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 vs. aluminum/composite construction — not to mention grip and basket options). After trying a number of them, I keep coming back to the same combination — the basic three-section aluminum with twist-locking mechanisms made by Leki. Why?

  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. I suppose if I were in the other camp, I’d choose cam locking mechanisms that are easier to adjust on the fly. Then there’s the bulkier profile. Whether it’s justified or not, I don’t really trust the levers on the cam locking mechanisms from getting knocked open by branches or rocks along the trail. For that reason, I prefer the sleek, practically snag-proof profile of the twist mechanisms.
  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.

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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