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A Good Walking Stick

Couresty Brazon Walking Sticks

There's nothing like a good wooden walking stick, is there? It's a completely different feeling from using a pair or metal or carbon fiber hiking poles. Wood is far more resilient. It won't break if you get it caught in some roots or you slip and lean on it real hard. It's biodegradable, and a hand-crafted walking pole is easily 50% less expensive than a pair of Leki or Black Diamond hiking poles. 

There's also an emotional bond that hikers form with a wooden walking stick that is very different from using a pair of collapsible metal poles. I used wooden staffs for years, especially growing up, and they saw a lot of backpacking miles in the hills of Pennsylvania.

Walking sticks are not for everyone, certainly. They don't fold up easily when you need to scramble and depending on their weight, they can use up more energy on a high mileage day. But they are tops if you need to do a lot of stream crossings that have rocky bottoms or traverse boulder fields of talus that will snap a metal or carbon fiber pole in a second.

Every spring, I make a point to re-read The Complete Walker by Colin Fletcher and Chip Rawlins. It's a continuing source of inspiration for me about lightweight backpacking and the joys of backpacking. Timeless stuff.

In it, Fletcher describes his fondness for the bamboo staff that he hiked the length of California with and it's utility in marshes and bogs, as a makeshift fishing rod, tarp anchor, tent pole, camera monopod, and rattlesnake probe.

Fletcher always inspires me, so I went down to the basement and dug out my old Brazos Walking Stick, made from the wood of the Sweet Gum tree. The bark on the sweetgum is gray and deeply furrowed, separated by narrow scaly ridges. It's a handsome stick and I plan on using it again this year.

What about you? Have you ever considered switching back to a wooden walking stick, instead of aluminum or carbon fiber hiking poles?

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32 comments

  1. I've always used a staff. Not only do I not really like dual poles in general, but I've rigged my camera from my backpack strap and find it a lot easier to have one hand fully free for shooting. I've only regretted it once, during a difficult trek up a creekbed in Henry Coe where the upper third-class scrambles were a bit tricky not being able to collapse it.

    My current one is a very light redwood staff I picked up a number of years back. It now needs some repair and an upgrade at it's point that i hope to get to soon. I'll probably try out a modern staff soon, especially for the backcountry, but I'll always keep some wood around. I also have a 6'+ piece of straight birch I will someday carve down.

    Those Brazos look really nice! Odd they've never come up on any of my many searches for walking sticks. Hmmm

  2. Good points. I usualy use only one staff when I am hiking, usually a MYOG carbon one at about 4.75oz. When canoe hiking I tend not to bring one. I get one from the side of the trail as needed.

    In addition to your comments, they make good crutches. My daughter hurt her knee last year at Baxter Park, ME. She managed to walk out using a pair of "aquired" staffs with me carying her load.

    In the longer varieties, they are also good for poling a canoe. Sometimes quicker and easier than paddling. And, pushing through wet scrub and thorns, they are well worth having.

  3. I used to walk with a very nice, sweat-polished stick that my college friends named "Petunia." On my first big section hike on the AT I fell coming down Moody Mountain in Maine and snapped it in half. I was pretty bummed. I guess one of the benefits of carbon or aluminum poles is that pieces can be replaced and we don't get as attached to them as to the wooden ones with more character.

  4. I suppose. I can just imagine landfills full of broken leki hiking poles. When I used carbon poles, I was breaking 4 a year. I haven't migrated to wood yet, but it is probably a more sustainable option at the very least.

  5. True, I do hate the landfill option. I've only broken my carbon poles once so far, though, after about 3000 miles, so I don't feel too bad about it.

    I've been hearing a lot recently about bamboo as a replacement for hard metals in things like bike frames. Komperdell made a bamboo hiking pole a few years back, but I seem to remember it was carbon fiber with a thin layer of bamboo to make it look nice. I wonder if anyone is going towards making serious bamboo hiking poles. It seems to be a wicked tough and relatively light material, so it would be just right for this application.

