Trekking with Trekking Poles
by Julie Horton, Customer Service Specialist, ExperiencePlus! Specialty Tours, Inc.
There are many excuses for not using trekking poles: "I’m too young to need them," "I’m too balanced to fall," "I’m too ‘non-techy’ to accept them," "I’m too old to learn how to use them," and "I’m too busy with my hands to hold them."
Whatever your excuse, I think you should consider poles to help your swollen knees, to get your arms in shape, and for your own safety!
Years ago, my knees started aching on long backpacking trips, especially hiking downhill. I tried picking up sticks along the trail but then I visited Europe and discovered that almost all of the local hikers, young and old, use poles. I dug out my ski poles and discovered they did indeed make a substantial difference. My ski poles are a bit too heavy so it didn’t take long for me to upgrade to a set of poles designed specifically for hiking. I suggest you try poles and discover for yourself the difference they can make. And, picking the right poles isn’t as hard as it seems.
I recommend telescoping poles with a shock absorption system. With these you can shorten or lengthen the poles, depending on the terrain. Going uphill, you’ll shorten the poles; going downhill, you want them a little longer. You’ll pay more for poles with an anti-shock mechanism, but your wrist, elbows, and shoulders will be happier!
If you will be flying overseas with your poles, be sure that they’ll fit in your luggage when collapsed before you buy them! If you have weak wrists or suffer from arthritis look for poles that adjust with a non-twisting, tightening system. My ski poles have a lever that locks the poles in place. If you have trouble finding an alternative you can always carry rubber jar openers with you on your hikes. They’ll give you the added oomph you need. Have someone in the store go over the features of the poles you’re interested in with you, and be sure they cover the following:
Poles come with different grips. I prefer a cork-blend grip. Cork absorbs sweat better, and when it’s cold, it is a better insulator than rubber or plastic. An ergonomically shaped grip will help reduce hand fatigue and is the reason you should know your right pole from the left.
The straps on the grips should be adjustable too, just as they are on ski poles. On flat trails, I put my hands through the straps and tighten them so I don’t have to grip the handle except when my pole hits the ground. This takes a little practice, but you’ve got plenty of time on the trail to master your own style. If you are on a more hazardous section of trail, take your hands out of the straps: if your pole is caught by a rock or a tree, you won’t be pulled down.
Most trekking poles come with a small "rock" basket to help prevent the tip from getting caught between rocks, or stuck in cracks. If you are a cross-country skier, or if you snowshoe, spend a few extra dollars for a pair of snow baskets and you can use your poles in winter.
The tips of most good poles are made of either tungsten or carbide. Both are very durable. The plastic covers on the tips protect your car, pets, and friends when you aren’t using the poles. Be sure to take them off when you go hiking! You can purchase rubber tips, which I recommend, if you are headed to "slickrock" country. The tips adhere to the rock, and prevent you from scarring the rock with your carbide tips. Not only that, your hiking companions will thank you! Listening to someone "tick, tick, tick" their way down the trail is less entertaining the more you hike!
As with any new piece of equipment, there is an adjustment period. Cross-country skiers will have an easier transition, because they have already developed a rhythm and are used to incorporating their upper body in their stride. If you are just starting out, be patient and curious about your poles! Experiment with different heights and find the one that works for you on a given terrain. Most people set their pole length at the beginning of the hike and never change it. What a shame, because their poles could do so much more for them!
Your trekking poles will help you cross streams, pick up trash too questionable for your hands, and hold your pack up when you are resting. When I go backpacking, I prop my pack up using my poles and make myself a very comfortable lounge chair. I have seen countless falls averted, because people were using trekking poles. I can’t recommend any other single piece of equipment as highly. I’m thrilled that the "cane" stigma has finally been overcome and young and old alike in this country are now using trekking poles! You can read more about trekking poles at www.LEKI.com. If you have questions about using your poles or making a purchase, feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or call me at 1-800-685-4565.
Julie’s article on trekking poles was picked up as June 2004’s cover story by Travel With a Challenge magazine, a travel information website showcasing ecological, educational, cultural/historical and volunteer vacations worldwide. You can find the article here.