(Ad)Just The Tip

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOver my time as a hiker, and more specifically a trekking pole user, I’ve received a lot of tips about my tips.  What I mean, is there seems to be a lot of variation in opinion of the proper configuration of trekking poles for hiking.  This post will be focused not on different types of grips or shafts, but rather, just the tips.

Let me just come out and say it, I’m a fan and supporter of covering the hard tips of your poles with rubber.  Most trekking poles come with a set of rubber tips, to cover the standard metal tips.  However, there seems to be a general dislike for the protection that this rubber provides.  In fact, I can remember one time a friend, a excellent outdoorsman himself, telling me before a 4 day backpacking trip in the Whites that I might want to take off the rubber tips because the trail was muddy and it was possible for the mud to suck the tip right off.  On another occasion, in a gear shop, the store owner was actually trying to convince me to NOT buy a set of rubber tips and tried to prove to me why they were disadvantageous.  His stance was also mostly based on the fact that they could be lost, along with the premise that they provide less traction than the hard tip.

First, I want to say that I wholeheartedly disagree with these notions.  I have been a consistent user of trekking poles for at least four years, and I have only lost two rubber tips.  I know people that have lost their couple hundred dollar cell phones more often in a shorter period of time. All I’m saying is, as with anything, a little care and attention goes a long way.  As you use trekking poles more, you will become more used to the mechanics and more keen to proper tip placement, greatly reducing the chances of losing the rubber tips.

Second, I have not found rubber tips to have significantly less traction than the metal ones.  They grip many surfaces quite well, whether it be dirt or rock.  Second, what makes anyone think a hard metal tip against a hard rock would provide good traction?  A hard surface on a hard tip will not provide good traction anyway.  Your sneaker soles are not made of metal when you walk on concrete or pavement.  That’s right, they’re rubber.  Similar premise here on rock.  So, we all may as well just use rubber as protection for the rock hard surface, as well as a good grip.  Lastly, in the event that you lose traction, and the trekking poles flies out behind you, the rubber tips provide a bit of protection for those who may be hiking behind.  One can definitely sustain an injury from a good blow from a rubber tipped trekking pole, but the damages would most likely be worse with a somewhat sharp, concentrated blow from a metal tip.

Let’s take a moment to discuss the environmental impact of trekking poles.  Regardless of hard tipped or rubber, it seems like trekking poles would be rather benign.  But, like many things, trekking poles can have numerous, often overlooked, impacts.  In fact, one of my adjunct professors at Virginia Tech and United States Geological Survey scientist, Dr. Jeff Marion, has investigated this very issue.  Dr. Marion is a recreation ecologist, one of only about four people to hold this title, and an extraordinarily skilled outdoorsman.  If an outdoor sport exists, he’s most likely done it, and well to boot.  In his paper, “Trekking Poles:  Can Save Your Knees and the Environment?” he overviews both the ergonomically significance, social adoption, and environmental impacts of trekking poles, and offers solutions where appropriate.  I feel he covers all the necessary topics in the paper, so I’ll leave the link at the end of this paragraph, but I’ll simply overview a few topics.  He discusses the impact on low lying vegetation, soils, rocks, and wilderness atmosphere.  Potential impacts include shredded vegetation due to the use of baskets, soils being unnecessarily turned over, rocks being scratched, and how the sounds of constant clicking of hard tips can disturb wildlife and ruin the social environment on the trail.  In reference to baskets, I would like to note, as I’ve only really touched on tips, is that they are pretty much entirely unnecessary outside of winter.  However, I consistently see people using their biggest, winter specific baskets during the summer.  Dr. Marion discusses the consequences of this decision.  I use my trekking poles with no baskets at all.  There is almost no 3-season situation where the tip of a trekking pole would penetrate so deep to require the use of baskets.

“Trekking Poles:  Can Save Your Knees and the Environment?”:  http://www.appalachiantrail.org/docs/default-source/recreation-ecology-resources/trekking-pole-impacts.pdf?sfvrsn=2

The main source of conflict about trekking poles is the scratches they leave on rocks.  My good friend once told me it was worthless to bother about the scratches trekking poles leave on rocks.  He said, winter mountaineering leaves many scratches on rocks, are we going to tell people not to use crampons and ice tools?  Or not winter mountaineer at all?  While his point is somewhat valid, I believe the answer to this question lies on a continuum of acceptable impacts based on the form of recreation.  First, let me point out that winter mountaineering would be completely impossible without crampons and ice tools.  You cannot mountaineer without potentially scratching rocks.  So, in order to completely eliminate scratches made on rocks by winter mountaineers, I would have to propose banning winter mountaineering as a sport.  I’m not going to do that.  Also, I’d like to point out that far fewer people winter mountaineer than hike with trekking poles, making us realize that most of these scratches come from hikers anyway.  Is it possible to hike without making scratches on rocks?  Yes.  So let’s do that.  It’s about choosing to undergo a minor inconvenience for the greater good.  Choosing to hike without trekking poles, or more specifically for this argument, using rubber tips, is a small financial and personal inconvenience.  I’m sorry for you hikers that have to bear this burden, as mountaineers get a pass, but that’s just how it goes.

And you might say, “my impact isn’t that bad, why do I need to change my habits?” Well, you may be right, given the amount of rocks you encounter and the amount of hiking you do, the number of scratches you make are very few.  But think about all the people following in your footsteps, making the very same decision and argument.  For example, say you walk up a set of marble steps.  Your impact is very low.  However, everyone else has the same inclination to walk up those steps.  Over time, and thousands and millions of people, you can easily see those steps wear away and erode.  You might think I’m crazy for making this argument about scratches in rocks, but as a hiker, once you see them, you can never unsee them.  Not to mention the click-clack of metal tips on rock, that can be very consistent and annoying if hiking nearby and at a similar pace to someone using trekking poles.  Your counter argument may be that the rubber will shred and cause pollution.  Once again, a lost tip becomes pollution as well.  Dr. Marion provides sound reasoning as to why rubber tips are still the better option, despite their real potential to become pollution.

So, I urge you to read Dr. Jeff Marion’s article.  Learn about the impacts you can have as a hiker.  Make necessary adjustments to improve your technique and to improve the recreation experience of everyone around you and that will come after you.  You might even realize that this will improve your experience as well.  And if even if you can’t do anything else, please (ad)just the tip.

Learn more about Jeff Marion and Leave No Trace by purchasing and reading his latest book, Leave No Trace In the Outdoors, here:  http://www.amazon.com/Leave-Trace-Outdoors-Jeffrey-Marion/dp/0811713636

and here: https://profile.usgs.gov/jeff_marion

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