Think seriously about walking poles
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“Mondor’s disease,” I said to my walking companion. “Haven’t
seen it for ages.” We were sat atop a Lakeland mountain, admiring its distant
My colleague had run out of conversation – we had been
chatting for a good half hour – and he had changed the subject to health,
knowing that I was a doctor. He massaged a cord-like swelling on the front of
his chest, which was apparently hurting badly.
“Henri Mondor,” I continued. “A Frenchman. He described the
disease in 1939. I bet it was caused by your walking poles.” I pointed at the two
thin, aluminium sticks, perched precariously against a nearby rock. “It’ll get
better without treatment,” I added, “but I would allow six weeks.”
Mondor’s is a rare inflammation of surface veins, has never
killed anyone, but had appeared because my companion had been walking with
poles. His arms had been working busily, and his chest veins had not liked it. That
got me thinking.
When I was a youngster, I had concluded that walking poles were
not an option, as only the elderly used them. How life has changed. Now I see walking
poles almost anywhere, irrespective of a walker’s age. Endurance athletes, long
distance hikers, and even those who simply desire a stroll. The disabled, too,
often prefer poles to sticks. A pole seems less permanent.
History has it that walking poles were initially described
by the Finns, as a way of training for the ski season, and were a natural
development from the once popular cane. Canes first appeared in the late 17th
century, generally an ivory handle on a Malacca shaft, and were more an
indicator of status. Occasionally there was a sword hidden in the shaft.
Swords have now vanished, but walking poles are in, and I am
an enthusiastic supporter. It was walking across the Alps that did it. For the
first few days of my six-week wander, two top-of-the-range poles remained
folded on the side of my rucksack. For reasons I cannot remember, I assembled them
and gave walking poles a go. I have not looked back since that moment.
I use the unsprung variety, rather than sprung, as I can
feel the ground better. I keep rubber ferrules on their carbide tips to avoid scratching
rocky surfaces. When I walk, I want no one to know I have been there.
For length, I base that on my elbow being at a right angle
when I grip the pole’s handle. Mountain lore suggests that poles should be
shorter on the uphill but longer on the way down. That is true, but I do not
have the time to continually adjust my poles, so I keep them long. When I go
down, I hold them by the handle. When I go up, I grip them by the shaft.
I am a two-poler, not one, as I feel symmetrical and
balanced. I never use the wrist loops as that is asking to break a bone if I
fall. Should I tumble, I jettison my poles instantly.
Near the tip is something called a basket, which I keep as
small as possible, unless I am walking through snow. Then the basket must be
broad. If I am not using poles, I strap them to the outside of my rucksack,
tips upward and covered. I learned that the hard way by once carrying poles
inside my pack. I had punctured an expensive duvet jacket by the end of the day.
My companion, now content he had a diagnosis, was beginning
to look upset. I asked him why.
“I love my poles,” he said. “Does my chest mean I’ll have to
stop using them?”
I shook my head. “Just be gentle,” I replied. “Work your
arms a little less.”
Walking poles can occasionally cause injuries of the upper
limb and chest, as my companion had shown. Yet they offer confidence, make you
walk faster, and reduce strain through the knee. A walker burns more calories
with poles than without and shows improvement in both blood pressure and heart
rate. Poles are especially helpful for conserving energy when walking downhill.
Sprung or unsprung makes no difference.
Walking poles have other uses, too. That carbide tip? Point it
at the wild animal that has decided you are lunch. I have chased away dogs,
horses, bulls and nasty people. I have also used poles to probe the thickness
of ice on a river, and the depth of snow on an Alp. I have used them to dry
laundry, support a tent, as a monopod for a camera, and a backrest for a makeshift
seat. I have even splinted a walker’s broken shin-bone with a pole until a helicopter
took him to safety.
Think seriously about walking poles. They are more helpful
than you think.
If you want to buy walking poles
Walking poles are now so popular that you are spoiled for
choice should you wish to buy any, so prepare to be confused. Whatever they
tell you, do not expect your poles to last forever. Some are expensive, some
are cheaper, and you do not always get what you pay for.
Some reputable brands include:
I now use the Leki
Micro Vario carbon design.
When I crossed the Alps, I used Black
Diamond Distance FLZ but managed to bend them.
My favourite shops for walking poles are:
Leki Micro Vario carbon trekking poles (pair) – £165
Robens Ambleside C66 carbon trekking pole (pair) – £100
Craghoppers ProLite Twin walking poles – £65
Cunningham Trail Lite walking poles – £35
Features to keep in mind
It depends on how tall you are. I am 187cms tall and like my poles to extend to at least 130cms. The correct length of pole is what is needed to keep your elbow bent to a right angle as you hold the pole by its grip.
Aluminium – the most common and very reliable. If you accidentally bend your pole slightly, you can push it straight, but the manoeuvre is not always successful.
There are many shapes, sizes and materials. These include dense foam, rubber, cork, and others. For example, Aergon by Leki.
I like the ones with a small ledge at the bottom of the grip, so my hand does not slip off. Grips can be angled forward, or straight. I am happy with straight.
Try a rounded grip top so that you can place it in your palm
when going downhill.
A lower grip extension onto the upper shaft is helpful, as
it gives something for the walker to grasp when going uphill, rather than
readjusting the pole’s length.
I do not use the straps, but many walkers do. Be sure the straps are adjustable and are broad, padded, or both, to minimise the chances of blistering your skin.
The original walking poles were telescopic, but their
twist-locking mechanisms could be damaged. I have broken many walking poles
that way. You must look after the mechanisms as they can freeze, or even rust.
Folding poles collapse down to a smaller length than the
telescopic variety, are lighter, and quick to use. They contain a
plastic-covered tension cord that can be damaged.
Some trekking poles do not adjust in length, which makes
Lever lock – simple to deploy, even with gloves on, although
it makes the pole slightly heavier.
Twist lock – these are very common, but I have found them to
be a nuisance, especially when dirt or moisture builds up inside the poles.
Interference lock – many of the folding poles have a lever
lock at the top, but an interference format lower down. Very quick to use.
Originally a spring was used to reduce the shock felt by the
upper limb when the pole struck the ground. Eventually the spring started to
rattle, so I have never been an enthusiast for this technology. More recently,
an elastomer has been used, which has no moving parts.
Made from either rubber or tungsten carbide.
Rubber tips absorb shock better from hard surfaces and are
quieter. A rubber ferrule can sometimes become lost in mud. There are now
curved rubber feet – fitness ferrules – that allow a walker to maintain forward
Carbide tips can make unsightly scratches on rock, but grip
well, even on a rock’s surface.
If there is mud or snow around, baskets are helpful as they
prevent the pole penetrating the surface too far. For regular walking, when the
surface is not too soft, keep the baskets as small as you can. Some walkers
choose not to use baskets at all.
See alsoA lifetime of walking boots
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