Sticks and bones
By Dave Shuffett from April 2014 Issue
Credit: Sandy Bates
Aging wanderer makes the change to high-tech hiking poles
As the warm breezes of spring beckon me to hit the hiking trails, I have come to an emotionally charged crossroads in my life. It's about hiking sticks, which have been a big part of my outdoor life. Why is this causing me such distress? For the answer, I'll have to go back in time, way back.
I was 6 or 7 when I brought home my first hiking staff from the woods behind our house. It was a downed limb still sturdy enough to bear all of my 65 pounds. Even then, my imagination ran wild with all the stuff I could carve on it, if I could just get Dad to let me use his Case XX whittling knife.
My hiking stick obsession didn't diminish with time. Over the years, sticks piled up around the house and garage. I searched the woods for straight ones or vine-wrapped, curled ones. I looked in old barns for tobacco sticks in need of a new purpose. I whittled them, smoothed them down, and put pretty finishes on them. I even learned how to carve wood spirits on my sticks. Like a boy with a shiny new toy, I hoped that other hikers would notice my newest masterpiece.
Arthritis, likely coming from a lifetime of playing too rough, is now giving me aches and pains. So, as much as it saddens me, I am making the decision to switch to those fancy trekking poles made of high-grade aluminum or carbon fiber. And I'm finding out that trekking poles can benefit any hiker, not only those with joint pain.
Just like my wooden sticks, they take a lot of stress off the knees and legs and provide balance when you're crossing a stream or rocky area. But trekking poles, purchased singly or in pairs, have other features that have caught my attention. Many come with shock absorbers you can turn on or off with a twist—turn it on to help the old body take the shock of going downhill or turn it off on level ground. The poles also have interlocking mechanisms that allow you to adjust their height. Some are made with removable grips that turn the poles into screw-on camera mounts—a feature I will use regularly.
I'm looking at my best hand-carved sticks propped up against the wall. I suppose that's where they'll stay for now. Is this a happy ending? Maybe it is. I'll learn to love the high-tech poles, and I'll carve sticks for artistic purposes. And I'll continue to satisfy my deep-rooted need to wander, made a little easier thanks to technology.
• When buying trekking poles, stick with trusted, outdoor-sports brand names for quality poles that don't break.
• Research whether a single pole or a pair is best for you. Both kinds take the load off knees and legs and provide stability, but a pair may give your arms more of a workout.
• Read a detailed article or watch a video on how to use trekking poles online at www.rei.com/learn/expert-advice/hiking.html, scroll down to "Trekking Poles and Hiking Staffs: How to Choose."
DAVE SHUFFETT is a public speaker and host of Kentucky Life on KET, airing Saturdays 8 p.m. ET and Sundays 4:30 p.m. ET.