I recently completed a 2-month traverse of the Pyrenees Mountains, walking from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean via the High Route or HRP (Haute Route Pyrenees) between France and Spain. During my time on these trails, I was struck by how many people were using trekking poles – not just the serious long-distance walkers, but also families out for day walks, and mountain runners on uphill sections.
This is clearly quite different from the situation in Australia, where trekking poles (also known as walking or hiking poles) are used by only a small percent of walkers. What do the Europeans know that we don’t?! What can we learn from them?
First, there is a very different mindset in Europe. Trekking poles are seen as a way of boosting your fitness while walking (an activity also sometimes referred to as “Nordic Walking”) and having poles is part and parcel of being a serious walker; not just looking the part but having the right gear. Their usefulness in taking some of the strain off your knees, helping with shock absorption on steep, rocky ground – both uphill and downhill, assisting with tricky, balance bits of the track, and enhancing your upper body workout, is widely recognised. They are even marketed to kids!
Here in Australia, it’s a bit different. Walking poles are often called “walking sticks” which confuses the situation. Technically, a walking stick is something quite different – often a single wooden stick to assist with mobility. Given this association, I have found that if you suggest to someone in Australia that they might benefit from using poles, it may be taken as an age-related insult. Even Australian walking guides can be guilty of this attitude! And if you do use walking/trekking poles, how often do you encounter a comedian (without poles of course) who asks you where the snow is?!
It’s high time for Australian walkers to get serious about trekking poles. Yes, you can walk without poles. You can eat without a knife and fork too but good technology is worth using. After a few hours on the trail, your knees (and hips) will thank you for using poles. You’ll also have a far better walking posture (think shoulders, back, abdominals, triceps), your pack will sit and feel better on your back as a result, and no more “puffy sausage fingers” which you often get with walking if your hands are just hanging down by your sides. If even European mountain runners think poles are a vital piece of equipment on the hills, using them can only be a positive thing. An orthopaedic surgeon reputedly told a keen walking friend of mine (read “serious hardcore trekker”) that using poles would add about 10 years to the walking life of his knees. That sounds good to me!
I want to keep walking as long as I possibly can. I definitely use poles and have done since my mid-thirties, when I started using them to enhance the walking I was doing for fitness. I’ve never looked back. With every little thrust of the poles, I’m pushed along the track almost effortlessly. My poles were indispensable during my recent walk through the Pyrenees, and I will definitely be taking them along for my walk along the UK Coast to Coast Path next week!
By Merel Dalebout, Stroll Guide