HOW TO USE TREKKING POLES

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I was a stubborn, late convert to the wonders of trekking poles. No matter that everyone I knew that used them told me they were the best thing since the wheel; I was like a lot of guys and was sure I didn't need anything that worked like a cane. But eventually I tried out a hiking stick I made from a branch on the trail one day - and it was good. Then I broke down and bought a cheap staff on sale when I had a sore leg - and that was better. Now I have the real thing, and I don't leave home without them. The moral? Don't be a stubborn fool like me. Your knees, butt, back and orthopedic surgeon will all thank you. See the trekking poles we rent and watch our video on using hiking poles.

For just a few of the real-trail benefits of poles - and that includes for you macho types who think you'd have nothing to gain from something so simple and lightweight, read on:

1) Backpacking blisters no more! - reduce lots of stress on your feet when carrying a heavy load. Let those arms carry some the weight instead of your delicate knees - especially when going downhill (everyone over 40 say Amen!).

2) Speed - you can add several miles a day within the same time frame when using poles.

3) Weight - using poles can take 15 - 25 pounds off the effective backpack weight stressing your body. Better than any ultra-light gear can accomplish.

4) Balance #1- the secret crutch. Ever fall and bust your tail and ego when rock-hopping a creek? Poles make that soaking scenario a problem of the past. Ever slip, slide and groan on scree while hiking downhill? Poles make that seat-ripping scenario a problem of the past too

5) Tent poles - many ultralight tents make use of trekking pols for support instead of their own supplied tent poles

6) Critter tester - poles are great for poking into brush or logs you are crossing or considering sitting on - just to make sure you are really alone.

So what's the best way to use trekking poles? It's pretty much "to each their own" - watch hikers with poles and you'll see a variety of methods employed. Some plant the pole with every step; some only after 2-3 steps. Some plant the poles on the same side as the forward foot; some the opposite. The "best" way is what works for you, but here's my general suggestions and comments:

1) Set the pole length so your arms are bent at 90 degrees when the tips are on the ground and your hands are on the grips. This is a good compromise setting for flat, uphill or downhill. For extended incline segments, shorten the poles some so you can get better leverage to help you up the hill when you plant the pole. For extended descents, it's worth taking a few seconds to lengthen the poles so you're more upright as you plant the poles in front of you. If you are traversing a slope, shorten the uphill pole and lengthen the pole used on the downhill side as needed to support both sides of your body equally.

2) Some poles have a scale or ruler settings to help you set and equalize the lengths between the two poles. 3-piece telescopic poles have these settings marked on each section - this helps balance the pole and not overextend any one piece. Make sure you tightly secure the pieces - by clip or twisting, depending on the pole design - so that it doesn't give when you put your full weight on it. You don't want it to give when you're depending on it for balance on a rock or hillside edge!

3) When under heavy load, I plant a pole with each step, but against the opposite foot. So when my right foot is forward, so is my left pole. I like the balance this way better - I have something on the ground on both sides of me with each step. Sometimes going downhill or on real rocky trails with boulders to contend with, that pattern will get reversed - it's whatever feels more balancing and comfortable at the time. Going up real steep hills or high stepping with a load I might occasionally push off with both poles planted at the same time - like a cross-country skier. On flat terrain, I usually plant the poles only every other step.

4) It takes only a short while to develop a rhythmic coordination between your steps and planting the poles. The poles easily become an extension of your arms as you trek away the miles.

5) I've heard some hikers say they avoid poles because of the extra weight. Baloney. The poles we carry weigh as little as 8 ounces each; in your hands with straps correctly worn, they are effectively weightless as far as your back, legs, or feet are concerned. In fact, as mentioned above, they can relieve your legs of anywhere from 15 - 25 pounds of effective weight stress.

6) Watch out how you plant the pole in rocky areas - if it slips down between two rocks as you propel yourself along, you may either a) fall off balance or b) snap or bend the pole if you don't pull it straight back out.

Some features to look for or consider in trekking poles:

  • Telescoping poles are better than fixed length shafts - you can adjust the poles for different users and situations.
  • Soft grips that are properly designed to fit your hand and have some give will be easier to use for a long period of time. Grips that are hard can get wet with sweat and be uncomfortable to hold.
  • Some poles have so-called shock absorbers to better absorb the impact of the pole striking the ground, easing the strain on your shoulders and arms, but don't pay a lot for that - it's not like you're trying to drive the pole into the ground with each step. And going uphill you really don't want any give in the poles - some with shock absorbers have a "lock-out" setting for just that reason.
  • We like chiseled tips for traction in almost any condition from ice to pavement. Rubber-tipped poles work well also, particularly on hard packed surfaces. Use a pole "basket" - the washer-like attachment a few inches above the pole tip, like on snow skis, for snow or muddy areas.

Finally, suck it up and spend the money for real trekking poles - two of them - the ones that cost over $100 for a pair and you don't understand why. I don't understand either, but they're worth it. Don't use just one pole or staff, and don't buy or make do with a tree branch like I did at first. If you're still in doubt, borrow a set (don't count on it unless it's a really good friend) or just rent from us. For more information, watch our video on our hiking poles.

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