Dedicated to Mara's travel and hiking adventure journals as well as her words of wisdom and suggested resources for hikers and travelers.
My comments are based on my experiences, primarily with Leki Super Makalu poles.
First of all, check out Pete's Poles Page. He's got a great discussion of the whats, whys, and hows of hiking pole use.
Here's just some additional information that I've written in response to questions I've gotten. For the most part, this information corresponds to Pete's pages but may be phrased differently or put in a different perspective.
Are poles worth it? | Technique | Adjustments | Maintenance | Alternatives | Are springs worth it? | Is the Leki brand worth it? | Trail damage?
Are poles worth it?
A lot of hikers, especially thruhikers, find hiking poles to be necessary. Many hikers start without them and end up buying them along the way.
Hiking poles, when used properly, can take a great deal of weight off your knees, ankles, and feet. Over the long haul, they can make the difference between a successful hike or not for some people.
Keep in mind that even after you read this page and Pete's Poles page, there are many hikers who hike without any sort of pole, with sticks, with staffs, with ski poles, you name it.
Poling technique is not well documented. When I bought my first Leki's, they came with poling instructions. Since then, I haven't seen poling technique documented anywhere poles are sold, including on the second pair of Leki poles I bought.
The tip sheet I received with my first Leki's suggested that a diagonal stride with the pole tips hitting the ground approximately even with the opposing heel makes for the most efficient use of the poles. In simpler terms, the right pole tip should hit the ground about even with the left heel and left pole tip even with the right heel.
If you are familiar with cross country skiing, the technique is similar except there's no glide.
In reality, if can be very difficult to get used to that stride. I had a hard time initially, tried a bunch of other things, and then came back to the diagonal stride. I, too, found it most efficient to use. I vary the use of the poles depending on the terrain of course, but on fairly even ground, I use the diagonal stride but I tend to hit the ground with the pole just before I hit the ground with my heel. I find this allows me to take more weight on my arms and less on my knees.
Many hikers never get used to that technique. I suspect that's why they don't bother to document it anymore.
I also found that is takes some strength to use the poles effectively and that I only developed that strength while using the poles. My arms and shoulders are much stronger now than before I started using poles.
It does take a while to get used to using poles effectively but I found the ramp up time to be well worth it.
There is some question as to whether or not poles have a right and left. Lekis do, in fact, have a right and left. Some poles are actually marked R and L but most are either just color coded or you just have to know that the strap that comes out lowermost from the grip goes under the thumb.
This is a good thing to be aware of when shopping for poles as some pairs get separated and it's possible to end up buying two right poles or two left poles. Then again, many (most?) people buy and use the poles without any knowledge of there being a right and left pole. The primary benefits of using the appropriate pole for the appropriate hand is that you eleminate undo pressure from your thumb, and the skin on your hands needs to only get used to one apparent "seam" where the edge of your straps come into contact with your hands.
The bottom segment of the hiking pole should be set at nearly the stop max setting, all additional length adjustments should me made with middle segment. This is different than the advice on the poles page and is based on discussions I've have with Leki representatives at Trail Days and on the phone with customer support.
When the bottom section is not fully extended, the gap at the edges of the second segment into which the bottom segment slides is larger and allows more lateral play in that bottom segment. Additionally, that gap allows more dirt and water to get into the second segment, potentially causing early failure. Only at full extension does the gap stay at it's minimum.
The straps on hiking poles are not just there to be used as a leash. They are there so that you can transfer weight to the poles without having to put any effort into gripping the poles. You do not "just stick your hands through the loops." See the poles page for good pictures.
It is definitely OK to pull the Leki's beyond the stop max. You just don't want to hike with them that way. As a matter of fact, to properly maintain the poles, you should routinely pull all three sections completely apart and make sure the insides can dry thoroughly and that any grit or grime that gets inside is cleaned out.
If you happen to "unwind" or "loosen" the poles too much when adjusting the length, then the pole should pull out very easily but will come out without the orange plastic expander. If that happens, just push the pole together again and tighten just enough for the threads to "grab" the expander and pull again.
It's not a bad idea to store your poles with all segments pulled completely apart. The plastic expanders in some poles can "dry out" or become brittle over time and fail to hold well when tightened. Leki recommends replacing the expanders about once a year.
Hiking pole alternatives
Some people like a single pole or hiking staff. When I've tried them, if I put as much weight on the single pole as my set of poles, I find myself pushed off balance so I transfer less weight to the single pole. That's why I don't think they give nearly as much relief off my feet and knees as a pair of poles.
The adjustable length of hiking poles can be quite useful. You can shorten your poles for going up hills and lengthen them for going down hills. I found this less useful on my thruhike than on many other hikes where I really am spending hours just going up - or just going down. If you aren't going to adjust the length of your poles, ski poles can be nearly as useful.
Get cross country ski poles and make sure the straps are intact and adjustable. You can probably pick up a pair at a Goodwill store or a yard sale for a song.
In general, when your elbows are hanging at your sides, the poles are the right length when you forearms are at right angles with your upper arms.
The disadvantage to picking up sticks along the way is that they have no straps and properly positioned straps can be difficult to add if you want to make a set.
Are those poles with fancy springs worth it?
I find that the spring action in some of the hiking poles reduces jarring and makes them less tiring on my upper body. After I've had a chance to strengthen my upper body, that probably doesn't matter as much, but I still really like the springs.
When buying hiking poles, things to look at are weight, grip material (plastic, core-tec, rubber), grip angle, and length. Grip material is less important if you use straps correctly because your hands don't have to grip hard and get less sweaty than people who do grip hard.
Is the Leki brand worth it?
The one argument that I think puts Leki ahead of the other for an AT thruhike (and others?) is the accessability of spare parts and an understanding on the part of Leki that sometimes they need to take your word for it if something goes wrong and you need a replacement part. Chances are you can just walk into an on-trail (or near trail) outfitter and get the parts replaced free of charge. If there are no nearby outfitters, Leki will mail parts to your next maildrop. I know of many more hikers who switched to Lekis when they had problems than switched away from Lekis.
Stores that carry the other brands are fewer and farther between so you end up spending more time on the phone and at the post office. They may or may not be as accommodating to thruhikers.
If most of your hikes are of shorter nature and you would routinely be able to get back to your favorite outfitter, than customer support on the part of the manufacturer may be of less importance.
And there may be other brands with wonderful support, too. Remember, I'm just reporting on my experiences.
Don't Lekis do a lot of damage to the trail?
The A.T. Journeys magazine printed the following letter from me in reponse to another letter from someone convinced that hiking poles do a lot of damage.
For what it's worth, crampons with 10 or 12 sharp points on each foot make a little Leki scratch here and there seem insignificant. It's only happened once or twice, but it's pretty funny to hear someone complaining of pole scratches on rocks in the White Mountains of New Hampshire while they are pointing to crampon scratches.
I do a lot of trail maintenance with my poles... I often didn't want to stop while I was hiking but I could flick things off the trail with my poles better than I could by kicking things off the trail. And I've thought about finding some sort of scythe attachment for the poles in those horribly overgrown areas. Whack away as you hike and stop complaining about those overgrown areas that maintainers just can't keep up with... yeah... :-)
Last updated, November 28, 2006.
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