“Pole-pole” (pronounced polay-polay) is a common swahili expression. On treks in east Africa, you’ll be advised to take it slowly or “pole-pole”. My two trekking poles help me tackle steep ascents and tricky descents pole-pole, even if I lack the elegance of a light footed African gazelle.
Why use trekking poles?
In my childhood in Africa, I might have walked with a found wooden stick. Now I have a lightweight, telescoping, shock absorbing trekking pole with ergonomic handle and tungsten carbide tip.
There is no doubt trekking poles serve a useful purpose. They reduce impact on aging knees and provide stability and balance on tricky terrain or when crossing rocky creeks. They help establish a nice rhythm, get your arms moving and prevent fat swollen fingers.
Correctly inserting your hand from below, the strap provides wrist support to allow you to push off for fast pace, but be careful not to get your hand trapped in the strap if you stumble. You can vary your grip on the shaft of the pole depending on the terrain. Adjusting poles allow you to vary the height between the classic 90 degree elbow angle for regular use, longer for descents, and shorter for steep climbs.
Stowing the poles away
On tricky ground, one pole may be better than two. You may need to use your hands to scramble, to get your camera out for a picture, or to wipe your sweaty brow. Time to collapse and stow the poles. Many packs have loops on the base of the pack, and tie cords on the shoulder straps or the back of the pack to make stowing your poles quick and easy. For air travel, poles need to collapse small enough to fit in your checked-in baggage.
The hard tips of trekking poles grate on rock, and can damage the environment on all surfaces. Use a rubber stopper to minimise noise and tip damage. Don’t wave your poles around when hiking, your mates behind you don’t wan’t their eyes poked out. Clean your poles if you have used them overseas before passing through Australian quarantine inspection.
Held upright in your hands in front or beside of you, poles are useful for brushing away wet or prickly vegetation, and for dealing with Australian spider webs stretched across the path.
Held horizontal behind the neck, trekking poles provide a nice chest stretch after a days walking,
Waved above the head, or planted crossed in the snow, they can be useful for communication. Plant them in the muddy creek to test the water depth.
Wrap spare duct tape around them, use them to wring out your wet socks, fend off a marauding Tassie devil. Trekking poles are the ultimate multi-purpose tool for the modern hiker.
Elephant or gazelle?
Poles are great for fitness training, increasing the energy burn. However for timed endurance walks like North Face, you might find yourself faster and lighter on your feet on technical terrain without poles. Poles are no substitute for lack of cardiovascular fitness, and they can work against you when fatigue sets in. While poles reduce load on the knees, a more sustainable plan might be weight loss and building up leg muscle strength.
Pete the Pole Man has the most comprehensive set of web pages on ways to put your high tech poles to effective use. Even though he advocates their use, he concludes with “And finally, don’t forget that there are times when putting poles away is a way to enjoy yourself more.”
After years of always walking with poles, I now mix it up. I walk with poles for fitness, and other times I walk without poles to ensure I work on my muscles and improve my balance skills.
I don’t want to be a heavy elephant plodding along with flailing poles, I want to be that light footed elegant gazelle.