“Mondor’s disease,” I said to my walking companion. “Haven’t seen it for ages.” We were sat atop a Lakeland mountain, admiring its distant view.
My colleague had run out of conversation – we had been chatting for a good half hour – and he had changed the subject to health, knowing that I was a doctor. He massaged a cord-like swelling on the front of his chest, which was apparently hurting badly.
“Henri Mondor,” I continued. “A Frenchman. He described the disease in 1939. I bet it was caused by your walking poles.” I pointed at the two thin, aluminium sticks, perched precariously against a nearby rock. “It’ll get better without treatment,” I added, “but I would allow six weeks.”
Mondor’s is a rare inflammation of surface veins, has never killed anyone, but had appeared because my companion had been walking with poles. His arms had been working busily, and his chest veins had not liked it. That got me thinking.
When I was a youngster, I had concluded that walking poles were not an option, as only the elderly used them. How life has changed. Now I see walking poles almost anywhere, irrespective of a walker’s age. Endurance athletes, long distance hikers, and even those who simply desire a stroll. The disabled, too, often prefer poles to sticks. A pole seems less permanent.
History has it that walking poles were initially described by the Finns, as a way of training for the ski season, and were a natural development from the once popular cane. Canes first appeared in the late 17th century, generally an ivory handle on a Malacca shaft, and were more an indicator of status. Occasionally there was a sword hidden in the shaft.
Swords have now vanished, but walking poles are in, and I am an enthusiastic supporter. It was walking across the Alps that did it. For the first few days of my six-week wander, two top-of-the-range poles remained folded on the side of my rucksack. For reasons I cannot remember, I assembled them and gave walking poles a go. I have not looked back since that moment.
I use the unsprung variety, rather than sprung, as I can feel the ground better. I keep rubber ferrules on their carbide tips to avoid scratching rocky surfaces. When I walk, I want no one to know I have been there.
For length, I base that on my elbow being at a right angle when I grip the pole’s handle. Mountain lore suggests that poles should be shorter on the uphill but longer on the way down. That is true, but I do not have the time to continually adjust my poles, so I keep them long. When I go down, I hold them by the handle. When I go up, I grip them by the shaft.
I am a two-poler, not one, as I feel symmetrical and balanced. I never use the wrist loops as that is asking to break a bone if I fall. Should I tumble, I jettison my poles instantly.
Near the tip is something called a basket, which I keep as small as possible, unless I am walking through snow. Then the basket must be broad. If I am not using poles, I strap them to the outside of my rucksack, tips upward and covered. I learned that the hard way by once carrying poles inside my pack. I had punctured an expensive duvet jacket by the end of the day.
My companion, now content he had a diagnosis, was beginning to look upset. I asked him why.
“I love my poles,” he said. “Does my chest mean I’ll have to stop using them?”
I shook my head. “Just be gentle,” I replied. “Work your arms a little less.”
Walking poles can occasionally cause injuries of the upper limb and chest, as my companion had shown. Yet they offer confidence, make you walk faster, and reduce strain through the knee. A walker burns more calories with poles than without and shows improvement in both blood pressure and heart rate. Poles are especially helpful for conserving energy when walking downhill. Sprung or unsprung makes no difference.
Walking poles have other uses, too. That carbide tip? Point it at the wild animal that has decided you are lunch. I have chased away dogs, horses, bulls and nasty people. I have also used poles to probe the thickness of ice on a river, and the depth of snow on an Alp. I have used them to dry laundry, support a tent, as a monopod for a camera, and a backrest for a makeshift seat. I have even splinted a walker’s broken shin-bone with a pole until a helicopter took him to safety.
Think seriously about walking poles. They are more helpful than you think.
If you want to buy walking poles
Walking poles are now so popular that you are spoiled for choice should you wish to buy any, so prepare to be confused. Whatever they tell you, do not expect your poles to last forever. Some are expensive, some are cheaper, and you do not always get what you pay for.
Some reputable brands include:
I now use the Leki Micro Vario carbon design.
When I crossed the Alps, I used Black Diamond Distance FLZ but managed to bend them.
My favourite shops for walking poles are:
Leki Micro Vario carbon trekking poles (pair) – £165
Robens Ambleside C66 carbon trekking pole (pair) – £100
Craghoppers ProLite Twin walking poles – £65
Cunningham Trail Lite walking poles – £35
Features to keep in mind
It depends on how tall you are. I am 187cms tall and like my poles to extend to at least 130cms. The correct length of pole is what is needed to keep your elbow bent to a right angle as you hold the pole by its grip.
Aluminium – the most common and very reliable. If you accidentally bend your pole slightly, you can push it straight, but the manoeuvre is not always successful.
Carbon fibre – lightweight, better at dispersing vibration, and reducing the shock transmitted to the upper limbs. When it breaks, there is no going back.
There are many shapes, sizes and materials. These include dense foam, rubber, cork, and others. For example, Aergon by Leki.
I like the ones with a small ledge at the bottom of the grip, so my hand does not slip off. Grips can be angled forward, or straight. I am happy with straight.
Try a rounded grip top so that you can place it in your palm when going downhill.
A lower grip extension onto the upper shaft is helpful, as it gives something for the walker to grasp when going uphill, rather than readjusting the pole’s length.
I do not use the straps, but many walkers do. Be sure the straps are adjustable and are broad, padded, or both, to minimise the chances of blistering your skin.
Telescopic, folding or fixed length
The original walking poles were telescopic, but their twist-locking mechanisms could be damaged. I have broken many walking poles that way. You must look after the mechanisms as they can freeze, or even rust.
Folding poles collapse down to a smaller length than the telescopic variety, are lighter, and quick to use. They contain a plastic-covered tension cord that can be damaged.
Some trekking poles do not adjust in length, which makes them lighter.
Lever lock – simple to deploy, even with gloves on, although it makes the pole slightly heavier.
Twist lock – these are very common, but I have found them to be a nuisance, especially when dirt or moisture builds up inside the poles.
Interference lock – many of the folding poles have a lever lock at the top, but an interference format lower down. Very quick to use.
Originally a spring was used to reduce the shock felt by the upper limb when the pole struck the ground. Eventually the spring started to rattle, so I have never been an enthusiast for this technology. More recently, an elastomer has been used, which has no moving parts.
Made from either rubber or tungsten carbide.
Rubber tips absorb shock better from hard surfaces and are quieter. A rubber ferrule can sometimes become lost in mud. There are now curved rubber feet – fitness ferrules – that allow a walker to maintain forward momentum.
Carbide tips can make unsightly scratches on rock, but grip well, even on a rock’s surface.
If there is mud or snow around, baskets are helpful as they prevent the pole penetrating the surface too far. For regular walking, when the surface is not too soft, keep the baskets as small as you can. Some walkers choose not to use baskets at all.