Two years ago I decided to purchase and try out a pair of Outdoor Products trekking poles from Wal-Mart. I figured that my $20 would buy me a pair of garbage poles that might last a couple of hikes and then fall apart. They are heavy with cheesy grips, uncomfortable wrist straps, and an unreliable locking mechanism but at the end of the day they still work 99% of the time and never irritate me enough to stop using them mid hike. Mine came with a pair of rubber tips, clips for storage, and mud baskets one of which I lost. Here are some things to be aware of before purchasing these.
- Weight: My pair comes with shock absorbers and tips the scale at 26 ounces. That may not sound like a lot but consider that you have to lift those poles roughly 1700 times per mile and 13 ounces per pole adds up real quick. If you have to hang one or both off of your pack that affects your pack weight and you may already be maxing out on weight if your budget for such an essential piece of gear is 20 bucks.
- Grip: The grips on these poles are simple plastic and have a shape that is intended to mold to a hand that is holding them perpendicular to the ground. If your hands get wet from sweat, rain, or boogers this plastic grip will offer no traction. The ergonomics are off as well since you will not be planting your pole perpendicular to the ground very often.
- Strap: The wrist strap bears much of the weight as you push-off with your poles so it is important that it fits well and is made form a comfortable material. Outdoor Products has chosen to use rather thick and narrow nylon webbing and place the adjustment buckle so that it falls on the back of my wrist and rubs against the back of my hand, wrist, and randomly pushes the buttons on my watch.
- Locking Mechanism: My poles are equipped with an internal “twist lock” mechanism which uses rubber rings attached to twist actuated expanders to prevent the pole sections from collapsing under weight. I have had mine fail 3 times in the last two years. You may not think this is a big deal but if you are using one of these poles while descending with a kid on your back as his brother holds your hand you would find those three collapses very disturbing. The twist lock mechanism is prone to failure because you cannot reliably verify that it is fully locked. It also relies on rubber rings that will inevitably dry rot and break down over time. You cannot be sure of their condition which creates a situation where you know they are going to stop working but you don’t know when.
- Tips: The metal tips are not replaceable. You will inevitably wear through the tips of any trekking poles after using them regularly. Almost all trekking poles have replaceable tips and the best have tip assemblies that are designed to be weaker than the shaft of the pole. They will break away before your pole snaps. These have neither so once you have worn through them your only option is to toss on the rubber tips. They are great for rocks and pavement but almost useless on dirt so you might as well trash these poles once the metal tips wear through.
These poles do have a few advantages over some other options. While I am not sure they outweigh the negatives they are certainly worth considering.
- Anti-shock Mechanism: I like the springs in these poles, though they do make them heavier. They add a nice bounce when I lean on them and reduce vibration in the poles when I plant them. The springs do nullify some of my exertion when I am going uphill but I don’t really mind that.
- Price: I paid 20 bucks for these so who cares if they aren’t perfect. I wanted to try out some trekking poles to see if I liked them and I did. The price was right for an experiment and I am impressed that they are still holding together after 2+ years. They come with some serious drawbacks but all in all I feel like this was a good $20 spent.
- Availability: I purchased these from Wal-Mart. Wal-Mart is everywhere! Not all stores are going to carry them but odds are you can find one near you that does. I have seen mine for sale at a few different Wal-Marts but it looks like they have stopped making the specific model I bought. If you are interested they make an almost identical model without the shock absorbers that is 2 ounces lighter per pair.
Outdoor Products trekking poles from Wal-Mart are cheap and easily available. They are a great option for people who want to try using trekking poles but don’t want to shell out the money. BAFX also makes a set that fit this criteria as well. They have significant drawbacks that can make them less safe and more difficult and less safe to use long-term. They are functional but these drawbacks I’ve outlined combined with the abundance of other options leave me with no choice but to give these poles 2 out of four stars.
Trekking poles are one of my must have pieces of gear for any hike. They make the uphills and downhills much easier and they are essential when tackling tricky terrain with or without kids in tow. In a pinch I can also collapse one or both of them if I need my hand(s) free and they can be used on almost any type of surface.
