Outdoor Smarts: Hiking Sticks Give Your Knees a Break

Do your knees ache at the end of the hiking day? Is walking downhill harder than walking up? Have you ever tried leading a group of Scouts across a knee-deep stream? Trekking poles can help.

I first learned about trekking poles while backpacking with some German hikers in Nepal. At first, I wasn’t impressed when I saw the two poles that each hiker was using. They looked like overkill—like taking a sleeping bag suitable for 20 below zero to Florida.

But my German pals hopped over streams that had me flummoxed with fear. They danced down slopes that were strewn with loose rocks. And at day’s end, it was clear that their knees didn’t ache nearly as much as mine.

So I tried a pair of poles for a day—and changed my mind. Since then, I’ve never been without them.

The main reason to carry walking sticks is to make walking easier, and for that, you can’t beat a pair of modern hiking poles. Their most obvious use is taking pressure off beleaguered knees. Leki, a leading manufacturer of trekking poles, estimates that using a pair takes several tons of pressure off your knees and back over the course of an eight-hour hike. Plus, using poles gives your arms a bit of a workout, too.

Boys might handle downhills without difficulty, but poles can help young legs take big steps—for example, when trails go through boulder fields. Similarly, trekking poles can make it easier to cross streams. If rocks are spaced close together, hikers can use poles to keep their balance while stepping from one rock to the next. But if rocks are too far apart to provide a safe passage across a stream, hikers are better off wading, in which case they can still use the poles for balance. Their usefulness doesn’t end there. Here’s a partial list of stick tricks:

  • checking for snakes in the underbrush.
  • pitching a tarp.
  • waving at barking dogs.
  • helping to get some uphill momentum going.
  • poking a bear bag into place.
  • pushing a piece of equipment from one person to another when neither of you wants to get up at the end of a long, hard day.

As is true of most hiking gear, trekking poles come in several models. Consider these three major features:

  1. Modern hiking sticks are telescoping, making them easier to travel with. Collapsed, they fit inside a travel bag and can be strapped to your pack when you don’t need them. When traversing a steep ridge, you can make one pole shorter than the other. Finally, telescoping poles—while more expensive—make good sense for kids. This is one piece of gear that can grow along with a boy: Just increase the length.
  2. Ask if the model you’re interested in has a small shock-absorbing spring, which takes stress off your shoulders, elbows, and wrists. Think about how, when you take a big step down, a rough landing jolts your knees and lower back. With springs, the poles absorb some of that force.
  3. A comfortable handgrip is essential. It can be made of plastic, rubber, or cork. I prefer cork, which absorbs sweat and doesn’t get corroded by mosquito repellent. Be warned: In hot weather, you may develop blisters on your hands. Be sure to take along bandages.

Karen Berger is the author of five books about hiking, including Hiking and Backpacking: A Complete Guide (W.W. Norton & Co.). She has walked 15,000 miles on five continents, most of them with trekking poles.

High-Tech or Traditional

High-tech trekking poles may be new, but hiking sticks have been part of the foot-traveler’s equipment list for millenniums. A thousand years ago, people walking to medieval Europe’s most famous pilgrimage site, Santiago de Compostela in Spain, wore garb and gear that identified them as pilgrims: capes, walking staffs, and seashells that they carried as an emblem of the journey.

These days, we’ve got rain gear instead of capes, and I don’t know too many hikers who carry seashells. But hiking staffs have lasted.

The latest trend among avid hikers is to use the newer aluminum-style poles. A catalogue is available from Leki by calling (800) 255-9982.

But what if you’re a low-tech sort of person, the kind who still growls that his 30-year-old backpack is as good as they come? I’ve seen many happy hikers leaning on a variety of hiking sticks: old ski poles, folding wading staffs sold in fly-fishing stores, broomsticks with neoprene handgrips taped around the top, and the basic model that will never go out of style—a perfectly sized stick you find lying along the trail.

For Scouts accumulating mileage on a variety of hiking trails, the wooden sticks have another attraction: Many trail organizations sell small metal emblems that can be nailed onto such staffs. Collecting these mementos gives Scouts and leaders a chance to compare adventures and achievements.

Companies like Whistle Creek of Monument, Colo., (719) 488-1999,http://www.whistlecreek.com, still make handcrafted traditional poles. And the BSA Supply Division carries a 60-by-11/8-inch hiking staff (No. W01443, $3.25). Also available is a lace-on leather grip kit that includes a Scout medallion (No. W17028, $8.75).

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