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How to hike the Camino without falling (too much)

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In a couple of other threads there has been discussion about some parts of the Camino Frances that some people consider to be difficult to walk safely. I could have posted to one of these but thought that it might be useful to try to communicate to a wider audience as my advice can be useful on any Camino.

Quite a large number of people who walk the various Caminos but particularly the more popular ones don't have a lot of experience hiking in the back country. In general that is not a problem because the popular Caminos are well signposted and generally don't present any technical difficulties and are mostly on well formed and sometimes paved paths and so no real hiking experience is required.

There are short stretches, however, that seem to worry some inexperienced hikers such as the final part of the descent into Zubiri, the descent from Alto de El Perdón and the descent into El Acebo after the Cruz de Ferro.

What I would like to offer is my experience on how to deal with these short stretches to help make Camino walking safer for a wider number of people. I can not claim any particular expertise other than having done some back country hiking and I certainly don't want anyone to think that I have never fallen myself because I certainly have, over the years, and perhaps this has given me the opportunity to learn extra skills. I am also neither young at 68 years old nor particularly fit or athletic.

Probably the most useful part of my experience was gained many, many years ago in a slightly different area. When I was a teenager and into my early 20's I loved motorcycling and I use to race a motorcycle on road racing tracks and I fancied myself for a while as having some skill and so when I got a suitable off road motorcycle I decided that I might have a go at going fast off-road. I got myself invited out with an organised group of fanatical off-road riders. They had a rule that if anyone new was invited then the person who invited them had to babysit the newbie and, if necessary, guide them back to somewhere safe if they couldn't keep up with the rest of the group.

I was somewhat embarrassed when I found that I was crashing often and unable to keep up with the group and this greatly annoyed the friend who had invited me and so after lagging back with me for a while he stopped me and gave me some advice. This is what he said:

I have been watching you ride and I see that you are making some newbie mistakes and that is what is causing you to crash. What is happening is that your front wheel is getting caught in ruts in the ground, that then causes your steering to go violently off course and you are crashing. If you look at the other riders though you will see that this is not happening to them. The reason that it is only happening to you is because you are looking for the ruts. You are doing this so that you think that you can avoid them that way but actually this has the opposite effect. Where your eyes go your head follows and where your head goes is the direction that you steer your motorcycle and so by looking for those ruts you are actually setting yourself up to get stuck in them.

What you need to do instead is to keep your eyes on the near horizon and to find the path with the least ruts out in the distance. You will never avoid all ruts this way but you will avoid a lot of them and then when you come across one that you couldn't avoid then you have to trust your body, lean back and apply more throttle so that you lift your front wheel out of the rut. By looking down while looking for the ruts you not only put more weight on your front wheel but you can never react fast enough to avoid the ruts without going really slow and then you will get let behind and I will get annoyed and I will have to take you back home.

I took his advice and we were able to catch up with the rest of the group.

Okay, so how does this relate to hiking? Well it is much the same except we do it with our legs rather than on a motorcycle. As humans we are designed to walk. Our body knows how to do it. In the normal course of events we don't walk around looking down at our feet, wondering if we will trip up. For most of us, even when we walk down stairs we don't usually walk down with our eyes on our feet carefully watching to see that we safely place each foot on each stair properly. In fact if you want to try doing that (watching every step that you take) then my advice would be to make sure that you hold the handrail as you walk down the stairs that way so that you don't fall.

So, leaving aside people with diseases, injuries or artificial limbs that affect their gait for the rest of us our body automatically balances as it walks unconsciously and being conscious about how we walk gets in the road rather than improving things. Also, as with motorcycling, where our eyes go our head follows and where our head goes is where we go. If you don't believe that then try walking down stairs while looking to one or other of your shoulders.

On the trail, when things start to get a little bit tricky inexperienced hikers will tend to drop their gaze down to immediately in front of them and they will try to consciously pick where they place their feet. This means that they tend to lose focus on the overall best path and instead end up zigzagging around obstacles immediately in front of them that could have been avoided with a better overview. It is also very tiring to have to consciously think about where you will place every step and it isn't possible to do this fast and so the pace drops off. Paradoxically (and similarly to riding a bike or motorcycle) going slower (in general) means that it is harder to balance than proceeding at a regular walking pace. This is acerbated by zigzagging and sudden changes of direction to avoid obstacles.

