TREKKING POLES (March-April 2015)

A Change of Heart
Having significantly increased our hiking speed, endurance, and stability over the last 2 years, it was time for a new challenge in the spring of 2015. Ideally the new angle or new sport would give us issues to ponder and skills to develop. Hardly as profound as training for our first mountain run in 2013/2014, delving into the use of trekking poles was the only activity that came to mind. 

Sometimes it's hard to decide if it's easier navigating with or without poles.
After using a single trekking pole each for several years when we began hiking 10 years ago, we abandoned them. We decided that we were better off focusing on refining our balance and sure-footedness skills than relying on poles. We still carried them when cyclotouring in Europe because they were indispensable for fending off charging dogs, hanging our nightly laundry, and propping open room windows, but we rarely took them on hikes. 

Poles however were always on our radar because so many people with them were a menace to us and others on the trails, on hiker buses, and in towns with their careless flinging of them. And the people dragging them behind themselves and the many distinctive tracks they left in the soil confirmed their low utility to some. Concurrently, we’d been spellbound watching a handful of hikers use poles to descend seemingly impossibly loose and steep slopes, so we knew that there was the potential in poles for the highly motivated.

A big deterrent to resuming the use of poles had been the bulk and weight of them on our packs when scrambling through boulders and on the Italian Alp’s “via ferrata” routes that require both hands to be free. But over the years we had noted that, for a price, one could buy smaller and lighter poles since we last shopped for them 8 years ago. We now hoped that throwing money at the size and weight problem would eliminate these issues and we set our sights on joining the few who used poles exceptionally well.

Narrowing The Selection By Brand
There are a dizzying number of poles to choose from, with dozens of models from each of a number of manufacturers. We quickly narrowed our search to 2 brands: Leki and Black Diamond. As far as we knew, they were still the top names in trekking poles and were the 2 brands for which we knew we could readily buy parts both at home and in Europe. Additionally, REI staff in 2007 and 2015 had advised against the more economical REI branded poles because of reliability issues.

Features = Trade-Offs
Once we narrowed the field by brand, there were still many options to evaluate and trade-off:
..collapsed length
..fixed length (but collapsible) or adjustable length shaft
..carbon or aluminum shaft
..grips: cork, rubber, dual density foam, EVA foam 
..shocks or not
..women’s or unisex design
..various strap materials
..external shaft lock systems, twist adjusters, or Z-pole folding systems
..foam extensions beneath the grips or not
..interchangeable baskets or not (scree vs snow)
..interchangeable tips or not adaptor hardware or not for the top of a pole
..stowage bag or not

Our Priorities: Short, Light, & Adjustable
Short & Light
We were very clear: despite the many options available, our highest priorities were to have poles that collapsed to the shortest length possible and to have poles that were feather-weight. Experience had taught us the perils of having accessories sticking out from the surfaces of our packs and so we wanted our new poles to be no longer when collapsed than the height of our 18 L packs. It ranges from being annoying to dangerous when in thickets or on a via ferrata route if one is literally stopped in their tracks because gear is entangled in a tree, rock, or cable. And sometimes putting it in reverse doesn’t solve the problem. We also knew that we could feel each additional 1/2 lb of load on our backs and wanted to minimize the weight penalty of poles.

Our telescoping aluminum shaft Lekis extend far beyond our packs.
Adjustable Length 
We were just as certain that we wanted adjustable length poles and couldn’t imagine why anyone would buy fixed length poles. We, like others, usually set the pole length on the short size for the ascent and lengthened it for the descent. And recently when in the Grand Canyon, where we had revived use of our old Lekis, we both adjusted our single pole to the absolute maximum for crossing a small river. The just-good-enough stepping stones were so much easier to traverse with our briefly-extra-long pole providing a third leg. 

We knew that our new telescoping poles would have external flip-lock mechanisms rather than internal twist devices to hold the position of the extended poles. Personal experience with Salewa and then Leki poles taught us that the twist mechanisms tended to weaken over time and that we, and others, eventually resorted to Duct Tape to counter the “shrinking pole syndrome” while walking.

We had been leaning towards Leki’s because their parts are more available in Europe than Black Diamond's and a visit to REI quickly solidified the decision for a different reason. The Black Diamond products were out for us because the locking mechanisms to control the length adjustment were too stiff. Bill was dealing with a chronic injury to his thumb joints and the mechanism required applying force at angles which were harsh for his hands. I didn’t like the stiffness of the design either because it was too hard to make the adjustment while moving.

