I must have looked a bit of a sight this summer, hacking up and down the mountains with a pair of ancient, mismatched Brasher hiking poles, both scratched to ribbons and with paint flaking off, one with a broken adjustable strap, and one with a cord loop and no basket. And both as heavy as a length of scaffolding – these babies were definitely pre- the lightweight revolution!
But, and this is the crucial point, they proved very useful on some long and very hot ascents and descents, so much so that I decided to equip myself with a lightweight, modern pair.
Until recently I was much more likely to use a single pole rather than two, which rather goes against the received wisdom, and that primarily when out hillwalking or carrying a heavier pack, say on a multi-day walk. I found it much easier to handle just the one when also faced with consulting the map, negotiating stiles, taking photographs, etc.
But mountain walking is a different kettle of fish altogether - and even more so if undertaking a trek where moving on from day to day is compulsory. Picking up a knee injury might spoil the fun and could be seriously inconvenient!
The benefits of using a pair of poles for steep inclines or with a heavy pack are now well understood – pressure on the crucial joints is reduced and additional propulsion gained from using the arms as well, with the aim of reducing wear and tear and/or injury to those all-important hips, knees and ankles, and making better use of the energy expended.
Of course poles are not for everyone. Many walkers are happy to do without, or find them too cumbersome and fiddly in relation to the benefit gained – I felt that way myself for many years – but, now I’m in my mid- (to late!) forties, those little niggles are that bit more frequent and take that bit longer to get over. I love my walking and plan to keep it up for as long as I can, and I’d be annoyed with myself if I were reduced to an arthritic shamble simply because I didn’t take precautions when I could.
Based on experience gleaned when using the old poles, there were a few basic features I knew I wanted in a new pair; compact enough in size to fit into my luggage if trekking abroad, reasonably light in weight and with cork handles – better, I feel, than the polyurethane, plastic, foam or rubberised options, especially in very hot conditions. They also had to be strong enough to cope, with a solid, simple-to-use, effective locking mechanism.
An Internet search helped dig up reviews, retailers and manufacturers, to help narrow down the options. Having heard tales of cheaper poles bending under even moderate stress or collapsing at inopportune moments, I decided to rule out the budget brands and aim for recognised specialist maker.
As a result, I came across the latest version of the Makalu Corklite, boasting a fair price and a good number of the desirable features I was looking for:
· Ergonomically shaped, ventilated handles with cork finish
· Adjustable, padded neoprene strap
· Aluminium pole
· Speedlock adjustment
· Lightweight (542g per pair)
· Packs small (67.5cm collapsed length inc protective rubber bung)
Speedlock is Leki’s version of a flick-lock locking system, deemed to be a much more reliable mechanism than the twist locking used on some other models and which are far less prone to collapsing at awkward moments, such as river crossings. Water, ice, snow, grit and dust can all act as a lubricant on the twist lock mechanism rendering it far less effective, and if the internal expanders happen to break they can’t be tightened at all.
The flick-lock system used here feels very solid and secure, even when subjected to the bulk of my thirteen-and-a-half stone frame, and no slippage at all has been encountered so far. The mechanism is simplicity itself – just move the pole to the right length and flick the lever closed, something that would still be easy even when wearing thick gloves. I’m not sure it is any quicker, but it is simpler and more solid.
The handles are ergonomically shaped, quite slim and comfortable to use even in very hot conditions, and are made from a moulded and ventilated plastic grip covered with a cork finish. This open handle also helps keep the weight down – at 542g per pair, there are lighter options (eg: carbon fibre poles) but these are fine; a lot lighter than most and still at a reasonable price.
For a three-section pole a collapsed length of 67.5cm is good, too. At this, I have no problem packing it into my holiday luggage or 45lt rucksack when travelling, and the rubber bung (optional extra) prevents it from piercing the fabric if the bags are roughly handled. The aluminium tubing used has a good ratio of strength to weight and appears able to take the knocks.
There is no antishock system in this model. Some like it, and some don’t – I don’t find it of much benefit myself – but it does add to the weight and it’s something I can manage without.
I’ve given these a good preliminary testing during a week’s walking in Austria, where they have been subjected to heat, rain, snow, cold, dust, grit, rocky ascents, steep descents and packed bus rides. They have been bashed against rocks when crossing a boulder field, coped with being continually caught along loose, stony paths and survived being trapped between large rocks, and, so far, they have passed with flying colours.
The handles and straps are very comfortable, especially in really hot weather when the cork finish and the venting really help. They are easy to adjust for length, pack away small and are light enough to be carried strapped to your rucksack when not in use.
Yes, you can get shorter and lighter; yes, you can perhaps get more robust; and yes, you can definitely get more technical. But probably not at a similar price.