How Long Should My Hiking Poles Be?

Not too long, not too short...

guide sign with hiking figure
See? Even stick-figure hikers use trekking poles sometimes. Lisa Maloney

Hiking poles aren't strictly necessary on the trail, but they sure do come in handy sometimes—provided they're the right length. Here's how to make sure your hiking poles are the right size for you:

Stand flat-footed in the same boots (or shoes) you plan to hike in. Hold one hiking pole in each hand, poles vertical and tips resting on the ground, and let your upper arms stay relaxed at your side. If the poles are the right size for you, your elbows will naturally bend at a comfortable 90-degree angle.

Advantages of Adjustable Poles

That 90-degree-bend rule stays the same, even if you're hiking straight uphill or downhill. The easiest way to ensure that happens is to use adjustable poles—which are now pretty much all you'll find on the market anyway.

Shortening the poles when you go uphill, and lengthening them when you go downhill, lets you keep the proper arm angle. That, in turn, translates to the best leverage. If you're side-hilling, you can even shorten the uphill pole and lengthen the downhill pole so you have good leverage on both sides.

Hiking poles usually adjust in one of two ways: a screw-lock mechanism (unscrew the bottom half of the pole to loosen it for adjustments) or a clamp-lock mechanism in the middle of the pole (flip the clamp off the pole to loosen it for adjustments). The screw-lock mechanisms are typically quicker to fail than the clamp locks--but as long as you're dealing with high-quality poles, either type is fine.

Another reason adjustable poles are great: when they're not in use, you can collapse them and attach them to the outside of your pack for hands-free hiking. This also eliminates one of my biggest pet peeves on the trail--hikers that carelessly swing the points of their hiking poles around behind them, all too often right at eye level.

Non-Adjustable Trekking Poles

You may still come across a few non-adjustable trekking poles. Most Nordic walking poles are going to be a fixed length, and some hikers like to use old ski poles as trekking poles during the summer. In that case, you just grip lower on the pole to "shorten" it when you head uphill, and shift your grip as high as you can to "lengthen" the pole on downhills.

If you're not comfortable holding onto the bare pole for that shortened grip, you can wrap some cordage evenly around the body of the pole to create a "handle" partway down. The cordage also makes an excellent emergency supply if something goes wrong on the trail. You can also wrap duct tape around an out-of-the-way part of your hiking poles, adjustable or not. That way you'll always have some of the sticky stuff on hand in case of emergency.

Why Use Trekking Poles?

There are many reasons why trekking poles are helpful on a hike. Here are five advantages: 

  • Poles reduce stress on your knees and ankles, especially on downhills, where they help lessen the impact on your joints with each step. 
  • Walking with trekking poles helps you keep your balance, especially helpful on uneven, rough ground. 
  • Trekking poles can help push aside brush or other obstacles as you hike. 
  • Trekking poles can help increase your speed on the trail as you push with your arms. 
  • In the unlikely instance of an animal attack, the sharp points on the poles can serve as a weapon.