In Defense of Trekking Poles

I’ll admit it. We’ve started to use trekking poles.

While many people will be in support of this decision, some are likely to ask “why?”.  The old me certainly wouldn’t understand this decision.  Maybe I’m getting old, but I have to admit that I appreciate using them.

Original Perceptions

I used to think that using trekking poles while hiking was cheating on the trail.  I perceived using them as a sign of weakness and lack of fitness or technical ability to handle challenging terrain.  I also considered them a way for people to accelerate their pace – going much faster than I could imagine as an enjoyable pace.  For how we hike, pace is important since it throttles how much of the scenery we can take in (one of the main reasons we go on hikes in the first place!). Going too quickly means you can miss a lot. Too slow means you stay in one place too long. I’ve never really understood hitting the trail at a very fast pace.  This perception of hiking poles, and what kind of person you are if you use them, was so strong that when we did our first section of the PCT I remember thinking to myself “gee… trekking poles” when we saw someone pass by. I remember the two of us chuckling about it on the trail and lightly shaking our heads.  However, throughout that hike my opinion started to change.  I’ve found that trekking poles aren’t just useful to keep you from killing your knees; they have other benefits I never considered as well.

Trekking Poles Save Your Knees

The most obvious reason for using trekking poles is that they help distribute the load and as a result they can “save your knees”.  They help both when ascending and descending, although when things are a little flat that is where it can get a little awkward.

Going uphill: you can use the poles to both stabilize yourself and to help pull yourself up.

Going downhill: the poles can be used to control the rate you are going down and the overall impact you make with the ground on each step.  I can’t understate how useful the poles are going downhill.  While I can definitely descend a technical trail without poles, it’s just much more comfortable to use the poles. Especially by the end of a day of hammering downhill when my legs start to get a little tired and I am more likely to misstep.  Climbing down large rocks or drops is nice – I can put the poles down firmly and lower myself using my upper body strength instead of having to slide down or make a leap.  Like I said before, each individual time you do this it doesn’t seem like much, but at the end of the day it makes a huge difference.

 

Trekking Poles Keep You From Tumbling

Trekking poles are also good at adding stability.  This is also an obvious one, but some of the specific cases may not be so obvious.

Boardwalks: I never considered this before, but I’ve found the poles to be useful to help stabilize myself on wet boardwalks.  Stepping onto a wet boardwalk and going for a slide is a terrible feeling.  Boardwalks can be dangerous (slippery, unstable) but this danger is totally kept under the radar. They just seem to be stable and clean compared to the soft ground but the only times I’ve ever had a hiking companion get injured on a trail is on a boardwalk. I’ve had plenty of close calls myself.

Loose Rocks:  Loose rocks or stones can be exhausting; it takes a lot of effort to just avoid a rolled ankle. A nice feature of trekking poles is that you can “test” out larger stones before stepping on them to make sure they truly are stable.

Slippery Terrain:  Much like the boardwalks and loose rocks, the trekking poles in general help save yourself from falling.

Other Uses

Parting the Sea: I tend to find sloughing through thick, tall grass or plants to be exhausting, especially when they are wet.  While I have never used a trekking pole to help push the brushes away from me as I hike through them, I have used sticks.  This also keeps tall, wet grasses from soaking your clothes.

River Crossing:  This is where I think I will find a lot of use.  Crossing larger streams or rivers can be challenging without a stick of some sort (I simply refuse to do it without some additional support).  The trekking pole just guarantees you have a stick available that is the right height and strength to get it done.  I haven’t crossed any larger streams with my trekking poles yet, but I have found some use crossing smaller creeks on day hikes.

Other Uses: Of course there are plenty of other uses for the trekking poles. We’ve looked at getting an ultralight tent, and use our trekking poles as tent poles.  We love our Hubba Hubba, so we probably won’t do this right away, but the idea is tempting.

Not Just Dead Weight

While I’m sure nothing I’ve said here comes as a surprise to anyone, I still think I need to say that: yes, I am sold on the trekking poles. We will be using them on our multiday trips from now on. They aren’t just single use items that are dead weight all of the other times. And if you get a light enough set on sale (we got the Black Diamond UltraDistance Z-Poles on sale at MEC) then there really is very little weight penalty for something that helps negate the impact of carrying a pack all day.

