Last fall, I was enjoying a hike in crisp temperatures near Salt Lake City when I encountered some concerning trail rage. Rounding a corner, I saw a mountain-bike bro heading downhill full blast in my direction. He was hauling, and I barely managed to dodge off the trail in the nick of time.
“Nice poles, puss!” he yelled aggressively, spinning up a mess of dirt in his wake.
I looked down at my trekking poles, then back at him, then back at them again. Were they that uncool? What did he have against hiking equipment? Sure, the trail was mellow, but I like my poles.
This wasn’t the first time I’d experienced anti-pole sentiment. This virulent contagion is spreading in the outdoor community. Condescension, judgment, and a hierarchical us-versus-them mentality threatens to grip our trails, boot-packs, and parks. Using them is disdained, like all the unwanted raisins in a well-picked-over bag of gorp. Pole rage is real. And I’m concerned.
As a hiker who shamelessly loves to pole about—often at an aggressively slow pace—the hate confuses me, because before I started hiking with poles, getting from point A to B was a lot more miserable.
Prior to picking up sticks seven years ago, I remember countless climbs up the boot-pack at Teton Pass in Wyoming, heaving and wheezing without support. People would pass me and look on in confusion—and with pity in their eyes—at my lack of poles, wondering what terrible thing I’d done to deserve such a fate.
And I recall backpacking harrowing, hair-raising sections of the Tonto Platform in the Grand Canyon sans poles, the trail crumbling beneath my feet. Any slip or fall meant a 2,000-foot plunge. That’s long enough to know you’re gonna die and still have time to think about it. I would have loved poles then, thank you.
But lately, it seems like there’s been a demarcation—a line etched in the trail dirt—of what type of hike or terrain is pole appropriate.
Sure, when you’re hiking on a 45-degree incline, they make a big difference. We all know that. But for those who aren’t in prime condition (like me), a pole or two can make an otherwise moderate hike downright sublime by adding just the right amount of support.
And as much as I hate to admit it, I’m not a twentysomething anymore. The rivers and mountains continue to take their toll. At 34, my joints hurt and my ankles are stiff. My back bears the burden of all of the powder days I enjoyed as a younger man. Poles help, and I’m not ashamed to admit it.
I want to use them on every hike, not just the hard ones. And yet there are those who smirk at my casual usage, deeming me a gaper or a tourist for poling around on green terrain.
It’s easy to adopt an appearance-first mentality in our image-obsessed culture to prioritize looking fashionable or core. But if hiking with poles makes you happy, then pole down, my friends.
Run with them. Hike (slowly) with them. Power walk with them. There is no wrong way to pole—with the exception of leaving them at home when you should have brought them along.