They’re known as walking sticks, staffs, or trekking poles; but whatever you want to call them, I highly recommend using them. They are especially useful for hiking in the rugged canyon country of the Southwest. Backpacking puts extra weight on your knees, hips, and ankles; walking sticks can help alleviate the strain. They also give hikers added confidence, which tends to allow people to walk more naturally, and again, put less strain on your body. Using two sticks provides even more support than one.
There are many choices of sticks out there, from your basic wooden stick all the way up to high-tech shock-absorbing, telescoping trekking poles. Here are some of the features that the nicer models offer:
- Adjustability – The most important and useful feature is the ability to adjust the length of the sticks. When you are going downhill, the trail is further below you, so it helps to have the sticks adjusted to a longer length. Going uphill the sticks should be shorter. Adjusting the length also allows you to keep your arms at a comfortable height. When you are hiking for three to seven hours (or more) in a day, your comfort is of the utmost importance!
- Shock absorbers – Not imperative but a nice feature, especially for your wrists. Springs built into the walking sticks help prevent the jarring of your wrists and hands.
- Molded handgrips – These are molded to the shape of your hand which helps prevent blisters on your palms and fingers and even prevents excessive fatigue.
- Lightweight – They tend to be quite a bit lighter than wooden walking sticks.
- Collapsible – Collapsible walking sticks can be packed away when not in use.
Walking sticks can be rented quite inexpensively and are worth their weight in gold! Saying all this, even though the wooden sticks are not as nice, they are much better than not having anything at all! Phantom Ranch does a booming business in wooden sticks—not as souvenirs but as lifesavers. People get to the bottom and wish they have at least one!
To imagine the usefulness of walking sticks, imagine what it is like to hike in the Grand Canyon. First, to get to the bottom of the canyon, you have to hike at least seven miles of steep, downhill trail. And it’s a constant downhill without any uphill or level ground to give your downhill muscles and joints a break. You are carrying a heavy backpack, and to top it off, there are some intimidating drop-offs at the edge of the trail! Are you nervous? Usually, yes! Do you tend to walk stiffly and carefully to avoid falling? Definitely! Well, every time you take a cautious step down, you are putting tremendous pressure on your knees.
After seven miles (or 14 if you are hiking from the North Rim) of this constant pressure, knee problems can occur where you’ve never had problems before. If you use one or two walking sticks, your stride will be much more natural because of the added confidence and support. Your knees, hips, and ankles will thank you for it!
Using sticks spreads the exertion over your entire body instead of focusing it entirely on your legs. You can imagine how “fun” your hike out would be worrying about “blown-out” knees. And, contrary to popular belief, you can’t get a mule or helicopter ride out just by showing your gold or platinum credit card! As a ranger, I’ve seen many a grown person cry because of this!
Keep in mind that at the canyon, what goes down must come back up! It is the complete opposite of hiking in the mountains. Mountains weed out people getting tired hiking uphill. Unfortunately at the Grand Canyon, people hike down with no thought about the difficulty of going back up! You can avoid this problem by being prepared for it—mentally and physically. Walking sticks help tremendously in both categories.
A quote from a happy convert to walking sticks:
- Ten Reasons for Trekking Poles
- Walking Sticks & Hiking Poles
- Body Results – Outdoor Sport Strength and Conditioning