Nowadays, I don’t leave home without them.

Years ago, I was several miles into a tough cougar chase when things went from bad to worse. Bright sun had caused evaporating scent conditions on the snow, and only one of our three hounds was still on the lion track when I started a long, steep pull up a mountainside. The traction was terrible with melting snow on top of a layer of ice, and I was going backward at least one step for every two I made forward. I was also falling repeatedly. My hunting partner, who had thought to bring along a cross-country ski pole, was faring much better than me. We eventually caught up with that cat, but not before I’d been soaked to the skin in melting snow and covered with bruises. The next time we turned the hounds out on a track, I was carrying a ski pole myself.

That was my crude introduction to a concept that had been around forever in Europe: trekking poles. Although they are wildly popular among hikers here now, I’d rarely seen them used back then. When I did, I considered them laughable. That was pure ignorance on my part. I use them all the time now, in all kinds of terrain and conditions. I’m still surprised by how few backcountry hunters have caught on.

Trekking poles convert the human body into a four-wheel drive vehicle, improving both traction and propulsion in steep terrain. They also compensate for the loss of balance and agility many of experience with age. When walking unassisted, there are always times when you have just one foot on the ground, which guarantees a degree of instability. When you establish a good rhythm with poles, you will always have two or three points of contact with the ground, a tremendous advantage in uneven footing even on the level. I recently completed an arduous backpacking trip in the Sierras over a lot of unstable, rocky ground, and I know my poles saved me from several nasty tumbles with a heavy pack on my back.

New generation trekking poles have a come a long way from the ski poles with which I started. They are lighter and stronger, and most of them telescope for easy packing during travel. Don’t try to cut corners too much on cost. You want poles that are both light and strong enough to support your weight without collapsing in case of a bad slip. My Leki carbon fiber poles (available from Kuiu) serve both purposes well.