Trekking Poles

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Doesn’t Everyone have this many sets of poles?

While gearing up for the AT in 1998, it was strongly suggested that I buy a pair of trekking poles. I had no idea what a trekking pole was at that time or how valuable they would end up being. The trekking poles I purchased blindly from Sierra Trading Post were one of the only items that survived the entire trail and were well worth the investment. In fact, I only retired my Leki poles a few years ago (pictured left) after serving me for thousands of miles.

There are many hikers out on the trail that don’t use poles, so you may wondering whether it is really necessary to use a pair of trekking poles on your hike. Not at all, but you will find that they have many beneficial uses.

Pros

Balance

I have really benefited from the the extra balance and stability that trekking poles provide, especially when traveling with a heavy pack on uneven terrain. Many a stream or river has been forded using my poles for stability and balance.

Rhythm

Walking mile after mile I use the poles to help me establish a rhythm when I walk.  There are times that my hike and rhythm almost put me into a transcendental state.

Downhill Blues

Using trekking poles can help to reduce the strain on knees while descending downhill by reducing the force of gravity on your lower extremities. Ever walk on a slippery unstable slope without trekking poles?  Did you rip your shorts as gravity pulled your ass to the ground? Try using them on difficult downhills and you will be sold!  There is no doubt that trekking poles will help you safely negotiate those downhills and keep you moving on down the trail. You also don’t need to have bad knees to appreciate their usefulness on downhill terrain.

How Deep is the Mud or Water?

100_1046Many of us have walked on a trail that has significant muddy sections or water crossings. Trekking poles can be very useful to determine the depth of a water crossing or keep you from sinking to your knees in the mud.

Noise Makers

Yep that’s right, trekking poles can be used as noisemakers while hiking. You can bang them together as you walk to alert wildlife that you are on the trail and hopefully avoid any unnecessary contact with dangerous animals.

Extra Power

Trekking poles can help you to get a little extra boost of power when that challenging uphill is giving you trouble.

Tarping it?

IMG_0583Trekking poles have been quite useful when I find myself in an area that doesn’t have suitable trees to set up my tarp. There are several tarp tents on the market that require the use of trekking poles for support.

Clearing Obstructions 

On many an overgrown trail, I have used the poles to move vegetation out of my way. Trekking poles were particularly useful on the Finger Lakes Trail, which was overgrown in many areas with waist high stinging nettles. Sticks and other debris that collect on the trail can also be flicked away from your feet as you walk.

Anyone that knows me will attest to my strong dislike of spiders and spider webs. My poles have been very successful in keeping those early morning spider webs from blasting me in the face.

Ease of Use

The nice thing about modern trekking poles is that they’re almost all adjustable, which allows you to adjust the height of the poles as needed. So when you don’t need the poles, you just collapse them, attach them to the outside of your pack or place them inside.

Cons

There are drawbacks to using trekking poles that should be considered. You will expend more energy than you would otherwise use while hiking. But consider the energy expense to be minimal compared to the benefit of being able to increase your walking speed and reduce the stress and impact on your legs and joints. Trekking poles can impact the trail and scar rocks and vegetation when used. Getting your poles caught between rocks and tangled in brush is not uncommon.

To get the most benefit out of your poles make sure that they are adjusted accordingly for the terrain as this will improve efficiency and comfort.

Adjusting

Adjust the height: The best position for walking on flat terrain is to make grips level with your elbows forming a 90 degree angle. You can adjust the poles accordingly for downhills (longer) and those killer uphills (shorter).

Adjust the wrist straps: If properly adjusted, the wrist strap will support your weight without requiring you to grip with the hand at all!

 What should you look for?

Basic Anatomy

From Leki USA

From Leki USA

  • Are the Poles Adjustable?
    • Adjustable poles are very helpful for your overall stability on various terrain.
  • How Many Sections?
    • Telescopic trekking poles are stored much easier on or inside your pack for the times when you need your hands free.
      • Two Section: Two section poles provide the strongest and stiffest overall design which is better for activities like skiing or snowshoeing. Two section poles don’t pack down the smallest and may be slightly heavier in weight than other poles.
      • Three Section: The most common trekking pole you will see are three section telescoping poles. Three section poles tend to be lighter and when collapsed are more compact than two section poles and more easily strapped onto your pack. The benefit of size is offset by being a bit less durable than two section poles. These are a favorite choice for hiking, backpacking, climbing and mountaineering.
      • Folding Poles: Tent style folding poles haven’t been on the market nearly as long as telescoping poles. Folding poles are not very durable, but are much lighter and more compact than telescoping poles.
  • Materials

The two most popular materials used in the construction of trekking poles are aluminum and carbon fiber. Carbon fiber poles are lighter, stiffer and generally stronger. One consideration is that if the carbon poles crack or get dented they will have a much shorter lifespan than aluminum. Although aluminum is a bit heavier they can withstand more dings and dents and last longer.

  • Tips

The tip is comprised of the body and a point. The body is typically made of plastic and the point IMG_1139is fabricated from hardened steel that allows the tip to bite into the ground, snow or rock.

You may not be able to tell from looking at the tips of poles, but most are designed to be removed and replaced. Avoid poles with non-replaceable tips because the tips are more susceptible to breaking than the rest of the pole and they will eventually wear out.

If you spend more time hiking on paved pathways consider trekking poles that you can use an additional rubber tip that is attached over the steel tip.

  • Basket Size

The size of the basket should be determined by the activity you plan to do. Most pole manufactures have different diameter holes and thus baskets are not interchangeable, however many manufactures do cross over, like two of the biggest, Leki and Black Diamond. When buying new baskets for your poles, bring them to the store to make sure they fit or potentially find a different brand that fits your poles. Larger baskets are better for snow but get hung up on roots and bushes if you’re hiking through the woods. Some companies make 3/4 baskets but these, like you might guess, are still a compromise.

  • Shock Absorbers

Some may believe that this is just a gimmick to get you to spend more money.  Some people will swear by them and others feel there is no benefit.  My best advice is to try poles with and without shock absorbers to determine what you like.

  • Weight

Obviously, lighter is better than heavier. Consider that you will be lifting your arms thousands of times each day. This might not seem like a lot, but over the course of a long hike the weight savings can help to reduce fatigue.

  • Grips

From Left to right: Foam, Plastic, Cork, Rubber, Cork

There are many styles of handles available that are primarily made from rubber, cork, or foam. Each type of material offers advantages and disadvantages.

Since rubber grips don’t absorb any water, they are better suited for cold weather activities such as skiing, snowshoeing and mountaineering.

The best way to describe the cork grip is to get you to imagine how a Birkenstock sandal feels. These grips will overtime conform to the shape of your hand much like a Birkenstock sandal will conform to your foot.   Since cork grips absorb some sweat they are more comfortable than rubber grips, but not quite as comfortable as foam grips.

Foam grips are much softer and will keep your hands cooler that rubber or cork grips. The absorption of water makes foam a poor choice for cold winter activities.

Plastic grips are just plain awful!  They are uncomfortable and get sweaty, causing your hands to slip off with ease.

  • Packability

Your choice about packability should be determined by your chosen activities.  If you plan on carrying your poles on your pack during trips, the shorter the better.

  •  Versatility

If you are a multi-sport athlete then it may pay to look at poles that will fit a variety of situations. Look for poles that can function adequately and demonstrate durability for more than one of your chosen sports.

Trekking poles certainly have my vote as a must have. I have found they have loads of uses and are one piece of my gear that get used everyday.

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