Trekking Poles

Trekking Poles

It wasn’t that many years ago that trekking poles were quite a novelty in the UK.  The only time you’d see them was if you visited the Alpine areas of Europe.   I must admit I also wrote them off as a gimmick at the time, but gradually they crept their way into more widespread use. I was eventually forced to take a bit more notice.  Scientific data claimed they resulted in far less strain on the knees and knees are obviously worth protecting. I also couldn’t deny the reports claiming how they helped in both uphill and downhill movement as well as giving users more stability.

The Benefits

Eventually I took the plunge 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). You know the type? 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. This really adds stability.  For loose ground there are more points of balance and they add stability when crossing streams. Finally, for powering over things like the small groughs you find on moorland terrain they work a treat.

Soon I was 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. I found these were the times I benefitted most. In winter they also earnt their stripes on approaches to climbs. Particularly when crossing terrain where the angle didn’t necessitate an ice axe or when powering through deep snow.

The Limitations

Poles have their limitations though.  The longer early models stood up like lightning conductors when strapped to the outside of a rucksack.  The internal screw mechanism has a tendency to freeze in frigid conditions. I also had more than one that simply stopped working in the locked position.  They were also 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 those early problems.  Here are a few ideas in case you are new to pole use. There maybe the odd idea that experienced users will find useful too.

Preferred Pole Types

Firstly, I gave up on internal locking mechanisms as soon as Black Diamond introduced their Flicklock system. You can read about that here. They are so simple and effective and I’ve found nothing to beat them.  They also make life so much easier in winter as it’s so easy to operate them with gloves on.  Nowadays, with good reason, many brands have adopted a very similar system.

Since then a new style of pole came to market. They are now commonly called Z poles. They are based on avalanche probe designs which, rather than the poles sliding inside each other, store in a folded position then slot together. The system for slotting them together is aided by a cable running down the inside. This works like the shock cord inside a tent pole, except that it is designed not to stretch. Many manufacturers now make poles in this style and they are hard to beat. 

Z poles are strong and rapidly deployed. They fold up small and have no exterior adjusters that can catch on things. The first model of these I tried was the excellent Black Diamond Ultra-Distance poles detailed here. They are made from Carbon Fibre and are amazingly light but various manufacturers make alloy models too.  The first pair I tried were a set length so you lose some functionality with not being able to adjust the length. Since then, many manufacturers now make models where there is an adjustable section near the handle. This offers the best of all world’s.

Usage Ideas

Z Poles fold incredibly small and easily slide inside a daysack. I wrote a top tip about this here.  They are also light enough to live in my sack for use by other members of my group if I’m instructing. They are great to offer to a tired team member for that final haul back to the trailhead. There are all sorts of ingenious ways you can use trekking poles as splints in first aid situations too. Join one of our Outdoor First Aid or Advanced Outdoor First Aid courses to find out more about this. 

Another way I often used poles recently is to just use one.  This still gives more stability and helps in many situations, but without the extra weight. It is also makes it easier if you are using a GPS unit or need to hold a compass or ice axe in the other hand. 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. I wrote about this technique here.  This is handy when, for example, I use them as markers outside a snow shelter.  On my adjustable poles I also have a mark scratched on the shaft for my regular pole length.  This makes setting them up for use extremely fast.

Pole Leashes

I’m not a big fan of using leashes on trekking poles. I prefer to be able to let go of the pole if there is a problem and don’t feel they offer too many benefits. If I’m using a single pole it also makes it easier if the pole can be swapped between hands instantly. However, sometimes the support from leashes can be useful. In which case I really like poles where the leashes are removable. There are quite a few makes that offer this options although the ones I have most experience with are the superb Leki Trigger S models which you can read about here.

So, to sum it all up, trekking poles are really useful.  They have loads of uses and, although they aren’t essential for everything, they are useful for lots of things. They also don’t need to cost a fortune but you do often get what you pay for.  Nowadays trekking poles certainly get my vote.

My latest trekking pole review features the excellent ultralight Leki MCT 12 Vario Carbon. This is a state of the art Z pole and I really rate them. Please do have a read of my review here.