TACOMA, Wash. — You know what it looks like when circus clowns cram into a tiny car? That’s what came to mind as I loaded my backpack for a week on the Wonderland Trail, pushing it to the point of unnatural strain and bulging.
Forty-three pounds of gear into this jam session, the last of the 10 outdoors essentials were checked off, leaving just enough room for a nonessential paperback and a somewhat essential summer sausage.
Illumination? Check. Insulation? Check. Hydration? Check.
Then my mind reluctantly turned to an “-ation” you won’t find on the standard wilderness survival list.
Stabilization. To check or not to check?
On the one hand, a pair of trekking poles (or even an old set of ski poles) could bring balance to the universe. Or at least to the legs of a 40-something-year-old newspaper editor on a 93-mile, counterclockwise gauntlet around Mount Rainier.
On the other hand, it seemed like an act of surrender.
I had never used trekking poles. All my hiking life, I’d been a contented biped. Now and then, I would pick up a tree branch from the side of a trail for help fjording a swift stream or, more likely, because it made a cool-looking Jesus stick. But I would always discard it after a mile or two.
Even when my pole-wielding trailmates scurried past me down the snowfields of Mount Adams a few years ago, I stuck to my minimalist ways — one slippery foot at a time.
While some purists might go pole-less out of slavish devotion to ultralight hiking or the John Muir experience, for me it represented a clenched fist at advancing age. Trekking poles were one small step removed from a cane or a walker. Using them would put me that much closer to the day when I do my hiking inside the local mall.
But backpacking the entire Wonderland Trail? This would be new territory. The sustained pace, the long uphill and downhill grades with a 43-pound clown car on my back? I decided, in the words of the great songwriter Bill Withers, that I might need someone — or something — to lean on.
So I borrowed a pair of trekking poles from a buddy. Now, in the words of the great songwriter Neil Diamond, I’m a believer.
— They might save your life, or so it seemed during white-knuckle stretches on our trip last summer. Having more than two contact points with the ground improved our odds of not taking a spill on Day 6 as we descended the eroding trail along Stevens Canyon, and again on Day 8 as we carefully traversed steep patches of snow through Panhandle Gap by dawn’s early light. (Even in mid-September, we had to cross 10 separate patches that morning, by my count.) Poles are well worth the occasional hazard of catching in the brambles or getting stuck between planks on a wooden footbridge.
— They will save your breath, and the exertion of taking off your pack too often. During the Day 4 climb from the North Puyallup River Bridge to the stunning vistas of Klapatche Park (1,800 feet of elevation gain over 2.9 miles), I was grateful to have poles to lean into during the endless switchbacks and to support me like a crutch during 30-second rest breaks.
— They will extend the warranty on your knees. According to a 1999 study in the Journal of Sports Medicine, using poles on a 25-degree downhill grade lessens the compressive force on knees 12-25 percent; even on flat ground, there’s a 5 percent reduction. One of my Wonderland hiking partners was hobbled so badly the last morning between Summerland and Carbon River, he looked like Long John Silver, minus the parrot on his shoulder. Without trekking poles to compensate for his balky joint, we might’ve had to carry him to the car.
— They are more multi-functional than a Swiss Army knife. Use your poles to tap out a cadence on the trail to keep your hiking party in synch. Wrap strips of duct tape near the top for quick unspooling during adhesion emergencies. Mount your GoPro video camera on one of the handles. Prop up a sagging tent at your campsite. Break cobwebs, fend off attacking wildlife (note: may only be effective on squirrels) or gently prod the slowpoke in front of you.
When my birthday arrived this winter, the wife and kids answered my wish for trekking poles. They may not be on the standard list of outdoor survival gear, but they’re now on mine.
Any 40-something hiker should be pleased to have a pair to support his adventures for years to come.
But be advised: The carbide tips will scratch the floors at the mall.