Ask anyone I’ve ever hiked with or camped with and you’ll find that I’m a huge fan of the hiking or walking stick. Personally, I think the hiking stick is a wonderful thing and a nearly indispensable item when you hit the trail. A good stick provides balance when you’re carrying a heavy pack, gives you an added point of contact with the ground when going up or down hills, traversing muddy trails, or when crossing streams or loose rocks and logs. It also is a great tool to check your footing before you put your boot down and a probe to find out if there’s anything creepy and crawly waiting for you under those rocks or on the other side of the log. It comes in handy as a tent pole, to lift pots off the fire or as a place to hang your jacket and keep it off the ground during a break. Basically, the walking sticks versatility is limited only by your imagination! It’s a very simple tool and probably one of man’s earliest “inventions”. You’ll find references to travelers using a good stout staff dating back a few thousand years and its usefulness continues through to this day.
Now, I know commercial trekking poles are popular items these days. They’re high tech, lightweight and I guess they work just fine. With that said, they just don’t do anything for me. I much prefer a stick made of natural materials. Some of that is probably just tradition. I grew up making or picking up sticks to use on hikes so I’m accustomed to a good old-fashioned wooden stick. Part of it is aesthetics too. Frankly, I like the looks of a natural stick and I like the warmth of the wood under my hand as I hike. I also like using a stick that I’ve harvested myself and whittled, sanded or otherwise prepared on my own. To me it has more character and more of a connection to the trail than a piece of extruded aluminum with a foam grip ever could. I’ve used a variety of materials over the years and generally there doesn’t seem to be a real firm requirement as to what’s needed to make a decent walking stick. Basically, the wood should be dry and seasoned so that it doesn’t split or crack, but it definitely shouldn’t be so dried out or rotten that it’ll snap when you apply weight to it. A stick needs to be stout enough to support you’re weight when you’re leaning on it with a pack or using it to balance yourself during a stream crossing. Both would be bad times to have your stick fail and leave you tumbling down a hill or splashing into the water.
I’ve used a rattan staff for years with great success. Rattan isn’t generally a material you can harvest yourself in the woods but its available from a variety of sources. It makes for a great staff in that it’s very strong, relatively lightweight and already has a smooth finish to it. The smooth finish allows your hand to glide along the staff as you walk and keeps you from getting blisters or hot spots. Rattan is also stout enough that the stick or staff can be used defensively if need be. Many martial arts practitioners use rattan staffs to train with. It has just enough flex to bend without breaking but remains stiff enough to deliver a solid blow. That same flexibility and strength make it a great choice for supporting your weight on the trail too. Another similar material is bamboo. More recently I’ve made a couple of sticks out of bamboo. Bamboo has the same benefits of the smooth exterior of rattan and is much lighter in weight while still remaining strong. It’s a great choice if you’re after a lightweight staff of natural materials. It doesn’t have the mass that rattan does to deliver a blow but it still gives you some standoff distance against critters or snakes if need be.
Poplar is another wood I’ve used a lot of. Poplar is great for walking sticks as its sapling tend to grow straight and tall so it’s easy to harvest a good stick. Generally I let mine dry in the garage for about a year before I use them. Poplar is at the softer end of the hardwood spectrum and provides a good bit of strength without a lot of weight. For preparation of a poplar staff I usually remove all the bark and then sand down the shaft of the staff so that there are no projections or hot spots to aggravate the hands while walking with the staff. Then I put a couple of coats of Boiled Linseed Oil or Tung oil on the wood to give it some weatherproofing and to seal the wood. Some folks will use polyurethane but I generally prefer a basic oil coating since I can then just reapply it as needed. Most recently I’ve been working with a nice piece of Osage Orange for my latest walking stick. Osage is very tough stuff and it’s hard to work with. It has a tough, thick layer of bark and sapwood that you have to get through before you get to the heartwood. Once you’re at the heartwood though you have a super tough, dense wood to use for your staff. Durability certainly isn’t an issue with Osage but weight may be depending on what you’re looking for. It’s also hard to find a good straight piece of Osage of suitable length for a decent walking stick too. Most of the smaller saplings tend to grow a bit curvy. You might save yourself a lot of work by buying a precut bow stave to use as your base but I wanted to do mine from scratch so I’ve been plugging away at my stick for a few months now off and on as I get time.
