I’ve reached a pivotal moment in my life as a hillwalker. After agonising for some time, I couldn’t put it off any longer. I have bought something I never thought I’d want nor need. At the click of a button, I’ve become the proud, if not slightly sceptical, owner of a new set of walking poles.
I know I’m a bit late to the party here; it’s hardly a new and innovative bit of kit. Poles are a common sight across the hills and the hiking community has been discussing their merits for a long time.
Yet they still divide opinion. Supporters argue they reduce fatigue and place less strain on our joints, thus reducing injury. While their opponents say they can damage the trails in our wild places and are completely unnecessary.
I’ve never used walking poles. The closest I’ve come is picking up a handsome twig as a teenager. I remember shaving off the knobbly bits with a Swiss Army Knife and fashioning it into a walking stick, convincing myself it had taken on the appearance of a beautifully-carved shepherd’s crook.
But the whole Nordic-walking-style-get-up of dual sticks is something that’s never appealed.
I’ve struggled with the idea of not having my hands free. I like to carry a small camera and graze on snacks as I walk. What do you do about map and compass work when you are holding the poles? Plus, I like the reassurance of being able to put my hands down on the more scrambly sections.
‘Surely they are just an extra thing to carry’, I thought. That certainly seems to be the case when I’m out and about, with lots of walkers strapping them to their rucksacks without ever seeming to use them.
Any doubts probably stem from when I did the Yorkshire Three Peaks Challenge as a teenager. We’d stopped at the side of the path for a quick refreshment break. A middle-aged chap confidently approached – adorned like a Christmas tree with shiny new kit. Clearly it had never been used. Full Gore-Tex waterproofs, a GPS unit dangling from a karabiner on his rucksack and two walking poles. ‘Excuse me gents – real walker coming through’, he confidently proclaimed in a deep voice as he strode past, sticking his chest out proudly.
From that moment on, I’ve had a deep distrust of walking poles. And I’d long dismissed the idea of incorporating them into my kit bag, leaving poles for the likes of skiers, Nordics and twits on Whernside.
Yet as I’ve ‘matured’, I’ve felt drawn towards the accessories section on various outdoor retailers’ websites. I started reading reviews in magazines and even watching videos on Youtube about the best technique for walking in four-wheel-drive mode.
Perhaps it’s an age thing. On a recent walk up Haystacks, my knee started to ‘niggle’ on the descent. A bout of tendonitis caused by an ill-fitting pair of smart shoes when I first started working in an office occasionally flares up too on steep and featureless ascents.
And as I’ve become more ‘serious’ about hillwalking, I’ve become interested in the ancillary uses of walking poles: My emergency shelter has a vent which doubles up as a ‘docking station’ for a walking pole to stop the roof from sagging; they can be useful for river crossings and probing boggy ground to make sure you aren’t going to end up knee-deep in sludge; plus they can help when evacuating a casualty from the hill, from giving much needed balance to someone with a leg injury, to constructing a make-shift stretcher. There’s no denying they can be a pretty versatile piece of kit.
All these thoughts flashed before my eyes in an instant, as I clicked ‘confirm order’ for a set of Robens trekking poles. They aren’t due for delivery for another week or so but I’m looking forward to taking them for a spin some time soon.
And even if I end up carrying them around strapped to the outside of my rucksack, at least any teenagers I pass will know I’m now a ‘real walker’.
I’ve taken my new poles for a spin and… what can I say… I’m sold! They improved not just my comfort but also my performance on their first outing. I’ll definitely be packing them for my mountain walks in future.