Hiking Sticks vs. Trekking Poles

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The hiking stick that has served me well for more than two years through multiple outdoor adventures with family and friends.

Whether you’re viewing a photo of John Muir hiking the sequoia forests of northern California or watching a video of Conrad Anker tackling the highest peaks of Asia, one similarity is present in these images separated by more than 100 years of hiking and mountaineering: some form of stick used to aid their walking in difficult terrain.

It’s a tradition that goes back to mankind’s earliest days of travel and tool use. A stick was likely one of the first tools, easily obtained by picking it up off the ground, and useful for everything from a lever to a weapon to combat marauding bears, wolves and those good-for-nothin’ cave dwellers across the glacial valley.

“Cave dwellers coming for mammoth meat and women again tonight,” I imagine the conversation began between two of our ancestors.

“This big stick,” the other says.

“So what, stupid? You always talk about stick!” his friend jabs.

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A carved turtle adorns my walking stick.

THUD! The stick holder whacks his buddy on the head.

“Now, stick so stupid?”

“Hey, me have idea. We hit cave dwellers with stick!”

Maybe that was the invention of weaponized martial arts. I’ll never know, but certainly a stick has its uses. (I’d like to thud a few of my buddies on the noggin every once in a while.)

[Here’s an interesting article on the varied uses and types of hiking sticks and trekking poles.]

Outdoorsmen of all sorts rely on hiking sticks and trekking poles to give them balance over boulder fields and log-strewn forests, to assist in forging rivers and even just for poking the campfire after you’ve already melted your rubber boot sole trying to do the same.

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The top of my hiking stick is carved like a mountain peak.

But today, with so many options in the most technologically advanced gear, some people (myself included) prefer to carry a knotted, gnarled, sturdy piece of wood to help their hiking.

So which is better? Trekking poles or the hiking stick? I’ll let you decide that, but certainly each has its advantages and disadvantages.

You could make a case that either option is more or less environmentally friendly: the stick is au naturale, but it was removed from the forest (find more info about Leave No Trace ethics here); the trekking poles are better in the “take nothing” department, but certainly they were fashioned from chemicals and materials that were mined from nature and could be harmful before they’re manufactured into their stable finished product. And if you lose one, well, that’s just another item of trash in the wilderness.

However, if my walking stick gets lost, one of two things will happen: it’ll rot in the forest, a feast for carpenter ants and worms, or it’ll survive somehow to be used by archaeologists as evidence of a once-great, nomadic, turtle-worshipping civilization. Ooo, I like that option. (humor me)

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I use abbreviations, notches and other symbols to record my adventures: Clockwise from top left: My nemesis, the Black Forest Trail where I first obtained this stick; Gifford Pinchot State Park, my first camping trip alone with my sons; and notches for our family’s visit to Shenandoah National Park and my oldest son’s first backpacking trip.

[Here’s an REI page on choosing your trekking poles/hiking staff.]

I want to know, what’s your preference and why? What’s your favorite make and model of trekking pole?

And if you have a wooden hiking stick, what accessories do you attach and what kinds of artwork adorn it?

I’ll include reader responses and photos  in my next post on this subject. Email any hiking stick/trek pole photos to: jimryan20[at symbol]verizon.net.

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