Monday, 15 October 2012



Without my walking stick, I'd go insane
Can't look my best, I'd feel undressed without my cane
If I ever left my house without my walking stick
It would just be something I could never explain
The thing that makes me click on Lovers' Lane
Would go for naught if I were caught without my cane

Irving Berlin

Lately, I've been wondering which of humankind's 'tools' has the longest history and pre-history. Is it a rock first picked from the ground to pound and smash against something? Or a stick taken in hand to steady an early hominid, or be used to poke or hit something – or someone – with?

Perhaps one first has to define what constitutes a 'tool.' Anthropologists and archaeologists and biologists and all the other relevant -ologists disagree a bit over this. Some suggest it's just anything handy picked up and used, even if only once. Others reckon that the object has to be adapted in some way – broken shorter, chipped to shape or whatever. But I’m with those who think that a tool is an object that having been used once and found to be rather good for that use is carried or kept to be used again in the future.

This latter is a pretty useful definition as it separates Homo habilis – 'Handy Man' – and us latter tool-using hominids from the many species of animal that are opportunistic tool users. Elephants, bears, crows, parrots, dolphins, as well as all the great apes, some other monkeys, sea-otters and – more controversially – octopus and even some fish have all been observed using or appearing to use tools.

So, which came first in the handy-man's tool box? The rock or the stick. Well, I’m going for the stick.

Why? Well, though it's always nice to find a pleasingly shaped and weighted stone for banging a few limpets off the rocks or for smashing marrow bones open or whopping some prey item over the head, it's awkward to then carry it along as a dead-weight just on the off-chance that you might need another similar shaped rock in a few days' time. Especially when there are always new rocks to be found.

But a stick – the right stick – is a different matter. If it's the perfect length and weight and has the correct 'heft' for a task, well that's pretty rare, and so makes the stick worth keeping. Especially as a carried stick isn't a dead-weight at all; it's a support, an aid to walking, good for poking things with, an instant weapon, something to lean on. So, if early man or woman found a good stick surely they'd have grunted appreciatively, picked it up and set off at a saunter, swinging their cane with all the swagger of a well-accessoried proto-hominid.

And here's another point. Though there are still plenty of people and cultures that appreciate a good stone to throw given the right circumstances (and I’ve been one of them on many an occasion when driving sheep or driving off dogs), one rarely sees somebody strolling along a city street with a nicely shaped rock in their hand, or setting off on a long hike carrying a useful stone. But sticks are still popular and useful in all circumstances, and quite the mark of the dandy.

So, sticks. A tool that we've used as a species from earliest times and still use today.

For most slow adventures a stick is one of the most useful bits of kit that can be carried. I will admit that a long pole is a bit of a handicap on a bicycle. And in a kayak, too. But for walking it's a multi-purpose friend. It can be useful when carried on a horse. And for X-country skiing and skate touring poles – fancy sticks – are essential.

I never carried a stick when I was young. I couldn't see the point. That's youth for you. The first time I got sticked-up was walking the Portuguese Road to Santiago (like all the other roads to Santiago but running north from Portugal and with no other pilgrims and a poorly defined and mountainous track): I cut a long eucalyptus pole, for no other reason than carrying a staff was what peregrinos did, and tied my scallop shell to the top. It was moderately useful en route. But not essential.

I only became a real stick-aficionado when walking back and forth across Morocco's Atlas mountains and pre-Saharan wastes for eight months with a mule. Amongst the summer camps of the transhumant Berbers high in the mountains the viciousness of the guards dogs was infamous. In preparation, as I walked out of Marrakech I bought a heavy stick from a hardware shop; it was actually a crude shovel handle but its weight, length and toughness were perfect. Initially I found it a burden and often left it tucked into the mule's pack saddle. But over the days as we climbed higher and higher on steep rocky tracks, and the dogs began to live up to their reputation, I kept it in hand constantly to help with walking and see off the ravening hounds, until my stick finally became like another limb. And I began to appreciate its many other uses. Digging up thorny afar shrubs for fire-material. Propping up the panniers as a wind-break when sleeping out. For leaning on – a lot. Turning over rocks that were likely to conceal scorpions as well as the occasional viper.

I doubt that since then I’ve set off to walk for anything more than an urban stroll, and certainly not for any trip extending over days, without a stick. In some places – in the rough hills of southern Spain, for example – I even run carrying a stick.

So, here's some stick lore.

