Hiking is one of my favorite ways to stay in shape; it's both good for the body and the mind. While I love to be able to hike hands free, sometimes my knees and hips ache and need some extra support. This is where a hiking or walking stick comes in handy. Walking sticks reduce the impact on hips, knee joints, and leg muscles by involving the use of your arms. Plus, they are just great to have in the wilderness in general: to gauge how deep a stream is, to assist in hiking downhill, and to even swat down spider webs crossing the trail!
- Minwax Spar Urethane
- Optional: paracord
- Reciprocating or circular saw
- Belt sander or sander
- Optional: Dremel with drum sanding disks
- Optional: painters tape
- Optional: drill with 1/8" and 13/32" drill bit
- Natural fiber brush
- Optional: scissors and lighter for paracord
Step 1: Find Your Perfect Stick
This is the most fun part! Go out into the woods and start hunting. Things to keep in mind:
- Location: Some State and Federal Parks ban the collection of wood for any use. Look up the rules and regulations for the area you plan to collect from, or collect from your own property if available.
- Age: Green wood (still alive or only recently cut down) will be much harder to work with in the long run. When you're trying to find the perfect hiking companion, make sure you hunt for sticks that have been on the ground for a couple of months. This means the wood had time to dry out slowly without cracking.
- Hardwoods: Hardwoods (hickory, maple, oak, walnut, ect) are better than softwoods (spruce, pine) for walking sticks as then are more dense and durable. Softwoods - green woods - can also get gummy when you're trying to work with them; this is very problematic during the sanding and finishing stages. For my hiking stick I used a hickory branch found in my backyard.
- Straightness: Having a straight stick is beneficial because it will be less likely to fracture and bend under pressure. Remember, if you find a straight stick with curved ends, you can always cut the curves off.
- Size: The size of the stick is personal preference. The height can range from around your waist to the top of your head. I prefer shoulder height as they are easier for me to handle. The diameter of the stick should be roughly 1-2 inches thick at the top and then tapers down a little smaller towards the bottom. Make sure the stick isn't too large for your fingers or your hand will tire quickly. After sanding, my hiking stick was just over 1-1/4 inch in diameter.
Step 2: Initial Cut, Bring to Bare Wood, and Final Cut
Now that you have found your new hiking buddy, its time to give it a makeover! The first picture shows the bark removal stages you will likely go through: green bark, outer bark, bare wood, and sanding wood.
- Rough Cut: My chosen branch was extremely long, so I started by giving it a quick cut with a reciprocating saw - 1 foot or so longer than its final dimension (6 in extra on each side). Cutting closer to the final shape helps remove the extra length, which means less work, but also gives you a handhold while chiseling and sanding.
- Bark Removal: I used a sharp chisel to quickly strip the outer bark from the stick. Once the outer bark was removed I went just a little deeper until I found the first layer of white wood underneath. Be careful with chisels! Proper technique is crucial at all times; place the chisel in your palm with your pointer finger extended as pictured. Keep the chisel low to the wood and always carve away from your body. Also, a sharp chisel will cut far better and faster than a dull one. Remember, you can leave the bark on the last 4" or so on the ends of your stick, since they will be cut off later anyways.
- Sanding: Use a belt sander to now round all your chisel marks out. Using a 120 grit belt and rolling the piece up and down while moving it side to side, you can achieve a "natural" and flowing finish to your hiking stick. Use the top slack of the belt to avoid sanding any flat spots, and keep the stick continuously moving. Normally when sanding, you would try to sand with the grain of the wood to hide any small scratches left by sanding. With the small belt sander you will have to sand against the grain. You can remove these scratches by hand sanding with 100 grit or lower and then changing to 120 grit and higher. I stopped with the 120 grit on the belt sander and was not able to see scratch marks on the final project.
- Final Cut: Last chance to change your mind! Make a decision: tall, short, cane, staff. I went with a hiking stick that was about 55 in tall. After my final cuts I cleaned up the edges on the belt sander again, giving a slight chamfer (beveled edge) to both the top and bottom of the stick. Rounded ends will also help strengthen the wood against abuse and cracking.
Step 3: Optional: Carve or Design
Its time to give your new found friend some character!
There were a couple of things I knew I wanted in my hiking stick: one was a ribbed/grooved hand grip and the other was a hole for a wrist strap.