Other woods will certainly work as well. Hickory is a popular option but really almost any properly dried hardwood should do just fine. Now, I know a lot of folks, myself included, have used field expedient, fresh cut, green staffs and they’ve worked just fine too. They will do in a pinch but you’ll find that they’re often heavier than a properly dried piece and, if you use one over time without treating it you’ll likely end up with splits and checks in the wood. If it were a choice between a green stick and no stick I’d go with green every time but, given the chance to prepare ahead of time, I’d prefer a properly cured staff that I can use over and over again.
All right, so we have some idea of what materials are suitable now and we know to sand everything down so that the staff moves freely in the hand. What about dimensions though? Now that we know what to use, how big do we make it? Length of a hiking stick is a very personal issue. Some folks like shorter staffs that come just above waist level and just let you grip the top of the staff. Others prefer a longer full sized staff. I fall into the later category. I like the extra length that a full-length staff gives you. Generally I cut mine off about eye level and that seems to work well for me. A full sized staff gives you more reach for poking and prodding stuff, more leverage when you need the staff for support on a hill or during a stream crossing, and a bit more length when fording a deeper steam or crossing over a log or narrow bridge along a trail. Even while crossing one of these obstacles you want your staff to be able to reach the ground and give you that 3rd point of support when you can. A shorter staff won’t have the length to do that.
Diameter of your staff is two fold issue. First it has to fit comfortably in your hand. So you want a thickness that feels right to you when you’re carrying and walking with your staff. Second, you want it to be thick enough to have some strength to it and to not crack, bend or split easily. Over the years I’ve found that 1 ½” to 2” is just about right for me. That thickness provides the comfort, strength and stoutness that I like in a walking stick. This may end up being a bit of trial and error for you but if I had to recommend a starting point I’d say try something in that thickness range.
Generally, once you have a good, well-cured stick they’re pretty durable. The one part that will show wear and tear and get damaged though is the butt of the staff. Constant impact on rocks, hard packed trails and other items will cause the butt of your staff to mushroom out and crack over time. You can just live with it, trim off the damaged end occasionally (loosing some length every time you do) or add a butt cap to your staff. I usually take the later route. The easiest method I’ve found for protecting the end of your staff is to use a pipe end cap. I’ve used both steel and copper before with equally good results. Steel is more durable but a bit heavier. If you like the idea of having your staff available as an emergency impact weapon, this isn’t a bad way to go. My old rattan staff has a steel end cap on it. If you want something a bit lighter then copper is the way to go. It won’t rust, its still a lot more durable than a bare wood butt and its pretty light. Personally, I like the looks of the copper too. It adds some character and a nice finishing touch to your staff. In both cases I’ve simply used a two-part epoxy like Devcon (cheap and available at most hardware stores) to secure the end cap in place. I first sand down the staff so that the cap is a smug fit and then make sure that the surface of the wood and the inside of the cap are clean and dry using alcohol, and then apply the epoxy. Any seepage around the top of the cap I just clean up with a razor knife and some sandpaper once everything is dry.
While that may seem like a lot of material for making a basic walking stick it all boils down to a pretty simple procedure: Choose a suitable material and allow it to cure properly. Cut it to fit you and sand down everything so that it’s comfortable in the hand. Finally, if you’re worried about your staff’s longevity install a basic end cap to finish things off. In the end you’ll have a unique staff that will be imminently useful for both backpacking and day hikes and that has the character of a unique item which you’ve made yourself. It may not be the latest whiz-bang collapsible aluminum gizmo on the market but it’ll end up costing you a lot less and give you a connection to the woods dating back thousands of years!