Tips to Choose and Use a Walking or Hiking Stick

Walk Softly and Carry a Big Stick

Camino de Santiago Walkers in Galicia
Camino de Santiago Walkers in Galicia. Tim Graham/Getty Images News

Teddy Roosevelt's foreign policy was to "walk softly and carry a big stick." Those words of wisdom are useful for walkers and hikers to remember as well. When should you use a stick and how do you choose one?

George Barker of Whistle Creek Walking Sticks provides this insight:

History of the Walking Stick

"Man's second invention - the stick - 5,000 B.C." His first invention was the rock - as a tool, but some people debate that the stick was used first to uproot the rocks.

So the debate goes on...
See illustrations of Moses and shepherds using their sticks and staffs to herd their flocks - both people and sheep. The staff was the early symbol of leadership in the Church and in most organizations - the guy person with the big stick was the boss. Later in history,"Walk softly... and carry a big stick." And then the founder of the Boy Scouts, Lord Baden-Powell, never seen without his trusty hiking staff. Today the stick is still a friend on the trail, always there to lend support, leverage or an advance "feel" of the terrain ahead. Trekking poles are but one more variation on perhaps man's oldest tool - the stick.

Demand - Who Wants a Walking or Hiking Stick?

Hiking staffs are being purchased by both newcomers and seasoned walkers alike. Making a beautiful hand-finished walking staff is a lot of work, and many people prefer to let us do the labor so they can have the fun.

We cut our staffs in the winter when the sap is not running, then dry them in a kiln for 6-8 weeks while straightening them. Once dry, we hand finish each one, removing just enough of the bark to make the stick smooth to the touch while allowing nature's beauty to shine through. The stick is then "baptized" with a coat of lacquer and fitted with a steel-reinforced neoprene rubber tip and a leather thong.

More experienced walkers have several sticks handy depending on the type of trek they are going on. Neighborhood aerobic "walk-outs" with a staff are normally conducted with a well balanced, straight and smooth no-frills wood staff. This permits the use of the stick for stretching and upper-body exercise routines while on the walk. Simple neighborhood strolls suggest a comfortably handled stick for cadence, tempo and "critter" protection in today's neighborhood environments. Serious treks for miles through arduous terrain would call for a height measured stick, six inches or more above the elbow, light in weight yet strong enough to meet the demands of the hiker on the trail.

Features of a Walking Stick

Features include sticks with compasses in their tops, sticks with whistles carved into them for trail signaling, leather thongs and different types of tips. Sticks vary from a hand-rubbed high gloss finish to the rustic "bark" feel.

WARNING: We do not make sticks out of aluminum or other electrically conductive materials because of the thunderstorms in the Rockies where we hike.

More: Lightning Safety for Walkers

What Size and Weight?

When selecting a staff, it should be at least 6" above your elbow to allow for plenty of staff going down hill. Hickory is our "Man's stick" weight-wise because it is heavier and a little stronger. Sassafras or one of our Discovery Series Pine staffs are lighter in weight but plenty strong for most hiking needs. You can always shorten a Whistle Creek stick by removing the rubber tip and sawing off what you don't want, then putting the rubber tip back on.

Trends in Walking and Hiking Sticks

"Baby boomers" still want to be active, and a staff helps a boomer stay that way longer. Staffs allow a typical hiker to reduce the "foot-felt" body weight by as much as 20%. Since the hiker is leaning on the staff rather than his foot with each step he takes, the feet have less work to do. Try standing on a scale and leaning on a staff. When you lean over on the staff (that is on the ground), your body weight goes down. Switching from left to right hand with the staff balances this weight savings while evenly distributing the aerobic benefits of the upper-body exercise. You win big both ways. Some hikers are even using two staffs, although we recommend just one for safety. (Two staffs are hard for the average person to get used to.)
~ George Barker, Whistle Creek Walking Sticks

Dan Fry of "Raisin Cane" & Hiking Stick Company

Email: dafryz@hotmail.com
I make walking sticks and canes out of driftwood I pick up from the banks of the Columbia River and the Oregon coast. I carve animals, birds and mainly Indian style,(reproductions of petroglyphs, petrographs and Chiefs heads etc...), Sometimes integrating knots, natural twists and features of the stick. I use shells, agates, and several other natural features. After intensive sanding, I finish with several clear coats, or will just use water sealant to preserve natural beauty. I'm really not sure if I have any words of "wisdom" for you...... I think the closest thing I have is to tell you the process I go through in picking the right stick to carve.

I begin by finding a ready supply of driftwood. Heightens the odds of finding a worthwhile piece of wood. When I find an unusual looking piece, I look it over a few minutes to see if there is something already in the wood just waiting to be carved. Then if I feel it has potential, I will find a big rock or stump and hit it over it to see if it will survive actual usage, no matter what it's being used for. If the stick survives this test,(not many do!), then I carry it home and dry it thoroughly before I even begin to consider carving on it!

