From time immemorial, people have used sticks as an aid to walking. A person with a stick has an extra thing that touches the ground, thereby adding stability (in the same way that a bicycle is more stable than a unicycle). This can be important on uneven or slippery terrain.
Buying a Walking Stick
Some vendors of walking sticks just grab a random stick from the woods and slap a label on it. Sometimes, they don't even peel the bark off. If you're going to pay for a walking stick, you might as well get the best. The well-advised buyer should check for:
Strap - Made of leather or some similarly sturdy material a strap is a must. A strap that is about the thickness of a shoelace is suitable for light use, but can break under strenuous conditions.
Polyurethane finish - Sticks without such a finish can decay due to natural conditions. Hardware stores will sell cans of polyurethane, either clear or coloured.
Rubber foot - This is practical for using your walking stick in public (on any paved surface). It also helps prevent the working end from fraying, whether or not it's finished. Any hardware store will sell these feet, in varying sizes, though some may insist on selling you four feet at once (as if you wished to fully equip a sofa).
Straight orientation - An overall straight orientation, from the hand grip down to the ground. Sticks can work without straight orientation, but it limits how well you can hold the stick and place it on the ground. This can be dangerous, when you are on treacherous terrain and you have to change your stick's orientation quickly.
Grips - Some sticks come with grips, made of leather or twine, wrapped several times around the stick where a hand will usually grip it, then glued in place. This makes for a nice extra. But one should make sure they don't use nice slippery nylon twine, which would defeat the purpose.
Finding Your Own Walking Stick
Of course, if you find yourself in the wild and you need a stick to help you go up or down a hill... don't panic. People and their sticks have survived in the wild for millennia, without benefit of straps, grips, rubber feet, and polyurethane. The important thing is, does the stick give you support?
The stick should be tall enough so the user can comfortably grab it at elbow level.
The stick should bend only slightly, or not at all, when subjected to the full weight of its user.
Some types of wood are sturdier than others, thus better for walking sticks. Rose wood and eucalyptus wood are both good choices. On the other hand, pine wood and birch wood are lightweight, easy to fracture, and considered tasty by termites. If you use lightweight wood, examine it carefully for structural integrity before use.
If you're lucky, you can find a stick that needs minimal adjustment for length. The tale is told of a Walking Stick Cabbage which grows on the English Channel Island of Jersey and produces sticks of exactly the right length. If you don't have good access to that island, the best place to find a stick is usually at the edge of the woods, wherever the hand of man has tried to make a clearing. Such sticks are often pre-cut for your convenience. Otherwise, you'll just have to do a bit more sawing.
Decorating a Walking Stick
If you really like the stick you've grabbed, you can make it just like a store-bought walking stick by adding all the fancy stuff on to it yourself. It's the same sort of effort as painting a house, but considerably easier because walking sticks are smaller. Of course, the stick you've just finished becomes less disposable than it used to be...
If you're really, really bored, you can add extra decorations onto your walking stick. This can be an activity of relative interest on a camp-out, when you have no good books to read or portable video games to play. In times gone by, this condition was common across mankind. As a direct result, decorated walking sticks are readily available for collection by folk art museums, the Milwaukee Art Museum and the Louisiana Statehouse in Baton Rouge being a good example.
Common decorations include carving and paint. In parts of Europe, badges designed to fit the curvature of a hiking stick are popular. Some German hiking societies give out these badges for completion of hikes.
Walking Canes vs Walking Sticks
A cane can be shorter than a stick, since its user will lean on it from above, not from the side. But a cane still needs to at least cover the distance between the user's outstretched palm and the ground. An extra six inches of length is a good idea, so the cane can be useful when going down a stairway, hillside, or other downward grade.
Unlike a stick, a cane needs a comfortable handle that fits the user's hand. Many canes have fancy decorative handles, which look pretty but hurt the hand. If your handmade cane has nothing convenient to grab on the top, you can put a rubber 'foot' on the stick's 'head' to make the grip more comfortable. If you're more ambitious, you can make a handle from a spare piece of wood, and attach it crosswise to the end of the cane with a screw.
Variant Walking Sticks
Thumb Stick - This is a walking stick, or staff, with a V-shaped notch left at the top (for the thumb). Some hikers say it is more comfortable on longer, harder walks.
Leaf Stick - This is a walking stick with pictures of leaves on it, intended to be useful for identifying trees. Variations on this variation include tracking sticks (with pictures of paw prints, for identifying animal tracks) and snow sticks (with inch or centimetre marks, for identifying snowfall). Advertisers claim that a snow stick is the world's most resilient portable weather gauge. They even have a point, sort of.
Rain Stick - This is a walking stick with a hollow chamber, partially filled with little beads. Turn it over and over, and you hear something that sounds vaguely like rain.1
Whistle Stick - This is a walking stick with a whistle (often a bird call) carved in the end. Useful for birdwatchers or birdhunters.
Sword Stick - This a walking stick or cane which is actually a scabbard for a hiltless rapier or foil and was popular in the 1800s for gentlemen about town. One may easily find modern versions of these sticks at dealer's rooms at science fiction (or similar) conventions. Modern sword sticks are generally no more deadly then letter openers, and (as long as one or both edges are blunted) are legal in most communities2.
Gun Stick - This is a single shot rifle, disguised as a walking stick. Useful for getting out of a wee bit of trouble, and available at finer gun shops. But be discreet with these; they generally violate ordinances against concealed weapons.