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Paddling Articles In the Same Boat

The Paddler AshorePoles Apart

Another Leg to Stand On —
From Cow Cane to Trekking Pole

By Tamia Nelson

January 3, 2012

Sooner or later we paddlers have to leave our boats and get up on our hind legs, if not to portage or scout, then simply because — however much we like being on the water — we're basically land animals. A paddler who had to spend every hour of every day afloat would soon be in a predicament not unlike that of a fish out of water. Happily, few of us are so wedded to our diminutive craft that we find getting about on foot to be a burden. In fact, many of us enjoy hillwalking and snowshoeing as sports in their own right, and a small but growing cohort of amphibious outdoorspeople have discovered that cycling is a natural extension of paddling. (Does cycling belong with hillwalking and snowshoeing? I think it does. After all, a cyclist uses his legs to get him where he needs to go.) Of course, if you happen to live in the northern reaches of Canoe Country, you'll be locked out of the water for a good part of the year, anyway. Canoes and kayaks make poor icebreakers.

The bottom line? Paddlers are only paddlers part time. Much of the rest of the time we're pedestrians. And this isn't such a bad thing. Still, my introductory paragraph is a bit misleading. For many of us, walking involves more than swinging our hind legs back and forth beneath us. We're tripeds (or even quadrupeds) by choice. Like me, for instance. I take a walking stick whenever I go afield, even tucking it under my getaway pack when I go out in my little canoe. Regular In the Same Boat readers may recall that I've encouraged other paddlers to do the same.

And how many folks have I met who followed my example? Until recently, I could count them on one hand. But now that's changed. Suddenly …

Walking Sticks are Fashionable

And it's a fashion grounded in function. As you'd expect, though, "walking stick" is too pedestrian a label for the Mad Men of marketing. They've rechristened these venerable props "trekking poles," instead, and they're sold in pairs. (If single, they're "walking staffs." Never "sticks," let alone "canes.") By either name, you'll find examples in every outfitter's catalog.

Which, to my mind, is a Very Good Thing. But while I'm happy to employ a repurposed cow cane as a prop on my own rambles — I substitute ski poles or an ice ax in suitable terrain — I recognize that the universe of trekking poles and hiking staffs presents would‑be buyers with more complex choices. The benefits are about the same, however. These include …

Reduced Strain on Joints  If your knees have been around the block a few times and are now showing signs of wear, you'll appreciate having another leg (or two) to stand on.

Burden Sharing  Why should your legs do all the work? With a pair of trekking poles, your arms can share the load. This makes climbing steep slopes almost painless.

Improved Stability  It's easy for two‑legged travelers to slip on greasy rocks or take a tumble on muddy trails, but a walking staff or a pair of trekking poles can shift the odds in your favor. Tripods are inherently stable structures, after all, and quadrupeds seldom fall. You'll find this improved stability especially welcome on steep descents with a heavy load. (But remember that we're talking walking here, not climbing. If a descent is so steep that you need to use your hands, the best place for your trekking poles is in your pack.)

Intelligence  No, a walking staff won't raise your IQ, but it will give you valuable information about what lies ahead. Is that water‑filled sag in the trail shallow enough to shuffle through? Is there a hole in the riverbed waiting to give you a ducking as you wade? Is the ice on the pond safe? A walking staff or trekking pole can help answer all these questions.

Look, Ma, No (Swollen) Hands!  Ask any grunt. He'll tell you that if you carry a heavy pack for mile after mile your hands will start to swell. Sometimes they'll go numb, too. Not good. But gripping a pole or staff helps counteract this. (Swap hands from time to time if you only have the one staff.)

Keeping Overexuberant Dogs at Bay  The bears and the big cats will (usually) keep their distance, but you can't count on man's best friend to do the same. Still, if you do happen to meet the Hound of the Baskervilles on the trail, a walking stick allows you to offer him something to get his teeth into besides your arm. This gives the oh‑so‑apologetic owner a chance to remember where she's put her leash. (Helpful hint: It's probably draped over her shoulders.)

Convinced? Good. But if you don't think you'll be happy with something like my old cow cane ("Registered Holsteins: Breed of the Times"), you may need a little help navigating the confusing currents of the … ahem … Poler Sea. If so, you're in the right place.