I spend a lot of time looking at and feeling the stick to obtain the best weight and ergonomics of each stick. It must be lightweight and the grip carved at the right length and angle. I will even go so far as to ask my customer to send me a print of their hand by gripping a paper roll and tracing the hand with a pen. These sticks are made to endure many moons worth of hiking!!!!
More: How to Make a Wooden Walking Stick

Our Readers Tell About Their Stick Experiences:

Debbie: Harv and I use the sticks we have when we know we will be on a natural trail and one with some incline as well. We find them useful in both situations. We have two sets of sticks the long wood ones that we use close to home - they travel well in the van. We also have two of the folding ones and we use those as they are easy to carry when we are away from home.

 

Bill: I use one all the time. For no physical reason. I always select a stick based on style; not anything practical. I look for a stick that has a story to tell. I have plain sticks that still have an elegance about them. I have carved sticks that tell something about the maker. I even have a very light weight but sturdy stick from a trip my wife took to Australia several years. The idea of using a stick came from a trip to Baden-Powell house in London England while on a trip with my son and a Cub Scout group. Baden-Powell was famous for using a stick and he was given many as gifts in his travels to support the then fledgling Scouting movement.

Lynne: I use a walking stick when I know the trail is going to be difficult. A woodsy walk for instance. I obtained one because a club was selling handmade ones from a club member for $5.00. That was the best investment I ever made.

"Backwards Charlie": I use a hiking stick under two conditions: when I suspect loose dogs on the route, and when I suspect the route covers rough ground (rocks, steep hills, etc.).

I bought mine at a walking event several years ago where someone was selling walking/hiking sticks. I picked out one that was sturdy (no give under moderate bending pressure) and a length that was comfortable for me. I am glad that I did pick a sturdy one since I have had to use it as a machete to hack my way through dense underbrush when scouting out possible trails.

Stan and Dena: We use walking sticks for a variety of reasons.
1) For an assist on hills.
2) For stability on difficult terrain
3) For protection--Stan carries a walking stick on every single walk. A walking stick is an excellent deterrent to an attacking dog. After being attacked by five German Shepherds on an evening summer walk in the Baltimore area, Stan decided to be prepared. He has never used the walking stick on any dogs. It seems they see the stick and back off. This is true of people also. On some city walks, ones where there are unsavory characters loitering, just seeing a stick makes these people look the other way.

Darwin: I used to sit back and watch people walking with walking sticks and wonder why? I had tried using one myself, but it always felt awkward and ungainly. I spent as much time banging my shins as I did hitting the ground. Seeing these other folks come whizzing by with their stick seeming to be almost a part of them frustrated me greatly. Today, I feel almost naked without my staff.

Learning to manage the stick has made my walking experiences much more enjoyable. I think everyone should try using a stick at one time or another.
The first thing is choosing the stick that is right for you. There are lots of choices available. You can get posite fiber, wood, aluminum and plastic sticks. I prefer the wood. Like pro baseball players, I believe that aluminum is best suited for cans and transportation. There is nothing quite like the feel of a good piece of wood in hand.
There are many woods to choose from; oak, hickory, sassafras, mesquite. I think my own stick is sassafras. Whatever wood you use, pick something light and strong. Light because you will have to carry it and the difference between 5lbs and 10lbs over a long hike is considerable. At least strong enough to not break when you put your full weight on it. That stick could be the only thing between you and a nasty fall.
Length is also important. A good walking stick should be at least as high as your shoulder. Longer and it could become an exercise in annoyance. Shorter and it may not be much help when descending a hill or steep incline. A short stick, at least to me, is harder to use going down. With the longer stick, I can use it as a support when stepping down and grip it so that I am using my arms and back to take some of the weight off of my knees. If you have had any sort of knee problem you will understand the value of this.
Another consideration is the diameter of the stick. For most folks, you want something around the size of a Susan B. Anthony dollar. You should be able to comfortably grip the stick without overlapping your thumb. You also do not want it too large. Your fingers should be able to curl around the stick. This will also help prevent your fingers from swelling after exercising.
When walking with the stick it is good to alternate hands ever so often. This will prevent circulatory problems.Not everyone will use it the same. I have found that the stick feels most natural when I grip it lightly and let the natural movement of my arms move it. Once settled into a rhythm , the stick actually helps me to maintain a pace, It's tapping keeping time with my footfalls. I particularly enjoy walking on a good earthen trail, listening to the drumming sound the stick makes when it hits the packed earth.
Other than a useful tool, the stick can also be a good identifier and logbook. I place cane shields on mine as a record of places I have been. There are a few people around here that I readily recognize by their sticks. Sometimes I recognize that my friend Jan is present at walks before I even see her, because I know her stick.
As for care, an occasional wiping down with a soft rag and some Old English furniture polish is all the care my stick needs. And maybe a replacement rubber tip.

Nancy: I bought a pair of Leki Super Makalu hiking poles a few years ago for a hiking trip in Italy. The trip organizers recommend taking one pole or a pair. I did not have a chance to use them here in Washington before I left, so I only took one.
I found the pole very useful for descents, crossing streams and belaying down muddy hills. The grade of the Italian trails was much steeper than what I was used to in the states, and pole really helped save my knees on the first few days of the trip. Several other people in the group purchased poles mid-way through the trip, and just found the going much easier with them.
I'm getting better at taking at least one with me on day hikes here at home. There is nothing like a third balance point for crossing swollen streams!

