For a long time, vanity was my only crutch. In my twenties and early thirties, I happily tramped over the Patagonia steppe, the mountains of California and the Desert Southwest, Alaskan fjords—and if such adventures weren’t exactly easy (that’s not the point, after all), they weren’t too difficult, either. I was young, with more than enough energy to push through pain and fatigue.
Then something unsettling happened. Around the age of 35, I realized I had knees. My joints were already beginning to wear.
At that point, a sensible thing do might have been to purchase a pair of trekking poles. But, well, as I said…vanity.
I didn’t want to look old, like those gray-haired hikers I pass in the high country, inching out the miles with the tap of their poles. Nor would I embrace Nordic walking, whatever that was. Start using trekking poles, and next thing I knew I’d be one of those guys wearing Birkenstocks with socks.
I kept hiking and backpacking. My knees kept bothering me. Vitamin I became a necessity—two to three tabs of ibuprofen after a day on the trail and another round before going to bed.
Then, a season before my fortieth birthday, I was mountaineering through the Gore Range of Colorado with a group of guys half my age and everyone was using poles. Against my better judgment, I borrowed a pair—and I never looked back.
Now I’m a believer. I’ll admit this is a shallow epiphany—to belatedly recognize when one needs help—especially when it involves one of the most ancient technologies. Humans have likely been using some kind of walking support since we went upright. But modern, manufactured trekking poles have one major advantage over a John Muir walking stick plucked from the woods: They actually work.
A walking stick gathered trailside will do in a pinch, but it won’t last for long. It’s usually either too short or too long. Or it’s too thin and weak, and will bust when put to hard use. Or it’s too big and fat, leading to hand cramps and blisters.
Modern trekking poles, in comparison, are engineered for performance. Once I understood how to use them correctly, they became an ideal tool: A human creation that amplifies the power of the human body. Once I learned how to use them perfectly, they became something more like a bionic appendage: Body and tool fused into one.
The most obvious benefit comes when humping uphill. I gripped the molded cork handles much like a fighter pilot does a center stick, fingers are pressed toward me, thumb pressed down on the top, driving weight into the ground. Biceps and shoulders took on some of the gravity usually reserved for thighs and hips. I learned you can displace into the upper body up to 50 percent of the work of walking.
They’re also great on flat portions of trail. Here, the poles flick forward with a flip of the wrist, keeping rhythm. The tick-tock of the tips on root and rock takes on a metronomic insistence. Miles trip past.
But for me, the biggest advantage comes when going downhill. On a descent, I grab the handles from above, fingers in a claw-grip, like the stick shift of a sports car. With an extra pair of limbs, you can let your weight drop downslope with confidence and make nearly twice the time you would without poles. The technique is almost simian—an upright biped returning to the use of hands to manage terrain. This ape-like movement seems strange at first, but after awhile it becomes something close to sublime: instinct overtaking the convention of walking with only two feet. This is how we were meant to move, I’ve found myself thinking.
Lately, I’ve come to appreciate my poles even more as I’ve started to hike with extra weight—first a squiggling 15 pounds strapped to my chest, and now a squirming 24 pounds in an aluminum pack on back. As a new dad, the added strength and stability provides peace of mind, especially when the conditions are less than ideal: ice in the winter, muddy trails in the springtime, fording a stream or maneuvering up a gulch.
On a recent hike in Point Reyes National Seashore, north of the Golden Gate Bridge, my passenger passed out right after lunch, and to keep her in slumber, I kept hiking without pause. She was all dead weight, all slumped to one side—and I was without my poles, which I had forgotten at home. The trek wasn’t exactly easy (that’s not the point, after all), but I did my duty and didn’t stop for six miles. The next week my back was a wreck.
I’m embarrassed to admit how long it took me to realize that, for the inveterate trekker, poles aren’t simply nice to have—they’re more like a necessity. It’s as if I suddenly realized that it’s better to have a hammer around the house than to try to bang a nail in by hand. And I hear, too, that Birkenstocks are in again.
Jason Mark is the editor in chief of SIERRA and the author of Satellites in the High Country: Searching for the Wild in the Age of Man.