Trekking poles are everywhere these days - whether you like them or not, many walkers find that a set of poles improves their balance and makes walking easier. We're not going to talk about techniques or how to use them here, just what points to look out for when buying poles.
The Basics: Trekking poles evolved from ski poles and are designed to be used for walking. There are all sorts of claims about how much weight they take off your legs, which you can choose to believe or not. They do do two things very well however.
One is to help you develop a good walking rhythm. The second is to act as a handy stability aid to help you balance particularly on uneven ground and when carrying a heavy pack.
Materials: Most trekking poles are made from aluminium tubing and come in two or three parts with adjustable screws or sliding joints. You can vary the length of the pole to suit your height and reach. Aluminium tubes are fine and work well. Carbon fibre is more expensive, but lighter.
The best way to gauge differences in weight is to hold the handle as if walking and swing the pole slightly. The difference between lighter and heavier poles is very obvious.
Think about packed length when buying. Compact poles are easier to stow inside a pack for travel and neater when fastened on the outside.
Anti-Shock Or Not: Many more sophisticated models feature an anti-shock spring. Some walkers swear by them, some don't. It does, however, add price, weight and complexity. It's your call really.
Handles And Straps: Most poles use ergonomically shaped plastic, cork or foam handles. The important bit is to put your hand through the (preferably) adjustable wrist loop first so the load goes through the loop onto your wrist rather than your hands directly. Make sure the handle feels comfortable, non-slippy, isn't too large and the wrist loop doesn't dig in uncomfortably. Padded ones can work well. Use straps not the handles to take body weight.
Locking Systems: Most poles use screw-together sections which work fine under normal use. Make sure you can find replacement internals if needed - cheaper poles often use simple, plastic bits that can die with prolonged use.
Whichever you choose, make sure you can clamp them tight enough not to collapse under body weight - something you can subject poles to on step-downs.
Poles and Baskets: Most poles use a tungsten carbide tip to give good traction combined with wear resistance. Good ones are replaceable, so make sure spares are available. Some poles will come with a replaceable rubber tip cover to reduce noise, improve traction and reduce damage to hard surfaces.
Removable, ski-type baskets tend to fall off and get lost, but prevent excessive tip sinkage on softer ground and snow. Again, make sure spares are available, though you can usually live without them if necessary.
Number one on this list is your brain. Plenty of people die every year because they make the wrong decision - most commonly to carry on walking when they have all the equipment they'd need to sit things out and wait for help to arrive. And of course, tired, cold people often make bad decisions.
Of course, without the right kit to start off with, it's all academic, so here are some tips to make sure you have what you need.
Survival Bags: You should always carry a survival bag, particularly in winter. There are two basic versions available - polythene and silver foil 'space blanket' types. The most versatile is really the polythene, heavy duty, orange plastic bag version.
There's plenty of evidence that silver foil bags simply aren't butch enough to cope with extreme conditions and some will disintegrate while still packed away in your sack. Polythene bags are heavier, but tougher. If you have a two-person bag, you can share body warmth. Don't even think about space 'blankets' - you need a bag you can crawl into for maximum shelter, a blanket just simply isn't suitable for the hills.
Finally, if you already own a Gore-Tex or similar breathable, waterproof bivvy bag, you can of course, use that. Bear in mind though, that a one-person bag will work less well than larger bags if you need to share body heat.
Survival Shelters: A step up from the humble emergency survival bag, emergency shelters are made using tent fabric and come in different sizes to accommodate anything from one person to a small group. Generally you throw the bag over the group and then anchor the base by sitting on your packs on top of the fabric. Being totally wind and waterproof, they're astonishingly effective, partly because a group heats the relatively small internal volume of the shelter very quickly. That means they're not just a great survival aid, but also a big morale booster and a comfortable option for prolonged lunch stops in bad conditions. There is a weight penalty to pay, but for a group, it's well worth it.
Whistles: The problem with shouting for help is that the human voice isn't particularly powerful and stops working after prolonged use. The answer is a whistle. Go for a power plastic model that won't freeze and stick to your lips and carry it somewhere accessible. A whistle without a pea is best since there's no possibility of it freezing. Stick it on a cord and tie onto your jacket so you don't lose it. Some manufacturers now put a whistle on their packs as part of the integral design of a buckle on a chest harness, or other easily accessible location.
The international distress signal is six blasts on the whistle, followed by a pause then repeated; the reply is three blasts. At night, you can also flash a head torch.
Head Torches: The latest LED torches are incredibly light and compact and have outstanding battery life, so there's no excuse not to have one permanently on call in the lid pocket of your pack, particularly in the darker winter months. Not only will they give enough light for walking off if you get benighted, but you can also use them to signal to rescuers (more information on head torches below).
First Aid Kits: You can, of course, put together your own mountain first aid kit - a short cut to this is simply to duplicate one of the commercially available ones - but for many of us, it's easier to simply buy one designed for mountain use over the counter. You can find very effective hill-specific option in a variety of sizes up to group leader level.
