If 2020 was all about the home workout and, before that, wearable tech and wild swimming, 2021 is shaping up to be the year of the hiking pole. A piece of kit that many walkers assume they can do without, it’s ignored at your peril – as I ignored it at mine!
Once upon a time, I thought hiking poles were for older people. Since then, I have either a) become an older person or b) had a road-to-Damascus moment. Actually, it wasn’t Damascus; it was the vertical face of Fan Gyhirych and it was at least 40 moments. No matter. I borrowed a friend’s poles to haul myself to the top of this tricky little Beacon and the lightbulb flickered on. Here’s why!
What are hiking poles?
Hiking, or walking, poles are accessories designed to support you on uneven ground. They can help you keep your balance, strike up a good walking rhythm and reduce stress on your body. They are usually made from a light aluminium and are collapsible, allowing them to be neatly stored in your backpack when not in use.
Why do I need hiking poles?
According to Paul Trepte, MD of outdoor specialists Trekitt, using poles is like having another pair of feet! Paul, who runs the family business with brother Mark, says: “Poles provide an extra footing on uneven terrain, on river and stream crossings and will support your weight when tackling steep ascents and descents.
“Using a pair of poles dramatically reduces the stress placed on joints, tendons, and muscles, as the simple act of pushing down on the poles reduces your body weight. By developing a good technique, your posture will improve, your breathing will be easier and perceived exertion will be reduced. A good technique is particularly beneficial when carrying a heavy pack. You will feel fresher at the end of your walk and you’ll ache less the following day!”
How to use trekking poles
Since my road-to-Damascus moment, I’ve worked my way through a few pairs of poles – largely because, at first, I opted for ‘cheap’ and then wondered why they fell apart. The key, as with any piece of hiking kit you want to last, is to invest in quality.
This spring, I’ve been road testing the LEKI Cressida trekking poles. Marketed at women, their sleek white body with green and grey trim would suit any walker, although the grip is certainly ideal for smaller hands. With an adjustable length of between 90-125cm and weighing 220g each, they have two locking positions and smooth straps. Ah yes, the straps – don’t neglect to use them!
Paul says: “It’s important to use the strap and handle correctly; the strap is not just there to stop you from losing the poles! Slide your hand up through the loop and then adjust the size, so that it is snug, but not too tight. Relax your grip and open your hand so that the strap lies flat over the back of your hand and then comes together between your thumb and forefinger. There is no need to grip the handle tightly when using poles as this can cause tendon strain over time. Your hand should remain relaxed and let the strap do the work.”
Who knew there was so much to think about? But, climbing my way out of the notorious Pumlumon bog, the technique clicks. I cut my way through moss and knee-high heather, tufting up from ankle-jarring crevices, for a good 50 minutes before spying a handy path unmarked on the map. Without the poles, I would have retreated back to the safety of the Nant y Moch layby long since, but my ‘extra feet’ give me the confidence to plough on, testing each new foothold before I step.
There’s no exact science to the correct pole length, but your elbows should be roughly at an angle of 90°. Paul says: “When you adjust the pole, ensure that the overall length is divided equally between the sections. Avoid having one section all the way out and one section all the way in.”
One pole or two?
While one pole may be ok if you’re travelling over easy, flat terrain, only with two poles will you get the full benefit across more arduous, challenging ground. This includes the increase in fitness that comes with developing a good technique, causing you to use your whole body and not just your legs. And there’s more!
Clever uses for hiking poles
That’s right, these poles are not just made for walking! A couple of winters ago, a pair of my (earlier) poles became crutches for a friend who badly twisted her ankle on our hike. I won’t claim her life was in danger, but having poles with which to support her weight was certainly the difference between getting back to the car unaided and having to call out Mountain Rescue.
The Trekitt team suggests these handy uses for your walking poles:
- Shelter: You can use your trekking poles to set up a tarp to shelter under (there are even specific trekking pole tents supplied without poles!).
- Photography: Turn your pole into a monopod, with a built-in camera mount on the handle, or use a small tripod and strap it to the handle.
- Path clearing: Tall bracken, spider’s webs and low-hanging branches can all be brushed aside with one clean sweep of your pole!
- A probe: When crossing streams or rivers, poles can indicate the strength and depth of water. See also soft snow, deep mud and ‘Pumlumon bog’, above.
- Protection: For fending off threatening dogs or even cows in extreme circumstances.
- Laundry: Rig up a washing line if wild camping and enjoy the luxury of clean socks, pants and dry gloves!
- A chair: A shortened pole can prop up your rucksack to create a backrest while you make yourself comfortable on a mat.
- In an emergency: Creating that shelter or even using as a makeshift splint should you find yourself or fellow hikers in a tight spot.
Extra info (or things to learn from my mistakes…)
Secondly, think in advance about where and how you’ll store them on hikes when not in use. The right backpack research is worth its weight in gold here. I love my 35L Jack Wolfskin daypack for all sorts of reasons, a significant one being the elasticated toggle on the side, just above an external pocket. The tips of my poles fit snugly into the pocket (remember to pop on the plastic tip covers, to avoid ripping the fabric) and are drawn into place to avoid them wobbling into the back of my head.
My LEKI Cressida trekking poles were kindly gifted and are available from Trekitt. They usually retail at £104.95 but Trekitt is currently offering a 15% discount*. Follow Trekitt on Instagram, YouTube and Facebook.
* Correct as of April 27 2021.