But, but, but….our clarity about wanting poles that were both lightweight and compact kept the Black Diamond fixed length poles we had been shown on our minds because they were exquisite. One of the carbon shaft models came in at 10 oz whereas our aluminum Lekis were over a pound and a quarter for the pair. And since these Black Diamonds were collapsible but only had a single working length, they lacked the objectionable stiff locking mechanism altogether.

We had however, totally dismissed fixed length poles as an impossibly silly notion. But the Black Diamond carbon poles exceeded our expectations for both weight and size, which forced us to revisit how we had used a single pole. With further thought, we realized that we were generally loathed to change the length of the pole other than at the turn-around point in the hike—just too much fussing. That realization kept tugging at us while we cooed over the ultra-short, feather-weight Black Diamond carbon Z-poles.

It was back to the drawing board. Over the days of again hiking with our old Lekis, we realized that the time we spent crossing streams or other obstacles when a very long pole was grand was measured in minutes per year whereas the time we spent hiking in a year was literally measured in weeks. With that in mind, we set our old Leki telescoping poles at 120 cm while in the Grand Canyon, the length we thought we’d buy if we bought a fixed length pole. It didn’t take long to determine that we could indeed flourish with fixed length poles even when used as a pair.

It had been a case of love at first sight when we initially hefted the Black Diamond poles at REI. They were so very light, so very compact—just what we wanted. The fixed length was suboptimal, but it was the trade-off for having truly minimalist poles. We didn’t care about shock absorption like we had on our Lekis, which was another source of weight. And we didn’t have strong preferences about hotly debated options like strap material and grip material, which streamlined decision-making.

Carbon vs Aluminum
One of the shortcomings of the sublime Black Diamond poles was their carbon shafts. We carefully listened to several 6’ tall, 30-something year-old, back-packing males at the Flagstaff, AZ REI discuss the fragility of the carbon shafts. We hike hard and fast and grind through the soles on our footwear at an alarming rate but presumed that, overall, we must be easier on our other gear than the young lads. We assumed that we'd never apply as much force to a pole as day hikers as they did and that breakage would only be an issue for us in a very nasty fall.

One young man who had destroyed a number of trekking poles summed it up nicely: he felt that the carbon and aluminum shafts had similar breaking points but they had different repair potentials. A shattered carbon shaft was garbage to be packed out whereas an aluminum shaft could be adequately repaired so as to walk out using it. We’d heard the remedy several times: use a rock to straighten the aluminum pole and splint it with wood if necessary. We weren’t keen on shattering an expensive pole but thought the odds of doing so were low for us.

At Last, A Decision
We took the plunge and bought 1 pair only of the featherweight, fixed length, Black Diamond poles after we left the Grand Canyon and proceeded to take turns hiking with our old Lekis and the new Black Diamonds. We kept the Lekis length set at 120 cm and switched poles every 30 to 60 minutes while hiking to further test if we could both live with the fixed length.

Our infatuation in the store with the carbon poles held on the trails. A second pair of Black Diamond fixed length poles was ordered when the next REI sale came around. The compelling stats tell the story behind our decision:

Black Diamond Distance Carbon Z Pole: 
..16” collapsed length
..284g or 10 oz for the pair 
..$128 on sale in 2015, reg $160

Leki Cor-Tec Tour Makalu Antishock Telescoping Pole
..28” collapsed length
..591 g or 1 lb 5 oz for the pair
..$100 in 2007
The size difference between our old Leki & new Black Diamond poles is hard to miss.
The Pro’s
There is the potential to increase your speed using poles and we did feel like we were going uphill faster with them than without. But based on a short time span of using poles, my belief is that we were actually going a little slower on the uphills. It will take repeating more hikes on trails for which I’ve kept stats to know if poles are improving our ascent speed.

I believe our biggest opportunity to increase our speed with poles is on steep downhills, especially for me. Decades of hesitancy because of painful knees still haunts me as I continue to put pressure on my speed. And often when I do go faster, I tumble. I’m hopeful that now that I have happier knees (primarily due to switching to forefoot striking) that I’ll be able to further pick-up my speed and become more skilled on descents. Poles are allowing me to push my speed into the reckless zone because they provide a safety net if I begin to skid.

Staying Upright
Of course, poles should help you stay on your feet and Bill immediately began commenting on how using the poles was sparing him from bad falls. But after a few weeks we concluded that we were actually falling more with the poles instead of less.