  6. I was thinking the same thing. Bamboo is wicked tough and it'd be a sustainable option. Want to start a company? We'll need a full time hiker to publicize the product….

  7. Yeah, bamboo is pretty good provided you can get get good chinese (tonkin) cane. It used to be made into fishing poles after planing down the inside. These were assembled in sections to enhance the natural strength.

    Impregnated with epoxy, they have good strength. This is usaually done under pressure and steam. But, they are heavier than carbon/fiberglass or boron/carbon/fiberglass.

  8. Marco, rumor has it that you are a master carpenter. What about iron bamboo? I hear that it's local and pretty tough. It's the stuff Brazos sells today. http://www.brazos-walking-sticks.com/free-form-ir

  9. Heh. Sure, I'll be a spokesman/design consultant if you want to start the company, Phil :) You certainly wouldn't want me in charge, though.

    • I have started my own natural wood hiking staff business, being just me, I don’t have the resources to pump out a lot of staffs. I sell them at a specialty store in the historic whitesbog village in the Jersey pine barrens. They sell quickly and I get a lot of interest, it’s just time consuming. Harvesting saplings is a tricky and time consuming task. Not to mention that I dry the staffs for at least 6 months before I can work on them. I’d love to do it full time though

  10. Nah, just kidding. I'd really rather go hiking than run a product company.

  11. The Feathered Hat

    I began using a bamboo staff soon after reading the first edition of "The Complete Walker," back in 1970 or so. I used bamboo staffs exclusively until about a year ago, when a friend gave me a wonderful lightweight staff made from yucca. I still take along the old bamboo staff on occasion just for old times' sake. A good staff made of the right wood and of proper length is superior to a commercial hiking pole in every way, at least in my experience of 40+ years of hiking.

  12. Iron Bamboo? I think that comes from China, too. Often characterized by knoby junctures, somewhat larger than Tonkin Cane. A bit heavier, I believe. The stems would make good hiking staffs if you don't mind the extra weight. Solid, not hollow, though. Like most grasses, the outside is stiffer and stronger than the inside.

    Master Carpenter? Yeah, Software Engineer, and network specialist…among other things… I am retired these days.

  13. I think you've hit the nail on the head. That's my problem exactly!

  14. I do have a yucca staff made by friends in Mexico but I usually use my Lekis since my tent pitches with hiking poles. About seven years ago, when my brother and I met Geertje François, who was thru hiking the CDT, the only non ultralight thing in his possession was a stout bamboo pole. Geert worked part time as a martial arts instructor and that staff was his bear spray, or perhaps more optimistically, bear flay.

  15. Fletcher's co-author Chip Rawlins has a yucca staff. Sounds like it's worth investigating.

  16. I agree, there's something more connected to nature with a wooden walking stick. Like you I've used them for years and still enjoy using them and making/carving them. Even in this age of ultralight carbon fiber trekking poles I like the feel of a wooden stick. It's the first things my kids want to make when we go on walks and hikes – I like that they enjoy them too!

  17. It's great that you mention that Brian, because it is the one thing that you can really give to a child to get them excited about hiking (with you). The value attributed to it is also the inverse of the expense. I like that.

  18. I have both a wooden staff that I bought at the Apple Festival in Erwin TN from a crafter two years ago and a pair leki trekking poles. I have to say I absolutely love the wooden staff even if it can a bit cumbersome at times. However, I can't think of a better walking stick when I'm not on the trail loaded down with camera, GPS, dog lead, and sometimes video camera. Yep I'm one of those more times than not. I really need to simplify my hiking gear. If for no other reason than to avoid the rolling eyes and complaints I receive from my wife before we head out.

  19. I went the bamboo route back in the seventies. Colin Fletcher's influence has passed well down the years. I started using poles in the early eighties, starting with a cut-down pair of ski poles.

    I have a lovely turned staff, and a few other options; however, in the last decade or so, I've settled on a sinlge pole adjusted to a more cane-like height. I find I prefer the rhythm of walking with a stick at that level. I also prefer climbing with it, almost like one would use an ice ax.

