Preserving Staten's Island's Great Outdoors

A smile and a stick are essential equipment for the traditional hiker

image of a Scout with a hiking staff

A hiking staff is a useful piece of trail gear. (Robert Baden-Powell)

The Greenbelt Conservancy

I was making my way along the Blue Trail. Recent rains had turned a short bit of the popular Staten Island Greenbelt hiking path into a shallow, narrow – and very slippery – V-shaped ditch. Which, of course, invited my foot to partake of its greasy qualities. My trusty hiking stick not only helped me retain my balance, sparing me the indignity of tumbling into the mud, but it also prevented me from being pitched into a cluster of Aralia spinosa – a scoundrel known as the Devil’s Walking Stick – that was lurking nearby. The invasive plant, a straight, tall and most unpleasant spindle of a shrub invitingly disguised as a convenient handhold, is covered with aggressive thorns.

Scouting founder Robert Baden-Powell found hiking staffs endlessly useful.

Sketch showing Scouts using hiking staffs

Scouting founder Robert Baden-Powell found hiking staffs endlessly useful.

Hiking sticks, sometimes called staffs or staves – the terms are interchangeable – are the most generic of tools for those who set out to explore woodland trails on foot. Unlike trekking poles, which are used in pairs and can be quite high-tech, and unlike mobility aids like canes; and unlike shillelaghs, which were originally weapons, the hiking stick is just that – a long, slender and endlessly useful stick.

A hiking stick is no affectation. It is a serious tool for hikers. When he was founding the Boy Scouts in the early 20th century. British Lieutenant-General Robert Stephenson Smyth Baden-Powell declared the “hiking staff” to be an indispensable part of a Scout’s field equipment.

“A smile and a stick will carry you through every difficulty,” he optimistically declared.

As I discovered, a good hiking stick can help the hiker keep his footing. It is also good for brushing branches and cobwebs aside. Among myriad other uses, a staff can help gauge the depth of a puddle and act as an extended hand to fellow hikers ascending a steep path.

Properly wielded, a staff can also improve the cadence of a hiker’s pace, making travel easier and even improving speed.

A good staff will be strong, light and, with a diameter of a bit more than an inch, and will fit comfortably in the hand. With your arm held straight out from your side, the staff should extend at least eight inches above the elbow.

Taller is OK, as long as you are comfortable handling it. Baden-Powell’s Scouts carried staffs that towered up to 18 inches above their heads.

A proper staff may be cut from discarded brush. A fancier one might be fashioned from commercially processed hardwoods such as oak or hickory. Pine or other soft woods can also serve but may lack strength unless they are of larger diameter, in which case they may be too thick or heavy for an extended ramble.

Stay safe out there. In this audio walking tour presented by ConEdison, WQXR radio host Jeff Spurgeon offers some tips on trail safety

My favorite hiking staff material is bamboo. It is lightweight, stiff and durable. To preserve the business end of the bamboo cane I inserted a round-headed brass bolt, salvaged from an old plumbing project, into the bottom, fastened with some plumber’s epoxy. If more traction is needed, a rubber tip for a chair leg or crutch would do the trick.

Baden-Powell, ever practical, preferred to fasten a utility hook to the top end of his staff so he could more usefully extend his reach. If you would like to top off your stick with a decorative personal flourish – a figurine, perhaps, or a bit of antler – by all means do so. Mine is topped by a quartz crystal. But remember the decoration may alter the balance point of the staff or limit its the usefulness if it must be pressed into service as a tool.

Michael W. Dominowski has been an avid hiker since his Scouting days. He is a member of the Greenbelt Conservancy Board of Directors.