In my humble opinion, if there is anything essential to walk El Camino, apart from the obvious items of clothing and good waterproof walking boots, these are the trekking poles.
The use of trekking poles for walking comes from the cross country skiers, when they had to train but there were places with little snow for it. Soon their use spread and Nordic walking was born.
I need to clarify that when I say the use of trekking poles, I mean it as a technical sport item, because the walking stick or “baston” in the context of pilgrimage and particularly on El Camino de Santiago, is an ingrained symbol and characteristic of the pilgrims going to see the Apostle’s tomb. The staff, a wooden stick, usually from hazel or chestnut tree. It is said that it needs to be about one and a quarter feet above the pilgrim’s head. We will talk more in detail about this in another post
People often get surprised when they ask what to take for El Camino and I mention the trekking poles as my recommendation. They look at me like in disdain as in…”Do I really need to drag along these two sticks all the way?”. My answer is, well, no. You will not have to lug them around with you, but they will enhance your adventure by making it safer for you in terms of injuries and falls. These are the main reasons to use them in El Camino.
1 – Walking with trekking poles will strengthen your upper body. The muscles in your arms and shoulders will be greatly benefited.
2 – It helps us walk in an upright position and in turn they help stabilise ours spine, making easier to carry a backpack on our backs.
3 – Walking with trekking poles, the weight of our backpack will be distributed among our four limbs and not just our legs, which will help avoiding injuries for overloading. They are especially beneficial when going up or down the hill, since this will put a strain on our legs and on the joints of our knees and ankles. This is particularly interesting for people that are overweight or with joint problems, it will help with avoiding wear of the joints.
4 – As we will be forced to move our arms and keep them above our waists, the blood circulation will be improved and we will avoid the swelling of the hands.
5 – When we walk without trekking poles we use about 60% of our muscles, when using the trekking poles we use about 90 % of our muscles, it could even get to 95% if you add a smile to it 😉
6 – It improves the stability and balance, which is also useful when the terrain in slippery or unstable, or where there are lots of loose gravel or stone, which often causes falls or ankle sprains.
7 – Trekking poles can help to gauge the terrain when the weather is adverse. You can prepare your next step when the ground is covered in snow or water, avoiding unseen obstacles or wetting our boots unnecessarily.
8 – The trekking poles can also help if we have to cross an area of thick vegetation or brumbles, since we can use them as protection, to separate the branches with them instead of with our hands, thus avoiding cuts and pricks.
9 – Although this would be a very unlikely scenario, we can also use it for protection in case of an unexpected danger.
10 – With a bit of ability and the the use of a rain cover poncho we can achieve a makeshift vivac where to shelter from the rain or cold.
As you can see, the sticks or poles are versatile elements for trekking. Usually, those that try them will include them as a must have in their list. They are light and easy to carry when not in use. They can make all the difference between a comfortable walk and painful overworked legs. I’m sure it is not that unusual to see a limping pilgrim that suffering on El Camino has had to grab a heavy tree branch to use as a walking stick to try to make it easier.
I hope you have found the topic of interest. On another occasion I will write about the technique to make the use of the poles more efficient, get less tired and walk more kilometres with the same energy.
Buen Camino to all!