  • A support as one walks – a stick transfers some of the weight off the legs and adds a point of stability when crossing or climbing rough ground.
  • Nordic poles used in pairs and with wrist straps allow one to use the upper body to a far greater extent than a single pole and save ones legs commensurately; but they're not walking sticks in any accepted sense, need a totally different marching style and really clutter up ones walking; I avoid them.
  • For leaning on whilst looking at the view/catching ones breath A wrist height walking stick provides a bit of leaning support, but you really need a full length walking staff that comes up to about arm-pit height for the full hands-on-stick, chin-on-hands relaxed pose.
  • Hobbling off a hillside when you've sprained or broken an angle.
  • Crossing streams and rivers. This is one of the situations where a stick can save your life, especially if the bed is rocky, and the waters much higher than mid-calf and/or fast flowing. If the waters are murky, probing with a wading stick is the only way to know if you're about to step into a six foot hole.
  • Probing the extent and depth of bogs.
  • Vaulting across and over things; you're going to need thumb-stick length at least, but with a bit of practise you'll be able to vault wire fences and five-bar gates effortlessly. Really, you will!
  • Pushing aside thick vegetation, brambles and stinging nettles. And clearing those huge sticky across-the-path spiders' webs found in the tropics and other places.
  • Measuring distance and lengths; it's useful to mark on a walking stick or pole some handy measurements; a yard, a metre or your average pace length.
  • Reducing fatigue on a long walk. The following really works – lay your stick across your shoulders and hang your outstretched arms over it at the wrists, crucifixion-style. With a shorter stick you'll only be able to do one arm at a time. It's the classic pose of strolling shepherds and herders from Greece to Persia, and Morocco to the Andes and all places in-between.
  • Similarly, when you're hanging around in one place for a while, a long walking staff allows you to draw one leg up, like a stork, or a Masai herder, using the stick and the other leg to stand on. Again, surprisingly refreshing.
  • Fending off attacking dogs.
  • Fending off attacking people.
  • Pinning down snakes.
  • Amusing yourself on long walks; can be used for shadow-sword-play, or twirled and thrown like a drum major's baton, or used to putt stones and nuts around the place in golf-hockey.
  • It's quite comfortable to carry a reasonably heavy bundle, and certainly spare jackets, water-bottles and warm clothes, down your back slung from your stick which is passed over your shoulder (alternate shoulders regularly if going any distance) with the weight of your arm laid along the sticks length out front.

  • A stick with a metal point can make it easier and safer crossing ice and snow. Used correctly a steel-shod stick can be used as a brake if you fall and slide on an ice and snow slope.
  • An umbrella walking stick is useful. In many places – Galicia comes to mind - it's the locals' solution to always being prepared for sudden rain especially in otherwise warm climates. An good umbrella needs to be built around a one-piece shaft if you also want it to function as a strong walking stick; normal umbrellas are pretty useless.
  • Sticks have been made with concealed compartments inside the shaft reached by unscrewing the head – I've got one I rarely use, but I keep basic firelighting kit inside and some other survival gear; 'tippling' sticks had a long glass flask for spirits inside the shaft (very handy) others had compasses built into the head (quite handy).
  • In the distant past sword- and dagger-sticks were popular; they could be unsheathed rapidly giving the carrier the means of rather surprising would-be muggers and assailants. They're very much frowned on in most countries today.


