You can usually tell the experienced hikers from the rookies on the trail. With only 3 years of hiking under my belt, I’m no longer a rookie you see, I’ve moved up to a novice. Not that I don’t make rookie mistakes on the trail now and then. Like the time I almost lit my friend’s JetBoil with the little foam koozie thing still on. Man, I might dedicate one of my future blogs to my rookie mistakes.
So back to the subject at hand – hiking or trekking poles. Almost every seasoned hiker uses them. Early on in hiking, it was with a single pole. Not sure why I started using one. One pole was ok, but it didn’t seem to make much difference. Either that or I wasn’t using it properly. After some research, it became obvious that I could have gotten by with less knee pain with two poles.
Most people will tell you that they use poles to lessen the impact on the knees. The knee is an amazing feat of design by our creator. It absorbs repeated pounding and tremendous weight over and over. The compressive force exerted on the knee going downhill is significant. One study revealed that the typical runner’s knee absorbed between 2-4 times the bodies’ weight. for a 150 lb hiker, that’s approximately 500 lbs each time! The average person’s stride is 2.5 ft. So, in a 10 mile hike, you take roughly 20,000 steps. So here’s some numbers that will blow you away. That’s over 10,000,000 pounds of force or 5,000 tons absorbed by your knees on this particular hike. Good golly, check my math on that one. No wonder my knees ache sometimes. Supposedly, a 1999 Journal of Sports Medicine study revealed that used properly, poles reduce the stress to the knees by up to 25%.
I bought my single trekking pole a partner and that’s when the benefits became obvious. With two poles, I developed better balance going downhill, didn’t slip as much, moved faster and even learned how to “spider” with them. Yes, I know arachnids have eight legs, but someone came up with the name for the technique. The poles even gave this boy some rhythm, where there was none before.
One of the reasons I took up hiking was to get some exercise. Using the same math as before, imagine lifting your trekking poles even 5,000 times on a hike. At an average of 10 ounces each, that’s over 3,700 lbs of lifting. Wow, who needs a Nordic Track? Back to the balance discussion – poles provide the stability when carrying a heavy pack on those extended backcountry trips. They are invaluable when you have to ford those fast-moving streams. Think about it, having 3 points on the ground at all times when crossing over those slippery rocks.
There are times when poles are a nuisance or even a hindrance. Bouldering or rock scrambling is not the time to be using your poles. Hand over hand climbing or bushwhacking through dense vegetation may be some other situations where they are best left strapped to your pack. Lash them down and stow them with the tips down to avoid skewering yourself in the neck or head.
If weight is an issue, then shelling out the money for lighter high-tech carbon poles may be for you. Expect to spend $150 or more for those. I remember a time on the A.T. where we ran into a fellow with 1 – 1/2 carbon fiber poles. We saw the other half of his pole 20 miles later in a swamp with thigh deep mud. The brittle carbon fiber pole was no match for the Maine muck. On the other hand, my $25 aluminum poles were going strong 200 miles later. Even something as simple as this comes with accessories. Rubber tips are more eco-friendly, mud and snow baskets will keep them from sinking down. Some have compasses and thermometers built into the handle. Handles are typically plastic, rubber, or even cork, with straps to prevent flinging them over the ledge when you point out the awesome scenery or mountain lion. I prefer cork handles since it is comfortable and doesn’t cause as much sweating.
Some other uses for trekking poles:
– The make great spears for self-defense.
– You can wrap duct tape around the shaft which can be used in emergencies.
– You can make a huge cross symbol for those trail vampires
– Use them to make noise so that you don’t sneak up on a bear or to scare away mountain lions. No, really.
– Sword fights or fencing around the campfire. Rubber tips on of course. 🙂
So, like anything else in hiking gear, you get what you pay for. If you’re not sure about the need for poles, borrow some from a friend or spend a small amount on an entry-level set. Your knees will thank you.
PART I: The Anza-Borrego Desert is an amazing place. I know, to think of the desert as amazing is weird. However, this desert in southeastern California is one of the most serene and beautiful places ever. Anza-Borrego is well-known to southern Californians for its’ desert flower blooms in the early spring. It’s also known for the miles of jeep/RV trails and horseback riding paths. Last year, we walked 7 miles down a jeep trail with the stiff desert wind filling our nostrils with the aroma of desert lavender. This time, we were hoping to go higher and find some elusive Desert Bighorn Sheep.
