Fly Fishing Wading Staff vs. Trekking Pole Purchase Guide

I love to fly fish.  But osteoarthritis in my knees means using a wading staff is an essential item for my safety and enjoyment.

As an essential piece of equipment, a wading staff has multiple uses for crossing fast rivers, navigating slippery and rocky riverbanks, or giving support when hiking up and down river trails.  

With a wading staff or trekking pole attached to your belt, you will feel more comfortable.  

But do you need to purchase an expensive wading staff just solely for fishing, or can you use that old trekking pole stored in the attic or garage? 

Let’s start with the basics before comparing the pros and cons of a wading staff to a trekking pole. 

What is a wading staff for fly fishing?

A wading staff is a long, collapsable pole you assemble when you wish to use it. 

Getting close to the trout may mean you need to get thigh-deep in a fast current.  

A second use is when crossing rivers. 

A wading staff provides security and safety in difficult terrain

Benefits of a wading staff when fly fishing?

A wading staff will give you a third point of contact with the riverbed.  It’s like having a third leg! 

Just as you always look to maintain three points of contact when climbing a ladder, keeping two points of contact when crossing a river will save you from an unexpected, sometimes dangerous, dunking.

Rivers can rise fast, which means you may unexpectedly need to cross a swollen river despite the best planning. 

Rivers contain slippery rocks and soft riverbeds.  Even in shallow water, a wading staff can save you from accidents like a broken leg. 

Not all riverbanks are easy on the body.  A wading staff could also be valuable when navigating over uneven terrain. 

In this instance, it is used more like a trekking pole which brings me to the differences between a wading staff and a hiking pole or poles.

Here’s my beginner’s guide to wading safely.

The difference between a wading staff and a trekking pole

Wading Staff

A wading staff is long enough to detect deep holes while crossing a river.

Most wading staffs fold down into short pieces for storage, often held together with a bungee or wire cord.

A wading staff is placed in a pouch, backpack or holster when not in use.

Wading staff often have a pointed metal tip allowing the staff to nestle into the sturdy ground between rocks.

Trekking poles

Many trekking poles are adjustable in length with either a twist lock or lever lock.  

Most trekking poles are telescopic but don’t fold down to as short a length as a wading staff.

Walking poles come with wrist straps.  

Some trekking poles have built-in shock absorber springs to assist hikers with arthritis or other wrist, shoulder, or knee issues. (But this can mean more moving parts to go wrong.)

Fun Fact
Often hikers will adjust the length depending on whether they are walking uphill or downhill.  Shorter for uphill and longer for downhill.

Questions to ask when choosing a wading staff or trekking pole

What is the ideal height for a wading staff?

The right height is subjective, but remember you may come across holes and a soft, muddy bottom when crossing a river.  

In this case, your staff needs to be longer than you would use for typical trekking.  

Here’s a quick guide from Folstaff

Your height Wading Pole minimum length
4′ to 5′  (122-152 cm) 41” (105 cm)
5′ to 5’10” (152-178 cm) 50” (127 cm)
5’10” to 6’+ (178-183 cm)59” (150 cm)

This article also provides guidance on the right height for a wading staff.

My first wading staff purchase was too long for me. I could tell it wouldn’t provide the support I needed for crossing rivers, so I gave it to my taller husband.

Here’s my Complete Guide to Fly Fishing Resources for Women.

Is the height of the wading staff adjustable?

Most wading staff come in a fixed length.  So you need to check out what will suit you before purchasing. 

Trekking poles also come in various sizes, but have more adjustment. 

Purchasing a trekking pole provides a greater range of height options and variety of uses.

Fun Fact
On long hikes and steep hills, trekking poles have been proven to save energy.

How much does the wading staff weigh?

Choose a lightweight wading staff or hiking pole. The lightest are made from carbon fiber while others are manufactured from aluminum.

They come with either a rubber tip or carbide stuff which is great to grip on rocks.

Remember, the more weight you carry, the more tired you feel.  

As an older female angler, I want to reduce the load as much as possible to keep more energy for fishing.

How quickly and easily can you set up the wading pole?

If you want to use the collapsible staff only for wading situations, then the wading pole needs to be easily set up, 

Some folding wading staff can be assembled one-handed, which can be advantageous. Others require two hands, which means holding your rod while assembling the staff.

Does the wading staff or trekking pole fit your budget?

You can pay a lot of money for some brands.  

I’m not sure if you’re paying for the name or they are worth it.  Check out the options.  There are some excellent reviews available online.

Some anglers have been known to recycle an old ski pole into a wading staff.   Or cut yourself a length of wood for a static staff.

This is my article on selecting a fly rod for a woman.

Is the wading staff easy to store when not in use?

Where do you put your wading staff when not in use?  That’s an excellent question to think about before investing in this piece of equipment.  

Others carry a collapsible wading staff in their fishing vest or backpack, but  I have a holster on my belt, so it’s always easily accessible.

Does the wading staff or hiking pole have a wrist strap?

A wrist strap is an excellent addition for two reasons. 

It gives you an accessible location to attach your tether. 

Secondly, slip your hand through the loop when using the staff as a hiking pole to provide extra support. 

wrist strap use 1
How to use the wrist strap on a hiking pole
Trekking Poles & Hiking Staffs: How to Choose | REI Co-op

Is the wading staff grip non-slip and comfortable?

A good ergonomic grip will not slip when wet and feel comfortable in your hand.  

Ladies, you may like a smaller grip as the average female hand is 1 inch smaller in circumference than the average male hand.   

Grips are made of cork, rubber or foam.  Some even come with a camera mount on the top of the handle.

Fun Fact
When hiking, the right height for a trekking pole is when your elbow is at 90 degrees. 

Can you attach the wading staff or trekking pole to your wading belt?

Make sure there is a place to attach a carabiner so you can tether the pole to your belt.

I use a larger zinger to attach my pole to my belt, which means I can drop the pole when casting and quickly retrieve it again when ready to take the next step. 

I was worried at first that the floating pole might trip me up or get tangled in my fly line, but I find it works fine as the current keeps the wading staff away from both my legs and line.

Improve your safety, confidence and speed with a wading staff

In a high river or fast water, the important thing to improve your safety is to test the depth of the water before taking the next step.  Falling into a hole is dangerous. 

Even in shallower water, a pole is excellent for general support, which means I am more confident.  (And my old knees thank me at the end of the day.) 

My wading pole also allows me to move faster and cover more water.  

I also use my wading staff to improve my safety, confidence and speed when navigating up and down steep riverside trails and rocky terrain.  

Lastly, experienced anglers and hikers will cross in pairs, strategically clutching onto each other for even more safety when crossing fast-flowing rivers cross together.

Here’s why I recommend a trekking pole

As a woman in her 60s, I recommend a lightweight, adjustable trekking pole instead of a static wading staff. 

Choose one that you can extend fully to use as a wading staff, then adjust to hiking height when needing help with stability over slippery rocks and up and down river trails.

I love being able to use my wading staff for more than one purpose.

The addition of a trekking pole has increased my enjoyment of fly fishing immensely.