Trekking Poles Aren’t Just For Old Dudes
I was raised by fashion magazines and refer to myself as a late bloomer when it comes to hiking, so I can’t help but notice a certain special hiking “look” that is native to National Parks. The wilderness is a judgement-free zone, however, and I’m certain if you dig deep enough, you will discover that the REI fit exists for a reason. Envisioning it now, I see wide-leg, pale gray, convertible “tech pants” in a lightweight, moisture-wicking fabric, wraparound sunglasses with croakies, a khaki boonie hat with a neck flap, and as always, trekking poles. This hardy, trend-bucking style exudes competence and confidence, the kind that only comes from decades of trail experience, and says “hold my kindle. I’m ready for my adventure now.”
I still haven’t embraced the wide leg tech pants and the boonie hat, but I’m now an owner of trekking poles and rarely go without them on a hike. What I’ve learned is that trekking poles are kind of like cheating, which is great news for the small subset of us who are mountain-obsessed but unathletic, at least compared to most thru-hikers. These retirees are onto something with those sticks—they know that trekking poles take away the pain better than ibuprofen. What’s more, if you squint your eyes enough, they actually look kind of cool, like you’re Grace Jones pulling up to the bumper.
This got me thinking about other ways to make hiking easier. Anyone can tell you that less weight in your pack and going to the gym regularly will help you climb a mountain, but there are other, more immediate ways to help yourself, as well.
Here’s what has made hiking easier for me:
Trekking Poles If you haven’t used trekking poles before, they can take some getting used to. Initially, I thought that the point was to stab the earth below me, rooting myself more firmly into the ground, but I quickly learned that I was leaning too heavily on the poles. Think of them more as two pedals designed to propel you forward on flat ground and inclines. Only on the descents do I use them as “brakes,” which has greatly mitigated, if not fully eliminated, my old lady knee pain. What clicked for me was imagining the trekking poles as a second set of legs, allowing me to evenly distribute the workload across all of my muscles, not letting my legs do all of the work.
Wool Socks I used to hike in whatever was available in my sock drawer—American Apparel, Hanes, some garbage I probably owned when I was 15. Do you really need $25 socks to go on a hike? No, but high quality, seamless wool socks like these ones from Darn Tough or these ones from Smartwool will make a huge difference in your experience. These socks are made from fine wool, making them durable but not itchy. Synthetic materials or cotton create a perfect breeding ground for blisters on your moist feet, whereas wool socks move the moisture off of your skin and into the air, where saltwater evaporates. They also regulate temperature.
Lightweight Shoes My first pair of hiking boots were Salomon Quest Prime GTX Hiking Boots for Women, which I intended to use year-round, but I use them only for winter hiking now. See that GTX? That stands for Gortex, meaning the shoes are waterproof, making them slightly less breathable and several ounces heavier than a mesh boot. I bought these because they are described as “one of the lightest boots available for backpacking,” and I loved them until I tried hiking in a lighter, non-Gortex, mesh version of them. Since I don’t hike very much in the snow, I prefer boots that have more ventilation. Having less weight on my feet, even if only a few ounces, makes going uphill easier.