  • It's pretty obvious that some sticks work better for some jobs, and there are as many kinds of sticks as there are things to do with sticks; but there are some guide-lines as to types and what they're best for.
  • Best for general walking – in my view – is whatever shape, size and weight provides the greatest variety of ways to put weight on the shaft and handle, is most comfortable both to use and to carry when not actively being walked with and that provides as many other uses in passing.
  • Thumb-sticks. My choice for long walks. I find that on most thumb-sticks the two arms on the 'Y' at the top are nearly always too thin to fall comfortably under the fingers and to allow for numerous changes of hand position, the key to usefulness in a stick. I make my own thumb-sticks, out of holly with with a heavy piece of antler for the handle. I choose and cut the antler so that one arm is thin and the other is heavy enough to almost make a handle in itself. The thumb-stick's advantages include being able to push thorny branches, brambles and such out of the way with the 'Y', which is also ideal for pinning down snakes and other things. The length – up to the arm-pit is about right – allows plenty of adaptability when used as a bivvy pole for holding up a tarpaulin or poncho shelter. It's a good length and design for wading swift and/or rapid streams and rivers. The 'Y' is traditionally used for steadying a telescope whilst stalking. And a rifle in some circumstances.
  • Shepherd's crooks make poor long walk sticks; the curled handle is great for catching a fleeing sheep or goats rear leg, and it's pretty comfortable for leaning on, but it's less comfortable in the hand if walking all day. Shepherds and others will undoubtedly disagree with me.
  • Walking stick. The conventional 'walking stick' is the one to use when you've got a gammy leg; the suggested measurement is from the knobbly bone in your wrist to the ground, and that's probably about right if you're going to limp along using the stick for a third leg or want it for city pavement use. For marching over rough ground I prefer my 'walking sticks' to be a bit longer; see below in 'making' for a possible formula. Handles on walking sticks can be right-angle, crooks and hooks or a heavy knob.
  • For short walks if i'm using a walking stick rather than a walking staff or long thumb stick, I quite like a heavy knob as it's comfortable for longish periods of holding and makes it easy to swing.
  • But best of all in my view is a down-turned, fairly-heavy hook shape, not too pointy at the angle; this offers many different ways of wrapping your hand around the handle which is the key to comfort, whilst the hook is ideal for pulling down out of reach branches, fruits etc. when foraging, or – say – hooking your wind-blown hat out of a river. Best of all the hook means that you can hang the stick from a strap on your bag, or from the inside of your jacket sleeve at the armpit or from the back of your collar, or on anywhere else freeing up both hands.
  • In parts of Poland, Hungary and Romania country people often have a small bronze hatchet head forming the handle of a medium-length walking stick; very useful.
  • Walking poles. Hm. So much going for them; adjustable height which is really good, shock-absorbers which is less useful, light-weight, ergonomically clever handles, padded wrist-straps, can be folded or collapsed down for packing. What's not to like? Well the expense. And the complexity. And just that wood is nicer overall. And so i'd still prefer to take one of my simple wooden sticks, or dive into a wood at the start of walk and cut a new one to fit the trip.


  • Collectors of walking sticks are rabologists, apparently. I suppose that makes anyone with more than two sticks in their life a rabologist.
  • Reading travel books, of course, makes one aware of just how iconic and useful sticks are to all slow travellers and in all cultures.
  • Dervla Murphy's In Ethiopia With a Mule (intrepid travel of the highest order) addresses buying a suitable walking stick shortly after she's got her mule and before leaving on a thousand mile stroll. In Ethiopia carrying a stick for support and defence is an essential for locals, and she writes about visiting a market in search of something suitable, miming hitting someone over the head to describe what she's looking for. But she found that 'dulas (heavy sticks) are not marketed here, since people prefer to cut and prepare their own weapons.' She ends up buying a light stick from an Arabic trader, which locals deride as not being heavy enough. Nonetheless it proves to be up to the job of acting as support for walking and climbing cliffs, and for fending off robbers.
  • Patrick Leigh-Fermor, ever the romantic, walking to Constantinople from The Hook of Holland writes amusingly (in either A Time of Gifts or Between the Woods and the Water – I’m working from memory here) of walking along sword-fighting invisible foes, complete with lunges, parries, sabre-cuts and cries of touché. There is the embarrassedly rapid turning of swashbuckling fencing into mere slashing at roadside plants when he's surprised by someone popping up as witness. I've done that myself.
  • The French chevalier De Latocnaye who walked a thousand miles around Ireland in 1796-7 had a walking-umbrella-sword-stick of his own devising. This and a pair of spare white hose, some wig-powder and a few other odds were tied in three small bundles carried over his shoulder on his multi-purpose stick.
  • Nick Crane has rather made the walking-umbrella his trade-mark since footing it from the Atlantic coast in Iberia's west right across all of Europe's high ground to reach Istanbul in the east.