The intensity of the desert flower blooms in Anza-Borrego depends mainly on the amount of rain. This past winter was one of less than average rainfall, so research on the Internet indicated that it would be a less than spectacular display. Today’s goal was the Alcoholic Pass Trail, a path that would hopefully take us higher into the Coyote Mts for some views of the desert floor and Santa Rosa Mountains to the north. Arriving just in time for lunch, we spread out the blanket in the sand behind the car. It was almost like the beach except there was no water and lots of desert flora.
The weather in the desert is a bit unpredictable. In the early spring, it is fairly mild with few thunderstorms and constant winds. It was a mild 76 degrees. We hit the trail and the incline was steady with plenty of switchbacks and a lot of lizards. The perspective of the desert floor changed constantly as we went up. The barrel and fishhook cacti was colorful today.
We broke out into an opening where we signed the trail register. It was cool to write our thoughts and place them back inside a Vietnam era 7.62mm ammo can which kept the trail register out of the elements. Up ahead, we could see the Santa Rosa Mountains as we did some light bouldering and dropped down into the canyon. The vastness and beauty of the surrounding desert was awesome.
The trail ended at this point in a desert wash. I suggested that we climb an adjacent hill, and we picked our way to the top around various sized rocks and boulders. The terrain was so rugged that we had only walked 2 miles in a couple of hours. Normally, we hike twice as far. As we looked around, we decided to head back west toward a high ridge. Going off trail is usually an adventure and is where this blog gets interesting.
As we looked to the west, we picked out a reference and started making our way. The scrambling over rocks was challenging, but the grade was not too steep. Making our way through a few ravines, I commented about not seeing any footprints or horseshoe tracks. Mary casually mentioned that there weren’t any footprints because we were on rock. Sometimes, I just say goofy things. The late afternoon heat was apparent, but we each had 3 liters of water and were well hydrated. We stopped frequently to catch our breath as climbing over the boulders on this summit really helped us burn some calories.
We finally made our way to a high ridge and the terrain flattened out. I showed Mary a beavertail cactus and mentioned how soft the pads were – kinda like leather. I had touched one earlier in the day, and thought that it was weird that a cactus didn’t have needles. Mary, who trusts me almost implicitly, gently stroked the cactus and agreed that it was “velvety”. We continued up the ridge. I was in the lead and within a few minutes, she said, “Oww, I have something in my fingers”. Looking at her hand, I was surprised to see about a dozen or more tiny cactus spines lodged in her fingers. I tried to get out as many as possible, but the plastic tweezers in the 1st aid kit, were too big. I felt bad for her and learned a valuable lesson – don’t pet the cactus. Actually, Mary probably learned a valuable lesson too-don’t believe everything John says.
After reaching the ridge, we started to pick our way down the mountain. No trail here, just an escarpment of boulders and scree (talus) that moved beneath our feet. 900 feet below, the desert floor teased us. There was no path here, and the grade varied between 30-100%. A 100% grade is equivalent to about a 45deg angle. Covered with loose rock, it was not fun or safe, so I tried to avoid the extreme grades on the way down. So, the off trail adventure turned into a “hiking down the talus slope” adventure. My wife, who I am now convinced is one of the toughest girls you will ever meet, extended her hiking poles and followed me down the mountain.
We were doing fairly well, and the altimeter on my GPS indicated we had dropped down about 500 ft. but picking the path down was difficult. Oh, we did see evidence of the Bighorn Sheep. Lots of “sheep dip” on cliffs and under boulders, but no sheep. I remember our conversation going down as we joked about how crazy it was for two fifty+ year olds to be doing this and how the sheep were probably laughing at the bipeds slowly making their way down. Then it happened. I remember hearing rocks and gravel tumbling down behind me and by the time I turned around, she was on the ground with a dazed look on her face. Mary had slipped and rolled down the hill about 10 feet. Her hat and poles were behind her and she asked if her head was bleeding. She told me that other than bumping her head, she felt a bit lightheaded. I did a quick assessment to ensure she wasn’t seriously injured and then she told me something that we will laugh about for years to come. In a calm and monotone voice, she said “There’s a rock on my arm”. I glanced over and yes, there was a 5 lb. slab of granite on her forearm. Hoping that it wasn’t attached to her arm, I lifted it off and tossed it aside. We spent the next 10 minutes or so ensuring that she was ok, prayed together and asked the Lord to give us a safe journey and we continued down. Other than taking it a bit slower, she never complained or whined about anything. She was a bit upset about the tear in her pants, but I assured her that REI would take anything back.
NEXT: Hummingbird, stars and Hedwig.
- Anza-Borrego Wildflower Update 3/11/12 (naturalhistorywanderings.com)