I wanted to talk a little bit today about the topic of walking sticks. Webster's defines "walking stick" as:
A stick held in the hand and used to help support oneself while walking.
Sounds simple, right? As our grass-walker friends forced to traverse rough, hilly terrain will tell you, sometimes the simplest things are the most important to get right.
What makes for a good walking stick? I interviewed a number of friends of mine that wander the highlands, and while there were certainly different preferences cited, a number of themes came up over and over.
The walking sticks we'll discuss today are the type suited for moderately vigorous rural travels, not the variety used to support physical ailments such as canes.
Proper length, first and foremost, was the crux of most everyone's opinion on a quality walking stick. There is no standard for conformity here, it has a lot to do with the user's stature. "A good stick conforms to its' owner", stated Bagaby, a very old and dear transient friend of mine from the southwest United States. It's more than just height, too...a properly proportioned stick will factor in the user's height, weight, arm length, leg length, torso length, length from shoulder to elbow, length from shoulder to wrist, length from elbow to wrist, and wingspan (left hand's middle fingertip to right hand's middle fingertip). Obviously not everyone that utilizes a walking stick will take all these sorts of figures into account, but those who utilize walking sticks as so-called "tether to life" will appreciate more exacting proportions. If you would like the full figure that is often used to measure out a proper walking stick's length and crotch angle, e-mail me at TrainTomOtt@Gmail.com and I will get you in touch with a knowledgeable expert.
Next, crotch angle was prominently discussed, albeit with much discrepancy between those interviewed. The crotch of a walking stick is the angle between the head (top third of the stick) and the knickers (bottom third). This may sound strange to some, who are used to having a ramrod-straight stick for their travels (no crotch angle), but some rural walkers swear to it's importance. Overall, the consensus seemed to be somewhere in the 10 to 15 degree range, although some preferred a much more abrupt angle. My take on the matter is that it has a lot to do with the type of land being crossed (generally less of an angle in rocky areas, moreso in soft, marshy areas), and it has quite a bit to do with user preference. If you are experiencing any sort of extended wrist fatigue, try increasing or decreasing your crotch angle.
Stick girth or shaft circumference was another much-discussed topic. The consensus here was simply to achieve a balance of hand comfort and stick strength. Obviously, the thinner the stick, the more apt it will be to snap (especially if used in vigorous travels). On the other hand, too thick of a walking stick will cause significant problems, including everything from light fatigue to severe joint problems.
Material. What sort of wood should you seek out in a quality walking stick? In my experience, maple has been by far the most common. But I'm a rail man (or a former one, anyway), so rural instruments are certainly not my forte. Much of this is going to come from local availability, but take care to seek out a quality stick constructed from some sort of dense hardwood. Investigate it thoroughly to see that there is no sign of trauma or fungus. Almost everyone I interviewed for this essay said that if they are going to harvest their own walking stick (or are hired to find one for someone else), they extract it live from the tree. Picking them up off the ground may be easier, but there may be some reason why the stick is separated from the tree that can cause problems down the road.
Finish. It is wise to apply some resin or varnish to the walking stick, and most of those I talked to that used their sticks on a daily basis went to varying lengths to achieve and maintain the right finish (often referred to as "feel"). Some applied oil uniformly to the stick, applying multiple coats for a deep saturation into the wood. Others took special care of the grip, everything from waxing to buffing to scuffing to singeing the head of the stick. Many wrapped the head of the stick in some sort of material for extra grip, but this varied. Some of the suggestions in this regard were duct tape, electrical tape, tightly woven twine saturated in paraffin wax, tar, rubber bands, sponges, leather, cloth and others.
You can seek out a good walking stick in the forest, but there was an almost unanimous consensus that it is better to have one fitted to you by an experienced rural vagrant. Make sure this person is trustworthy and knowledgable before commissioning them to do this sort of work for you. For that matter, expect to pay a fair amount for this sort of custom instrument. Some are shocked at what is asked to procure, customize and finish a stick, but with use it will no doubt prove to be a very fruitful investment. I know I'll be in the market for a new one this spring.