Is We Are Explorers writer Ruby finally embracing nerdy hiker chic? Or is there more to hiking poles than flexing your carbon-fibre content on other trekkers?
I used to delight in judging he who strolled past me on a hike, donning his branded shirt and matching branded pants, his clean hiking boots and hiking pack, his two glistening silver poles.
I’d walk past and smile my customary smile, internally elated at the fact that he looked like a cut and paste from an adventure brand catalogue. ‘He’s probably not a real hiker’, I’d think. ‘All the gear and no idea. Ha!’
My favourite was definitely the poles. Here I am, coasting along the Otford to Bundeena track and this guy’s got poles. Poles. What a loser.
I did the Jagungal Loop Track at the start of the year alongside WAE Assistant Editor Amy and a couple of others. She’d been lent a hiking pole for the endeavour from a mutual friend of ours. The group of us couldn’t help but chuckle. A hiking pole, really?
By the end of the 50km we were knackered, hauling our bodies and packs up Kosciusko National Park’s relentless terrain in 40-degree heat. The blowflies were lapping up the pools of sweat in our collarbones and taking chunks out of our exposed legs. Amy offered me her hiking pole and with reluctance I took it. If it would alleviate my exhaustion in any way, my pride would happily suffer.
I relied on that pole so much that by the end, my hands were blistered and sore. Did it help? I’m ashamed to say that yes, yes it did.
Then I did the Overland Track in Tasmania (in the off season), alongside my friend Rhianna from Team Timbuktu. She brought two poles with her and I laughed and went without. We started from Lake St Clair, doing the extra 12km around the lake and skipping the ferry. By the end of the first day I had found a stick and became so attached that I would backtrack if I left it by the side of a boulder after a snack break.
I completed the entire 80km with that stick, and I’ve gotta say folks, I’ve been well and truly converted. I fell in love with its misshapen body and the areas I’d peeled away on my lunch breaks. I learnt to appreciate every fall it caught and every exhausted lean it allowed after a steep incline. I whispered a prayer of thanks when I dug it into knee-deep snow and found an uneven surface before my hiking boots did.
‘See!’ Rhianna tells me.
‘See!’ says every other pole-loving hiker out there.
Okay, okay. I get the fuss. I’m sorry. You were right.
I decided to Google why exactly people (who seem perfectly fit and capable) use hiking poles. This is mostly so if I do invest, when I’m met with laughter from friends (and the eyebrow raise from other hikers) I can lay out the facts.
This is probably no surprise to anyone but me, but it turns out poles do amazing things for your joints. They reduce the accumulated stress on the feet, legs, knees and back by distributing the load across your whole body more evenly. When you’ve got a 20kg backpack, this is a welcome benefit.
Hiking poles also help with balance (which I learnt all too well walking through the rivers in Tasmania). They protect your knees when going downhill and improve your power and endurance when going up. According to the internet (the most reliable of sources!) you actually burn more calories because you’re giving yourself an upper body workout as well as a workout on your legs. Great.
I haven’t yet invested in a set of hiking poles, but the same rules apply when using a stick. You want your poles/stick to be long enough to allow your arm to be at a right angle, with your forearm parallel to the ground. It’s important that your pole/stick fits you as well as your backpack. If you haven’t been fitted for a hiking backpack, you should do that too.
So, readers, this is my public declaration of my newfound love of hiking poles. Fellow pole-using hikers, please take this as a formal apology for my arrogant snickers and judgemental eyebrow-raising. I am reformed. My life as a hiker has been transformed. Thank you.