Sometimes the simplest tools are best, and when it comes to versatility, it's tough to beat a stick. Hiking sticks and trekking poles can help you keep your balance while you maneuver over rough terrain, extending your reach while providing a "spare leg" for traction and stability. By redistributing your load, hiking sticks also reduce stress on backs, legs, knees and feet. On the trail, you can use them to push aside nettles, brush and other nuisances, to probe water or mud, or to fend off aggressive animals. Ultralight campers use them in conjunction with a tarp to form a shelter or to prop up a pack. In an emergency, they can even serve as makeshift splints or crutches.
The key characteristics of a hiking stick or trekking pole are weight, price, shock absorption, shaft construction and grip type, and you should choose yours according to your budget, needs and conditions. Recreational walkers might want a light, straight stick for doing stretches and simple exercises while walking, while off-trail trekkers will need a height-measured stick with extra length to help with downhill climbs. Choose a height and weight that works for you, and pay attention to the types of thongs, tips and grips available as well.
Hiking sticks are typically made of wood, aluminum or carbon fiber, with wood being the heaviest and carbon fiber the lightest of the three. Aluminum is stronger and less expensive than carbon fiber, while carbon fiber reduces vibration, but is more vulnerable to breakage or splintering [source: REI]. Most poles are also height-adjustable -- typically between 24 to 55 inches (0.6 to 1.4 meters) -- and many offer built-in shock absorption [source: REI]. As always, try before you buy, making sure that the pole height is easily adjustable and does not slip once adjusted. If you choose a wooden staff, consider a balance of strength versus weight.
In the next section, we'll take a look at gear to help hikers take back the night.