  20. I've always used a wooden hiking staff. As a long time Boy Scout leader, it goes with the territory.

    My current one is hikory with a rubber crutch tip, woven hand grip and a button compass in the top. I've added a few medallions for decoration.

  21. I love wooden walking sticks, they are all I use when hiking.

    They are cheap, as in pretty much free since I make my own. I have had one purchased for me as a gift from a local crafter but all in all I have never bought one.

    I also like how they can flex. There has been more than once when I have tripped or fallen and the my walking stick bent like a bow and sprung me back up to my feet. Most likely if I use a metal type pole it would have bent or broke.

    And the final reason that I enjoy them is that I feel that it brings me closer to nature using a natural material.

  22. Question: My main hiking staff is locally (NC) sourced dogwood. One of the designs on it is a strip of bark that looks as though is has been "peeled" off in sort of a spiral shape down the staff. There is part of the bark left at the top that sort of irritates my hand from time to time so I was thinking of removing it. Would I be better off sanding it off (belt sander) or whittling it off with a sharp knife? I don't want to take off too much…just that thin layer of bark…the diameter of the part I currently am gripping is perfect.

  23. Ashevillain, you could do either. In the wood working community, the debate around sanding and cutting a surface goes back for centuries…probably beyond recorded history. Sand is tiny particals with very small sharp edges. Scrapers (knives) have been around about as long and have longer edges. Sometimes sanding/grinding is better. Sometimes cutting is better. In this case, I would recommend cutting the bark off, then sanding any minor imperfections. The trick is to not to start the bark peeling away from the wood. Cut from bark to wood and sand across (around) the staff.

  24. This thread is making me regret buying my black diamond poles. I used to just grab a stick or two from the trailside and then swap for better ones as I went along or one broke. The best part is finding last years sticks at a trailhead and remembering the hike.

  25. Actually, I'd recommend that she learn how to use a light saber. They're really the best defense on the trail and the most merciful because they self-cauterize the wounds you inflict on other people.

  26. I used a bamboo staff for decades, inspired long ago by the very first edition of "The Complete Walker." I still have the bamboo staff I've used for 15 years (the previous one, my first, finally broke). A couple of years ago a friend gave me a staff made from yucca wood, and I like it even better than bamboo. It's actually lighter and a little more springy than bamboo, yet every bit as strong. It's a wonderful staff that I hope is my last.

    My only complaint with wooden walking staffs is that they're not so great in the snow, especially deep fresh snow, unless you somehow rig a basket on to the bottom end. On a recent backpacking trip to California I bought a collapsible Komperdell metal walking staff because it fits into my luggage, and I like it fine. It'll be my winter staff in New England because it has a basket.

  27. I still have the stick I cut myself the first summer I worked at Girl Scout camp… in 1970. It is willow, smooth skinned and tough as nails. I miss using it.

  28. What do you think about a walking stick made from the wood of Osage Orange or
    Bois D’ Arc…. It was flexible enough to be a bow of the native American tribe, Osage, and yet tough enough to be a war club and today durable enough to be a fence post for generations to come and also to bear the weight and vibration of railroad train.as a railroad tie. Cut it thin so it is not too heavy and even if with its little extra weight it is not noticeable as it has a lively bounce as one walks with it.It is fun to walk and feel the slight bounce in the stick. Oh, and it is beautiful (orange-yellow glow) if one polyurethanes it. (Mr.Atocha)

  29. I use nothing but self made hiking sticks using wood collected on trips. I do not collect on trails but fine recent tree cuttings where I search for tree branches for making hiking sticks. There is nothing like using you own hand made stick. Plus, it a great hobby that goes along with walking the trails. Some of my favorite woods collected are aspen (light) and willow (thin and strong) .

  30. This is a great discussion, however sometimes wood isn’t the best option for people with physical difficulties. However I agree that there is something lovely about good old-fashioned wooden walking sticks

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