When I use my trekking poles by myself the focus is on speed, stability, and weight transfer. My poles are adjusted so that my elbows are at a ninety degree angle when I hold with them with the tips in contact with the ground. I plant each pole at the same time as my opposite foot strikes the ground, driving the pole back to propel myself forward. On the uphills I plant one or both of my poles slightly ahead of me to help push me up and on the downhills I plant the slightly ahead to help steady myself and transfer some of the shock and weight from my knees and ankles to my shoulders and core. This has the added advantage of providing stability on steep ascents or descents allowing me to hike longer and with more weight on my back than would be otherwise possible. Here e is a brief tutorial on the basics.
Trekking poles make difficult trail obstacles much easier. Everything from stepping over a large log to fording a stream can be significantly safer and less difficult when you have a pair of trekking poles at the ready. The preferred method is to use the wrist strap but I often switch my grip to “palm” the top of the grip when I need a little more reach because I am walking on something slightly raised, because I am traversing a particularly steep descent, or if I have to step down off of something raised. These activities sound simple but when you have a heavy pack on the chances of becoming unbalanced or rolling and ankle go up. The stakes are even higher when you have a kid on your back and one in tow. This is the main reason why I always use trekking poles. I want to be able to show my boys and experience the wonders that New England’s great outdoor spaces contain and my poles help me keep them safe while pushing all of our limits.
When I hike with my kids my poles give me several advantages. They allow me to hike longer with a load on my back then I could otherwise which is especially helpful when you have 25-30 pounds of child, carrier, and gear on your back. My trekking poles also extend my reach to provide my son with short-term assistance or to guide him away from a hazard or pile of dog poop. The last and most important advantage of using poles is that they provide me with additional stability on tricky trails which allows me to more effectively help my son traverse difficult terrain. He usually hikes without holding my hand but when the trail gets tough I collapse one of my poles, strap it to the pack frame, and hold his hand to get him through it. I pivot my body and keep him above me and a pole firmly planted on my downhill side. This position provides the most stability while allowing me to keep him steady and safe as we work our way up or down. We have safely traversed remarkably difficult trail sections using this technique while going slow and assessing the trail immediately in front of us. Ascents and descents require focus, confidence, and deliberate action. Save enjoying the views for when you reach the top and take your breaks at the bottom.
I hope you are itching to get yourself a pair of poles and hit the trail. You can buy an inexpensive pair from Wal-Mart like I did or invest in a set that will last you years and provide greater comfort. Either way you will be better off than you were before!
I tend to over think things and hiking trips both big and small are no exception. Some days I spend an hour or more trying to plan out all the things I should bring along in case of hunger thirst or emergency and I drive myself and everyone around me nuts. This spring has helped me realize something that I hope will begin to permeate the rest of my life. STOP THINKING ABOUT IT AND JUST GO DO IT!
I used to fret so much over bringing things I never ended up using and it took some of the enjoyment out of getting outside and walking in the woods. I am a bit of a gear geek so I do get a kick out of inventing novel solutions to the various problems that hiking with children presents. At a certain point though the excitement and sense of accomplishment give way to anxiety over forgetting that one supposedly crucial item and it ruins our hike.
These days I keep everything I need in my car other than items that come with us every day like weather appropriate outer wear, our water bottles, and some easy snacks like granola bars and apple sauce pouches. My trekking poles, frame pack carrier, first aid kit, and space blanket are all in the car and ready to go whenever I feel the itch to go disappear with the boys down a trail somewhere. Not needing to plan makes a big difference in lowering my stress level and allows me to more easily enjoy hiking with my kids.
I don’t generally decide where we are going anymore until the morning of our hike. I find that this prevents me from over thinking and allows me to better enjoy hiking with my family. I’ve noticed that the boys have more fun and are able to stay out longer when I am relaxed and not stressing over packing up or picking a route. We figure out our destination an hour or so before leaving and we pick our final route once we get there. There are a variety of ways to do this but if you are hiking somewhere new I recommend looking at a topographical map of the trail and downloading a hiking app like Alpine GPS before taking your kids on it.
Despite all this the most important thing you can do to make hiking with your kids easier is to have everything ready to go so that you can hit the trail at a moment’s notice. One of the great joys in hiking is the unexpected. You can hike the same trail a thousand times and you will have a thousand different experiences and a sense of freedom and joy that nothing else can really provide. You’ll never have the same variety of experiences if you sit at home or choose to go to a playground or library. So stop thinking about getting out and hiking. JUST GO DO IT!