There's a limit to what you can cope with on the mountain anyway, but at the very least you need the wherewithal to clean dirty wounds and abrasions, stop blood loss, close and dress wounds and to construct a sling to support damaged limbs. Most walkers will also want some sort of blister treatment option.
Finally, you need the basic knowledge to go with it. Several outdoor training centres run dedicated mountain first aid courses, or you could even find a local organisation than runs first aid courses.
Other items...: Do always let someone know where you are going before you set out, and what time you expect to be back. Many guesthouses and hotels in mountainous areas will have route cards, for just that purpose. If you do run into trouble, knowing there is someone looking out for you will be a huge morale boost. Assuming you have stuck to the route you said you would take ...
There's still something of a prejudice against mobile phone use in the mountains and you need to bear in mind that coverage can be patchy in mountainous and upland areas. However being able to call mountain rescue from the scene of a serious incident can make a life-saving difference. A GPS unit or good map-reading will allow you to pinpoint your position exactly.
Obviously you need to use mobiles with a degree of common sense. Assess the situation and decide whether you really do need mountain rescue team assistance before dialing.
Emergency Food: If you find yourself stranded overnight, your body still needs fuel to keep running and maintain temperatures. What you carry is a matter of personal taste, but high sugar stuff and bars of chocolate are an efficient way of carrying extra calories. Choose something you like to keep morale up, but don't be tempted to eat it prematurely...
Spare Clothes: The first spare clothing you should be carrying in winter is a hat - losing your head protection in a blizzard is a short-cut to hypothermia, so make sure there's a spare in your pack. The same goes for gloves. If you can't grip things then you can't navigate, open your pack and contrary to what some people believe, yes, you can even get frostbite in UK hills.
If you're benighted, some form of spare insulation garment can make a big difference. Down is very warm for the weight, but bear in mind that damp will compromise its performance. You may be better off with either a fleece garment or a synthetically insulated one. Remember too, if you find yourself sheltering from the conditions, a foam sit mat, the belay pad out of the back of your sack or your pack itself will stop you from losing heat to the cold ground.
Last but not least, a large group might consider carrying a sleeping bag just in case someone goes down with hypothermia. Bear in mind though, that the more kit you carry, the slower you'll move and the more likely you may be to find yourself in trouble.
In the old days head torches were easy to buy, but were heavy, expensive to run and tended to turn themselves on in your pack. Fortunately things have changed and the head torch market is flooded with options ...
Why?: The big plus of a head torch over a more conventional hand-held torch is that it leaves your hands free to cook, climb or simply turn the pages of a book. Also when adjusted properly, the light will follow the direction of your gaze making them intuitive to use.
Which type and model you choose will depend a lot on your intended use. Some walkers and backpackers will simply need a low-powered, simple torch for cooking and camping plus, potentially, attracting attention in a benightment situation.
An alpine mountaineer however might need a torch capable of being used for route finding and climbing in sub-zero temperatures as well as for more mundane porridge-making duties.
There are torches out there which will manage both up to a point, but if you don't need a long distance, focusable beam on your torch, you can save money and weight by buying a more basic, but more suitable unit in the first place.
LED Torches: The new generation of LED-bulb torches are ideal for general short-range use, for camping and cooking for example. They're light, have long battery life - think 100 hours plus - and give a spread of very white, even light. The more LEDs they use, the brighter the light will be, but the shorter the battery life. Some offer a choice of settings. The simpler versions are also very affordable. As a bonus, the bulbs themselves have an extremely long lifespan and, because they're made from solid glass, are hard to break.
A simple stand-alone LED torch however, has its drawbacks. Range is generally around five metres with fresh batteries and fades as the batteries age meaning that they're not ideal for any sort of navigation or route finding.
Conventional Bulb Torches: The conventional torch has seemingly had its day. You can still buy them, but they're increasingly being overtaken by hybrid LED/halogen units and the new Super LEDs, both of which are more versatile.
A conventional torch will offer a decent, piercing beam, particularly with a halogen bulb, but battery life will be significantly less than with an LED option, particularly if you use a halogen or Xenon bulb instead of a standard one. With a standard bulb, beam reach is 35 metres and battery life a claimed 10h 30.
That's fine for occasional use where you need a long-reaching, bright beam, but expensive if you want to cook or even read a book in your tent. On the plus side, price is reasonable.
Hybrid Torches: Hybrids seem to offer the best of both worlds giving a choice between a low level, power-efficient LED option and a halogen beam for more distant work. That means you can do your cooking and close-up climbing using the LED light source, then flick over to halogen beam for navigation purposes or to pick out an abseil station further down your route.
Obviously the halogen option will still be battery hungry, but for much of the time, you should be able to rely on the LEDs. Hybrids are very effective and they're arguably the choice if you need an all round head torch that will cover you effectively from campsite to summit.
A hybrid will be slightly heavier than a solo option and more expensive, but you're getting two torches in one.
High-powered LEDs: The first LED head torches to appear on the market were low-powered affairs, and while adding more and more bulbs increased the amount of light available, they still didn't produce a long distance, focused beam like a halogen bulb.
