“You don’t need sticks!” a British mountaineering friend announced with a hint of scorn in his voice. We were reviewing pre-hike gear for a Lake District holiday. Able bodied adult hikers should wear stout boots, carry a small pack with food, water and gear for weather changes. And march upright with a stiff upper lip.
Some veteran hikers view hiking poles as thin crutches. Maybe people with slack thighs, shakey ankles, weak knees or a creaky lower back should train in a gym first.
For the first part of my cross-country solo hike across France through the Pyrenees Mountains, I didn’t use trekking poles and didn’t think I needed them either.
But I did notice — in Cauterets and other mountain towns — hikers walking with poles. Though to my eyes, they looked a little funny, like storks or skiers who forgot their skis. Yet they were able to rapidly ascend, creating a cadence with the poles, much like cross-country skiers use poles for balance, thrust and rhythm. European hikers also use poles (or sticks as my British friend called them) to build and tone upper-body strength and push aerobic activity.
After I broke my right wrist during a fall in a mountain stream, I revisited my superior attitude towards hiking poles. Might I have stayed upright and not slipped on the rocks had I used a hiking pole?
Though I couldn’t bring myself to use two poles, still considering it a tad dorky, I compromised with one pole. When I returned to the long through-trail to the Mediterranean, I brought along a retractible pole with a cork grip and pointed metal extension tip on the bottom. I wrapped a supply of florescent duct tape around a small area of the pole shaft, for emergency use. In a pinch you can use poles to support a three-point tarp shelter.
Hiking poles increase stability on downhill surfaces and extreme inclines. They serve as extra “feet” when traversing exposed scree, mud, loess, ice or other unstable surfaces, the poles do the trick. My toes and shins didn’t experience the same degree of pressure on steep downhill walks. The pole helped me on ascents too when the pack’s weight worked against me, pulling backwards, while the pole offered traction.
I bought my pole at REI when hiking poles weren’t yet standard outdoors equipment in the USA. Now, any sporting goods or outdoors supply stores will probably carry several types of hiking poles. And don’t forget the countless online outdoor equipment suppliers.
Select hiking poles that are:
- Retractible – useful for packing or storage.
- Lock securely prior to each use
- Anti-shock or have “give” on impact to save your arms, wrists and hands
- Tripods for photography – optional multi use
- Durably painted so paint doesn’t flake off
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