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September 2005

Start Smart: Have Poles, Will Hike Longer

How to get the most out of your trekking poles

Trekking poles are backpacking’s answer to high-speed Internet: Once you’ve gotten into the habit, there’s no going back. Poles reduce fatigue and susceptibility to overuse injuries by absorbing as much as 20 percent of the impact on your legs and back. Hiking poles also aid balance, and can increase your daily distance (less fatigue = more miles) or pace (swinging your arms naturally accelerates your stride). But poor technique minimizes the benefits. Keep these tips in mind.

» Take two Using one pole is like bicycling with a single pedal; it makes no sense. Two poles absorb more weight and offer greater stability, which becomes increasingly important the steeper and rougher the terrain.

» Adjust pole length When you’re hiking a level trail, your elbows should form a 90-degree angle. When climbing, shorten poles so that when you plant one on the slope, your arm remains below shoulder height. For descents, lengthen poles until you can comfortably place them just ahead of your feet.

» Maintain proper form Plant a pole with each step (right forward with left foot), keeping your elbows bent. Repeatedly reaching too far out can lead to sore shoulders.

» Loosen up Place your hands up through the straps (from the bottom), then grab the handles lightly. This lets you lean on the poles while maintaining a relaxed grip; white-knuckle holds waste energy.

» Make the poles work On sharp ascents, lean slightly into the pole; it will absorb more weight. To minimize slipping on sketchy downhills, tilt forward over your pole (but keep your knees bent).

» Mimic classic Nordic skiers On gradual uphill and downhill slopes, plant poles just behind each foot to increase stability.

» Minimize impact Use rubber tips (except on wet or steep rock); avoid planting poles in fragile vegetation; remove baskets (unless on snow) to avoid tearing vegetation.

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