Dancing with Poles: An Exploration of Hiking Equipment Choices

An Exploration of Hiking Equipment Choices
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Whether you are a novice hiker getting ready to set out on your first adventure or you are a seasoned pro with hundreds of miles under your belt, one thing is for certain: There is a lot of hiking gear out there to choose from. While certain things–like a good pair of boots–are essential, others–like hiking poles–are helpful, too. Some types of hiking gear are essential for safety purposes while others are more about personal preference. In this exploration of hiking equipment choices, we will take a closer look at a few types of gear and address their pros and cons.

Hiking Poles

Hiking poles are a hot topic in the hiking community. While some hikers feel that they are absolutely essential and make hiking easier, others think they damage the environment and make hiking more difficult. The truth? Both sides are right. Hiking poles are great because they improve your balance while traversing streams and rough terrain, they reduce knee strain while descending and they help you establish and maintain a walking rhythm. They are also multi-purpose tools that can be used to set up ultralight shelters.

The downside? Using them increases arm motion which increases the amount of energy required. If you lean forward on your poles, you reduce the biomechanical efficiency that comes from carrying a backpack. Relying on the straps could cause injury during falls. The poles can catch on brush and trees, and the steel carbide tips can damage rocks and vegetation. And while they can help you when you are descending a hill, they can make hiking uphill more difficult.

Ultimately, when used correctly, hiking poles do provide numerous benefits to users. However, they are often used incorrectly and create numerous problems. Whether or not you use hiking poles largely comes down to personal preference. If you use them, though, it is important to be aware of the pitfalls of improper usage.

Clothing: Cotton Vs. “Performance”

The type of clothing that is best to wear while hiking is also often debated. Some hikers prefer cotton as it breathes well and absorbs a lot of moisture. Others prefer “performance” gear–which is typically made from polyester–that wicks moisture away from the body. Which choice is best?

Hikers most often dress in layers. The base layer, or the layer that is in direct contact with your skin, is the most important because it manages moistures, maintains your body’s natural temperature and protects the skin.

While a cotton t-shirt makes for a cool, lightweight base layer, it does a poor job of protecting your skin and keeping you dry. It holds up to 2,500 percent of its own weight in water, and it takes a long time to dry. In other words, if you wear cotton as your base layer, you’ll probably end up wearing a sweaty shirt all day.

Performance shirts are made to hold less water. Instead, they wick moisture away from the skin and direct it to the outside of the shirt where it can easily evaporate. Polyester is the material most commonly used in performance hiking gear because it is affordable, lightweight and only absorbs approximately 0.4 percent of its weight in water, enabling it to dry quickly.

The bottom line? Most hikers will tell you that performance fabrics are much better when it comes to apparel, especially for base layers. Polyester is a better choice than cotton, which typically is not recommended for hiking (unless blended with another fabric). Other fabrics that perform well for hikers include silk and merino wool.

Hiking Backpacks

Whether you spend several days hiking in the backcountry or you prefer short hikes on a well-maintained trail close to your home, you need a backpack. Of course, the exact type of backpack you need varies depending on where you’re hiking, how long you plan on being out, the remoteness of the area you are hiking in and other factors.

There are a lot of options out there, and every seasoned hiker has his or her own personal favorite. While getting advice from others is a good way to obtain some ideas, it is crucial to choose a hiking backpack that is well-suited to your own unique needs. You need to consider the bag’s capacity, features and fit to ensure that the one you buy is the one that’s right for you.

For starters, think about capacity. If you are a day hiker or a weekender, a weekend backpack with a capacity of 30-50 liters is sufficient. If you plan on being out for three to five days, look for a 50- to 80-liter pack. For extended trips lasting five days or longer, you need a pack that has a capacity of 70 liters or larger. You may also want to consider one of these larger backpacks for shorter treks during the winter as they have more space for cold weather gear.

When it comes to features, backpacks with frames distribute weight more evenly but they are heavier, which can be a problem for hikers who prefer ultralight gear. Other features that should be taken into consideration include ventilation, pack access, pockets, padding and hydration reservoirs. Your backpack is arguably one of your most important pieces of gear, so it’s important to choose the right one.

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Conclusion

A quick trip to a sporting goods store or a visit to a hiking website will quickly make you realize that there are a lot of options when it comes to hiking gear. Whether you are a newbie or have some time under your belt, it is important to invest in gear to meet your needs and keep you safe and comfortable during your treks. While the benefits or necessity of certain items is often hotly debated, it largely comes down to personal preference. If you love hiking poles, use them! If you hate the feeling of a backpack with a frame, choose a frameless model. Find out what works for you–and what doesn’t–and choose the hiking equipment that works best for you.

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