Two summers ago, my family discovered trekking poles. We were out west, hiking in the grandeur of our national parks, and noticed early on in our travels that a lot of folks were using what looked like ski poles. We asked the pole wielders about them, and they all answered that they were extraordinarily helpful. So when we stopped in at a Wal Mart for supplies and noticed that they carried these items, we purchased a pair for each of us. We never realized that we had been missing them until we had them. Aside from the National Park pass itself, the poles were probably the best $100 we spent on that trip.
I’ll show you why. Try this:
Stand in your kitchen with the counter about six inches to the side of you. Lift one foot slightly off the ground, and try to balance on the other. If this is difficult for you, put one finger on the counter as you try to balance. If the one foot balance is easy for you, hold your hand up over the counter, and then try the one foot balance with your eyes closed (and catch yourself by grabbing the counter and opening your eyes when you start to fall). Now try the eyes-closed balance with one finger touching the counter.
It’s pretty amazing how that one finger, that tiny bit of sensory input, helps, is it not?
When you are hiking, you need to look ahead (to the future) and down (to the present). When you walk with the poles, you swing each one alternately out ahead, and gently hold on as you take a step to catch up with the pole, which ends its cycle at your side before you swing it out ahead again. Each pole touches the future and transmits information back to you so that your steps are adjusted accordingly. Even if you’ve never had any difficulty with balance, it’s fantastic how much more in-balance the poles allow you to be.
Most of the time, you swing your poles lightly, and hold them very lightly, as you move easily ahead. At times you need to hold them a bit more tightly and to put a bit of weight on them. Generally, you place your poles ahead of you by a step. But sometimes, like when you are stepping over a log, it’s more helpful to have one pole stay back and take a little of your weight as you lift your leading foot and pole over the log. Then you transfer your weight forward from your trailing pole and foot to the lead pole and foot after you’ve cleared the obstacle.
Although your poles help you, you always direct them. It wouldn’t work if someone else directed them. You point them in the direction you want to go, and they help check the stability of the ground ahead, the change in grade, the hardness of the ground. Your trekking poles can act as brakes when you feel you are losing control or gaining too much speed down a hill. They can help you catch yourself and stop a fall. They can help you pull yourself up a hill. But you are in control, you guide yourself, you plan your steps, and you carry yourself.
There are some times when the poles get in the way. When they do, when you want to stop and take pictures, when you are at a place where you need to hold onto railings with both hands, or when you just don’t want to walk with them, you can collapse your poles and stick them in your backpack. And you can pull them out when you need them again.
I cannot help but liken a hike to a medical journey, and a pair of trekking poles to your doctors, your personal medical advocate, and the rest of your healthcare team, when that team is working as it should be. Try reading this piece again with this analogy in mind, and please let me know what you think.