OFF THE COUCH Staffs help you stick to a hike: More starting to realize the value of a walking staff or two on a trek

IF YOU WANT to indulge yourself and stroll in style, get a nice wooden staff topped with a head made out of jade. These bear and eagle designs are from Alaska.

The staff wields mythical and religious symbolism. Snakes usually become entwined in its folklore, from legends that recount how one reptile literally was scared stiff and became a young Indian’s staff to biblical accounts of how Moses’ rod changed into a serpent as proof of his encounter with God.

In the everyday mundane world, at least here in the United States, it has taken awhile for walking staffs to be used for hiking. Europeans, on the other hand, have long relied upon this aid in all kinds of outdoor life.

The backpacking boom in the last two decades has helped change this attitude. Employees at Sunshine Mountain Sports, which has locations in Livermore and Walnut Creek, point out the more “politically correct term in the ’90s is trekking poles.” The telescope aircraft aluminum poles come in pairs (like ski poles) and distribute pressure and weight.

“It’s like walking in four-wheel drive, ” describes Marty Kesti, retail coordinator at Concord REI. “You have four limbs to rely on instead of just your leg.” The poles make carrying a 50-pound backpack all day a less fatiguing experience.

Kesti has personally seen more people using walking sticks and trekking poles during the last three years, even while on day hikes. The Leki brand made in Germany leads in craftsmanship. Stores sell pairs, which weigh a mere 1 1/2 pounds, for $60 to $120. Walking staff versions come heavier and sturdier since they must accommodate more of the user’s weight, and range from $40 to $80.

Amenities for both styles include rubber tips for snow or loose dirt terrain, metal for dirt and mud. Some come spring-loaded, which absorb more shocks; the tension can be adjusted in case the hiker wants more stability from the staff. The Walking Co., with locations in Pleasanton and Walnut Creek, has figures that say the Leki stick alleviates 30 pounds of pressure off the lower joints and back. Handles come in different styles of grips and can be embedded with a compass for convenient consultations. Some models have a screw top so that they can be removed and serve as a monopod for a camera.

The telescoping feature makes them convenient to tote on airplanes or in car trunks. It especially serves well when scrambling up rocky mountain slopes, because the trekking poles can be adjusted to different heights. It also makes loaning out a trekking pole or walking stick to a shorter or taller friend easier.

Sporting goods stores also have traditional wood walking sticks, which serve quite well for day hikes. Frank Ferguson, who owns Men’s Gifts and Canes Galore, 690 Main St., Pleasanton (417-8370), stocks about 500 canes and walking sticks, both wood and aluminum from $19 to $50. He has been selling these aids for about 31 years, and funds his obsession with his lucrative cigar sales.

Besides the favored oak and hickory, “there’s a whole host of good material: chestnut, blackthorn, apple wood, mountain ash, hazel wood. It’s up to each individual, ” Ferguson says. “Any decent merchant like myself would guarantee his canes wouldn’t break, no matter the weight of person.” Besides, he has found through long experience that recommendations based on material usually give way to more aesthetic concerns. “I hate to say this, but people go by color, ” he says. And Ferguson advises against using antique canes or a stick picked up during a hike. Those haven’t been properly aged and will splinter.

Whatever they choose, as long as people get away from the “stupid boob tube” and go walking, that’s what matters to Ferguson. Less mobile or fit people can always purchase seat sticks, anodized aluminum or steel walking canes that unfold into three- or four-legged chairs.

Ferguson also hopes people don’t wait until an injury convinces them to look into walking staffs. “I wish more people would not wait to use canes and walking sticks, ” he says. “They won’t buy the cane until they’ve fallen down and broken down an extremity.” Ferguson himself has witnessed many an inadvertent stumble during stream crossings. “Usually it’s a man and his wife and, by God, you know ahead of time one of them is going to fall in.”

Vera HC Chan writes Off the Couch every other week. Send suggestions to her at the Contra Costa Times, P.O. Box 5088, Walnut Creek, 94596, or by fax to 943-8362.

This article originally appeared in the Contra Costa Times

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