Hiking Staffs For Backpackers

A sturdy hiking staff is a great aid to backpackers carrying a heavy load over rough terrain. Here's why you need one and how to choose one.

It's amazing how few backpackers carry a hiking staff, given its usefulness and the numerous advantages such a staff can offer. Staffs have traditionally been carried by those who wander in wild places throughout the world, and only recently have they been rejected by the extreme go-light crowd of wilderness adventurers. A hiking staff is essentially like having a third leg that can provide invaluable support and greatly aid in safety, especially when carrying heavy loads over rugged terrain and up or down steep trails. Properly used, a hiking staff can ease the weight off your knees and feet and prevent falls by allowing you to brace yourself when making steps, especially when descending steep trails. Carrying a heavy backpack places a hiker at an extreme disadvantage to begin with, by raising the body's center of gravity and making it easy to lose your balance and fall. The weight also makes it easy for your feet to slip on loose stones or in deep mud. A staff counteracts these disadvantages and puts the odds back in your favor that you will be able to stay on your feet while traversing any terrain with a loaded pack.

Traditional hiking and walking staffs are simply long pieces of wood, cut from a branch or sapling of about the right size to fit your hand comfortably. The shorter walking sticks or canes used on the street are useless for wilderness hiking. To be effective, a hiking staff needs to be as tall as or nearly as tall as the user. Some people prefer them even longer. This length allows you to reach down ahead of your feet when going downhill or grab the staff with both hands in situations requiring maximum balance.

If you want to make your own hiking staff from wood, you should consider the weight of the material above all else. Staffs cut from live saplings or branches will be heavy when green, but if you cut one well in advance of when you need it and peel the bark off, it will air-dry within a few weeks and the weight will be greatly reduced. The other option if you are already out in the wilderness and need to make or replace a staff is to cut it and peel the bark, and then dry it rapidly over the flames of a fire. Kiln-dried wood such as what you buy in a lumber yard is also good, but you will either have to shape a square timber to round or buy a round closet rod or dowel that can be used as is. Such manufactured-looking staffs have little character. I prefer to cut my own from a hickory or ash sapling. If the staff has some natural crooks or twists, this is all the better and can provide even more character. When wandering wild mountain regions I have never visited before, I take comfort in my familiar staff cut from my favorite camping area near my home.

There are manufactured hiking staffs on the market for those backpackers who want to spend the money to buy them. Some of these are quite sophisticated, with telescoping shaft sections and interchangeable tips for the foot of the staff designed for different types of terrain. These high-tech hiking staffs are lightweight and strong, usually made of aluminum or carbon fiber. They can be quite expensive and you won't want to use such a staff as casually as you would a homemade wooden one.

There are many uses for a staff other than just as an aid while hiking on trails. Fording streams can also be accomplished with greater safety if you use the staff by placing its foot downstream on the river bed to keep the current from sweeping you off your feet. A staff can be used as a sturdy monopod for photographers to steady a camera. This is especially useful if you are using a telephoto lens and don't have room to carry a tripod. The staff can be used in camp to support one end of a tarp or as an extra tent support, if needed. A sturdy staff also makes an effective defensive weapon. It can be handy for flicking a snake out of your path or probing undergrowth ahead of your steps to make sure there are no hidden snakes there. Waved in the air it might help frighten away an inquisitive bear or mountain lion, and it can certainly be used against human aggressors. Entire systems of martial arts have been developed around the use of the simple staff.

Give all these advantages and no apparent disadvantages; it seems that every hiker venturing off the road would be equipped with a sturdy staff. If you've never tried one, take a staff on your next backpacking trip and see for yourself. Most likely, once you get used to carrying it, you'll never hike again without your trusty staff.

© High Speed Ventures 2011