I was a latecomer to the whole trekking pole thing. I would see someone on the trail, swinging those sticks fore and aft, and think to myself: why on earth would someone want to carry even more weight, have their hands full all the time, and spend all that extra money?
Then, on a longish day hike, I happened to run across a gentleman hiking by himself with a pair of poles. He stopped to chat, and after I felt we had established enough rapport I asked him straight out: “Are those poles really any good?”
He glanced down to my empty hands and my ignorance registered on his face. He looked astonished, as if I had just pulled alongside him at about 6,000 feet, in the middle of a free fall, and asked, “Are those parachutes really necessary in this sport?”
He expression grew serious, he looked me in the eye and he said, “You have GOT to get a pair of these!”
He said it with such urgency that I half expected him to grab my daypack, give me directions to the nearest hiking store, and wait right there on the trail for my return.
It turned out he wasn’t quite that much of an advocate, but we spoke for a while and he did convince me to give them a try. What a revelation!
I have lost count of the number of times my poles have saved me from falling or tripping. They also keep my hands high, which keeps them from swelling. On level ground and going uphill, that is about the extent of their usefulness (and that’s enough!). But on downhill stretches (after I have lengthened them a bit) they are even better. I walk faster, safer and with far less stress on my knees.
Here are a few more thoughts on the topic:
- Buy adjustable poles. Having the ability to shorten them for climbs and lengthen them for descents is well worth the extra expense and weight. That said, stay away from the “twist-lock” types; I’ve never had one that worked for long. Instead, stick with simple lever-locks.
- Learn how to use them. The best way to do that is to buy Jayah Faye Paley’s video Poles for Hiking, Trekking & Walking. I know what you’re thinking: there is no way I need a video to teach me how to use a walking stick. Trust me on this, it will be ten bucks well spent!
- Wear a set of thin sun-protection gloves when using your trekking poles. This will help prevent blisters on your hands (where the straps rub) and will also keep your hands from getting sunburned. The ones I use have the fingers chopped off about half way between the finger-ends and the palm, which keep my hands from sweating during hot afternoons.
- Last, don’t overspend on them. Sure, that means they’ll weigh a few ounces more, but I’m not convinced that it’s worth the extra money to go ultra-light. (I am particularly unimpressed with the super-light, carbon-fiber models that cannot be adjusted at all. Poles do break, and I’d rather not be out $150 when one does.)
Good hiking, Ray
Good one, Ray. Agree with all you said. As Camping Editor of Field & Stream for many years, a big part of my job was backpacking. And for years I trained people for and led them on dayhikes of Mt. Whitney. But, like you, I never thought the sticks were for me: I liked my “natural arm swing,” and felt they would just slow me down. But my son-in-law talked me into trying them on my last Mt. Whitney dayhike and I learned to love them. In addition to all your points, they made the hiking more fun. And I would have died a hundred times during my solo John Muir Trail through-hike this summer had they not saved me from falls; there’s a reason most animals in the wild have four legs. I endorse your glove recommendation as well: didn’t wear them for the first three days of my JMT hike and the end of each of my thumbs split open from, I guess, sun exposure; after that, despite my belatedly donning gloves, it was torture to button buttons and zip zippers.
Thanks, Steve! I love the “there’s a reason most animals in the wild have four legs” comment. So true. Incidently, I’m seeing the story of your hike all over the internet. Congratulations!
The absolute best thing about trekking poles (IMHO, of course) is that by eliminating concerns about a stumble, your eyes don’t have to stay focused on the track of the trail immediately ahead of you. When your eyes are free to roam, you are much more likely to see that wonderful little toad, Clark’s Nutcracker or black bear, and to enjoy everything around you. With trekking poles, I find my eyes glance occasionally at the trail ahead to see if there’s a significant obstruction, but mostly my eyes stay up. Without poles, my eyes are mostly on the trail with the occasional glance at the view.
I agree completely, John! I found another way to accomplish the same thing: hike with a slower companion and put him or her up front. When my wife and I hike together, she always leads. That allows me to look around much more, since her natural tendencies to slow down, move left or right, of lift her foot to avoid something telegraphs to me the nature of the obstacles ahead.
Thanks for the informative article Ray. I will be in the market for new trekking poles next year and will check out Jayah’s book. I have used one trekking pole on my hikes for years and now want to try using two. Happy hiking!
Thanks for the comment, Kelly. Believe it or not, I’ve been told that COSTCO, of all places, has good, inexpensive ones. I’m not a member, but if you are, you might want to check them out.
I’ve hiked farther than I’d intended and been caught in the dark and a headlamp only illuminates what’s in front of you, not your feet! So tired my legs were like silly putty and each step shot pain into my knee.
I’ve been on a narrow strip of rocky ground with a vertical drop to infinity and twisted an ankle or misjudged the stability of a rock with a 25lb pack assisting gravity, thank you God for poles!
Even if you only carry them in your pack, Saving your bacon once in 1000 hikes in sufficient reason to invest.
[…] of the other half of the injuries were caused by falls—again, no surprise. Trekking poles, used correctly, will go a long way to prevent those. I have lost count of the number of falls my […]
Trekking poles are nice if you’re using tarps/tarptents to help create the poles in your shelter. You can also find I think they’re Leki’s that have a camera adapter on the handle that you can install for a monopod, and some brilliant chap created an ultralight full camera tripod that uses your two hiking poles as part of the tripod/bipod.
Gotta have one those, Sean. Thanks for the link!