With approximately 48 million hikers in the US in 2018 (and that number continuing to rise), hiking is clearly one of America’s favorite ways to stay healthy. If you’re reading this, you’re probably a trail-lover too.
Using the best equipment prevents injuries and makes your hikes more enjoyable. A growing number of hikers use staffs and poles on their hikes, but others still have questions about them.
You may be wondering, what is a hiking staff, and how is it different from a trekking pole? What options do I have? How can a hiking staff help me on the trail, anyway?
Keep reading. We’ll break down the most common questions about hiking staffs and poles so that you can find the staff you need for your next hike.
Hiking Staff vs Trekking Pole
Hiking staffs share many features with trekking poles. In fact, you might have come across the “hiking staff vs trekking pole” debate. In reality, the two aren’t as different as some people make them out to be, and you can even use them interchangeably.
Essentially, a hiking staff and a trekking pole are both a type of walking stick. They support you and provide balance as you hike, especially over rough terrain.
Even on level terrain, poles and staffs make hiking easier. They absorb shock and distribute your weight more ergonomically. They reduce physical strain from heavy loads and long hikes.
The main difference between poles and staffs? A hiking staff is a single high-quality walking stick. Trekking poles come in pairs so that you carry one in each hand.
Both staffs and poles come in a range of different styles. These might include features like:
- Height adjustment
- Different weights
- Different lengths
- Different tips for varying surfaces (such as snow and ice)
However, you’re more likely to find a wooden hiking staff than hiking poles. Hiking staffs tend to be more rustic, unique, and — some say — more visually appealing. Trekking poles tend to be lighter and made of synthetic material.
What if you fall in love with a wooden hiking pole but need the support of having a walking stick in each hand? There’s nothing to stop you from simply buying two wooden hiking sticks and carrying them like trekking poles. This gives you all the benefits of a wooden hiking stick with the support of two poles.
Hiking Staffs Reduce Muscle Strain
If you’re heading out for a backcountry hike, you should be prepared for the most common hiking injuries. Experienced hikers should be able to treat everything from blisters to cardiac arrest. However, you’re most likely to have to deal with muscle strains and ligament tears.
Research has shown that walking sticks prevent hiking injuries. One study found that people who used hiking poles had significantly less muscle damage than those who didn’t. Walking stick users had less muscle contraction, lower creatine kinase levels, and a quicker recovery time than non-pole-users.
You should use some kind of walking stick system if you:
- Do long (multi-hour or multi-day) hikes
- Carry a hiking backpack
- Have experienced strain injuries from hiking
- Feel that you have to cut back on hikes because they’re too challenging
- Struggle to keep your balance on uneven terrain
The best time to start using a walking stick is before an injury happens. Keep yourself in peak hiking shape by taking hiking staff with you before you strain your muscles.
Prevent Injuries From Falls
Hiking wouldn’t be hiking if it were easy. Falling is one of the most common causes of injury to hikers, and every hiker has a fall injury story — and the scars to prove it.
Hikers are at risk of falling by:
- Rolling a heel on a loose rock
- Missing your step on an upward slope
- Pitching forward on a downward slope
- Slipping on wet or mossy rocks
- Stepping on unstable rocks
Even a trail that looks easy has lots of potential for slips, trips, and falls. When you’re carrying a heavy daypack over uneven terrain, all it takes is a little misstep to make you lose your balance.
A walking stick can save you from a wide variety of falls. From bracing yourself as you walk down a steep slope to preventing you from tripping, a hiking staff is a “third leg” that keeps you balanced.
With a hiking staff, you can avoid rolling your ankle and other falling injuries. That means you don’t have to take time off of hiking to recover. You’ll have less chance of re-injuring your ankle in the future as well.
Hiking is a high-impact sport. Repetitive stepping — often on uneven surfaces — can jar your major joints. Even hikers who are in excellent physical condition may experience aching or stabbing pain in their legs and joints.
If you’re carrying a heavy backpack, the extra weight lands on your joints even harder. A good hiking backpack has waist straps that help you carry the weight from your core instead of your back, but that doesn’t make it any easier on your knees.
Over time, hiking without protecting your joints can lead to repetitive strain injuries in your joints. These injuries are hard to treat and might force you to hang up your hiking boots for good.
How does a hiking staff help stave off joint injuries?
Hiking staffs are shock absorbers. With every step, they pick up some of the step impact. This reduces the impact that gets transmitted to your joints.
When you use a hiking staff, you’ll have:
- Less knee and ankle pain after a long hike
- Less shin split pain
- Reduced wear and tear on joints over time
You can even find hiking staffs with spring-loaded buffers to absorb even more of the shock with every step. Even a solid wooden hiking staff will reduce joint pain, though.
Wooden hiking staffs offer another great benefit to hardcore hikers: they look beautiful. With a burnished bark-on finish, wooden hiking sticks have a natural, woodsy appearance.
They’re also completely unique. Since every staff is made from a real tree branch, no two are exactly alike. Your wooden hiking staff will have its own grain, knots, and whorls — giving it a character that no one else’s walking stick has.
If you’re just starting out as a hiker, you may notice that the trails are full of synthetic, manmade hiking poles. While these poles can be a great choice, there’s something inspiring about the authenticity of a carved wooden hiking staff.
The fact that wooden staffs are less common makes them even more intriguing. You can expect to get lots of compliments on your staff while you’re out on the trail.
Your hiking staff is a unique piece of art that honors nature at the same time as you enjoy nature’s beauty on your hikes.
You may encounter all kinds of dangers on the hiking trail, from territorial wildlife to human attacks. At those times, your hiking staff can be more than just walking support. It can be an important self-defense tool.
A tactical hiking staff should be heavy, so choose a wooden staff or another strong material. Having a one-handed stick (instead of two poles) makes self-defense easier.
Once you’ve chosen your tactical staff, be sure to practice your self-defense moves. Prepare to defend against threats including:
- Aggressive fellow hikers
As a rule, wild animals won’t attack you unless you provoke them. However, if you accidentally startle an animal, it may suddenly attack. It’s wise to be able to defend yourself on the trail if you have to.
Survival Hiking Staff
Do your hikes take you off-trail? If you’re a backcountry hiker and survivalist, a hiking staff is a must. However, a specialized survival hiking staff can do even more for you.
A survival hiking staff comes equipped with features like:
- Fire starter
- Knife and/or saw
- Hunting harpoon
- Fish scaler
This type of hiking staff is like a survival multitool combined with your walking support. That way, you have fewer survival tools to carry (and to lose). This streamlines your packing process and cuts down on the items hanging from your belt.
Hiking Staffs: Your Best Travel Companions
There you have it — from looks to self-defense to injury prevention, hiking staffs do it all. Don’t hit the trail without one. With this article, you’ll know your walking stick options, so get out there and find the perfect one for you!
Want more tips to fuel your outdoor adventures? Check out the rest of our blog. You’ll find more info on staying healthy and getting outside!
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