Some thoughts on Trekking Poles....
Poles in action during a very snowy escape from Jebel Toubkal in Morocco (April 2012)
Not so many years ago (although they now seem to have been around for ever) no-one in the UK ever seemed to use trekking poles. The only time you’d see them was if you visited the alpine areas of Europe where everyone seemed to be striding around with them. I must admit that I wrote them off as a gimmick at the time but gradually they crept their way into the UK mountains and I was forced to take a bit more notice. Scientific data claimed they resulted in far less strain on the knees and I couldn’t deny the reports claiming how they helped in both uphill and downhill movement as well as giving users more stability. Eventually I took the hint and invested in a pair.....
They were the standard twistlock system (it has probably got a proper name but I’m not sure what it is) where an internal thread cammed the mechanism against the outer tube. It took a while to get used to them but I began to see the benefits. Good technique in ascent and you can really add some power through the upper body. On steep descents setting the pole length longer allows the pole to be placed before you step down which really adds stability. For loose ground there are more points of balance and they also add stability when crossing streams or powering over things like the small groughs you find on moorland terrain.
I was soon using them regularly - although not for everything. I tended to choose them when I expected the type of ground described above or if I was carrying a heavy load where I benefitted from the added balance and chance to help my knees a bit. In winter they also earnt their stripes on approaches to climbs, crossing terrain where the angle didn’t necessitate an ice axe or powering through deep snow.
Poles had their limitations though. The longer early models stood up like lightning conductors when strapped to the outside of a rucksack. The internal screw mechanism had a tendency to freeze in frigid conditions (and I had more than one that simply stopped working in the locked position). They were also a fair bit of extra weight to carry. In the years since my thoughts on the use of poles have changed and I’ve developed ways to overcome some of the early problems.
Firstly, I gave up on internal locking mechanisms as soon as Black Diamond introduced their Flicklock system. Having all the locking system outside may make them slightly less streamlined but they are so simple and effective that I’ve found nothing to beat them. They also make life so much easier in winter as it is so easy to operate them with gloves on. Nowadays Black Diamond make a wide range of poles with the Flicklock system so there should be something to suit all users.
The Flicklock system also makes the second part of my pole use evolution easier. I’m a big fan of having a streamlined rucksack with as few bits strapped to the outside as possible. That includes poles. The problem is that 3 section systems are sometimes too long to slip inside your rucksack. Some manufacturers make ‘compact poles’ with shorter tube lengths that suit smaller users. You’d have to check the individual manufacturer’s information but I’m 5’8” and Black Diamond’s compact lengths are bang in the middle of my size range. This means that for some rucksacks they will easily slide down the inside. If they are still too tall it is best to separate the sections. That makes them significantly shorter and, although it sounds quite ‘faffy’, only takes a few seconds. This is also particularly easy with the Flicklock style poles. There are also various models that are specifically designed with 4 pole sections to allow them to store more easily but I haven’t used any of these.
Another way I’ve been using poles recently is to, in some circumstances, just use one. This still gives more stability and helps in many situations without the extra weight. Last winter I got likened to Gandolf as I shuffled through the Scottish Mountains – but the one pole often worked as well as two might have done.
Fairly recently a new style of pole came to the market. Black Diamond call their version the Z Pole but other manufacturers make similar designs. They are collectively based on avalanche probe designs which, rather than the poles sliding inside each other, store in a folded position then slot together to make a full length pole ready for use. The system for slotting them together is aided by a cable that runs down the inside like the shock cord inside a tent pole.
Black Diamond make different models. The ultra light Ultra-Distance (which I’ve been using) is made completely from Carbon Fibre and a pair weighs only 265 grams for the mid length model (which is about comparable to many single alloy poles). They are a set length so you lose some functionality but to me the sacrifice is worth it. Other models like the Distance Trekking Pole (around 340grams) are constructed from alloy (they would be better suited to winter use) and there is another alloy model called the Distance FL which looks useful as it has 20cms of adjustability built into the upper poles.
Z Poles fold incredibly small and easily slide inside a small daysack (say around 30 litres). They are also light enough to live in my sack for use by other members of my group if I’m instructing and, if you know how, there are all sorts of ingenious ways you can use trekking poles like these as splints in first aid situations.
The Z Poles are great to use although the Ultra Distance models need to be treated with some care as they are, at the end of the day, a specialist lightweight product. I don’t, for example, use them for winter use as I don’t feel they are durable enough for smashing through heavy snow. I also take care when using them to help pole vault streams or peat groughs!
Other pole tips? I used to wrap Duck Tape around the stem to fasten up holes in overtrousers and other disasters, but nowadays I don’t bother. The tape seemed to lose its adhesiveness and rarely worked on the odd occasion that I needed it. I do, however, wrap a small piece of reflective tape around the top of the shaft to allow them to be easily visible at night. This is handy when, for example, I use them as markers outside a snow shelter. On my adjustable Flicklock poles I have scratched a mark on the shaft for my regular pole length. This makes setting them up for use extremely fast.
So, trekking poles are really useful. They have loads of uses. They aren’t essential for everything and they can, with some ingenuity, be carried and stored easily and efficiently. They also don’t need to cost a fortune but you do, to a large extent, get what you pay for. Nowadays trekking poles certainly get my vote.