- Hand Grooves: To create these circular indentations, you'll need a Dremel tool. You could use a pencil or painter's tape to mark out lines to help you evenly gauge the grooves, as pictured. I laid out lines using a ruler and some 1/4" sewing wonder tape I had around. The wonder tape was roughly the width I wanted my ridges to be, while the drum sander head was perfect for making my grooves. Next, the hardest part is sanding out the valleys. Practice a couple times on a broom handle to get the hang of it. I did, and soon resigned myself to the fact that it was not going to be perfect, but that I now had the coolest ribbed broom in the world. I found the best way to carve was to clamp the wood down by having someone hold it and twist while I carved about an 1/8-1/4 sections of the groove at a time. If you start your groove as centered as possible, you can kind of "pull" that channel all the way around the stick. I slipped a couple times and took off more than I meant to. Fortunately, I ended up liking this less uniform look as it looked more natural, almost like antelope antlers. Keep in mind that anything you carve into the handle will be rubbing against your hand as you walk. Patterns too rough or textured might leave you with blisters on your hands at the end of your hike.
- Wrist Strap Hole: I wanted a strap on my hiking stick, so I used a hand drill to drill a small 1/8" hole near the top of my stick. I then increased to a 13/32" drill bit to drill my final diameter. Larger drill bits can bind easily, especially if your wood is slightly green. This two step drilling process helps minimize the threat of binding. I personally wanted the strap to drape and be longer and looser, which is why I chose so close to the top. Feel free to position the hole wherever you think the strap will best serve you.
Step 4: Finishing
Woo, that carving was a doozy! Next up, we need to protect our new hiking companion from the elements. Before finishing, give your stick a light sanding to smooth out the ribbing and the drilled hole. There are many different finishes that provide a whole range of protection for your hiking stick. Feel free to do some research and pick out what suits you best. I went with Minwax Spar Urethane, as it protects against sunlight, rain, moisture, and temperature changes - all of the things I am most likely to encounter while hiking. It has the added bonus of giving a mesmerizing, glossy shine to the whole project. When applying your finish, the drilled wrist strap hole comes in handy on this step as it provides a space that can hang the stick with wire or cord through. Be sure to follow all instructions on the label of whatever finish you choose (like use a natural fiber brush) and allow everything to dry completely; some finishes take a couple of weeks to completely harden.
Step 5: Extras
Now to give your hiking stick the flair it didn't know it needed! I used a few paracord knots to deck out my stick; they are purely decorational (unless I need the cord in an unforeseen survivalist situation....).
- Turks Head Knot: The roughly 2" weaving is called a 5 lead 4 bight Turk's head. I used the Paracord Guild's Video to tie the initial knot with 4 ft of green paracord keeping it a little loose. I then used 7 ft of tan cord to follow the weave pattern twice and another 4 ft green cord to finish off my pattern. Finally, I trimmed and hid the loose cord ends. Don't short yourself here; it's better to have too much cord than not enough. The first picture shows the end result. The second picture shows that I flame fused an inch of the ends with a lighter, which made the paracord stiffen up. This allowed me to tie the knots without the need of buying a special needle. (Side note: those needles are crazy handy for other paracord projects and might be worth the investment if you plan on a lot of paracord projects in the future.) This part looks way more confusing then it actually is, but it is so worth the effort! Some things to keep in mind: if it looks wrong it probably is. Don't try and fix it or try a couple more loops if you suspect its wrong. Its easier to just start over. The general pattern should be over one, under one. This is helpful if you suspect you've made an error. Another helpful hint, Youtube allows you to change the speed at which the video runs in the settings in the bottom right corner. I slowed it down to 50% to tie both Turk's heads and had great results. Also, remember that the knot will tighten as you add more rows. Luckily I only wanted 4 rows, otherwise I would have had to start with a looser knot. Lastly, be careful fusing paracord, as it stays hot for surprisingly long after its been fused. Ouch.
- Wrist Strap: For the wrist strap I made a four strand braid using the technique found at Hairstyle Camp and pictured above. To start the braid out I made a twist with a larks head knot in the middle to give me a loop (see the picture above). I braided out to 22 inches long and then temporarily tied it off with a rubber band. I calculated my length by threading a single strand of paracord through the hole and adjusting that to my liking. I then used a 4 cord crown knot to permanently secure the braid. I first inserted my braid into the hole, and after it was through, I inserted the four strands through the small loop I made at the top of the braid. I used Whyknot's Video to tie the knot. My suggestion is to watch the video a couple times and then attempt the knot by yourself, only referencing the video if you need it. After that was tied, I tightened it up as close to my braid as I could. This made for a permanent looped handle that looks great and feels comfortable.
Step 6: Explore Nature!
And that's it! You're finally done. Unless you're not? There are all kinds of finishes, fun knots, and weaves all throughout Instuctables and the Internet. Find some ideas and make something totally unique to you. Or copy this down to the exact detail and show me. Either way, let me know what you liked and what you tried! Now its time to pack a backpack, plan a hike, get out there, and put your new hiking stick through its paces!
Runner Up in the
Outdoor Fitness Challenge