Poles of Many Parts

Modern trekking poles and hiking staffs bear more than a passing resemblance to ski poles. Most have telescoping metal (usually aluminum) or carbon‑fiber shafts, wrist straps, hand grips (of rubber, cork, or plastic), and some sort of steel or carbide‑tipped traction spike. (This can usually be covered with a tip protector to limit the damage done to bare rock or paved sidewalks. Be sure you get one for each pole.) Many also have small baskets — for use on soft ground, rather than snow. Some of the more expensive models even incorporate shock absorbers, intended to limit the stress on users' shoulders. Do these work? I've no idea. But the notion seems counterproductive to me. I'm loath to expend energy compressing a spring. I'd rather use it to move my body down the trail. Then again, I'm no fan of shock forks on bikes, either, and these have a loyal following among single‑track enthusiasts.

Are you having trouble visualizing what I've described? I can't blame you. This is one of those cases where a picture really is worth a thousand words. So here's the picture:

Naming of Parts

The locking mechanism keeps the telescoping sections from collapsing when you don't want them to. And it can be a weak point, as a brief inspection of several inexpensive pole sets offered for sale at the local HyperMart proved. While it's handy to be able to collapse your poles for storage — not to mention the fact that you'll need to adjust the length to suit conditions — you don't want them to give way just as you put your weight on them. So use great care in evaluating the locking mechanism on any pole or staff you're thinking about buying. Better yet, take the prospective purchase for a test drive. (Or buy from a catalog outfitter who permits returns.) You'd rather have a pole fail on the showroom floor than on a steep slope, deep in the backcountry, with 85 pounds of gear in your pack, wouldn't you? The test drive is also a good time to check that (1) the grip and strap are comfortable, (2) the pole can be adjusted to fit without removing your gloves, and (3) the weight is acceptable. It gives you a chance to try out the efficiency of any shock absorber, too.

Of course, a modern trekking pole is a lot more complex than my cow cane. So it pays to enquire about the availability of spare parts, as well. (Baskets and traction spikes are both subject to wear, as are grips and straps. And larger baskets — if available — will allow a trekking pole to do double duty as a ski pole.) My cow cane has served me well for 40 years. If you want your new trekking poles to match this, you'll probably need some spare parts.

Cost? Well, cow canes go for as little as USD13 — or USD20 if you want a longer shepherd's crook. (You'll probably have to look around a bit before you find a shepherd's crook for sale, however.) Modern hiking staffs and trekking poles are somewhat dearer. Much dearer if you want the lightest carbon‑fiber confections. I don't. But you may feel otherwise.

A few paragraphs back, I mentioned the need to adjust the length of your poles "to suit conditions." This warrants a word or two of explanation. The ability to lengthen or shorten the shaft at will is one of the strengths of modern trekking poles. My cow cane is fixed at … er … cane length, as is my ice ax, while my ski poles reach from shoulder to snow surface. And though these lengths work well under most conditions, there are times when I wish my cow cane were longer and my ski poles shorter. None can be adjusted, however. So I cope. I don't have much choice. But you do. Or at least you do if you own a modern trekking pole or hiking staff. And what length is right for you? Well, most folks seem to end up with their poles at about shoulder height. This works fine for powering along on the level, but you may want to go shorter for climbing. Experiment, and while you're at it, make sure you're getting to grips with your grips in the best possible way. Some pole sets are designed with left‑ and right‑handed grips. Mixing and matching is not an option here.

Sole Music

Who'd have thought that something as simple as a walking stick would involve so many caveats and complexities? But that's the price we pay for technological innovation. Compare a slide rule to an electronic calculator. The calculator will do far more, and do it much more quickly, but the slide rule performs some types of calculations very well indeed — and it never needs new batteries. Much the same sort of thing can be said about …

"Old‑Fashioned" Alternatives to the Trekking Pole

Like my cow cane, for instance. Consider it as the physical embodiment of the time‑honored KISS principle. It's not much use in snow country — my ice ax and ski poles fill in as required here — but it does most of what I want a walking stick to do, and without the risk that a sharp carbide tip poses to the unwary. In fact, even a dead branch picked up along the trail will serve many woods walkers perfectly well. (Just make sure the branch you choose isn't rotten.) You say that molded grips and an adjustable‑length shaft aren't important to you? Don't worry. You're not alone. And you're in good company…


Snow Leopard


Now that winter has locked away many Canoe Country waters in an icy prison, canoeists and kayakers are compelled to forsake their boats for shanks' pony. And most of these stranded paddlers will appreciate a little support — like that offered by a good walking staff or a pair of trekking poles. What about you? Do you sometimes find yourself envying our four‑legged friends as you slip and slide about on icy slopes and treacherous trails? Well, don't let your envy consume you. Just go shopping for another leg to stand on, instead!



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