Hike softly, carry walking stick. Those are two of the main maxims for the trail, whether or not you have diabetes.
The latter is among the least observed. I just came back from three days of wilderness hiking in northern Colorado. In all that time I saw few people on the trails and a lot fewer even who had sense enough to carry a walking stick or two.
On the Continental Divide
Walking – particularly hiking in the mountains – is my exercise of choice. Walking is the prime example of aerobic exercise, the most important exercise that all of us – particularly people with diabetes – need.
Many people with diabetes have impaired feeling in their feet from neuropathy. Without question, these people need walking sticks, even when walking on level terrain. But everyone can benefit from them.
Nowadays, most people are pretty good when it comes to hiking softly, i.e. to “leave no trace.” But on the trails I am continually dismayed when I see other hikers who aren’t using a walking stick or a pair of poles. I am so used to using them – particularly when going up or down a steep hill, crossing streams, scampering along on the rocks, or making my way through ice and snow – that I can’t imagine hiking without one or two of them.
A week or two ago I was hiking in Rocky Mountain National Park through a heavy hailstorm. Then I came to a one-foot wide and 15-foot long log “bridge” over the river that I thought I had to cross. Slick from the hail and rain, the so-called bridge might well have dumped me into the river, if I didn’t have the stability that my walking sticks gave me.
Yet few hikers have yet caught on to the wisdom of this little appendage. People who are overweight, out of shape, or as old as I am can benefit the most from them. And anyone who has used them to avoid a serious fall – as I have many times – know that they are worth every dollar they cost.
Walking sticks and particularly a pair of poles improve our balance on uneven ground, reduce the stress on our joints and spine, and help us to walk more upright. They can be useful to ward off dogs (as I have more than once) or bears or mountain lions (I haven’t yet had that opportunity).
They also let us use our upper body muscles and take the weight off our legs. When we use a walking stick or polls we can take up to 20 percent of our weight from our lower body as we walk. Particularly if you have bad hips or an arthritic knee, this can make all the difference between walking and staying on the couch.
Just now when I weighed myself on my bathroom scales, I weighed up to 30 pounds less when I was using my walking sticks. I know too from my aching arm muscles when I started using them that they help to develop those muscles.
For about 20 years my walking staff was a bamboo pole that I got originally with a rug wrapped around it. With a crutch tip on the end to avoid slipping and clattering, it was light in weight and completely satisfactory until the bamboo began to crack.
Then, I switched to an even lighter aluminum walking staff. That was great for many years.
But recently I have doubled my assist. I got a pair of poles made by a German company called Leki. From my observations of other hikers, this is the top choice nowadays. Leki trekking poles have both adjustable lengths and adjustable wrist straps as well as shock absorbers.
After using my trekking poles for a few months, I learned the hard way that adjusting them to the proper length is crucial. At first I had mine adjusted too long. That put too much pressure on my already-painful left shoulder.
These trekking poles also have sharp metallic tips that give excellent purchase on the rocks. But I generally prefer to use optional rubber tips to avoid the clatter of the metal tips. Since one reason why I go to the woods is for silence, clatter is the last thing I want to add.
Three U.S. firms – Black Diamond Equipment, Fittrek, and Exerstrider – as well as Finland’s Excel, and Norway’s Swix Sport, which pioneered the activity in Europe, also offer a large selection of poles. Sometimes called trekking poles, sometimes Nordic walkers, and sometimes fitness walking poles, they are similar. By whatever name, they all make walking and hiking easier and safer.
This article is based on an earlier version of my article published by HealthCentral.