Friday, September 19, 2014

Walking Sticks and Trekking Poles

reaching the top of motorcycle hill, Mt Denali  

I only started using a trekking pole to combat a chronic knee ache. As I use and read articles about this – it became more obvious that having a ‘3rd leg’ (even 4th for double pole use), is not just to prevent or react to problems like cramps, muscle fatigue or aching knees, etc, - but also to improve performance!

If you are one of those non-believers of sticks and poles – just imagine the extreme scenario of hauling +100lbs of sled coupled by a monstrous 90li backpack!  On a soft, sliding snow!  (This Denali picture would be a good example scenario). Pure leg power, although feasible for superman and a few gifted men/women, will simply not be enough if one is walking for many hours, for many days, for many weeks.   The transfer of some work to the upper body does 2 things – it utilizes under-used muscles thereby maximizing one’s capacity, and it consequently prevents over-using and abusing the same set of muscles or body parts.  Knees and leg muscle are subject to ‘breaking’ and fatigue or cramps (respectively) and a good transfer of load (from legs to torso, to arms and to poles) are but crucial in long hiking, climbing, even running sports.

There are many types and kinds of trekking poles.  The one used for skiing is normally ‘fixed’ while most modern trekking poles are adjustable in length.  Some have internal shock absorbers to reduce elbow/arm ‘thuds’ and vibrations, some have changeable end-fittings (mud cap, snow stoppers, simple pointed end) depending on the use, some have different grip and leash types. Cheap versions could run from 25US$ to 30$, and the more expensive could be double that. I’ve tried many versions and they all served me well. ;)  For me, similar to backpacks, this is one of the outdoor pieces that don’t require over-design, or for the buyer, an over-thinking to select.  “It will work just fine.”

Lately, I’ve been experimenting and promoting the use of local materials such as bamboo or sturdy wood pieces to reduce metal/plastic use (i.e. Earth-friendly).  I’m hoping that sooner, we’ll have these available in our local market.  No more reason to say “it is so expensive” or hard to acquire.  

left pic - my bamboo pole with 10ft accessory cord (in quick-release fashion) as leash/hand rest-loop. right pic - my wooden stick with aba-cord wrapping and leash, both cord (10ftx5mm, 7ftx3mm) are removable for emergency use. more on abaca-cord here

Here are some tips on proper use.
a.      Generally, the ‘grip point’ length of the pole/stick/shaft is when the forearm runs parallel to the ground,  around 90degrees in angle vs. the upper arm.  Easy to say in words, but terrain changes very frequently especially in a thick jungle – but a good enough rule to be observed to maximize pole use. Collapsible types (either screw or quick-release) allow easy change of length.  Dirt or ice freeze (in the connecting joints) can sometimes pose a challenge though.
b.      “Put weight on the leash and less on the grip.”  I notice many shaft/sticks have leash only to prevent accidental lost of stick.  Long treks will necessitate energy conservation. Gripping (while pushing down) requires more energy (ergo – faster muscle fatigue), vs. putting weight on the wrist, while ‘resting’ your weight on the leash.  Leash are normally adjustable (the modern types) either for size (ex. wearing gloves require more ‘room’) or for pole length.
c.      “Two is always better”.  Use two poles for long and heavy hauls (think polar exploration, or Denali, or Vinson – both require sled use), or even just long treks.  It will be tricky only when you traverse a dense jungle or scramble a steep and narrow path (but where you may choose to simply stow one or both).  Speaking of quick stowing, in not-so-dense trails, you may choose to shorten the pole first then sandwich it between your lower back and backpack, through the shoulder straps to prevent accidental lost. More like how ninjas wear their swords but more horizontal and lower vs. diagonal. 

d.      “Shorter on uphill, longer on downhill.”  If the trail/path is steep, either adjust the length to make the stick shorter, or change the position of your grip (for fixed-length poles).  You don’t want to be over-reaching so high. For downhill, you’d want to maximize the length so you’d ‘touch the ground before your feet.”  
e.      Vary your holds.  To lessen fatigue of each muscle group.  Thumb use for example (on pole top or on leash) adds a bit of help and reduce overuse of grip.  Cane hold – or just palm atop the smooth pole/stick also reduces stress on wrist and grip.  If you’re only using 1 pole, switch left and right hands.
f.       Front and side.  As much as possible, drop your stick point on front-side (not directly in front) to avoid tripping on your own pole.  Linger weight ON the stick or pole while making a step (think old man using cane).  This trick is especially useful for injured or pained legs.   

This phrase is old -  “I am strong I don’t need a walking stick/pole”. Overtime, you may realize that either you underperformed in some of your trips, or worse - suddenly acquire what many of us already have – bad joints!  
1. (ideal or most of the time) weight on the wrist/leash. longer leash allows hand to wrap around the leash (sandwiched between pole and hand).  2. weight on thumb/leash, useful esp. for short uphills.   3. weight on hand and leash while gripping the handle.
(pic added nov28.14) i experimented on some farm scraps (Meranti hardwood) and here's one.  this one I extensively used in my Bukidnon day-climb series.

1 comment:

Alisa Stevenson said...

Thank you for taking some time to write this post. Walking poles are very useful for hiking and trekking on long trails, or for harsher terrains. They give you support and balance and can be extremely useful when you climb downhill and you need additional support with steeper slopes. See more