Why Use a Walking Staff?
A staff (also called a walking staff, walking stick, trekking poles, hiking poles, or walking poles) should be one of the first tools you obtain. They resemble ski poles and have many features in common such as baskets on the bottom, rubber padded grips, and wrist straps. Commercial models are often made in two or three sections with lengths that can be adjusted to fit the user’s height and the terrain that is being travelled through.
For walking, it provides support and helps in ascending and descending steep slopes. Walking sticks are useful when crossing streams, crossing shale surfaces, or when you stop to rest. It provides some weapon’s capabilities if used properly, especially against snakes and dogs. You can also use them to prop up your backpack, as a center or side pole for your tent, to stabilize your camera, probe the depth of a water crossing, or to push aside spider webs and brush. A walking stick also reduces shock on your knees and takes pressure off the back and hips and are particularly useful for persons with damaged knees or ankles.
It should be much longer than a cane with an ideal length being approximately the same height as the person using it or at least eyebrow height. The staff should be no larger than you can effectively wield when tired and undernourished. It provides invaluable eye protection when you are moving through heavy brush and thorns in darkness.
Walking Stick Components
Padded handles are typically made of hard rubber or cork. Plastic is too hard and foam disintegrates quickly. Cork handles will form to your hand, absorb sweat well, decrease vibration, and are very durable. Rubber grips can blister sweaty hands and thus is less suitable to warm weather movement. Foam is the softest and absorbs sweat well.
Baskets are small, removable discs on the bottom of the walking stick. Larger baskets are useful for snow and muddy surfaces.
Adjustable (or telescopic) shafts are common in commercial walking sticks. The purpose of the adjustable shaft is twofold. An adjustable shaft allows the user to set the length of the stick to a setting that is most fitting for their height. Adjustable shafts also allow the user to reduce the length of the stick for easy packing and transport. Three piece shafts can be adjusted to a smaller length, and more manageable length, than a two-piece stick.
Rubber tips are used on some walking sticks but most use carbide tips. Rubber is quieter but may slip on wet surfaces. Carbide tips are durable and grip well. Some poles use tips constructed from steel which is very durable but does not absorb vibration as well. Sharper tips are best for mud and snow while thicker tips are more suitable for sand or desert walking.
Some outdoorsmen and hikers complain that pole use leaves a visible impact on the surrounding trail, poking holes in the ground and scuffing up rocks. Given that 90% of hikers use trekking poles, you should be aware of where you place the poles and use rubber tips to avoid leaving scratch marks on rocks and other hard surfaces.
Using Walking Sticks
Desired pole length varies by the terrain you are travelling over. When hiking downhill, a longer pole provides better balance and control. Conversely, when walking uphill, a shorter pole will increase the load-bearing capabilities of the stick. When walking downhill, keep the stick out in front to slow the speed of your descent. When moving uphill, place the stick a little ways in front of you and use it to “pull” yourself up the hill.
When walking on level ground, the forearms should be parallel to the ground and the stick should touch the ground at the same time as the opposite foot. Periodically switch hands to keep from getting tired.
Types of Trekking Poles
Homemade Walking Sticks
A walking stick can be made from any straight piece of hardwood (e.g. hickory or oak). Softwood will disintegrate quickly. It should be about 4-5 feet long and have a circumference of 4-5 inches (1-2 inches thick). A slight crook in the middle is fine and in fact, some people prefer the look of a walking stick with a twist in the middle.
To make a homemade walking stick or trekking pole, first remove all the bark and small branches taking care to leave small stubs of branches where a natural handle could be formed. Carve out desired handholds (possible locations include the middle and ends). When carving the handholds, take the time to carve it to fit your hand perfectly. Sand the hardwood starting with a rough grit (100 grit) and working your way down to a finer grit (200 grit). After sanding, wipe down the stick with a damp cloth and then coat it with three layers of Varathane, tung oil, or boiled linseed to weatherproof it. Insert a screw in the bottom of the stick and hang it to dry. After the oil dries, was it with furniture wax to give it a glossy sheen.
You may drill a hole in the top and string a lanyard through it (along with a whistle or compass attached to the lanyard). A nail in the bottom serves to lessen wear on the tip or you may use a rubber cane tip purchased from your local drugstore. Tape or cork can be wrapped and glued around the handle to form a nice grip.
A homemade walking stick such as this can last for several years.
Carbon-Fiber Walking Sticks
Carbon fiber hiking poles can be very lightweight with some weighing just a few ounces. They are usually well balanced and may include added facilities such as a built in compass. They absorb vibration well but under high stress are more vulnerable to breaking or splintering than aluminum poles.
Aluminum Hiking Poles
Aluminum walking sticks are typically made from 7067 (T6) or 7075 aluminum. They are strong and economical. They typically weight between 18-22 ounces per pair. Under high stress, aluminum can bend but rarely break.
Anti-shock walking poles use internal springs that absorb shock and are particularly useful when walking downhill. Most commercial poles allow you to turn off the antishock feature when walking uphill. Although they add weight and costs to the poles, they are useful for persons with damaged hips, knees, or ankles.
Broom Handle Walking Sticks
A decent walking pole can be created with a wooden broom handle. Remove the brush and fit the bottom with a rubber tip purchased from a local drugstore. Drill a hole in the upper section and lace with a leather lanyard.
Bamboo Walking Stick
Bamboo can be used as a walking stick too. Bamboo poles can be found in the wild or purchased from a retailer such as Pier One Imports.