Sunshine Coast Trail Maps

One of the biggest challenges in planning our Sunshine Coast Trail hike has been finding suitable maps. Ideally I would like a set of maps that covers the entire trail at 1:25,000-50,000 scale, topography, terrain and most importantly – includes the trail on the map.

The US is better than Canada in this way – the USGS maps are great, including topo information and trails. Canada unfortunately doesn’t seem to have any maps that offer this level of detail. NR Canada and GeoBC both offer excellent maps that include topo data and road information, but they do not include hiking trails.

The Sunshine Coast Trail website only includes a large overall map of the trail and then refers you to purchase a book for more detailed maps. The maps in the book are unfortunately not ideal – the maps are all different scales and not in colour which limits their usefulness. (Overall the book is not useful, I’ll address that in another post.)

Ideally a good alternative in my mind would be to use CalTopo to generate a map with either the NR Canada or GeoBC map and GPS tracks of the trail over top. Unfortunately no one appears to have recorded GPS tracks of the trail and posted them online.

Solution

OpenStreetMap has the majority of the trail on their maps and the cycle map layer includes topo data. Google Maps also has some of the trail on their maps, so I will use that to supplement portions that are missing on OpenStreetMap.

So the plan is to use CalTopo to generate a map with OpenStreetMap and Google Maps and GPS waypoints taken from the book over top. Adding the GPS waypoints is rather tedious though so it is still a work in progress. When it is complete I will post the final maps here – hopefully they will be useful to someone else as well.

Why the SCT?

When you think about it, the decision to hike the trails you do can be a personal question with no right answer.  It’s easy to judge a trail or a person hiking it based on some criteria that maybe doesn’t matter to someone other than you.

It’s a bit of a meta experience, but while hiking I sometimes like to think about what I actually am getting out of hiking. What do I like? Why did I choose this trail? Where do I want to go next? In ten years, what kind of trips will we be taking?

For now, we have some pretty mixed requirements for hiking trips. In general, I would rank seclusion and views near the top of the list.  Just having the ability to walk and hang out, whether we are talking or just spending some quiet time together.  For me, that’s my main requirement.  After that it really depends.

For day hikes we prefer hikes that can be accessed by public transit; and often we will choose ones that are challenging enough to make sure we are in shape enough by the time we get to do a larger planned multiday hike.

But for multiday hikes it really depends on circumstances.  This summer we are planning on hiking the JMT. We both have three weeks off of work and are planning like crazy for that trip. But this spring we are hiking the SCT, which is described as “easy to moderate” and “family friendly”. This doesn’t fit our usual type of hike. But that’s OK.

So why are we hiking the SCT?  Well…  it’ll be really pretty. It will be interesting to do, and I would really like to catch that trail before it gets as popular as the WCT.  It also fits really nicely into the vacation slot we have available.  I have earned some time in lieu at work and have some vacation carried over, and so we have about a week and a half (including weekends) to do something. And the SCT can be done with only a little planning. We can’t forget that it is close to home, easy to get to and any accommodations and services we hire will be supporting a nearby community (where some of our friends and colleagues grew up!).  The huts are interesting, and it’s something we can hike in early April. And, well, in about 10 years maybe we want to do this with a hypothetical kid of ours, so I guess we can check it out now and see if it makes the list later.

So even though the SCT is something quite a bit different than we are used to, I am really looking forward to checking it out.  We will be sure to post notes about planning the trip (including any new resources we put together), as well as reviews and notes about the trail itself.

Hello World!

Welcome to Backpacks & Bike Racks! A blog about hiking, biking and other outdoor endeavors.

We are a young couple living in Vancouver, BC who enjoy the outdoors. I commute via bike during the week and we hop around town on our bikes on the weekends. We are lucky enough to live in a city with excellent cycling infrastructure and we enjoy taking advantage of it.

On weekends we also go for day hikes up to the local mountains and in our spare time we plan out longer trips for the spring and summer.

When planning some of our recent hikes we found that some of the information we wanted to find just wasn’t accessible. So we decided to make the information we compile for ourselves also available to others.

Outside of hiking and biking, we enjoy playing boardgames and are a bit on the nerdy side – it isn’t unheard of for us to cosplay as characters from Firefly or a Doozer.

I hope you enjoy reading!