Monty: My favorite is the folding aluminum stick (Volk-Staf) sold by the AVA. I always carry it on a volksmarch and many are the time I have needed it for a stream crossing or muck along the trail. It has also been useful on the 4000' peaks in the White Mts. of NH.
My wife like to borrow the same stick for use on any woods trail as she feels she has to watch her feet as she moves and this provides a third point of contact with the ground. The folding stick was chosen for ease of carrying and it is always with me.
My favorite sticks are the ones I create out of cedar. I look for downed tree limbs and clean them off with a band saw. Then I trim them to accentuate the wonderful rose center core color of the cedar. Then I sand and polyurethane them. I attach a small rubber piece to the end similar to that found on a crutch. (The hardware store has a wonderful supply of different rubber tips). I usually attach some decorative wooden drawer knob from the hardware store to the top of the stick to set it off.
These cedar sticks are wonderful to look at and they are very durable. The weight is a consideration depending on the length of the hike. The stick is handy for scaring off dogs that attack you along the route. Hold it like a rifle, yell no and they back off quickly.

"Wimbearly":I particularly use sticks on trails, the more hilly or uneven the taller and more substantial the stick.
I collect sticks, and I choose first one that feels good in my hand. If cane height one with a good height, and a comfortable grip. For walking, not just collecting, I want a strong stick that is light enough to carry without fatiguing the arms or hands. For a working stick, I always add a furniture leg tip or crutch tip, to soften noise, impact and help with skid resistance.
I want a stick that is natural, not painted and junked up. If crafted, I want the work to be in keeping with the stick's character. I have a beautiful stick made from the center stalk of a tobacco plant. But the maker used dayglow webbing for the grip loops. I was so glad that the one I liked best was missing the hanging loop!!!! I have carved face sticks, beaded sticks, hillbilly unfinished sticks, and turned sticks. Each one reflects the beauty of the wood and the attention of the maker. Then there is old faithful hickory stick-he's my friend and companion on most walks- he perseveres without question and takes his falls in stride-while his fancier cousins would cry out in pain if they received a scratch.
Many people like the metal sticks- and while useful- they lack the singular beauty of an unusually shaped, or vine twisted piece of God's so wondrous creativity, often enhanced by one of his gifted children.

Lucy: I have found the Volkstaf wonderful in the mountains, when hiking with a daypack. EXCEPT if the trail is muddy....then the tip sticks in the mud and stresses the internal bungee cord when you try to pull it out. I love that it folds and holds shut with a velcro strap and is so small and lightweight.

Flo: I use a stick most of the time for walking, either city streets, or hill and dale. I actually have three walking sticks, one, which is a folding one for travel (Trac brand) and two other wooden staffs. It is much more fun to use the wooden ones as they have my collection of cane shields from many of the places we have walked. They become conversation starters when you are walking many YRE's where there are not a lot of Volksmarchers about and more of the "locals."
I chose my stick based on my height, whether it was straight enough when I pushed on with it. Both of my wooden sticks are just that, one is made of sassafras and the other dogwood, so it has the natural shape of the limb it once was. I have always put a rubber crutch tip on the wooden ones to keep them from slipping on wet surfaces and I have also moved the leather lanyard to a more comfortable position for slipping on my wrist. I have never really found one just right for me from the stockpile. When persons look at them, they should realize you could shorten the length very quickly with a small saw and readjust the lanyard easily by drilling another hole in the stick.
You may wonder why I have two wooden sticks . . . well, when we went to the 1997 convention, we were well on our way when I realized I had forgotten to put my stick in the car. We first spent a week in Gatlinburg and I knew I would be very uncomfortable walking without a stick. So, one of the first things we did was visit the woodworking shops for a new stick, before doing any serious walking. Of course, now I have another one to fill with cane shields!
I had a leg bone operation many years before starting to volkswalk and had used a cane during recovery, but it eventually caused wrist problems for me and I finally stopped using a cane. However, in walking over rough terrain or city sidewalks, I decided I would feel more comfortable with something and decided to try a stick. It allows me not to bear weight on my wrist, but supports and balances me when going up and down large steps or in the woods (I am rather short, so my leg reach is less than most, most fifth graders are taller than I.)

Jean: I use a walking stick always on a 4 or 5. For a 3, I take it in the car, then decide, based on the territory I just drove through, the scuttlebutt at the tables if I'm a late start, answers to my questions at the start table, or my intuition.
I'd rather NOT use a walking stick if I don't have to, as I find it restricts my stride, i.e., I start to walk in stride with my stick, not vice versa. My problem.
I'm 5'1", so shortness is the big criterion in my choice; not all sticks can be cut off for me without losing their balance. And I must have a wrist-loop. And the handle must feel good for my full stride, i.e., stroked forward, at my side, and behind me. After all those, beauty.

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