The walking staff is one of mankind's oldest and simplest tools. People have used these long wooden shafts for thousands of years.
Like any tool used for many centuries, the staff has changed a lot since its beginnings. Many staffs now are made from metal or other materials instead of wood.
Walking staffs sometimes are called "staves" or simply "sticks." The earliest types were just straight, sturdy rods of wood. But then as now, the staff had hundreds of uses.
Laborers used staffs to help support the loads they carried. Poor people who weren't allowed to own other weapons used the staff for protection. (Remember the staffs used by Robin Hood's merry men?) Travelers relied on the staff to provide balance in rough terrain and when crossing rivers.
Some ancient people used staffs for record keeping. The Norse used a notched staff called a "skor" to keep track of numerical information. The word stuck around to become today's "score." Many Boy Scouts still "keep skor" by notching their staff every time they hike a certain number of miles.
In ancient times, the staff also was a symbol of authority and power. It was an emblem of office for Pharaohs in Egypt. The staff with a crook has long represented the shepherd watching over his animals. Some American Indians carried a staff called a "coup stick" that was decorated with carvings and feathers to celebrate victories in battle.
Staffs still are used as symbols. For example, a stylized figure with a staff often marks the location of hiking trails. In many countries, the same symbol indicates a hostel -- a place of rest for a weary walker.
As you can see, the staff has a long, interesting history. And like any tool used for many centuries, the staff has changed a lot since its beginnings. Many staffs now are made from metal or other materials instead of wood. Some staffs can be folded to fit in a pocket or backpack. Some have added accessories such as compasses or camera holders.
One thing hasn't changed, however. The staff in all its forms still has hundreds of uses.
Ways to Use a Staff
The main reason most people use a staff is for balance. With a staff in hand, you can carry heavy loads across steep slopes, rocks and bogs with confidence. On flat ground and good trails, the staff helps maintain a walking rhythm. "A hiking stick helps make the miles glide by," wrote Robert Birkby in Boys Life magazine. "It swings comfortably in your hand, offering balance and a rhythm to your gait."
When crossing marshy areas or streams, you can use a staff to probe for hidden obstructions and deep spots. The staff holds back bushes, stinging plants, spider webs and other things in your path. Best of all, the staff can save your energy on long treks. When you lean on it, the staff takes some of the weight off your feet, especially when you're walking a slope.
You'll find other uses for your staff as well. Use it as a support for a camp tarp or wash line. Reach with it to retrieve food sacks hung out of reach of bears. Slip it behind you and hoist your pack to give your back a break. Use it to pry up logs and rocks so you can see what animals live beneath. Your staff can lift a hot pot off the fire or replace a broken tent pole. Mark it with feet and inches for measuring things in the field.
A staff is handy in emergencies as well. Use it to reach a friend who's tumbled into the water. Roll two staffs in a blanket to make a stretcher. A staff can support you if you fall through ice. Or you can use it, if needed, for a crutch.
The book "Scouting for Boys," published in 1963, has this to say: "The staff is useful for all sorts of things, such as making a stretcher, keeping back a crowd, jumping over a ditch, testing the depth of a river, keeping in touch with the rest of your Patrol in the dark. You can help another Scout over a high wall if you hold your staff horizontally between your hands and make a step for him; he can then give you a hand from above. Several staffs can be used for building a light bridge, a hut or a flag staff.
"There are many other uses for the staff. In fact, you will soon find that if you don't have your staff with you, you will always be wanting it."
From Walking Staffs to Shooting Rests
When men started shooting rifles, they discovered accurate shots were difficult at long distances unless the firearm rested on a firm support. Shooting from a prone position with the rifle supported by a rock, dirt mound or other natural prop was one solution. But high grass, snow and mud often interfere with the prone shooter. And when pursuing game, there isn't always time to find a suitable gun support.
A walking staff with a forked end may have been one of the earliest shooting rests. In the field, the hunter could rest the forearm of the gun in the fork for a steadier aim.
Later, hunters learned they could connect two crossed staffs to make an even better shooting rest. The gun rested in the V where the two sticks crossed. The side-to-side wobbling of a single-footed rest was eliminated. Buffalo hunters, for example, often used crossed shooting sticks to steady their heavy Sharps rifles.
Over the years, these simple tools became a class of specialized products called rifle supports. There are two basic types. Monopods have a single foot (mono = one, pod = foot). They look like walking staffs, and sometimes are used that way. Bipods have two feet and resemble the old crossed shooting sticks. Monopods and bipods may attach to a rifle or simply support it. Each gives the hunter a ready-to-use field support that provides greater steadiness and accuracy.
As you can see, walking staffs and shooting rests have come a long way since the days of old. One thing hasn't changed, though. These simple tools are still among the most useful items you can carry into the field.
If you don't have a staff or shooting rest already, think about getting one before your next outing. You'll be glad you did.