Sticks: Nature's Friends.

All Three Kinds of Walking Sticks

One way we’re hoping to make a few dollars for Greenfriar is by “reviewing” different items you might use in your life of environmental stewardship and having boozy cookouts in the mountains. In today’s “gear review,” we’ll link to some stuff at a site that pays a small commission to Greenfriar when you click over there and buy something.

I have been trying to think of a product to review, but I don’t even want most of the stuff I have right now. And how much “gear” does anyone need for walking? That’s my preferred form of meditation and exercise and getting away from the computer before I throw it out the window. About the only thing I really miss on the trail, on those rare occasions when I forget it, is a walking stick. So I will review the various types of walking stick.

Walking sticks are good for going on walks. I mostly use mine in the hills and mountains, because I like to walk up and down things, and my knees like to remind me how long we’ve all been hiking together. The parts of a walking stick are the stick itself, which is the main part. The only part, in many cases. Sometimes there’s an obvious “top” and “bottom,” and other times, you are left to your own mental devices to figure out which end is up.

Of the three primary classes of walking stick—alternately known as a stafftrekking pole or regular stick—I can say with confidence that I’ve used them all. But which stick will be the winner?

Regular Stick: There are many options in the regular stick category. Where you’re walking has a lot to do with what kind of stick you might find. In the forest, a good oak branch that blew off in a storm can make a very fine walking stick, and a young aspen downed by an avalanche is also good. Pine is kind of crumbly and sappy, what with the pine bark and all. The fallen stalk of a yucca will work for a couple of miles in the desert. Beach and riverbank walkers often discover perfectly smoothed lengths of driftwood that provide both solid walking support and an eternal air of mystery—you’ll find yourself asking, “Where did this length of wood come from?”

But a regular stick is not all mystery of the sea and walking support. For one thing, you shouldn’t take tree branches from national or state parks, or from any kind of wilderness area or preserve. These sticks need to stay there to let the bugs squirm around underneath. Various signs will remind you that it’s not okay to gather wood or plants or wolf cubs or spiders. Other signs will remind you to please haul away your trash, water bottles, baby wipes, condoms, dildos, “Happy Birthday” mylar balloons, and the ice chest half full of soggy shrimp and cilantro from the bear box.

National forests are generally okay for picking up a stray branch that’s just right for a walking stick. Rules vary, of course, but if the Koch Brothers’ toilet-paper mill is enriching those miserable goblins with the wood pulp that belongs to all Americans, you are morally “in the clear” for picking up a stick. (Your conscience will thank you for filling a grocery bag with some trash along the trail, too.)

There is no product link for this category because you can surely find a stick on the ground without help from UPS.

Trekking Poles: A trekking pole is basically a ski pole, sold individually or in pairs. One good way to get a couple of single trekking poles at a fair price is to buy a one set of cheap ski poles. Another way is to keep an eye on the trail. People lose all kinds of things: hats, sunglasses, children, trekking poles. One time on the trail up to Dog Lake out of Tuolumne Meadows, a supposedly smart friend of mine found a pole that belonged to me—I was just ahead, with a toddler in a backpack, and the child would only stop crying when I let him hold the trekking pole. (The child belongs to me, and is no longer a toddler.)

Well, children drop things. There is a reflex in a child’s hand that makes it drop anything after about 90 seconds. So I lost my pole, and my supposedly smart friend found it and then just stuck it in the dirt alongside the trail, even though we had all planned to come back another way. This was a pretty upscale REI trekking pole, so I hope you’re enjoying it, if you found it.

Five years ago, I walked up the beach from Tijuana to Santa Barbara. I needed a retractable pole so I could stuff it in a backpack during the many terrible miles when I had to walk along pavement—freeways, rich neighborhoods, etc. But instead of stuffing it inside my backpack when walking through urban environments, I usually retracted it and kept it swinging in a menacing way. When you’re walking Southern California streets and highways with a backpack and a beard, people instantly assume you’re homeless. And people who live by the beach hate the homeless.

So to keep from being rolled by a couple of drunken lawyers staggering home from the gastropub, I kept that pole at the ready. The few times I felt genuinely threatened were always in the wealthy areas, and the sharp “carbide flextip” at the end seemed formidable enough for protection during an assault. It was the Leki Sierra SAS (Soft Anti-Shock) Trekking Pole, for about $80. Too much? Maybe, but I liked the hand grip, and the wrist strap didn’t annoy me, and it survived thousands of miles and thousands of telescoping/retracting operations. It also has a place to screw on your camera, so you can use it as a … well, not a tripod. Let’s call it a unipod, because that’s the term you want to be muttering to yourself as four Swedish backpackers trot by.

Staff (Walking Stick Finished and Sold By a Walking Stick Merchant): Now we come to the Tesla Convertible of walking sticks, the finely finished sustainable no-two-are-alike artisan hiking staffs made in small batches by wood elves with all the proper permits, maybe.

I have only owned one of these quality staffs, and I hope to keep it forever. In 2007, I was writing a twice-monthly column about the California deserts for Los Angeles CityBeat, because the editor thought this would be a good thing to put between the club listings and “small plates” restaurant reviews and the prostitute ads. (That editor was Rebecca Schoenkopf, now the editor of Wonkette!) Out in Boulder City, Nevada, a huge herd of Desert Bighorn Sheep comes down from the rocks to feast on the irrigated lawns of the Boulder City park. I drove out there very early one morning to sit quietly at a picnic table and watch the beautiful bighorns appear on the grass and have breakfast. It was weird and wrong and quite possibly transcendent. Then the people woke up and there was traffic and leaf blowers and the sheep went away.

The staff I still have today was purchased at a tacky little gift store by Hoover Dam, right there in Boulder City. It is made of American oak or ash, by a U.S. manufacturer called Brazos—forests in Indonesia aren’t being clear-cut for these well-made hiking staffs. I paid around $65 at the tourist shop, which is fine. Support local businesses. If you’re far away from a local stick merchant, click that Amazon link and you’ll have an authentic Brazos walking stick for a much better price than I paid.

Over the years, I’ve lost both the wrist strap (leather) and the rubber foot at the bottom. It’s still fine. Every now and then I use the same mineral oil I use on the butcher block in the kitchen to give a few coats to the stick. The oil soaks right in and last a long time, unless you walk a couple of miles in a rainstorm in Point Reyes National Seashore like I did a few weekends ago. But the mineral oil will fix it right up, when I get around to that.

Well, that’s the review of sticks, and it’s the last “gear review” I’m likely to type up until I finally buy a sea kayak so I can paddle around the San Francisco Bay and get some exercise without all these people around, staring nervously at my Gandalf the Wizard staff.

Ken Layne is the editor of Greenfriar.


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