The Pilgrim’s Staff

Yesterday we bought our walking poles in St Jean Pied de Port – our final piece of equipment for the Camino de Santiago – the ancient pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostele in Spain. Today we should have been walking, but have decided to take a couple of rest days to get over the last of a bug caught en route to Paris from a fellow traveller. It is also a ‘snow day’ – meaning the high path, or Napoleon route, over the Pyrenees is closed due to snow falls.

So it’s time to explore the town – and we encountered a museum housed in what was once the Bishop’s jail. It was interesting to reflect on the importance of the walking pole or pilgrim’s staff in the history and iconography of the Camino.

Ergonomic studies on the use of trekking poles show that they can take up to 20% of the load off the knees. This enables hikers and walkers to cover greater ground with less strain than without using them. They provide stability in uneven or slippery terrain, and act as ‘brakes’ when walking down hills. But I notice that many pilgrims still prefer to walk with a traditional wooden staff or stick – perhaps to keep time and maintain the walking rhythm, and to test the depth of streams before fording them.

In the museum there was a bit of a write-up on the use of walking poles or trekking poles. As a device to support walking and provide stability, the staff has come to symbolise the axis of the world, around which we all perambulate to a greater or lesser extent.

In biblical representations, the staff of Moses guides the people to safety, even driving back the sea to enable safe passage. In this sense the staff is seen as the soul transformed by the divine – a symbology related to the redemptive power of the cross of Christ. To do a million step walk is also to lift and carry that staff a million times – so perhaps there is an element of carrying one’s cross or burden.

When you consider that the staff is at once support, defence, and guide, the stick has become the king’s sceptre, the Marshall stick of the brigadier, the caduceus of our doctors and the crozier of bishops, as well as the eyes of the blind.

For all these reasons, the staff has become the main symbolic attribute of pilgrims – not only for pilgrims on the Saint James route, but since the dawn of time, pilgrims have been using a staff for support, guidance and defence against robbers and thieves.

In medieval times it became quite an icon. So much so, that they appeared to be used even by pilgrims who went by sea. So its symbolic value was always high regardless of the mode of travel. Indeed the Ergonomists would probably agree that if you are lifting something like that a million times, it had better be useful!.

So next time you see a hiker, trekker, or pilgrim walking with trekking poles or a stick regardless of whether their sticks are made from carbon fibre, aluminium or wood, spare a thought for that humble trekking pole!

PRACTICALITIES

Trekking poles come in a great variety of shapes sizes and materials.

Materials

Lightweight carbon fibre ones are light and durable, but can be expensive. Aluminium ones are a little heavier, and can be sprung or unsprung. Wooden ones, might appear traditional, but give the least ergonomic advantage.

Use

The value comes from the straps which take your weight as you bear down on them. So wider straps are better.

Always insert your hand from beneath the strap so that the strap passes over the back of the hand. That way, if you drop the pole it will just hang there on your wrist. Also you won’t break your thumb if you fall.

There are several styles of use. I prefer to place them in opposition to the walking foot – as though you are crawling, but upright. You can establish a good rhythm in line with your walking and natural swing of your arms.

Just tapping the sticks might make a nice audible rhythm, but will give you no help with the weight you carry. Bear down on the strap and just guide the stick with your hand, don’t grip it. You will save a lot of fatigue that way.

Types

Trekking poles can be fixed or extendable, sprung or unsprung, and some telescope into themselves, while others fold up like tent poles. I certainly prefer them to be adjustable for height. The fold up ones can be less secure as there is only a small overlap between segments, allowing a lot of play. I don’t recommend those for use on uneven ground where they may be called upon to provide real stability or support.

Where to buy

The best places are usually dedicated hiking or outdoors shops – make sure you get them fitted properly for your height and that they show you how to use them properly.