Monday, April 20, 2020

Hiking Sticks vs Trekking Poles: What Type and What Length Should I Get?

Hiking Trail Sign
I've used both hiking sticks and trekking poles. One hiking stick that I've used off and on for 20+ years is just a 50 inch "jo staff", although jo staff might be a glorified term and one that I've only learned recently. This hiking stick I've been using is basically just a solid wood dowel 1 1/8" in diameter that may have originally been intended for use as a broom handle or some other tool. It had gotten pretty scuffed up and dried out and was starting to crack at one end so I gave it a new coat of finish oil and added some rubber can tips to each end. It may just end up being re-purposed as a Chinese Wand.

I like a wooden hiking stick mainly because it feels harmonious with the natural environment of the outdoors. A wooden stick was made from a tree and you're usually surrounded by trees - the stick's kinfolk - when walking on a trail. A wooden staff also has an old school vibe, and it can be used as protection against dogs or other animals or persons you might encounter. On the downside, a wooden hiking stick can be heavy and clunky.

I don't think that a wooden hiking stick needs to be gnarled or crooked like the stereotypical ones, and I don't even think it needs that leather string/strap that you often see on artisan hiking poles. A straight staff like a jo staff allows the user to put their left or right hand wherever they need to - usually lower down for uphill walking and higher up the stick for downhill descents.

Trekking poles made of carbon fiber or aluminum are cool because they are much lighter weight, with a tip that arguably gives better bite and a grip that is more ergonomic, and are usually collapsible or length adjustable so more travel friendly. A drawback is trekking poles may not be as durable as a hiking stick made from a strong wood like hickory. I've had them collapse on me. For this reason I don't even consider the adjustable length or collapsibility to be an advantage. They can also snap in half. For self-defense a lightweight trekking pole might not offer the peace of mind that a longer, heavier staff would. And lastly, the non-sustainable high tech materials are at odds with the natural environment.

Kingfisher WoodWorks
For the wooden straight staff or jo staff type hiking stick, the best might be the hickory ones made by Kingfisher WoodWorks in Vermont. These come in either 15/16 or one-inch diameters, in various custom lengths and (increasingly expensive) quality grades. More info here:

Another option is Scrapwood Martial Arts from North Carolina (?). They make jo staffs ranging from 48" to 54" which would be perfect for use as minimalist hiking sticks. Diameters larger than one-inch are an option and you have more wood choices than just hickory. Details here:

A third maker of wooden hiking/walking sticks is Brazos Walking Sticks out of Texas. Brazos is probably the type of wooden hiking stick that most people think of. Their Fitness Walker models looks especially cool, although the length options are more limited. Check out their sticks here:

For trekking poles I'm only going to go over fixed-length poles since if I opened it up to collapsible or adjustable length poles it would be too much. I prefer fixed-length anyway.  First off we have the FK Trekking Poles by Ultimate Direction. These are described as being super lightweight (and strong) so if that's your primary concern check these out.

Black Diamond makes a similar product called the Distance Carbon Running Poles. These are designed for long distance running so they may or may not be tough enough for hiking. I don't think I've seen any negative reviews though so that's a good sign.

Grass Sticks
I suppose you could also just use ski poles as trekking poles. If you go that route you're on your own. I don't know enough about ski poles to offer any recommendations, with a couple exceptions! Remember what I said about wood hiking sticks (advantage: made of natural materials, disadvantage: heavy and clunky) vs. trekking poles (advantage: lightweight and ergonomic, disadvantage: synthetic material).  What if you combined the best of both?  I think I've found the solution!

A Colorado company called Grass Sticks makes bamboo ski poles that can also be used for hiking. In a chat with the owner Andrew he assured me that Grass Sticks make excellent hiking/walking/trekking poles, for much the same reasons that they make great ski poles too: light and strong. Grass Sticks can also provide rubber tip covers for covering up the metal tip when walking on rocks or pavement. For most hikers the Original Custom Grass Sticks will be fine. For those who hike on steep hills and ascents Grass Sticks' Touring Sticks might be better as they have an extra grip on the shaft that allows you to choke down when ascending steep terrain. Purchase here:!/Grass-Sticks-Ski-Poles/c/23444012/offset=0&sort=normal

In my research I also came across a Utah based maker of bamboo ski poles called Soul Poles. Their SoulLite Walking Stick might be the one to get. Take a look at that here:

What Length?
The length you want is different for a hiking sticks versus a trekking pole. For its wooden hiking sticks Kingfisher Woodworks says on its website When choosing the length of the hiking stick, it's usually good to have an amount of counter-balance above the hand grip. Some extra length is also good for downhill pitches. As a general guideline, we recommend using the measurement from the neck (jugular notch area) to the ground as shown below.
If I was to follow this advice I would end up with a stick longer than my 50" stick which comes up to about my armpit. So that way of measuring may not work for everyone. Another way of measuring is to just add 6 to 9 inches above the elbow, or two hand-widths above where you naturally hold the stick (90 degree angle).

For a trekking pole the length is shorter simply because you hold the pole closer to the end. There isn't that 6 to 9 inches of counter-balance above the hand grip. Ultimate Direction has this pole size chart which I think is spot on:


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