  • Stick-fighting is an obvious attack and defence system from earliest times, but in some cultures it became a complex art form.
  • Japanese kendo uses a wooden-sword to learn moves more safely before moving onto metal blades, so it's not really a dedicated stick-fighting style, though ability in kendo would make an umbrella or walking stick a formidable weapon.
  • The English quarterstaff – as often mentioned in tales of Robin Hood and his merry chaps; and specifically in the quarterstaff fight on the log bridge when Robin and Little John first met and neither would give way - was a weapon in its own right with an artistry of defensive and attacking moves. As was the stick-weapon of choice in Ireland, the blackthorn shillelagh or cudgel.
  • Quite a number of Nilotic and Nubian tribes in Sudan and Ethiopia use sticks both as everyday protection and for ritualistic and competitive fights. In the latter bouts  - donga - some tribes use heavy staffs, others long sticks with whip ends, both with the idea of drawing blood and gaining a submission; there are varied rules as to which parts of the body, if any, are off-limits; serious injury is common.
  • My experience of using sticks as defense has mainly been against dogs; walking in some remote areas the chance of being attacked by dogs is high and the consequences can be serious, either in serious physical damage or in infection or from rabies. Rather than raising the stick high to strike – a quick dog will come in under the stick faster than you can bring it down – hold the stick, preferably with two hands, at the handle, pointing the end directly at the dog; be ready to jab and parry; most times the dog won't come closer or will attack the stick's end. If the dog, or dogs, are serious, keep the end of the stick low, at dog head height or lower and swing it back and forth really hard and fast.
  • In the case of attacks by people, I tend towards the idea that just carrying a hefty stick rather deters the casual mugger, the bully or the random attack. In the hands of someone experienced a simple stick can be effective against one or several people, as well as against someone with a knife. But without experience you're kinda making it up as you go along, though being really angry, whilst remaining calm - a difficult combination - pushes the odds back in your favour. Tips include keeping the stick moving, both to keep its momentum up and so the assailant can't grab it and turn the stick back on you. A hefty side-swipe to the kneecap might provide just the disabling blow you need to get away. And a real cracker on the wrist or the elbow would certainly distract your attacker. I'd avoid hitting someone in the head, if I was thinking rationally; you can give someone a real belt and it won't stop them or you can hit them quite lightly on the noggin and have them a lot more hurt than you might have intended or the law is prepared to condone. 

Rabomania is a powerful force. And has been since humans picked up and used their very first tools – sticks.

I once bought a stick. It was in Aracena in the west of Andalusia as I was about to set off on few days walk. Naturally I'd planned on cutting myself a useful walking staff once I was out in the woods, but a dead-straight, smoothed, oiled chestnut pole with a fitted pointed ferrule and a wrist cord for a mere €3 spotted in a hardware shop seemed just too good to be pass up. I've never lived it down. When i arrived - with the manufactured stick - in the small village even further to the west in Spain, where I'm well known, I became even better known for being the eejit who'd actually spent money on a stick when sticks – literally – grow on trees.


James Smith, New Oxford Street, London ( Not that you're going to actually buy a stick, right, when they're for free in the hedge and all the better for being made by yourself. But this is such a wonderful shop that I always feel my heart soaring when I walk past their windows and stop for a look. And their website is pretty pleasing, too; actually, if one wasn't careful one actually could get seduced into buying a stick from them. It's certainly the go-to place for an umbrella. And in more innocent days this is where one might have gone for a good sword- or dagger-stick, as advertised still in their Victorian window signage. They still do sticks with hidden surprises; of which the only really useful ones are the corkscrew stick and better still the tippling stick with a hidden flask.


  1. Hi Jasper
    Great to get your e-mail. I really think your slow adventure approach stands out against the rest of the crowd as a guiding light. It is the antithesis of the 'box ticking' Japanese lightening tour. Are you on facebook? I posted a link to your blog on facebook today.
    Hope to catch up with you again soon. Keep being different.

  2. What a wonderful story you wrote! :) Who would have thought that a story about something as simple as a stick could sound so interesting! And I have to agree with you that the stick is probably the first tool used by mankind! However, walking with a stick is not as simple as one-two-three. One would need to know how to propperly walk with a stick to actually feel the benefits. So, as a thank you for a great text, I offer you a guide that explains everything there is to know about how one should use a stick (or a pole) during hiking:

  3. Wow, I love your collection of walking sticks! I particularly admire the character of the wood that are not available in the mass market. Today, trekking poles reign supreme, I'm afraid. Gone are the days of old when walking is as natural as being a couch potato! I've been trekking and backpacking for many years and I remembered my father having a lot of sticks when we were out walking. It made me realized that these sticks have nostalgia attached to it. Although new trekking poles have also caught my fancy, and I found that most of the great reviews are here:

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About Me

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I'm an independent writer on wilderness activities, slow adventures, traditional horsemanship and odd stuff. I'm the author of Paddle; A long way around Ireland (Sort Of Books), and i was the story consultant on the IMAX documentary on cowboy cultures across the globe, Ride Around The Word. The Slow Adventure sends reports back from the front-line of a slow and simple life; horses, kayaks, guitars, long walks, travel, books, simplicity, trains, travel, wildlife and the occasional thrill.