Hiking Sticks & Trekking Poles

Any recommendations for a good hiking stick?

This is a loaded question for me. I own the following hiking sticks, and am very attached to three (or four) of them:

sticks 1Standard-size garage door for scale

The first two (from the left) are DIY wooden sticks. I believe they are both Dogwood, but I can’t be sure about the small one. Both are cut down from live trees, which is not recommended anymore. The shorter one (#1) I cut down, carved, and treated with polyurethane back in 1993-4, and it was my hiking stick all through elementary school.

high knoll brand

Stick #2 with a brand from when I hiked the High Knoll Trail at Camp Daniel Boone.

I forget precisely when, but sometime in middle school I decided I needed a bigger stick (#2). So I went out after a “big snow” (2-3 inches in NC is a “big snow”) and found a decent looking dogwood tree. If you’re going to do this, it’s best to go looking in the wintertime since there isn’t any green to distract your eye from your quarry: a straight trunk. I don’t recommend this method anymore, but if you must, make sure you are on your own property with your own trees. I removed the branches, let it dry some, carved the bark off, let it dry some more, and then sanded it down. The whole process took a month or so for the wood to be sufficiently dry and I didn’t use unnatural poly this time. So this larger stick has served me well on many treks and may be my favorite — it’s the perfect size, weight, durability, and is the product of my own handiwork.

Bottom line: if you find the right kind of wood, a DIY natural hiking stick can be perfect if you have the time, patience, and natural resources to make it happen.

The middle three are wooden but have been purchased. All three were gifts of sorts. The first (#3) was a gift from my parents who found it somewhere in Appalachia at a gift shop. The head is carved like a fish and two little beads are glued in for eyes. It is a nice size for more serious treks but has been treated with something so that it is very slick. More of a cool souvenir than a useful tool.

stick with tracks guide

Stick #5 with guide to tracks.

The other two are very similar: one was my late grandfather’s (#4) and one was a recent Christmas gift from my in laws (#5). They are both shorter, simple and durable, with rubber feet glued on. The one from my mother and father in law is nice because it has a thick leather wristband that features a concise guide to animal tracks, a cheat sheet for when I’m out with the scouts. While not ideal for really serious hikes, these shorter sticks are great for casual walks in the park where there will be some tricky portions or stream crossings, but nothing too difficult. And the rubber feet protect the wood on paved or gravel surfaces.

In general I think these commercial-but-natural wooden sticks have a more limited range of use than DIY, but they are perfect for family outings and less intense activity if that’s what you’re going for. And there’s no work for you! (except the cash up front…)

The last two (well, three) are metal trekking poles. Next to last (#6) is a trekking pole I bartered for in Boy Scouts. They typically sell these poles in pairs just like ski poles, and my buddy didn’t want his second one so I bought it off of him. It’s telescoping: I have it set to its longest length in the photo, 145 cm, and can collapse as short as about 45 cm. It has a built in shock absorber, a rubber grip, a foam hand grip at the top, and a wrist strap. I don’t know what materials it’s made of or any detailed technical specs since I bought it second-hand over 10 years ago. It’s pretty heavy, being an early model (~2001) and tricked out with unnecessary shocks, so I wouldn’t go on a backpacking trip with it now that I have alternatives. But it is nice to keep in the trunk for spur-of-the-moment day hikes, since it breaks down compactly.

exped grips

exped tips

The final set of poles (#7) are my most recent acquisition, purchased with this year’s REI dividend. They are Exped Alpine 125 trekking poles. They collapse telescopically rather than breaking apart like a Z — I prefer this method of collapse to reduce clutter. They are made of aluminum and with a length range from 95 cm (37 in) to 125 cm (49 in) they are perfect for me. Any longer and I’d be carrying dead weight. As for weight, they come in at 13 oz / pair, which is pretty good for a mid-range trekking pole at $125 (NB: I spent only $100 of my dividend by using my 20% off coupon — REI memberships are totally worth it). These poles come with two sets of baskets, which I don’t usually have much use for, along with carbide tips which provide great traction. They also have a very high quality foam at the top of the pole; simple grips around the pole and then a shaped grip up top with an adjustable wrist band. As I will show in a future post, these poles make up part of my tarp system, a very lightweight shelter kit.

Metal trekking poles are expensive but can be a good investment for those who are doing more advanced hiking and/or snowshoeing. They are also ideal for those who are working toward a tarp system as a lightweight alternative to traditional freestanding double-walled tents. Neither kind of natural stick above can serve this purpose as easily or consistently.

One thing I’ll mention in closing is that I do not recommend counting on finding a stick in the woods while you’re out there. While you can do this if necessary, I do not recommend relying on this. A comfortable, familiar and reliable stick is too important on longer treks for this kind of impromptu move.

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