Even the most basic human physical actions, like walking, have been helped by tools since the beginning of civilization. The walking stick is a simple tool to assist a person walking. It has aided people from the most athletic of hikers and trekkers, to the physically disabled and balance impaired, to the casual walker and collector of sticks.
The walking stick comes in an endless variety of shapes, colors, sizes, fashions, constructions and purposes. They range from simple tree branches, felled and carved into a smooth, wooden walking apparatus, to manufactured metal or wooden straight sticks sold in stores. They come with rubber grips, different handles, different accessories, and always different lengths and colors. The white stick, though, is generally reserved as a helper for the blind.
Walking sticks have also served a variety of purposes, such as canes to the injured or muscle weakened. To the injured, a walking stick eases the strain on what might be a weakened leg by putting weight on the other side when held opposite the injury. To the balance impaired or weak framed, the walking stick helps maintain an upright posture and serves as a “third leg,” distributing weight and easing the pressure on weak muscles or bad knees.
Walking sticks are also used by the more nimble, in physical activities like hiking or mountain climbing. Up the jagged rocks and unstable footing of an uncertain cliff or trail, a hiker might use a walking stick to slowly gain a sure footing and to keep weight distributed evenly on unleveled terrain. The sticks, also known as hiking sticks or hiking poles, can be used to clear bushes or brambles, to defend against animals or to test rocks or ice. These walking sticks can go by many lengths, but the general rule of thumb is to adjust the height to a level where the wrist and hand are relaxed — to a height where the hand is not straining to reach low or is flexed to hold too tight. Walking sticks made of metal with adjustable heights are also sold at many outdoor gear stores and may also go by the name of trekking poles.
Walking sticks, though undoubtedly around since the early years of man, saw an emergence in the England of Henry VIII, when they were first called “canes” and were generally made of exotic imported woods. Since then, they have seen many reincarnations; have been made of a variety of woods including hazel, oak, orange and rattan; and have been the leaning tools of many including fictional characters like J.R.R. Tolkien’s wizard Gandalf and real life Eastern Orthodox clergy.