Walking poles - or trekking poles - are those long, pointy things people sometimes use when
walking long distances or over rugged terrain, especially seen on the Camino de Santiago, among other places.
When I came to live in Viana, Navarra, many years ago, I saw many pilgrims walking through my adopted Spanish village with a pole in each hand. I had no idea what they were or why they were using them. As an ex-military guy, I'd done some pretty gruelling marches and was never given a set of these walking poles, so I guessed it was just some kind of fad, or a thing pilgrims do to show they are truly pilgrims, like carrying a shell on their backpack.
So in 2021, I did a two-day walk over the Pyrenees, from Saint Jean Pied-de-Port to Roncesvalles, which many pilgrims had told me was a tough walk. I wanted to know more about walking poles, so I did a lot of research, and took a set along with me to see if they were of any benefit to a walker.
The answer is a definite YES.
Reduction of stress on legs
One of the major benefits of using such poles is that they transfer some of your weight up onto your arms and upper body, thus relieving the stress on your legs. Walking hundreds of kilometers with weight on your back puts a tremendous amount of stress on your leg muscles, feet, and especially your knees. (Approximately 30% of the population suffers from knee problems, as they are the least developed part of the human body. The rest of the human body is growing bigger and heavier with each generation, but the knees still think it is the 1300s....!)
They also help reduce the potential for blisters, or help you if you develop blisters by allowing you to transfer weight from your painful feet to your arms.
They are also useful to help push you up out of your seat when standing up with weight on your back, seriously reduces the fulcrum effect on your knees.
In a nutshell, using trekking poles seriously reduces the stress on your legs, and therefore, they reduce the potential for injury.
Whole body workout
The legs are the main workers when walking long distance, obviously. At the end of the camino, you'll have legs like an Olympic athlete, so enjoy the moment and wear shorts when you get back home, whatever the weather!
So wouldn't it be nice if you could actually exercise more than just your legs? Imagine having a whole body to show off! With trekking poles, you can! By transferring weight up through the arms, not only do they get a continuous workout, but so do your shoulders and back. You will be so much fitter all-over at the end of your pilgrimage!
Less fatigue at the end of the day
Because you are spreading the pain, you won't collapse on your bed crying when you get to your accommodation each night. You'll actually feel much better than without poles, and might even have enough energy to explore the town you are staying in!
Reduces the risk of trips and falls
Trekking poles offer so much more support for the walker, particularly over rough terrain (or in the wet). You can use them to push you uphill, and when descending you put them out in front, spread apart, and use them as a kind of brake, as well as extra grip.
Trekking poles have a nasty pointy tip at the end, and could, if needed, be used for protection from stray dogs (or other unwelcome creatures!). Some people often hold them horizontally when fast cyclist are approaching to create a safety gap between the cyclist and the walker.
THINGS TO CONSIDER WHEN USING POLES
There is a correct way to use them, so learn to use them properly. Particularly important is how you put your hands in the straps because if you do it wrong, and do fall, you can break your thumb! YouTube has many videos on how to, and benefits of, trekking poles. Here are two that are quite useful:
If you are flying with poles, they might not be allowed in cabin bags, as they have a pointy end. Check them in! (On routes like the Camino de Santiago, there are numerous places to buy/replace your trekking poles.)
They are extremely easy to lose! When you stop, exhausted, for a coffee, it is so easy to stand them against a wall, drop your pack and collapse. Once energised, you throw your pack on and march off, only to realise, after a few miles down the road, that something is missing, and have to go back to get your poles. Put them on top of your pack when you rest awhile!
The ends are metal tips, and when used in towns and villages, the constant clack-clack sound is a real annoyance for residents. Be considerate, and only use them in the countryside. If you do have to use them in built-up areas (due to injury etc), ensure the metal tips have a plastic cap over them. Most poles come with caps provided, but are easily lost, or wear out.
Are they essential? No, but highly recommended. Don't be like the pilgrim I met who, two weeks into his walk, developed a serious knee issue but absolutely refused to even consider using trekking poles.
Some manage without them, some use just a single pole. My advice is to experiment beforehand to see what suits you best, do your research, and make a decision.
I'm a fit, mid-50s guy, and whenever I walk the camino with weight on my back, I always use two poles, for all the reasons mentioned above. And yes, I did forget mine in a cafe once, and only realised when 3km down the road...