Walking Sticks are Fashionable
And it's a fashion grounded in function. As you'd expect, though, "walking stick" is too pedestrian a label for the Mad Men of marketing. They've rechristened these venerable props "trekking poles," instead, and they're sold in pairs. (If single, they're "walking staffs." Never "sticks," let alone "canes.") By either name, you'll find examples in every outfitter's catalog.
Which, to my mind, is a Very Good Thing. But while I'm happy to employ a repurposed cow cane as a prop on my own rambles — I substitute ski poles or an ice ax in suitable terrain — I recognize that the universe of trekking poles and hiking staffs presents would‑be buyers with more complex choices. The benefits are about the same, however. These include …
Reduced Strain on Joints If your knees have been around the block a few times and are now showing signs of wear, you'll appreciate having another leg (or two) to stand on.
Burden Sharing Why should your legs do all the work? With a pair of trekking poles, your arms can share the load. This makes climbing steep slopes almost painless.
Improved Stability It's easy for two‑legged travelers to slip on greasy rocks or take a tumble on muddy trails, but a walking staff or a pair of trekking poles can shift the odds in your favor. Tripods are inherently stable structures, after all, and quadrupeds seldom fall. You'll find this improved stability especially welcome on steep descents with a heavy load. (But remember that we're talking walking here, not climbing. If a descent is so steep that you need to use your hands, the best place for your trekking poles is in your pack.)
Intelligence No, a walking staff won't raise your IQ, but it will give you valuable information about what lies ahead. Is that water‑filled sag in the trail shallow enough to shuffle through? Is there a hole in the riverbed waiting to give you a ducking as you wade? Is the ice on the pond safe? A walking staff or trekking pole can help answer all these questions.
Look, Ma, No (Swollen) Hands! Ask any grunt. He'll tell you that if you carry a heavy pack for mile after mile your hands will start to swell. Sometimes they'll go numb, too. Not good. But gripping a pole or staff helps counteract this. (Swap hands from time to time if you only have the one staff.)
Keeping Overexuberant Dogs at Bay The bears and the big cats will (usually) keep their distance, but you can't count on man's best friend to do the same. Still, if you do happen to meet the Hound of the Baskervilles on the trail, a walking stick allows you to offer him something to get his teeth into besides your arm. This gives the oh‑so‑apologetic owner a chance to remember where she's put her leash. (Helpful hint: It's probably draped over her shoulders.)
Convinced? Good. But if you don't think you'll be happy with something like my old cow cane ("Registered Holsteins: Breed of the Times"), you may need a little help navigating the confusing currents of the … ahem … Poler Sea. If so, you're in the right place.
Poles of Many Parts
Modern trekking poles and hiking staffs bear more than a passing resemblance to ski poles. Most have telescoping metal (usually aluminum) or carbon‑fiber shafts, wrist straps, hand grips (of rubber, cork, or plastic), and some sort of steel or carbide‑tipped traction spike. (This can usually be covered with a tip protector to limit the damage done to bare rock or paved sidewalks. Be sure you get one for each pole.) Many also have small baskets — for use on soft ground, rather than snow. Some of the more expensive models even incorporate shock absorbers, intended to limit the stress on users' shoulders. Do these work? I've no idea. But the notion seems counterproductive to me. I'm loath to expend energy compressing a spring. I'd rather use it to move my body down the trail. Then again, I'm no fan of shock forks on bikes, either, and these have a loyal following among single‑track enthusiasts.
Are you having trouble visualizing what I've described? I can't blame you. This is one of those cases where a picture really is worth a thousand words. So here's the picture: