Rubber tips are sold as optional accessories for trekking poles. They’re NOT optional. The travel tips that come with many poles (clear, orange or black plastic) are garbage – toss them out (or recycle them). In many of this blog’s updates we describe how rubber tips improve performance, prevent joint strain, increase safety and enhance your outdoor experiences.
There are 3 tips we like and they all fit on the poles we like: LEKI, Black Diamond (2 models only) and Exerstrider.
Our product recommendations are based on an individual’s structure, issues and goals.
One size does NOT fit all. Short poles are sold as “women’s” poles – after all, we all know there are no tall women and no compact guys….. Back to rubber tips (sorry for the rant). 🙂
- The basic hiking tip (on left) sells for $5/pair and is perfect for pavement walking and slick rock. They fit nicely in your pocket or pack and are perfect to store on poles when they’re not in use.
- The bell tip (middle) adds significant stability for our mobility-challenged pole users.
- The boot (right) is super cool and adds both cushion and propulsion for our exercise walkers. The bell and the boot sell for about $10/pair.
When we fit a person for poles, part of that process includes determining what tip works and feels best. For example, a person who needs a bit more “cushion” because of shoulder or wrist issues might like the boot. Or does the anti-shock feature “fit”? Which grip fits and feels best? Are trekking poles gloves indicated?
It’s not rocket science, but finding the pair of poles that will serve a lifetime, poles with which you can develop a loving connection, is a bit of an art. My poles are about 12 years old and I LOVE them. They get more comfortable every year and they serve me well out OTT (on the trail). Because I use my rubber tips when I need them, the trail tips are still razor sharp and perform as designed.
Bob is 65. He works hard so ends up being a weekend warrior which puts him at increased risk for injury. On our Thanksgiving trip to Utah, we hiked 6 days in a row. We would not have even considered doing this without our poles.
People are always asking – POLES? Why???? They seem surprised when we answer – Poles feel good – it’s great whole body exercise. They get us places we want to go, for instance, Part 3 of our journey:
I remember the lady in sandals who had driven to the top of Mt. Tam’s East Peak asking me, as I had just climbed to the top of the mountain, if my poles were canes. Can you imagine?
Let’s talk about improving power on the up hill. Hauling yourself up with small muscles in your shoulders is not only inefficient, it’s also potentially harmful to your shoulder joint. Why NOT use big muscles in your back – the ones that support and elongate your spine? (uh, the ones that keep you tall and reverse the aging process).
Notice the angle of the poles. Click on any picture to enlarge and click back button to return to post. Notice how Bob’s arms are relatively straight. The latissimus dorsi muscles are attached to the humerus. Elbow pumping does not engage the lats only the whole arm movement does. This also engages your obliques. Imagine someone walking behind you squirting WD-40 into your spine as you walk. That’s what optimal technique feels like 🙂
What about down? Do you have knees? Photo #1 above – Remember, if you flick the poles out in front of you on the down, they’ll support your lower body joints and engage rectus abdominus, pecs and biceps. The steeper the hill, the smaller the steps. Photo # 3 above – If I had $300 to casually spend, this vase would be in my new living room. We found it at the visitor center of Grand Staircase Escalante.
Photo #1 above, Bob using plant push technique – power at 8,000′ on the 6th day of hiking…thank you VERY much 🙂
Photo #2 above is me in front of Calf Creek Falls – a lovely and easy 6 mile hike (in and out) at Grand Staircase Escalante on the way to Bryce. Driving from Moab to Bryce is one of the most stunning road trips if you go via Torrey. Make sure to stop in at the Red Desert Candy Company in Torrey and get some of their Red Desert Jellies and Truffles as well as a cup of chai or a latte for the road. You’re hiking – what better time to splurge?
Photo #3 is a really great example of the swing assist for making time on downhill. Join us on a practice hike to learn/practice this wonderful technique.
Photo #4 is from the Nature Center at Zion. We took the scenic route back towards Vegas from Bryce through Zion – another amazing road experience.
So, will learning optimal use of poles really make a difference? YES!
Enjoy the outdoors, enjoy your poles 🙂
Learning to use trekking poles for hiking is a skill that all hikers will, at some point, appreciate. Whether you’re 30 or 90, optimal use of poles provides significant benefits on the trail. (click on any photo to enlarge).
In this post we’ll discuss
- Why Poles?
- Why Optimal Use?
- Benefits of Optimal Use of Poles
- 3 Goals with Poles
- Common Mistakes
- Pole Etiquette
Our natural walking pattern is a reciprocal gait, the diagonal pattern of opposite arm and leg, which enables spinal rotation. This spinal rotation feels good, looks young and is healthy.
As we age, spine function diminishes. Without focused attention, gravity acts, the spine compresses and we get shorter. Using poles for exercise walking and for hiking can actually reverse the spinal compression. Optimal use of poles recruits large core muscles, including the latissimus dorsi, lower trapezius and oblique muscles. Muscles, when used, strengthen. Using poles enables us to engage (and therefore strengthen) our upper body muscles to help preserve our joints and get taller!
Why Optimal Use? ~ Imagine being able to WD-40 your spine 🙂
Learning optimal use of poles is key to achieving the many benefits. The natural arm swing is how you can engage that healthy spinal rotation and muscle recruitment. Non-optimal use can involve repetitive movement of a joint, which can cause joint stress. The “death grip,” for example, can cause tension in the hand, wrist, elbow, shoulder and even the neck. Using poles in a way that does not look or feel like the natural walking pattern can negate some of the many benefits and cause strain.
3 Goals with Poles
When using trekking poles for hiking, you want to focus on 3 things:
- On flat terrain, you want either ease of use or exercise.
- On uphill terrain, you want more power and improved endurance.
- On downhill terrain, you want to reduce joint stress on your hips and knees.
It’s that simple. Learning optimal use will enable you to achieve these goals.
- Incorrect use of straps (this blog has a 3 minute video on how to adjust and use straps)
- Non-optimal pole length (stay tuned for part 2 of this article)
- Incurring joint stress vs. muscle recruitment/strengthening
- Inappropriate pole etiquette (see below)
Why don’t some people want to hike with pole users? I’ve heard people say they get stabbed or impaled on the trail. Pole users: please be aware and considerate! Victims of pole improprieties: Rather than shunning all pole users, let’s educate them. Here are some tips:
- Poles are not swords and should not be waved around.
- Know where your pole tips are at all times.
- Keep a safe distance between hikers. If a pole hiker is crowding you, step aside and let him or her pass.
- On steep uphill, poles can slip backwards and the sharp trail tips can put out an eye of someone hiking behind.
- On steep downhill, allow extra space, especially in front.
- If someone behind you is reaching forward with his or her poles, a sharp tip could jab your Achilles tendon. Just step aside and let the pole user (who is using seriously non-optimal technique) pass.
- People carrying (not using) poles should know where their tips are. Usually they can turn their tips forward to avoid accidentally stabbing someone.
- Hiking with poles tucked into their arms can stab the hiker behind them if stopping suddenly.
- People who lay their poles on the ground in the middle of the trail are at risk of having their poles stepped on, tripped on and broken.
- If you stop to adjust your poles on the trail, do not face sharp trail tips towards the middle of the trail (no swordplay).
- When taking poles apart to dry or clean, point tips down—not at your buddies or car windows.
- Carry your rubber tips with you at all times. If you encounter pavement, using rubber tips will save your trail tips and be way less noisy. Noisy poles can be very annoying. Rubber tips also can protect fragile surfaces.
- If you hike with poles and are stabbing the ground, this noise can also annoy people.
- At lunch stops, prop your poles out of the way, and not in the dirt or poison ivy. (If the straps get dirty, the dirt can chafe your hands.)
Hiking Pole FAQs
Following are some of the most frequently asked questions I get from pole users and people who are considering using poles for hiking, walking, exercise and mobility:
FAQ: I know how to walk, so I can use poles without any instruction, right?
We weren’t born knowing how to walk. We learned step by step until we could crawl, walk and run.
So yes, anyone can pick up poles and reduce knee stress, but that saved stress and energy has to go somewhere. With non-optimal technique, we risk injury and strain because that saved knee stress can transfer to the fragile joints of the hand, wrist, shoulder or even the neck. With optimal pole technique, the energy goes to the core muscles of your body instead. When muscles are used, they strengthen. Optimal technique enables you to use these stronger muscles to help preserve and protect your joints.
FAQ: Which is better: one pole or two?
Using two poles enables you to use your whole body while walking or hiking.
Using one pole can give you a little extra stability (over none), but at a cost. No matter how careful you are, using just one side of your body can create and even reinforce imbalance. When you go downhill, gravity creates load in your knees. Using one pole can relieve some of this pressure, but it usually involves twisting and can create torque on your spine and potential stress in your shoulder and wrist joints.
Using two poles (with optimal technique), you strengthen upper body muscles and achieve both spinal rotation and elongation, which is very healthy for your spine. Going downhill, you’ll bilaterally recruit your upper body muscles, including pectorals, rectus abdominus and biceps. You’ll notice better balance and power. Because you’re using more muscles, you’ll notice you have more endurance but will feel less exertion!
FAQ: Can I become dependent on poles?
When using poles, do we lose some ability to use balance muscles? I believe it IS possible to become reliant on your poles. Is it a good idea to occasionally hike without your poles? This is a very personal decision made based on your ability, the terrain and your goals.
When do I use my LEKI poles?
- When I know I need them
- When I have no idea what I’m getting into
- When I want the total body experience and upper body workout
- When hiking with someone stronger or faster (using poles give me an extra “edge”)
Hiking without poles can challenge, enhance and improve your agility and balance muscles, and may enable you to be more aware of your feet and legs (improving proprioception). You will use muscles differently than when you are hiking with poles. Exercising in different ways is important for achieving your optimal fitness.
Part 2 of this article focuses on how to learn to use poles so that you can achieve the 3 goals as well as which poles to select. Stay tuned.
Back from Rocky Mountain National Park. With early starts we had serene and sublime hikes – with parking at the trailheads 🙂 Below are low-to-the-ground flowers at 12,000′ and a photo from our hike to and beyond The Loch.
Poles Tip: When crossing a bridge, lift your poles as I show below. I lengthened them in case I needed them for support, but we don’t want our pole tips to get stuck between wood slats on bridges. If I had felt uncertain, I could have pointed the tips inward with my arms out (a la trapeze style) to give me a bit more support.
Yes, I was using serious zoom rather than approach wildlife.
Poles Tip: Below is a little hiker carrying his poles. His head was bumping against them, so they pulled them out to the side in an X. I thought they looked like they could get caught on vegetation. We like to carry our poles grip down (straps clasped) with the tip up, rubber tips on. However there was no terrain this day on which we would CARRY our poles. They were too much fun to use. We got great exercise and spinal rotation on the up, good support on the down and an extra set of legs on all the rocky/uneven sections.
Poles Etiquette Tip: Second photo shows how I PROP my poles vs. laying them on the ground. I liked the tree shadows on my long foam grips. Long foam grips are worth their weight in gold if you need and use them. In our hiking poles DVD, we show practice segments on how and why to use long foam grips.
While in CO, I presented a short session at the Denver Athletic Club. On the drive back to Parker, we encountered driving rain, flooding, golf ball-sized hail and tornado warnings. It was torrential and terrifying.
Below we drove to about 12,000′ above the tree line. Good thing we had plenty of water in the car 🙂 We relaxed and practiced deep breathing and my slight headache resolved. In the 2nd photo, you can see Timberline falls in the distance. We had set a turnaround time, so this was as close as we got. Dry year in CO (as well as CA) so not as many flowers or as much water, but RMNP is glorious!
We were able to explore some new trails and re-visit some favorites. Hope your weekend was splendid as well. See you OTT (on the trail)
The East Bay Regional Park District (EBRPD) is the largest park district in the nation; second largest in the world. Every 2 months, they have an activity guide called Regional In Nature “RIN” in which they list an amazing array of classes/workshops/events, including a variety of PoleWalking classes and practice hikes/walks…presented and taught by yours truly 🙂 My class sizes are limited to facilitate optimal learning. They fill fast, so reserve early.
Friday’s Practice Pole Hike at Tilden Park’s Botanic Garden was magical. Go NOW! It’s Free! Glorious blooming flowers smile at you! The creeks are roaring and you get to explore the entire State of CA (botanically) in about 2 hours. Stop in the nature center, say howdy, and see the cool pine cone display. EBRPD staff are friendly, knowledgeable and genuinely interested in helping you have the best possible experience in the park you visit. Above are the Fawn Lillies and the Giant Wake Robin (Trillium). Click on any picture to enlarge then the back button to return to post.
Below, in photo #3 Helen’s poles are behind her on the stairs – they would support her better if they were out in front of her. I met Helen at Yosemite Conservancy’s Spring Forum (scroll down to see that blog post). At 85, she wants to keep hiking so I encouraged to her come to the Botanic Gardens Practice Hike. It was a lovely afternoon in a spectacular setting 🙂 We wandered all around the Gardens exploring and marveling at our CA abundance.
The next day, Saturday, was our 3rd time this year at Black Diamond Mines Regional Park. May-Oct we head to cooler climes. But right now, it’s spectacular. Take the Mine Tour 🙂
The morning Basic Skills Class was a great intro for 11 Happy Hikers. We cover the basics, learn (or re-learn) how to walk with attitude and spinal rotation, then we pick a hill with reasonable footing and march up and down. We practice powering up the hill and supporting our joints on the down. We lengthen, then lengthen again, again and again until we know the OPTIMAL length to use on downhill. It’s not until you know what TOO long is, that you will feel what long enough does for your knees. This phenomenon is something you really want to experience. Having good hand and body position is essential, but pole length is an important factor in achieving optimal performance when hiking downhill.
On our afternoon Practice PoleHike, we started and ended with the steep mine tailings – working on our footing and doing lots of adjusting to FEEL the optimal length on the downs. Then we wandered over to the Visitor Center Mine which is OPEN after a long closure. We watched the historical short video on the area then headed out on the trail on a gorgeous clear day. The views were stunning!
Even when the rest of the East Bay is a mud-fest, the sandstone here provides good footing. Our hike is somewhat challenging and gives us lots of opportunities to practice pushing up with power and picking our way down. With practice, confidence improves. Everyone has some homework to do and is encouraged to practice what feels a bit awkward. We provide many tools for your hiking toolbox and every class is different, which is why some folks take classes again – to refresh, to learn additional skills and to expand their hiking horizons!
No, but… Using poles provides many benefits for people who like to walk or hike. Optimal use of poles encourages better posture, endurance, confidence and gait. Using the upper body muscles helps to preserve joints all over the body.
In the literally thousands of people I’ve encountered over the last 15 years, I’ve met a handful that really were not pole people. One lady was so uncoordinated, that she was terrified. It was a bad fit. People that have progressed to a walker often can no longer benefit. A hiking buddy of mine (who loves to talk) trips on poles when he uses them. Best for him to not have poles.
Sometimes people have to ease into learning new skills like using poles – or any new thing (think orthotics). Here’s a very recent example: One lady was given this prescription: Use your new poles for only three to five minutes, 2 or 3 times a day. Consistency/Frequency with very low intensity & duration. She then went out for an hour with a friend and overdid it. She damaged her fragile shoulder and hated her poles. She admitted she was out too long, was distracted and did not focus on her form. She called her poles “toxic.” I silently shook my head in frustration at her admitted and blatant violation of her body. She blamed the poles even while admitting her ridiculous and (as it turned out) dangerous behavior. Rather than gently and progressively lubricating the shoulder joint and slowly building muscles that support the shoulder, she ended up back at the doctor’s office in severe pain.
Poles COULD have helped her in many ways, but she did not listen to either her body or her trainer. Regular readers of this blog know that I like to focus on the positive. So I end this post with happier thoughts.
“To be interested in the changing seasons
is a happier state of mind
than to be hopelessly in love with spring.” ~ George Santayana
“Giving people self-confidence
is by far the most important thing that I can do.
Because then they will act.” ~ Jack Welch
People with back pain were once told – Go to Bed! Now physicians and therapists often say – Take a walk!
But do these wellness professionals intend for you to walk with your spine rigid ??? You might as well go to bed. No, they envision the natural movement pattern of the spine. Yet, so many people walk without any thought to the movement of their spine.
I walk, therefore I exercise. Really?
Watch people walk. How many are really getting exercise? How many are walking, head crooked into a cell phone or doing what I call walking old? What will help you achieve a more natural walking gait that will help your spine? Here are some ideas:
- Focus! Put your attention into your walk. Get off the cell phone, off the IPod, out of the external and really notice your form.
- Notice your arm swing, your stride length, how your feet move, where you’re looking.
- Are you breathing?
- Give a mental lift to the bottom of your rib cage.
- Notice what happens to your form when you think of adding attitude to your walk.
- Think of cues like sachet, strut, sassy and see what happens to your form.