It took a while to sort it out but it became clear that our posture had shifted from our carefully calibrated forefooting stance to something else when using the poles. Our center of gravity shifted, probably forward, with the poles in hand. We both had to rediscover our more resilient forefooting posture and foot plant and maintain them both while using the poles. Even after 5 years of forefooting, it was surprisingly difficult to re-establish the correct position. But indeed, sharpening our foot strike position and being more precise about our upright posture soon improved our overall stability on the descents while using poles. 

The ultra-compact Black Diamonds fit snuggly against our packs.
We trust that with time we’ll be more confident and more capable in dicey situations with the poles. We have vivid memories of several treacherous descents in the Italian Alps that we believe would have been safer, faster, and easier if we’d each had a pair of poles.

Upper Body Strength
We both immediately noticed soreness in our shoulders from using the poles and happily, we also noticed an increase in strength. One of our standard strength exercises is side plank in which one rotates into a straight, 1-armed position from a push-up or plank position and back again. It’s a powerful (i.e. awful) exercise we do for 2 minutes and we both could tell we were stronger in it after using the poles than before hiking with them.

I also noticed a significant improvement in my shoulder and core strength on the bike after taking up “poling”. My arms and shoulders always give out long before my legs when riding after long breaks from cycling. But after a month of poling several times a week on hikes, my upper body was strong and comfortable on the bike. For me, cross-training my upper body for cycling while hiking was a huge, indirect benefit of hiking with poles.

Sparing the Knees
Studies have documented the decrease in forces on the knees when using poles, especially on the downhill, which translates into increased endurance for us. And of course, the burdens of either a heavy back pack or injury issues can be made lighter with the use of poles.

Using poles, especially ones a little longer than recommended, did encourage us to stand more erect. Good posture is always a challenge and even more so with a backpack, so the nudge to be upright was welcome. And since we walk with more confidence, the use of poles invites us to look up and around more.

Rarely do we fight our way through the bramble because we avoid such hikes, but we did need to do so when going to Romero Pass in Tucson for the first time in 2015. The aptly named “cats claw” was knitting together from both sides on a section of the trail, making it slow and painful going. The poles were definitely a help in releasing the tangled branchlets and holding them back to give us safer passage.

Sometimes it was easier without the poles but they still occupied one hand.
The Con’s
One of the biggest disadvantages to us in using poles is literally having our hands tied. Blowing your nose, snapping a photo, pushing aside a tree branch, or removing a hat to cool off all become more difficult with poles in hand. And then there is the clumsy issue of having poles in your hands when scrambling over the odd boulder or fallen tree in the trail.

Using poles destroyed my fingerless sun gloves that have a thin pad in the palms. I’ll be looking for a more durable hot weather glove than what I’ve been using for years. And I’ll also be taking warm gloves on more hikes than ever before. I can’t put my hands in my pockets to warm them on a cold day when using poles and my hands are the last to warm if I’ve gotten chilled.

Tripping Hazard
Our extra-long, fixed length poles created an unexpected tripping hazard. We both were shocked to discover that, a few times on each of our early hikes with poles, a pole would end up between our legs, poised to take us down. Neither of us actually dumped over, but the near-misses got our attention.

Hiking on trail with medium-tall grasses growing on the edge posed the biggest tripping hazard to us. The grasses would push the poles towards our legs during the pole’s swing. We both loved our light weight poles but discovered that our older, clunkier Leki's were better behaved around grasses because their heft kept them from so easily being pushed into us. But regardless of which poles we were using, we both often resorted to carrying the lifted poles behind us to keep them from becoming entangled with grasses or brush on trails that were becoming overgrown.

A deterrent to hiking with poles for us is the clatter. On rocky trails, you can hear 1 or 2 hikers with poles approaching from afar. On an otherwise quiet trail, it is amazing how they disturb the peace. We did notice that our carbon shaft poles weren’t quite as clattery as the aluminum shaft poles. On stoney trails, the noise certainly decreases the odds of seeing wildlife or hearing birds. Perhaps their chorus will help alert bears and decrease the odds of an unwelcome encounter.

After reading a bit about poling technic online and then getting out on the trails, we concluded that the most important tips were to wear the wrist straps short, rarely grip tightly, and keep the poles moving all the time. I am guessing that it is the intuitively obvious response to grip the pole like a tool that leads to half-hearted use of them and eventually dragging them behind, presumably because of unnecessary weariness.

