Tips to Choose and Use a Walking or Hiking 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. Here's when you should use a walking or hiking stick and how to choose one.

George Barker of Whistle Creek 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 with the big stick was the boss. Then there was the founder of the Boy Scouts, Lord Baden-Powell, who was 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 for Walking Sticks

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're 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 your 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.

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

Choosing Size and Weight

When selecting a staff, it should be at least 6 inches above your elbow to allow for plenty of room going downhill. Hickory is our "man's stick" weight-wise because it's heavier and a little stronger.

Sassafras or 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 boomers stay that way longer. Staffs allow a typical hiker to reduce the body weight felt on the feet by as much as 20 percent. 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 while it's on the ground.

When you lean over on the staff, your body weight goes down. Switching from your left to your right hand with the staff balances these 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 since two staffs are hard for the average person to get used to.

~ George Barker, Whistle Creek