What I do is shorten my stride but not drop my pace and I keep my eyes on the middle distance. Looking for the overall best route. To keep my mind off consciously trying to plan each step I will either talk to someone close by, sing a song that I don't know well or actively look for unusual plants ahead. Anything to occupy my mind and keep it off trying to second guess my automatic balance and gait. Of course, sometimes there are relatively major obstacles on the path such as a fallen tree that is up off the ground, a particularly high step up (or down) or a large rock or something similar. Then I need to slow momentarily and put my conscious attention into navigating that obstacle. On the way down from Roncesvalles into Zubiri (for example) there are probably only about a dozen such large obstacles that need my conscious attention. For the rest, my body automatically keeps me balanced and is able to compensate if I have a minor slip. I make a point of not stretching out my step or leaning back or forward as the more upright I am the better my balance.

This can seem a bit counter intuitive if you have not done it before and so it is probably best to practise this at home and to work on your balance at home by, for example, standing on one leg as you brush your teeth in the morning.

I do fall from time to time when I hike and I have bruised myself but fortunately never seriously injured myself while hiking. I do find that after a fall I lose my confidence a bit and start trying to consciously pick my steps in difficult areas and so I have to tell myself to be brave and stop doing it. Sometimes that isn't easy, especially after a painful fall and so be kind to yourselves and enjoy your Camino, however you walk.
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Thank you for the post @DoughnutANZ. I would like to add a few tips also.

Lift your feet when walking. Someone I know very well ( :rolleyes: ) left scuff marks in the dust halfway up the Grand Canyon and has feet that attempt to move through rocks and roots rather than passing over them.

When the walking gets steep don't lean over. If you are leaning when on your toes going up the weight distribution may cause your foot to slip backwards. Going down on a rock slab angle your foot to be flat on the rock and stand up straight; your weight and the shoe's friction should keep you upright.

If you are hiking with adjustable sticks lengthen the sticks when going downhill and shorten them going up hill. You want to maintain a 90⁰ angle between your upper arm and forearm. This will help prevent you from leaning foward, most important when going downhill (or going from rock to rock while stream crossing and planting your sticks in the stream bed).

Ankle flexibility will help prevent twisted ankles and loss of balance. My own method of exercise for this would probably cause those in the medical fields to gasp but someone on this forum once mentioned that walking barefoot in beach sand was good for this.

And of course good balance well help prevent nasty falls.
On the really dodgy sections first thing I do is slow down, obviously and then carefully, one measured step at a time work my way down. I tend to look at the overall path, gauge that and then make my way down looking at each spot I put my foot down, alternating between that and looking fully ahead. That's for the really bad sections, say out of Ponferrada or past Alto de Perdon and between Ages and Burgos. I find that trekking poles help me pick my way down. I'm never in a rush on spots like that.
I've taken three memorable spills while walking the Frances and all three were due to stepping on a really slippery spot and instantly losing my footing and going down. Despite having good, grippy hiking shoes I still went down. The first time was very fast and I only had time to put my hands out front of my face. I ended up muddy and with a sprained left wrist and right knee. The other two falls I had time to roll and direct the fall to my pack which took the brunt of the impact. No physical injuries, just wounded pride lol. I would say, and this is based on other pilgrims on here describing their falls and injuries on the Camino, it is just as important to know how to fall as it is know how to avoid it. Some of the pilgrims here describe falling straight down, flat as a pancake on their face and have reported some really bad injuries. No attempt to protect themselves or drop and roll, paratrooper style. I realize a lot of factors cause this, especially having a backpack on which totally messes up center of gravity and ability to maneuver, but it is something to keep in mind.
I do this and I find it helps me get comfortable with my backpack and how it fits. Before I leave for the Camino I pack my backpack as it will be on the Camino, including water and I wear what I would wear or similar when walking. I put on the pack and while wearing it I lay flat on the floor and then get back up several times unassisted, back and forth and work my way to doing it comfortably.
If you are an older walker (like me) I offer this advice:
  • Before you go, work on your balance. Simple yoga, dance, bike riding, challenging walks on a treadmill (a little faster than you would prefer to go for a length of time) are exercises that will greatly benefit you on the Camino. This, to me, is the most important advice.
  • Stand straight when walking with your pack. Don't hunch over.
  • Use two walking sticks. Not one, definitely not none.
  • Go slowly and mind your place in space, especially in areas where your "spider-sense" starts tingling to be alert.
  • Watch for slippery patches of scree.
Working on balance before you head out is my absolutely most important piece of advice on this subject. You will be shocked at how quickly your body returns to balance in a short amount of time if you do little exercises throughout the day (yes, when no one is looking!!).

