Trekking Poles 101
The path up Kinabalu did not mess around: it instantly led straight up into the heavens. Porters carrying fifty-kilo loads jogged by us, dripping waterfalls of sweat down bodies sculpted from rock, to soak their highly inappropriate footwear. “Hello,” they all said as they passed, with inexplicably joyful facial expressions. “Good luck!”
A Confrontation With Falling
2Stroke strongly recommended trekking poles for the trip. He’s had his Leki Super Makalus for a few years now and swears by them. I have to admit, I knew little about them. They really didn’t come into vogue until 2000, and I’ve been out of circulation since then. No, not prison. Vietnam.
After a little research, I decided that not only do I have to get them, I have to get them now. Using them is sufficiently technical that practice is needed.
A week or so later, I was in possession of a pair of Coleman Trekking Poles. They weren’t my first choice (I don’t have one yet) but they seemed to be a good enough entry level product that I could become familiar with using them.
Youtube has a few videos (here and here) that illustrate the basics well enough. I watched these and learned – adjustment, using them on hills, both up and down, and traversing. No sweat, I thought to myself. This will be easy.
When the poles arrived, I took them out to the nearest patch of countryside and took them for a spin. After a bit of fumbling around (all right, a lot of fumbling around) I had them at the right length and fitted to my hands, strap in the correct position and all. I set off down the trail and within a few strides found my rhythm: left foot-right stick, right foot left stick, etc. Yeah, it was easy as long as I stayed on a straight, level and smooth trail. When I hit the first obstacles, it threw my rhythm off and I nearly speared myself through the foot. This was going to take a wee bit more practice, I thought.
Fast forward two weeks. By now, I’ve done a fair bit of hiking with them, pretty close to 50 kms I reckon, and over a wide variety of terrain. I’m getting quite comfortable with them even though I’m by no means in the expert category. Here’s what I’ve learned so far.
- They are great on flat country trails but are trickier to use on uneven terrain. When going up or down rocky trails, gullies and so on, I find I have to pay close attention to stick placement.
- Much of my hiking has been up and down steps. These steps however vary in height, width and steepness. I found that the easiest way for me to ascend was by planting the stick next to my foot, left stick with left foot, right stick with right foot.
- With some of the higher steps it was easier to double plant the poles and pull myself up with both of them.
- Going down steps is magic. I extend the poles to the maximum and plant them as far down as I can comfortable reach. There’s far less stress on my ageing joints and I can descend faster and more safely.
- They are a royal pain in the arse to use when the trail is at all overgrown. They snag on bushes and it’s not possible to use the two of them. I end up using one in front of me for assistance and carrying the other.
- These poles come with removable rubber tips. I find I prefer the rubber tips when I’m on the steps or on rock. They offer good grip without the annoying clicking sound I get with the tungsten-carbide tips. The metal tips are better on softer ground, however.
I still have a way to go before I’m using them really effectively. There’s a nice ridge trail overlooking the city that will be good practice. It’s about three kilometres to the top of the ridge climbing up to 550m, about 6 kms of undulating, up-and-down trail and 3 kms back down again. It will also make a nice break from trudging up and down that damned hill. Soon. When I get a day off work. And the weather cools down.