That's changing now thanks to a new generation of high-powered LEDs which can be used either in stand-alone torches or combined with lower-powered LEDs. The high-powered LEDs produce a white, long-distance beam similar to a halogen, but with much better battery life, depending on which beam setting is used.
The increased battery life means that high-powered LEDs are a better all-round option than conventional bulbs, but will still perform well for long distance work. So what's the snag? Ah yes, the price, which is significantly higher than either conventional LEDs or halogen options. But you guessed that already, right?
Weather Proofing: Most modern head torches are reasonably weather resistant, however if you want something you can use confidently in true deluge conditions, seek out one that is guaranteed waterproof to a specified depth with sealed battery box and lens unit.
Cold Weather Use: In extreme cold weather, a head torch with a conventional headband mounted battery will suffer from reducing power and battery life. The best solution is a combination of a lithium battery, which is more resistant to cold conditions, and a remote battery pack which you can stow in your clothing where body heat will keep it warm. Ideal for alpine starts, high altitude or polar use.
Other Factors: Most head torches now are powered by either AA or AAA-sized batteries. Both are readily available, though the AA is more common and a better choice if you're travelling. It's also a common rechargeable size.
Head straps should be elasticated, comfortable and, if you're planning to use a helmet, have enough adjustment to fit comfortably and snugly into its mounting points. Lightweight torches may have just a simple band, but anything weightier should have a more secure top strap as well.
Check usability - how easy is it to open the battery box to change batteries for example? How easy are bulbs to change if you're using a halogen light and is there space for a spare bulb in the housing? Is there any danger that the lamp will switch on whilst in your pack and waste precious battery life?
You can be decked out head to foot in Sooper Dooper-Tex clothing and have the most comfortable walking boots known to man along with the fitness of an Olympic marathon runner, but if you can't find your way across the hills, you might as well stay home and watch telly...
The good news is that navigation equipment is getting more and more effective. The bad news is that even with all the cunning electronic devices known to man, you still need to be able to use a map and compass and you should always carry them regardless.
Maps: There is a bewildering choice of maps today, but for the outdoor enthusiast, the scale you will need will vary somewhere between 1:50,000 and 1:25,000.
Both have pros and cons. The 1:50,000 scale covers more ground with a single sheet, makes it easier to spot the big features and is arguably the best choice for full-on winter conditions where the details of a 1:25,000 map will be covered with snow anyway and the overall lay of the land is more important.
The larger scale is much more detailed which makes it great for navigating through farm and urban areas and for picking out small details. However, it's easier to walk off the map and, if you use a map case, you'll be refolding the map more regularly as you walk off the edge of the current portion. In some situations, all that detail can get confusing and make it harder to see the overall lay of the land.
Weather Protection: If you're out in damp conditions, or expecting a deluge whilst you are out, a map case which is totally waterproof, nice and grippy and pretty much indestructible is the answer. The only downside is refolding the map in monsoon conditions, which can be tricky. Stow it in a pocket, not round your neck where the wind can catch it and tie it in knots around your larynx.
Laminated maps are an effective solution, but add a little weight and bulk. They also can be slippery, making them hard to hold onto when things get wet, and the bulk makes folding and stowing hard. Waterproof paper tends to be more water resistant then proof, particularly along fold lines, so you might still like to use a map case in wet conditions.
Compasses: For navigating using a map and compass, you can't beat the classic baseplate-type compasses. Anything without a baseplate makes mapwork less accurate, so don't bother. Incidentally, if you're changing hemispheres, you can buy compasses with different weighted needles to compensate, but your normal compass will still work as long as you hold it at a slight angle for clean rotation of the needle.
Simple eh? Electronic compasses are fine for following bearings, but for mapwork, the original, simple Silva design is still the best.
GPS: Global Positioning System - units are getting smaller and smaller and more and more affordable. They use a series of satellites to pinpoint your location and altitude. Which you choose depends a lot on how you're going to be using it.
At it's most simple level, GPS is great for dragging out of your pack if you're lost and knowing exactly where you are almost instantly - with some units now wrist mounted, that's actually quite a viable option. As a standalone navigation tool though, GPS has limits. Generally the interface is best described as 'user hostile' and it can take ages to enter simple routes and waypoints manually.
The way round that is to use a computer interface and mapping software to pre-programme points into your GPS before walking and / or download your walk details afterwards. You'll either love the idea or not. If you love it, go ahead, if you're a technophobe, it's back to the map and compass.
Altimeters: There are a fair few wristwatches with altimeters on along with barometers, chronometers, thermometers and the like. Very handy on Himalayan peaks, but for more low level use, they are more of a techy entertainment than a practical aid to navigation. Bear in mind too that the altimeter uses air pressure to determine altitude, so may need to be re-set occasionally.
Skill: Finally, you really can learn navigation skills, despite what people mutter about 'sense of direction', sniffing the wind and so on - there are actually a lot of very logical processes going on and a fair few cunning tricks that'll help you get from A to B without getting horribly lost.
There are plenty of useful books out there, but the ideal is to get professional instruction either as part of a general hill skills course or on a specialist mountain navigation weekend. There's no point in having all the gear, if you have no idea...