“Hey mate! where’s the ski slope?” is one of the more polite comments I get using walking poles on the National Trails from unenlightened bystanders. So why do I love my Leki trekking poles? My conversion to the walkers equivalent of 4 wheel drive has been a gradual process over many years. Initially, I used a only one pole on my early heavy weight backpacking trips and now use two carbon Leki poles on all my adventures.
After a while, using the poles becomes second nature to the point where you forget you are using them, especially when they are light weight. I perhaps have 4 walking modes, depending on the terrain:
- Level easy going – difficult to describe, but the pole placement is every 2 steps, about half my walking cadence. Emphasis is on stability. Placement is approximately level with the leading foot, driving the pole gently rearwards.
- Uphill, easy terrain – pole placement is every step, right foot with left hand pole forward, driving purposefully up the hill with arm and leg. Placement is ahead of the leading foot.
- Uphill, difficult terrain – pole placement is more random for optimum balance, but using my arms to pull up my weight, trying to imitate the uphill, easy terrain mode, as best I can.
- Downhill – palms on the top of the pole, controlling my descent, usually with hands outside of the straps if the descent is very steep. Placement to give security and stability.
A Canadian skiing friend of mine showed me how to use the straps properly after years of misuse. You need to put your hand up through the strap before grabbing the pole, the Leki logo displayed on your wrist. I had been putting my hand down through the strap, which is dangerous, as the pole does not separate cleanly if you let the grip go, which is the instinctive reaction should you fall, thereby leading to a broken wrist!
The primary benefits of poles are stability and increased walking efficiency. I cannot count the number of times they have saved me from twisted ankles and falls on slippery paths. Having the extra contact points with the ground really make a difference when the going gets difficult. They also take a lot of the strain away from the legs, bringing into play another set of limbs to power your walking, but only if you engage gear and actually use them to propel you forward. Too often have I seen walkers tapping the ground with their poles, as if they are picking up litter. Used properly the poles improve your stance, allowing you to view the scenery and not the ground and give your upper body a workout too.
I am now experimenting with using trail/running shoes instead of boots for my long distance walks. By taking the strain away from the legs and providing stability, the poles compensate for lack of ankle support and more robust soles in a walking boot. A nice combination.
The poles also have plenty of secondary benefits too and I am always finding more:
- Tent / tarp poles – adjustable, strong, secure – they allow me to set my tarp up in all sorts of different configurations, also good for clearing the sheep doo before pitching.
- Fruit picking – reach that hard to get apple, cherry or plum.
- Bushwacker – keeping nettles and brambles out of harms way.
- Bog trotting – how deep exactly is that bog you are about to place your foot in? If you start sinking, placing the pole along the ground helps you extract yourself.
- Cattle prod – as a defensive stick to keep cattle at a distance, not to prod them I should hasten to add.
- Dog defense – aggressive dogs think twice if you are carrying a couple of poles, again used to keep distance, beware that if dogs do attack, they typically do so after they have walked past you – luckily this a rare event – as they are “only playing”.
- Clothes rail – for drying and hanging clothes or waving for attention.
- Photography – with some clever attachments, they act as a mono-pod, improving camera stability in low light photography.
- Cat holes – quite useful for digging a hole, when you need to go.
These benefits make a clear case for me to use walking poles. Ultimately they allow me to walk with less effort and keep a good stance and posture when carrying a backpack. This translates into more time viewing the scenery and travelling further each day. They more than justify their weight, typically 450g for a pair.
So if you see me on the hills, don’t ask me where the ski slope is, stop and chat awhile and I will show you how walking poles they help me on my National Trail adventures.