Do walking poles “save” your knees? How many poles do you need? How does the use of walking poles vary with terrain? Which type of pole is best for bushwalkers? Do poles need to be adjustable in length?
I am a convert!
Having just come back from a 3 day walk in the Flinders Ranges (Chace & Druid Ranges) there is no doubt in my mind that walking poles prevent injuries and assist to take some of the stress from your knees. This was the first time I had used walking poles off track in a rugged arid environment with scree slopes, thick bush, rocky outcrops, rocky river beds and bush 4WD tracks and they came out winners in each situation.
How could anyone not want to use walking poles I ask? Well perhaps my own situation can add some insight. 25 years walking in a variety of environments throughout SA, VIC, TAS and NZ and never once used walking poles on an expedition.
Walking poles are heavy. They get in the way when you are walking. They are likely to break. They cost too much. Just another piece of useless technology. Only those past their prime need them.
These are some of the arguments you hear when walking poles are being discussed by the unconverted and I have to admit that I have used some of them in the past.
Well my conversion wasn’t instantaneous. I found myself using two poles on the wet grassy slopes of the Mitcham foothills during my training walks. Previous experience had shown me that descending steep muddy slopes covered in wet grass was a catastrophe-in-waiting. Several times on every walk I found my feet slipping out from under me on the steep descents and on one occasion I fell flat on my back and it has taken months to recover from the damage. So walking poles were the solution. No more falls a few stumbles but each time saved by my poles.
What are the disadvantages?
Obviously weight, difficulty of stowing inside or outside your pack and more importantly over reliance upon poles, so that agility and balance suffer. No one can say the cost is too great as I have seen them on sale for as low as $19 a pair.
Do you need two poles?
This depends largely on the terrain and whether you need support on both sides at once. The track to Frenchmans Cap in Tasmania is an example of terrain where you need two poles, as the track is very muddy, incised, narrow and often filled with muddy water, making the edges invisible. Two poles allow you to straddle the track , so that a sudden slip to one side can be caught by using the appropriate pole.
In other environments, such as thick scrub, two poles would get in the way and can actually lead to falls as they get caught in the bush.
I found that one pole was more than adequate, for both climbing and descent. Just like the early bushwalkers such as Warren Bonython used when exploring the Flinders, although undoubtedly a lot lighter and more versatile than they used.
WARNING: using only one pole can lead to additional strain on the leg opposite the pole as weight is taken off the leg closest to the pole and you may find yourself with a sore knee. I am reassessing my advice that one pole is adequate, after having experienced knee pain for the first time. Another member of my group, also using one pole, had the same sore knee.
Do poles need to be adjustable in length?
I found that for descending poles need to be longer than for ascending, so the ability to adjust length is important, although there are ways around this problem. Some would argue that adjustable poles are more likely to suffer from failure and are difficult to repair.
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