Craft­ing and Us­ing a Sur­vival Stick

RECOIL OFFGRID - - Front Page - By Jared Wi­hongi Photos by Jake Bros­nan

Sticks and stones may break your bones … pe­riod. Imag­ine a cat­a­clysmic sce­nario — there’s been a crim­i­nal or ter­ror­ist at­tack dur­ing your va­ca­tion, and you’ve been forced to flee into the wilder­ness be­fore mak­ing your way to a safe zone. Or an elec­tro­mag­netic pulse or act of God has put emer­gency ser­vices out of com­mis­sion while you’re away from home, and op­por­tunist loot­ers are on the street. Maybe it’s some­thing sim­pler — you’ve en­coun­tered trou­ble while out on a camp­ing trip with your fam­ily.

What­ever the case, so long as there are branches, trees, tim­ber, or bam­boo-type grasses around, there will al­ways be an ef­fec­tive weapon wait­ing to be rec­og­nized and formed.

Na­ture’s Weapons

It’s not much of a stretch to as­sume that a stick was likely the first weapon wielded by mankind. Even apes can be found smack­ing each other (and other an­i­mals) with them in the wild. The num­ber of cul­tures that de­vel­oped in­tri­cate fight­ing sys­tems or mar­tial arts through­out his­tory to en­hance their abil­ity to de­fend and at­tack with sticks is stag­ger­ing. These sys­tems ex­tend much fur­ther than East Asia, where most peo­ple typ­i­cally as­so­ciate mar­tial arts of this kind.


As a young man grow­ing up in New Zealand, I was for­tu­nate to have had the op­por­tu­nity to train in an age- old mar­tial art de­vel­oped by the na­tive Maori peo­ple called Mau Rakau or “art of the wooden weapon.” The pri­mary fo­cus of this art is a medium-length wooden staff called Ta­iaha, which is typ­i­cally 5 to 6 feet long. I also had the op­por­tu­nity over two decades ago to spend two years liv­ing in the Philip­pines, where I dis­cov­ered and be­gan study­ing a Filipino mar­tial art com­monly called Kali.

Those fa­mil­iar with the Filipino mar­tial arts are aware that their train­ing method­ol­ogy starts with sticks and blades, as op­posed to the ini­tial empty-hand fo­cus of most other mar­tial arts. The arts that hail from ar­eas of the Philip­pines where the Span­ish once ex­er­cised greater con­trol seem to put more fo­cus on sticks, as their Spa­niard

over­lords pro­hib­ited the prac­tice of fight­ing arts with blades dur­ing much of their 300-year col­o­niza­tion.

The likes of Bruce Lee and Ed Parker found the Filipino stick fight­ing arts so ef­fec­tive that they not only trained in them, but as­sim­i­lated el­e­ments of these arts into the fight­ing sys­tems they de­vel­oped dur­ing their life­times.


When procur­ing a good branch or piece of wood to form into a weapon, there are two cat­e­gories that you can gen­er­ally put stick weapons into, each with ad­van­tages and dis­ad­van­tages: one-handed and two-handed weapons. Although long staffs can be found in some of their arts, the Filipinos found that the ideal length for a fight­ing stick was around 24 to 31 inches in length.

Much shorter than that and the stick be­gins to lose the torque that can be har­nessed with a good one-arm swing. Much longer than that and the stick starts to be­come un­wieldy as a one-handed weapon, re­quir­ing the use of two hands. For the pur­poses of this ar­ti­cle we’re go­ing to fo­cus on the strengths of us­ing a stick that can be ma­nip­u­lated with one or two hands for sur­vival.

It’s very pos­si­ble in a pinch that the old adage beg­gars can’t be choosers may very well ap­ply when choos­ing a branch or piece of wood to be­come your sur­vival stick.

For de­fen­sive pur­poses, any rigid stick you can hold and swing is bet­ter than empty hands. But if you are in an area where sticks are plen­ti­ful, you may be able to choose and shape your own ideal sur­vival stick. So what should you look for when hand-craft­ing one of these im­ple­ments?

What to Look for

The first step will be find­ing a stick that’s as straight as pos­si­ble, with a cir­cum­fer­ence that is close to match­ing your hand size. When grip­ping the stick, you will want the tip of your thumb to reach some­where be­tween the tip of the index fin­ger and the first knuckle of the same fin­ger. Wood can come in a va­ri­ety of weights and den­si­ties. A heav­ier stick will be slower and more cum­ber­some to wield, while a lighter stick will trans­fer less ki­netic en­ergy on im­pact. Just imag­ine the chances of stop­ping a threat with a balsa wood staff.

You’ll want to find some mid­dle ground — this will be dif­fer­ent for every­one based on your size and strength.

It’s very pos­si­ble that you’ll need to re­move twigs or other pro­tru­sions from a smaller branch. If a sim­ple knife is avail­able to uti­lize, you can shape your ideal stick from a larger stronger branch or piece of wood. The last thing to de­cide is the length. Again, peo­ple come in all shapes and sizes and so should your cus­tom sur­vival sticks.

As a good mea­sur­ing ref­er­ence, stretch your arm out di­rectly to the side and place the stick in your armpit par­al­lel to your arm. A good stick length will mea­sure from the armpit to about the tip of your fin­gers or just a lit­tle be­yond. At this length you can typ­i­cally wield it with one hand com­fort­ably, or can also put two hands on it for ad­di­tional power if nec­es­sary. If you have a pock­etknife and want to en­hance the de­fen­sive ca­pa­bil­i­ties of your stick, try sharp­en­ing the end of your stick into a point that can be used for thrust­ing.

As you train to use your stick de­fen­sively, keep it sim­ple. Re­gard­less of the grip you use, down­ward 45-de­greean­gled strikes from right and left in a fig­ure-eight mo­tion can be used of­fen­sively and de­fen­sively. Cen­ter­line thrusts can also be used pre­emp­tively or as quick coun­ter­at­tacks.

These three at­tacks are all you re­ally need to build a solid foun­da­tion. If you have time to train you can get more elab­o­rate than that in steady pro­gres­sions, or seek out the in­struc­tion of a good Filipino mar­tial arts in­struc­tor. At a fun­da­men­tal level of de­fense, if you want to be able to stick it to ’em, it’s best to stick to the ba­sics.

WA R N I N G! The con­cepts shown here are for il­lus­tra­tive pur­poses only. Seek pro­fes­sional train­ing from a rep­utable in­struc­tor be­fore at­tempt­ing any tech­niques dis­cussed or shown in this story.

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