers in Northern Caucasus, Russia).

Then, how about walking poles for hill/mountain walking? Is a single pole suffice? My vote definitely goes against it and for a pair of poles. After all, we in default have two legs and arms. It would be so unbalanced to use just a single pole. Anyhow, most proper walking poles on the market are sold as a pair with only a few exceptions.

And indeed, that is what most hill-walkers in Britain seem to do, except for many of children, perhaps because that is what their parents or accompanied adults provide them with. I never understand why children are provided with only one pole per each. They too have two legs and two arms! And children do use a pair of poles for skiing, don’t they?

There are three cases where I (may) choose to take and use only a single pole. One is in alpine climbing (or winter climbing) which involves a long moderately-steep yet walkable section of glacier or snow. In such a case, to keep an iceaxe in hand is essential, primarily for iceaxe arrest in case of a potential slip and maybe for a rare but possible isolated steep move or step-cut. The second is for multi-pitch rock climbing where one must carry everything s/he takes; in that case minimising the weight while climbing is very important, and so I would take either 1 pole or none, depending on the risk balance between the hazard in approach and difficulty of climb. The third is winter walking/climbing on a cold windy day. If two poles are used, neither of the hands would have any escape from wind and they have limited blood supply due to their raised positions and then both hands may get very cold, whereas if only one pole is used, hands can be somewhat protected from wind alternatively and be rewarmed up while protected (to be fair, alternatively, Himalayan-grade mitts could be employed to use a pair of poles, although the weight adds up, given a single pair would not be suffice in wet Scottish winter day out anyway…).

Note that pretty much all the commercial models of walking poles can be used in either hand as they have symmetric design with no designated hands, with one notable exception being Pacerpoles, whose highly ergonomic design has unmistakable right- or left-handedness.

Note: I have come across a store Complete Care Shop, which promotes independent living; they list a few walking sticks with ergonomic grips that have handedness. They do not seem to fit for hard outdoor use, though.

2014/08/01 - 09:49 - A few parties of people are descending.  Some people were crouching or even sitting in fear on this exposed ridge.  Kyle in blue (closest) is ascending.Snow ridge to Aiguille du Midi

A situation where you may want a single walking-pole, used along with an iceaxe: moderate (but serious) terrain at high altitude or on a glacier (Kyle Wood in Aiguille du Midi, Alps).
2018/07/13 - 08:38 - Ranrapalca in the background.Bill climbing

A single-pole situation may sometimes requires a steep step or two, where you appreciate an iceaxe (Bill McConachie in Urus Este, Cordillera Blanca, Peru in The Andes).
2016/11/20 - 08:53 - Winter walk-in to Cairngorms Coire an t-Sneachda with a single poleWinter walk-in to Cairngorms Coire an t-Sneachda with a single pole

Only a single pole may be carried when you want to save weight for climbing a route later, carrying everything on your back, or maybe if it is a really windy cold day (Fiona Murray in Cairngorms, Highland).

5 Conclusions

All having been described, my simplest advice to all hill-goers is, if you don’t have walking poles, get whatever pair and use it. You may or may not consider the points I have raised in this article — they are not the biggest concern. A bad model is much better than no model! That is the bottom line.

If you want to get a more appropriate one for your use, the following is the points to consider in the order of (generalised) priority:

  1. Pole length and adjustability
    • Is the length of the pole suitable for you and its range of adjustability covers your expected need?
    • Twist lock or Flick lock?
    • Is the risk of shaft slippage (sudden shrinking) minimum?
  2. Handle design (and material) and strap
    • Does the handle (and strap) fit your hand well? Does it work well with a glove on or in wet?
    • Design that considers about Shaft Grip is a bonus.
    • Shape of a shaft may vary.
  3. Packability
    • Do you expect it may have to be packed inside a rucksack from time to time?
    • Will they be used somewhere far away where you may travel by air?
    • Z-construction is a clear winner for packability though is inferior on adjustability and durability.
  4. Weight and durability (robustness)
    • Which of these are you concerned with more? They are more or less contradictory demands to each other.
    • Carbon fibre is usually lighter than its alloy equivalent (for the same design and durability).
    • Durability varies from manufacturer to manufacturer, in addition to model to model.
  5. Tip design and basket (and replaceability)
    • Shock absorber or not
    • What are the size of the baskets? Replaceable with different ones?
  6. Additional features and accessories
    • e.g., bigger (snow) baskets, camera mounts, (hand) gaiters.
  7. Customer service of the manufacturer and spare-parts availability
    • Spare parts, except for baskets, are seldom available (n.b., universal tip protectors are available). An exception is Pacerpole
  8. Colour, paint design, price

Unfortunately, no single models would fit all the bills at the highest quality. Also, your demand may vary depending on your day’s activity — you might one day trek on a flat land on a solid path and another day go alpine climbing. Then, you may want to get more than one model in the end. Enjoy shopping!?

My final comment is about the price. The price of walking poles on the market varies greatly by more than a factor of 10(!). In my experience (albeit N=1), cheaper models usually lack durability, whatever they say on the tin, more than anything else. Lack of durability means lack of trust — it would be a nightmare if the shaft slips to shrink or snaps at the most inconvenient timing and place up in the mountain. Perhaps there is a reason for a cheap price tag.

In my next article, I will review the Pacerpole. It is so different from any other models of walking poles currently on the market, to the extent I had to ignore them explicitly in Section “Handle design” in this review, and so is worth a separate article. Stay tuned!

Masa Sakano

(Acknowledgement): I thank Lorraine Mccall for modelling for photos used in this article.

(Copyright notice): All the photos are taken by the author and published under the license of Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike (either CC BY-SA 4.0 or CC BY-SA 2.0), unless otherwise noted.