We both independently and quickly rediscovered a bit of advice that we’d read and forgotten, which was to lightly control the poles with loosely curved thumbs and forefingers only. With a loose hold at the top of the grip, we both found our default position was to let the poles effortlessly swing like pendulums when on easy terrain. Should we start to skid or need to power with the poles, it was a simple matter to clasp the other fingers into a firmer grip to plant the poles with more authoritatively. Cinching the pole straps so that your wrists are supported in a sling keeps the hands perfectly aligned with the grip so as to firmly hold it in the proper position in an instant. 

The recommended default rhythm is to plant a pole with each step; usually with the opposite foot and pole in the lead. Our poles, which are 5-10 cm longer than recommended for us, resulted in a longer pole swing and a mismatch between our feet and our arm swing. Neither of us found the more impromptu rhythm at all disturbing. Being able to have a more orderly coordination between the foot strike and pole plant might be welcome on more open trails than we tend to hike. The benefits of the longer pole for our posture and stability on the steep descents more than compensated for the resulting improper rhythm.

Rather than conform to any rules, we constantly changed our poling strategy to match the terrain. On steep ascents, one or both poles would lag behind us to be pushed against to give us more oomph up. When taking an awkwardly high step up, one or both poles might be farther out front and be used to lift ourselves up to them. Navigating around a boulder or downed tree might best be done with a pole behind and one forward or both held in one hand. It seemed that if we keep them moving with a loose grip, the optimal poling pattern presented itself with the changing terrain, though sometimes they were nothing but a nuisance like when climbing over obstacles.

Revisiting hiking with trekking poles by using a pair instead of one as we had done in the past was a grand adventure. It exceeded our expectations for a hiking nuance to study and we liked the results of hiking with poles. We quickly went from being overwhelmed by having too many choices to finding a model we really wanted. By giving up adjustable length, we were able to have the ultra lightweight, very compact poles we craved.

At this early stage, it seems that elevating one’s use of poles from the place of them being a tiresome nuisance much of the time to the poles being a clearcut asset is as simple as lightening one’s grip on the pole and using a short wrist strap. 

In a month we’ll return home to pick-up our 2nd pair of Black Diamond carbon Z-poles and the  special-order wrist straps in size Small for me. We’ll have a month to test our poles and technics on the muddier trails of the Columbia River Gorge and then we’ll be off to the Italian Alps with them. We are curious to see if and how our opinions about poling technic and the need for length adjustability change with the new venues. And we’ll also be holding our breath to see if all 4 carbon poles make the return flight home.

TWO YEARS ON (June 2017) 
In June of 2017 while in the Alps, Bill stumbled and fell forward and uphill onto one of his trekking poles. Without a sound, it discretely shattered midpole. What was different about this fall than others was that his foot landed on top of the tip end of the pole with the strap still on his wrist. The pivot point of the pole was on a rock, which is where it cracked. After 2 years of us both using carbon poles, one finally bit the dust.

Unable to buy a new pair of comparable poles, Bill settled for replacing them with high quality Leki aluminum poles of about the twice the weight. If there ever had been any doubt about his choice of Black Diamond, fixed length, carbon poles, they went out the window with the Leki purchase. He felt duly punished for his clumsiness by their clumsiness for the rest of the summer.

Amazingly, Bill stumbled again 6 days after snapping the carbon pole and bent one of the new aluminum ones on their second outing. Initially, it wouldn’t retract to be folded, making it almost impossible to travel with, especially on a bike. But, for whatever reason, he was eventually able to again collapse it. The accolades about being able to repair or replace any part on a Leki pole weren’t demonstrable where we were and he carried on with a heavy and now, out of kilter, pole.

A tidy looking bit of damage to Bill's carbon pole rendered it a piece of garbage.
After hours of intermittent discussions on the trail about pole replacement strategies as travelers, the refined policy was clear: keep buying the ultra-light weight poles we loved and always have at least 1 spare pole back at ‘camp.’ We’d keep a spare pair in our trailer for our 7+ months on the road; we’d stash 1 or 2 spares in our overseas luggage for the summer; we’d have 1 spare with us on our 6 week bike tour in the Alps; and we’d tuck 1 spare in our 'unattended luggage’ bag with food and clean clothes for our upcoming Rim-2-Rim-2-Rim Grand Canyon excursion in October of 2017. We learned the hard way that we can’t always buy desirable new poles in a pinch and this new policy would cover us most of the time. In addition, Bill committed to being more intentional about his trail footwork to short-circuit his recent spate of falling, which was immediately successful.