How and Why To Set Baseline Pole Length
About 15 years ago, we defined and created the term Baseline Length. Baseline length is:
- determined by your height, your goals and the terrain
- your pole length for most of your flat and uphill hiking (you’ll extend the length for downhill and changing terrain)
- set at a length designed to minimize strain in the hand, wrist, forearm, elbow, shoulder and neck
- measured by the angle of your elbow
- how you set your poles at the beginning of the hike
- the shortest length you’ll use that day
- set first with the bottom section
- can change based on the terrain, how you feel and your goals
Baseline length differs depending on your abilities and goals; it’s:
- longer for people who have mobility challenges (approx 80 to 90 degree bend of the elbow), facilitating more support for balance, and
- shorter (lower) for hikers (approx 100 to 120 degree bend of the elbow), facilitating ease of use on flat terrain and power on uphill terrain.
Hikers: The basic 90 degree rule for baseline works against peak performance on the trail. Why?
- Flat: in order to bring the pole forward, you’ll have to recruit your shoulder joint. Repetitive movement in a joint can cause strain. A shorter baseline facilitates ease on flat terrain.
- Uphill: Optimal baseline length on uphill gives you more power because the poles work with you in a more effective pushing motion. Poles that are too long on uphill can more easily slip (stabbing your buddies). Plus, it’s efficient – you save time because you won’t have to change pole length from flat to uphill .
Why does everyone say 90 degrees? Interesting question. It’s certainly easier to communicate. Also, people who do not adjust their (adjustable) poles, often find that 90 degrees is easier. But biomechanically, once you feel the difference, you’ll have the option of more effectively recruiting your upper body muscles and we think you’ll never go back to 90 degrees.
To determine your baseline length, DO:
- Place your hands correctly in the straps
- Place your elbow directly by your side
- Have your forearm straight out in front
- Make sure the pole is straight up and down
- Stand tall, in erect neutral posture
- Relax your hand so that you can determine a more neutral position for your wrist
Contrary to what you may see or hear: DO NOT hold the pole upside down on the bottom shaft to measure (yikes). 3 Reasons:
- It’s not an accurate reading for many reasons, including how tightly you use your straps
- It puts the pole strap in the dirt where it can pick up dirt that can chafe your hands.
- If you got poison oak on the lower section and then rub your eyes, yikes!
DO set your baseline length with the bottom section as long as you need to – but no longer than the stop max mark. Extend the middle section only if your height requires lengthening to get the elbow angle you seek. It’s nice if you can have a baseline length with the middle section closed so that you return to baseline quickly and easily by simply collapsing the middle section. Note: when purchasing poles, look to see how long the bottom section extends. This can be a factor of whether the poles properly fit you.
DO NOT set both sections at equal lengths. Everyone says to do this, because it’s the position of maximum strength in the poles. BUT, when do you need the maximum strength? On steep downhill. You’ll have the middle section extended then anyway. Plus, have you noticed that companies like LEKI give you a LIFETIME warranty? It’s because their poles are STRONG.
Another reason not to do this: By setting baseline length using both sections, you’ll need to extend both sections to get the maximum length you’ll need for steep downhill. Set your bottom section at the beginning of your hike and then all your adjusting is done with the middle section. That way you can adjust without taking your hands out of the straps. You cannot adjust the bottom section without taking your hands out of the straps so you’ll have to stop and fuss with your poles.
If you learn to adjust quickly and easily, then you’ll DO it. If you have to stop and take your hands out of the straps every time you want to adjust your poles, you won’t adjust them. You will not be at the optimal length for the terrain you’re on. 3 Main Goals:
- Flat: Ease of use
- Up: Power & Endurance
- Down: Support for your joints.
Baseline Length that is too long will
- engage joints in the arm, increasing risk of joint strain
- necessitate shortening for uphill optimal performance
Baseline Length that is too short will cause you to reach into the poles and work against optimal posture. Try different lengths, actually walk with poles that initially might feel too short. See if you notice how, with a shorter baseline, the poles can more freely swing on flat terrain.