How long can you balance on one foot? Then the other? You'll know if you need to work on it.
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For those of use who use multi-focal or bi-focal spectacles, it is also worthwhile to get a pair of specs with a single, long distance script (sometimes called driving glasses) to be used when walking on rough ground or on a track.
This allows the lower peripheral vision to be focussed at ground level instead of at reading distance.
If I am lazy and just use my multi-focal I can need to look down to bring the immediate rough ground into focus - with all the disadvantages that DoughnutANZ has mentioned.
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Thanks for your useful post, @DoughnutANZ . My tuppence worth: just saying a little differently, about balance - look to the middle distance, find a spot and follow it. I go to an exercise class a couple of times a week - a gift from our health service - and the young tutors pay a lot of attention to giving us practice with balance. My walking companion taught me to think myself upright, that way the centre of gravity is within a smaller circle. And then of course: Walk tall, walk straight and look the world right in the eye
I forgot to add: when teaching English to immigrants, the power of this song was instantaneous. They would immediately straighten up!
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Some of the pilgrims here describe falling straight down, flat as a pancake on their face
This happened to me on the running path leaving Logroño. I was going fast and don't even know how it happened - I assume I scuffed a foot or something. The momentum of the pack basically slammed me onto the ground, and there was absolutely no time to roll sideways or even put my sticks out. I landed on them, crossed underneath me. Fortunately it wasn't a rocky place, and I just had a unicorn bump, a black eye, and a cheekbone that was tender for weeks. It could have been much worse.

So if you are on a difficult surface, it may be easier to balance at a faster pace, but if you do go down, the results may be worse. @DougnutANZ, what is your sense of how to best balance speed and danger?
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So if you are on a difficult surface, it may be easier to balance at a faster pace, but if you do go down, the results may be worse. @DougnutANZ, what is your sense of how to best balance speed and danger?
I tried to cover this a little in my original post but like most things, it depends.

What I was trying to get people to think about was that in many cases if we allow our body to do it's own thing subconsciously then that is generally better than consciously walking or stepping.

However that has to be weighed up against the situational danger.

If I am walking on a well formed path that is very narrow and there is a sheer 100m drop off on one side of the trail then even though the trail has no particular hazards I will probably still walk slower in that area. Part of that, though, is my personal fear of heights and in many ways is the exact opposite of my general advice!

Leaving my personal idiosyncrasies aside, some obstacles and hazards are so "unusual" that we do need to consciously think about how to navigate them.

Most other hazards can be left to our unconscious body to deal with.

I guess that what is unusual in our own context is the stuff that we need to take extra care with. A hiker with a lot of experience may encounter less unusual hazards than someone with less experience on the same trail.

However, a non-obvious hazard is tiredness. The more tired we get, the more mistakes we make in both judgement and technique. Watching where I place every step not only is not optimal but also takes a lot of extra energy and so if I walk in this tentative manner for too long then I also get tired much quicker and start making those mistakes.

I am not sure if I have adequately answered your question.

Maybe if I go back to my original motorcycling analogy I can answer you.

Yes, when I stopped looking for those ruts I was able to ride faster, had better balance and crashed less but when I did crash the possibility of serious injury was probably higher. There seems no counter to that except that unintuitively more people seemed to get seriously injured in relatively slow speeds but maybe that is a situational bias as more people go slow.
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What I was trying to get people to think about was that in many cases if we allow our body to do it's own thing subconsciously then that is generally better than consciously walking or stepping.

