Hiking poles are a great idea for active senior hikers

Five reasons you should consider hiking poles

“Hey Mister! Are those ski poles?”

“Daddy, why is that man carrying metal sticks?”

“Look at that man’s big nose – he must pick it all the time!”

That last quote from my young nephew occurred while I was chaperoning him at the mall. I apologized to Big Nose Guy and then bought my nephew an ice cream sundae because, after all, I’m not a very good guardian.

So, what does my nephew have to do with this post? He grew up to become an accomplished ultra marathoner, trail runner and amazing athlete. Some of his races are 100 miles over steep terrain. And he finishes under 24 hours. Yet, one day I took him on a leisurely eight-mile hike and he was amazed at how nimble and fast I traversed the trail. I even had to hold the outdoor juggernaut’s hand to help him cross a small stream.

My advantage? It was the poles.

I began using trekking poles in my late 50’s. My wife purchased them first, after a harrowing moment while hiking across a snowfield. Since that watershed moment, she’s become a huge fan of poles, and so have I.

The main reasons I now hike with “sticks.”

Fitness. I hike farther and faster with poles. Some of my treks are for fitness and training; others focus on leisure and photography. During all of my hikes, the poles add rhythm and stride. And it makes sense that anytime you exercise both your upper and lower body, you improve your workout. My wife likes them because she feels less tired after a trek. And she can hike longer distances.

Balance. The older I get (now 62), the more likely I’ll fall. I have reluctantly accepted that fact. And my chances of stumbling and toppling over will only increase with age. As a matter of fact, it’s already happened. That’s the main reason I hike with poles – to improve my balance and confidence. I really notice a big difference both climbing and descending. I can’t remember the last time I slipped. And I sometimes hike in rain and snow. In addition, trails have uneven surfaces and the poles assist in leveling those spots.

Crossing streams. Even though this relates to the “balance” advantage, I think it deserves special mention. Many of our favorite hiking trails feature creeks and streams, which are often the reasons why they’re our most beloved destinations. We really enjoy hiking along running water – it’s more relaxing and scenic. On some of these trails, small bridges cross the streams; on others, you’re expected to portage them over rocks and logs. And poles provide excellent footing while stepping from slippery stones to rocks to logs to the other bank.

Hiking poles help balance and lessen impact on joints

Deterrent. You won’t find this benefit on any product label, but hiking poles can serve as a wildlife deterrent, even though most people are unlikely to be confronted by threats. You can wave poles above your head and appear taller, a strategy frequently written about for scaring off mountain lions and black bears. I also hike in marshy and coastal areas thick in ground vegetation and grasses, good cover for venomous snakes. I sometimes lead with my poles along dense trails, which makes me feel a little more safe and increases my chances of not surprising a copperhead or water moccasin. With that said, confrontations with wildlife are rare, so consider this advantage as simple peace of mind.

Extending my career. I’m getting older and several joints are starting to deteriorate. Someday they’ll require replacement. I’m hoping to hold out until medical science invents a handy dandy do-it-yourself home knee and hip replacement kit, which I’m sure is close to a beta test. If I’m wrong about that surgical advancement, then my hiking poles are my best bet for extending my career on the trails. They cushion my stride and take pressure off my joints.

Getting started with hiking poles

As silly as it might sound, we watched a video on how to properly use our poles before taking to the outdoors. It was time well spent. Plus we’ve solicited great advice from smart clerks at outfitter stores, like REI.

Hiking poles make great gifts for the difficult-to-buy-for outdoor enthusiast. Yes, I realize that some people believe they don’t need them. But from my point of view, they have made me a more confident hiker. And they will extend my hiking years beyond what my body might have tolerated without them.

Advice on buying poles

It’s all about grip. And what feels comfortable. That’s my best advice.

I love cork handles, yet my wife uses synthetic grips. She also wears bicycling gloves while hiking with poles; I only wear gloves on longer and hillier hikes. We also value weight, the less the better, so we’ll pay more for an ultra-light pair of “sticks.”

Some people prioritize poles with shock absorbing features, to ease any stress on upper body joints. That’s a nice feature, after meeting my priorities of comfortable grip and weight.

We sometimes hike in snow, so we also make sure that baskets can easily snap on and off our trekking poles. It’s a little thing to consider.

Most major brands offer a line of collapsible poles for easy adjustment and efficient packing during travels. We’ve owned Black Diamond and Leki, two of the major players. REI carries them along with their own branded poles. MSR (Mountain Safety Research) and Mountain Smith are other options.

Synthetic grip
Cork grip
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  • Cynthia Charles

    This is a fun and informative article. I’ve never hiked in snow, so can you please explain why someone would attach a basket to a pole in winter? For example, would a basket be useful to carry a thermos of coffee, or other essentials like chapstick and sunscreen? My perception is that it would add some weight and extra difficulty to hiking in snow. Thank you in advance for your answer.

    • We reached out to Jim and this was his reply — “Wouldn’t that be nice if hiking poles had cup holders, turn signals and a glove compartment. On a more serious note, the attachable baskets on the tips have made a big difference, even in summer alpine areas. I’ve hiked starting from dry elevations up to trails covered in old snow. And the baskets provide stability and safety by keeping my poles from breaking through an ice crust. I also enjoy winter hiking and the baskets are essential. Thanks for the comment and I’m going to email Black Diamond and Leki about adding WiFi to my poles.”