- Roll your shoulders up, around and back.
- Think of retracting and depressing your shoulder blades (see scapular stabilization on this blog). This recruits the muscles that support and elongate the spine and feels really GOOD.
- Learn how to use POLES to really strengthen your back muscles and to lock all this attitude in for your entire walk.
- Create Positive Muscle Memory: Give yourself a mental pat on the back when you’re focusing on your form.
- Give yourself a mental pat on the back when you are not focusing on your form. You remembered LATE!
Once you’ve learned optimal form and muscle recruitment for going uphill, we have another tip that will significantly improve your performance.
In just one word – Cadence! Bikers know about cycling cadence. With proper gear shifting, pedal stroke is rhythmic and gears are not ground.
It’s the same on the trail. As you change terrain, modify your stride to maintain your rhythm. Here’s how:
- Find your natural walking rhythm without poles. Make sure you’re using your optimal walking form – natural arm swing with spinal rotation.
- Using poles, feel that same rhythm.
- Focusing on your form, notice how you can maintain the relatively same pace as you start up a gentle hill. In order to do this, you’ll need to shorten your stride.
- Imagine that you’re shifting into low gear as you would in a car going steeply uphill. Plan your “gear shift.”
Practice this without your IPod or cell phone or any other distractions. Lock in your form so that you can maintain your rhythm and cadence even while chatting with your buddies on the trail.
Remember, when ever you think of something that brings you back into your body – honor that awareness. When you think of cadence, work on your rhythm. Everything is linked. You’ll notice better breathing, better use of the muscles in your back and you’ll be able to relax your hands/jaw/shoulders. Optimal form is a lifelong process.
Enjoy your poles; enjoy the outdoors!
Learning a new skill takes PRACTICE. In a field seminar, we fit people to determine which poles best fit their structure and will help them achieve their hiking or walking goals. Then we discuss how to properly use straps, how to optimally set pole length and then how to OPTIMALLY use poles on a variety of terrain.
We make a clear distinction between correct use and optimal use. Since everyone is different, with individual goals and issues, we encourage people to FEEL what works best for them. For instance, just because everyone on the planet says to set poles at 90 degrees at the elbow does not make it right for everyone (or practically anyone). What if you have lateral epicondylitis (tennis elbow) or a past bout of rotator cuff syndrome or tired wrists from using a computer? The key is to provide the many benefits of poles WITHOUT inviting strain elsewhere.
So how does someone learn to use poles in the best way for their individual needs and goals?
Here in the Bay Area of Northern CA, we offer a variety of classes and field seminars (calendar). If you have the opportunity to take a class, great!
If you’re not local to AdventureBuddies, watch the DVD that best addresses your abilities. Then read the DVD updates on this blog. It’s wildly expensive to update a DVD, but we use this blog to update and enhance the training. If you’re in doubt about which DVD will best help you achieve your goals, start with the Mobility DVD and progress to the Hiking DVD.
Enjoy your poles, your body, your buddies and the outdoors!
Yikes! SO many things to remember all the time. To maintain optimal and erect posture is WORK. So how do I coach people to lengthen, elongate, lift, scan and BE TALL?
My two best tools:
- If something enters your realm of consciousness, honor it.
- Every time you stop and start, press your RESET button.
I shall elaborate, but first, I need to talk about what a teacher or trainer does in order to achieve the desired result. If I said the same thing to you 20 times and you were not “getting it,” who is at fault? And, yes, there is fault here. Well, I, as the instructor need to change my message. I need to find another way – something that resonates for YOU.
That’s why I have so many cues in my toolbox that sound similar – I’m looking for the key to your lock, so that you will feel the lift, feel the difference, achieve the optimal (fill in the blank, in this case POSTURE) result.
Now for elaboration on my TWO tools:
#1) DON’T try to remember everything. Just allow whatever floats into your brain to be there; recognize and honor it, follow it. That cue, that reminder, is linked with others so they naturally follow. Forcing good form does NOT work.
#2) What and were is your reset button?
What: An imaginary button that you mentally press that brings you into your optimal posture.
Where: Probably the middle of your chest.
When: Press it every time you stop and start and then FORGET ABOUT IT. When you remember to press it, give yourself a pat on the back. When you forget – well you remembered, but just a little late. Yippee! Give yourself a high five!
What works for you?