Being ‘in one’s feet’, without necessarily being actively conscious of them?

If I am walking on a well formed path that is very narrow and there is a sheer 100m drop off on one side of the trail then even though the trail has no particular hazards I will probably still walk slower in that area. Part of that, though, is my personal fear of heights and in many ways is the exact opposite of my general advice!

Make that an uphill rocky arête any day, for me … far easier than a narrow well formed path (if between sheer drops).

But .. oops …I just read your post again, and it says a drop to one side.
Walking more slowly on that narrow well formed path might just be sensible … taking more care, as opposed to a fearful response.
One might ’go over’ on one’s ankle, a rock/small animal/snake etc appearing, suddenly, from the non-drop side might cause a loss of balance due to a minor shock…
A pack larger than about 25litres would make a difference, too .
Caution, as opposed to fear ….

And, @VNwalking … that face plant sounds really nasty ☹️

There will always be some irregularities in path/road surfaces: I flew flat on my face when I tripped on an uneven paving stone in the local market town. No bones broken, but it made me realise that perhaps I might slow down a bit … perhaps I wasn’t picking my feet up as much as I used to when I was younger (ie in my 60s) … and that perhaps I might stride a little more slowly. 😉

But it’s true that momentum can also prevent a fall.

I found it worthy of note that you:
don't even know how it happened - I assume I scuffed a foot or something.

It’s hard to maintain ‘consciousness’ all the time … but maybe it’s slightly more possible on camino?
I’m sure you’ll know what I mean…
Being … here … now …
might make it more possible to move at precisely the ‘right’ speed for the path/terrain …
Though the sense of sure-footedly ‘flying’ along can be irresistible!!! 😊
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To improve balance, strengthen core muscles. If you can stand on one leg for more than a couple of seconds, you can thank your core muscles. Note, however, that to strengthen them, you have to focus on them and actively exercise them. I'm not sure cycling or walking does much to strengthen core muscles, but a dance class using a barre will work your core muscles until they scream. You may have some sore muscles, but your balance will astound you. (There are probably youtube videos giving barre classes in which participants do the exercises while resting one hand on the back of a chair until they can do the routine without any support.)

Walking up and down hills. The focus should be on maintaining a center of balance, not on standing erect on leaning forward/backward or not leaning forward/backing. Bending your knees so that you are in a modified squat position will help you walking down hill because you are lowering your center of gravity and increasing your stability while also keeping you from getting out of balance by leaning backwards (which often results in your feet shoes losing traction and you on your backside). With knees bent, the line from your head to your feet is perpendicular to the ground, just as it is when you are walking on a flat surface.

Poles walking down hills. When you use poles on flat ground, your elbows tends to move from slightly in front of your rib cage to slightly behind your rib cage (if you use the nordic system). When you begin to walk downhill (after you have moved into the modified squatting position to lower your center of gravity maintain a perpendicular relationship with the terrain), rather than stopping to lengthen your poles, swing your poles to the front and extend your arms to make up the needed length. (This is not the traditional advice, but I've found it has worked really well for me over the last 15-20 years.) This does three things: first, it helps control the speed of your descent by letting the poles act as brakes when needed, and second, it more or less forces you to maintain the squatting position as you descend, and third, it keeps the poles in front of you to support you if for some reason you might take a fall.

Picking your path down from the descents ("the final part of the descent into Zubiri, the descent from Alto de El Perdón and the descent into El Acebo after the Cruz de Ferro"). Unless I've read the suggestions incorrectly, there are those who either focus on a short distance ahead to find the best route or look near/at their feet to pick the spot to place their feet. I can't imagine doing any of the mentioned descents without a constant, rapid scanning back and forth from my feet to a short distance ahead. For me, the scanning has to be constant to pick the spot for my foot to land and to see the direction I need to head in order to avoid the major obstacles up ahead.

If for any reason you are unable to do the constant, rapid scanning back and forth, then you might want to consider first stopping to give yourself a chance to find the best general path for the next several feet and then walk that path picking the best spots to place your feet. When you get to the end of that section, stop repeat the process until you reach the bottom. Best of both suggestion in this thread.

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