In Praise of Wood Hiking Sticks

The wooden staff has been keeping travelers company ever since that first soul got an itch to wander. Largely replaced by trekking poles today, there is still a place for a sturdy, wood hiking stick.

The Wood Hiking Stick in the Past

Imagine a traveler from the past and your mind will draw up a picture of some rugged, hardy soul out on the trail, a strong staff in one hand and a rucksack thrown over a shoulder. Other elements might show up: leather or wool clothes, a bedroll, maybe a knife or a rifle, but always a staff.

The founders of the Boy Scouts found the staff so useful, they called it an “essential part of the scout outfit” and went on to list 23 common uses for the staff, saying “[m]any boys, upon taking up the Scout Movement, are dubious about the value of the scout staff and many friends of the movement ask, ‘Why does a boy scout carry a staff?’ Experience has proven it to be one of the most helpful articles of equipment” (Boy Scouts of America, Handbook for Boys, pp. 365-6, Doubleday books, 1911 edition). We’ll cover the reasons in a moment.

The Wood Hiking Stick Today

The idea of a hiking stick has enjoyed a comeback in recent years, but in the form of trekking poles instead of a wood staff. I’m not going to knock trekking poles — they’re a decent replacement for a staff in most ways, and may even bring some new capabilities of their own. While a lot of the ultralight hikers wouldn’t be caught dead with something as clunky and primitive as a wood staff in their hand, I’m glad they’ve found a version that works for them.

Still, I have to admit that I’m a fan of the age-old wood walking stick. To me, there’s something irreplaceable about a long, sturdy pole bearing my weight as I scramble up a hillside or across a series of slippery stepping stones. The wood of the staff complements the forests I’m visiting, beating a harmonious cadence on the dirt trail and almost greeting the branches it pushes aside.

Maybe I’m just old-school, after all I prefer a book to a Kindle and I love wool coats. Then again, when I’m moving down the trail and happen upon someone’s dog leading them by a quarter mile, I’m glad to have a solid piece of wood between me and those teeth instead of a thin tube of aluminum. And when I need to vault over a narrow whitewater crossing, it feels good to have a long, solid staff to plant instead of a short, telescoping pole.

Uses for a Wood Hiking Stick

Here are the 23 uses for a wood hiking stick from the original Boy Scout Handbook (supra):

Beating out fires, wading across a stream in groups of 2 or 3 (everyone holding the staff to help keep each other balanced), support pole for shelters, stopping dog attacks, support poles for stretchers, hiking at night, support if someone falls through the ice, support when crossing fences, flag pole, cooking tripod, obtaining a clear view by looking through a small hole in the staff, scaling walls, measuring distances, self-defense, making splints, jumping ditches, making rafts, bridge-building, climbing a mountain, levering up logs and stones, rope ladders, feeling the way over marshy ground, recovering objects floating in the water.

Even today, the BSA continues to endorse the idea of a hiking stick: “The hiking stick has long been a symbol of the traveler. It swings comfortably in your hand, giving balance and rhythm to your pace. Use it to push back branches or brush. A hiking stick can be especially useful when you are wading a stream; added to your own two legs, a stick will give you the stability of a tripod” (Boy Scouts of America, Fieldbook, p. 233, 4th edition, 2002).

Here are a few more uses for a wood hiking stick from my own experience:

Stabilizing yourself when hiking on rocky trails, propping up a backpack, reaching fallen items or trash off the side of the trail, catching yourself when you trip on a root, a monopod for taking pictures, a crutch if you turn an ankle, reaching out to someone who’s slipped down a hillside or fallen in the water, pulling fellow hikers across streams that can be jumped, pulling fellow hikers up steep trail sections, standing up straight with a heavy pack on, and best of all, leaning on to catch your breath and take in a great view.

Get Yourself a Wood Hiking Stick

Nothing can be easier than getting your hands on a wood hiking stick. The original Boy Scout Handbook recommends a broom handle — still a sound suggestion today. Most scout shops sell commercial hiking sticks.

My favorite online retailer is Brazos Walking Sticks (main site). Outstanding quality in a variety of woods and heights. A Brazos hiking stick arrived for each of my boys as they became scouts, a kind gift from their grandpa. And when one of the sticks lost its embedded compass, Brazos sent a replacement, no questions asked. The Brazos stick that interests me the most is their bamboo model. It should have a great, lightweight feel in the hand while being tougher than metal.

But my advice? Go out to your favorite piece of forest and pick out a sturdy branch that fits your hand and your height. Strip the bark then let it dry out if it’s still green*, throw a couple of layers of lacquer on it, and maybe cap the end with a rubber tip. Drill a hole in the top and slip a leather or 550 cord lanyard through it — an essential feature.

Now you’ll have a stick that represents one of your favorite spots on earth. Put it in your hand and take it down a trail with you. See if it doesn’t bring a nice, extra touch to your time out in the wilderness. I predict you’ll soon find that it’s your favorite trail companion. Just like travelers have used for centuries.

*To dry the staff, lay it down flat and rotate it every couple of days so it won’t bow. It can take as long as 12 weeks to dry if it’s completely green. Let it dry slowly and naturally outside of the sunlight, otherwise it could crack.