Jeffrey H. Ryan Hiker Author Photographer Speaker Podcaster Director

“You have the knee cartilage of a 24-year old”

That’s what my doctor announced after reviewing x-rays taken when I was age 58. 

After hiking over 8,000 miles in three decades — most with a pack weighing 40 pounds or more — the news didn’t surprise me much. Over the years, my knees only bothered me after really long days above treeline. I attribute some my exceptional knee health to genetics and injury prevention. But no doubt most of it was because I have been using hiking poles since 1995.

Some folks will swear that hiking uphill is the hardest part of the sport. I’ve always contended they have it backward. When you’re climbing, you can employ a lot of muscles — glutes, calves, quads, and in some cases, arms. But when you’re descending, all that pack weight seems to rely on one thing — your knees. Using poles lets you take a lot of that strain off of them. Poles also help you stay upright on tricky stretches of downclimbs, like picking your way down a steep rock face when there’s not much for your boots to grab. 

But there’s more. Poles give you four points of contact on stream crossings. Whether you’re walking across a log, trying to rock hop your way to the other side or wading across a knee-deep stretch of river, poles can keep you from taking a bath. 

Need more reasons? How ’bout helping you maintain a nice hiking rhythm while getting your arms involved in your workout?

Hiking Pole Choices

Hiking poles are offered in a dizzying array of options (twist-locking vs. cam-locking adjustment, aluminum vs. composite (such as carbon fiber) — not to mention various grip and basket options). Here are my suggestions for honing in on the best choice for you.

  1. Adjustment – I’m a “set it and forget it” guy. Some folks advocate adjusting the length of their poles for different types of terrain. I don’t want to fuss with it. I’d rather keep going. Nonetheless, ease of adjustment is a nice feature to have. I really like the double-locking mechanism on my Diorite poles.
  2. Durability – I’m really tough on my gear. I like the sturdy feel and proven durability of aluminum poles. They haven’t let me down yet.
  3. Price – For as little as $60, you can be dancing down the trail with added stability and support. From there, the sky is the limit. For example, ultralight carbon fiber poles with cork grips run closer to $200 a pair. 

A quick word about wrist straps — I never use them. The reason? I don’t want to risk shoulder or arm injury. Again, a personal preference thing. If my pole gets stuck (say between two rocks), I prefer the option of letting go rather than having my hand caught in a strap (even though many straps now have a safety release feature, I don’t want to rely on it). I do make exceptions (for example, when I’m crossing a stream, where dropping a pole would likely also mean losing it).

Do you really need hiking poles? Only you can decide. My hiking partner, Wayne, seldom uses them. I can’t leave the trailhead without them. But if your knees ever bark at you after a day on the trail, they are certainly worth checking out. Your knee cartilage may thank you, too!

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