Trails in Northern California

Trails in Northern California

Leave No Trace!

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September 16, 2012

Hiker Dislocates Shoulder Using Hiking Poles

Hiking Poles and Wrist Strap Safety Issues

True experiences as told to Peach Hiker


I met George and his son Don on my hike from Old Donner to Azalea Lake in August 2012.  We chatted about our experiences and George mentioned to me he thought having my wrists in the provided loops and my hands on the pole grips was not safe.  Haven't most of us been hiking along through some rocky, maybe bushy areas and had our hiking pole get caught between boulders or something?  Generally, we catch ourselves, pull the pole out and continue. 


George had his hands through the straps on a hike when one of his poles got tangled in the overgrown brush along the trail.  Apparently he had some momentum going and the felt himself going down.  He thought it best to try to fall pretty flat and let the impact be absorbed by his torso, rather than risk fracturing or injuring his wrists, but with his hand in the pole strap, when he hit the ground being attached to the pole that way caused his shoulder to be dislocated because the pole was jammed and not moving with him.  Those sorts of injuries last some of us for years, leading to arthritis, tendonitis, bursitis, general soreness, and maybe "frozen shoulder".  In that case it could have been worse if he had been close to a cliff or something.

I usually use the straps so that if I were to fall, the pole would remain with me, not fall down some rocky cliff or fly into brush off trail.  And with the thought that I could get my hand on it and use it to pull myself up again.  I also put some weight onto the strap to ease my grip and keep my hands from doing all of the work.

Lots of people don't think trekking poles are for them so I try to carry an extra pair when I take someone on a hike and offer them a try.  It's free that way, and maybe they discover the benefits!  They can be a helpful balancing tool for log crossings or for creek crossings (I wouldn't have fallen in Bear River getting that photo of the waterfall if I had my poles, and a slippery rock sent me for a dip) .
Another place they come in handy for me is going up a steep grade.  For me they help me drive my self upward faster, keep my footing secure, and distribute the work through more of my muscle groups to save my legs from the brunt of it.  When I am crossing granite slabs that are slanted rather steeply, I use my poles to stabalize my balance, too.  When almost bushwhacking on the trail in Ttrinity Alps from Castle Lake to Mount Bradley Lookout, I used my poles extended in front of me to help push the thickly overgrown manzanita away. 
I have yet to find a dissatisfied hiker once they test poles out.


Another hiker's account was Ken's fall in one of those fun boulder scrambles.  What I refer to as a boulder mine field.  Use the poles to help test rocks ahead for stability.  They help you balance as you step over or around the next boulder, or down into a small crevice between boulders.  Ken had his hands in the pole wrist straps when he stumbled in between boulders and he said it saved him from falling harder because he was able to keep the pole in his hand and leverage his weight during the fall and regain a measure of control.  He did get banged up but nothing broken or sprained.  He advised that in general the straps are helpful.


If you shop for hiking poles, there are some different options to test out.  I prefer suspension.  When you press your weight down on a pole it gives a little.  For me that relieves my wrists from taking all of the abuse.  Some people feel like they are less stable.  It is completely personal preference so try both styles out.

Another option is what material the hand grips are made of.  I loved my cork handles, and I meet hikers who prefer the EVA foam grips.  Me?  They make my hands sweat too much and the grips feel slippery.  I bought tennis handle tape and wrapped my grips with it.  It is comfortable, durable, handles sweat, and is inexpensive! 

Another option is the type of locks the poles offer.  That is another purely personal preference.  Go to a local sporting store and try adjusting sets and find your preference.

Once you have a set, it is up to you to find your hiking-with-poles-style and me?  I change through a hike several times.  Use the poles with the opposite leg; use both forward simultaneoulsy to pull yourself along; or plant them more randomly where it is convenient, or where areas of trail are so simple and easy you need less from your poles and can amble along resting your hands and wrists.  They fold compactly so you can attach them to your pack or carry them in one hand easily too.

My best advice regarding using your poles and avoiding injury is to be alert when you are next to or in harzardous areas so if a pole catches on something you can avoid injury by manuvering yourself and the poles.  Keep your speed in mind.  Be able to stop quickly.  Carry first aid.

Maybe put them away if entanglement is a chronic problem on a section of trail.  I am a huge proponent of poles for overall safety and health benefits.  The few times I leave them in the trunk, I regret it, even for short hikes.  Find your safety measures with these risks in mind. I think we can have both safety and benefits, but risk always exists so stay alert either way!

Happy Trails and thanks for checking in!