What Type of Cane Should I Use?

The Different Types of Canes

Today, in addition to walking sticks and ski poles, two types of canes are commonly used:

One type of mobility support cane (credit: Wikipedia)

Left: One type of support cane (credit: Wikipedia)

Middle: One type of "probing" cane (credit: Wikipedia)

Right: Using a support cane and a probing cane for outdoor travel (credit: Dona Sauerburger)

The support cane, which provides physical stability. A support cane that is white can identify you as a person who is blind or has low vision.

What I call the probing cane (more commonly called a "white cane" or a "long cane") probes for and locates obstacles in your path of travel.

Long white canes come in two categories: ones that fold and ones that don't. Folding canes, which can be easily collapsed and stored, come in aluminum or graphite models. Graphite canes are lighter and easier to fold and unfold than aluminum ones. While great for travel, folding canes tend to be less sturdy when compared to straight (non-folding) canes and don't provide the same amount of sensory feedback.

A popular straight style cane is made of fiberglass, which is ultra-light, provides lots of sensory feedback, and bends slightly if it slides under a car or similar obstacle.

A Support Cane Should:

  • Be strong enough to support your weight. This usually means that a support cane is not lightweight.
  • Be short enough to rest your hand on top while you hold it close to your body.
  • Have a tip that grips the floor and does not slide.

A Probing Cane ("White Cane" or "Long Cane") Should:

  • Be lightweight so that you can hold and move it in front of you without becoming tired. This usually means that a probing cane is not strong.
  • Be long enough to reach ahead and warn you about obstacles and stairs.
  • Have a tip that can slide easily along the ground.

A support cane and a probing cane are designed differently and serve very different purposes, so the choice of which cane to use will depend on your needs:

If you need a cane to help you know what is on the ground in front of you, it is recommended that you use a probing cane.

  • Please note: If you use a support cane to probe the ground ahead of you, it is usually not possible to reach far enough ahead without leaning forward. This is harmful for your posture and appearance and is also risky and dangerous, particularly when approaching descending stairs. If you miss your footing or lose your balance while you are leaning forward, you are likely to fall forward and tumble down the stairs.

If you can't see well enough to know what is on the ground in front of you and you need a cane for support, you will need two canes.

  • One cane will provide the support you need, and the other will probe ahead of you to scan for obstacles, stairs, and curbs.
  • It may seem awkward and difficult to use two canes, but, with effective orientation and mobility instruction, people of all ages have learned to use two canes correctly and safely.
  • See Support Cane Used with Long "Probing" Cane for more information about using two canes for outdoor travel.

Cane Tips

Different types of cane tips

Left: Cane tips from AmbuTech are now available in a wide variety of styles and functions (credit: AmbuTech)

Right Top: The Bundu Basher cane tip for wilderness travel (credit: Dona Sauerburger)

Right Bottom: Rural travel with the Bundu Basher cane tip and a support cane (credit: Moira Higgerty)

A wide variety of cane tips now provide smoother operation and more durability. Each tip has its pros and cons.

  • Pencil tip. Pros: Good feedback and lightness make it a good choice for people who have problems moving the wrist for long periods of time. Cons: The long, thin tip has a tendency to get stuck in cracks in the sidewalk.
  • Roller tip. Pros: Rolls over cracks in the sidewalk, making for a smoother walk. Cons: Greater weight can add to wrist fatigue; doesn't provide as much feedback to the traveler about small changes in the terrain.
  • Marshmallow tip. Pros: The thick tip won't get stuck in cracks easily. Cons: Heavy; can cause wrist fatigue over time.
  • Metal glide. Pros: Very light; glides easily over cracks.
  • Cane tips have been developed for travel in wilderness areas and farms, such as the "Bundu Basher." For more information about the Bundu Basher cane tip, including photographs, explanations, and ordering information, see Bundu Basher.

Can I use a cane if I also use a wheelchair?

It is possible for you to use a wheelchair and learn how to use a long cane to help navigate obstacles and drop-offs. However, success depends on individual circumstances, such as your type and level of vision loss, overall physical limitations, and chair style. Consult your O&M specialist about whether using a long cane with a wheelchair is right for you.

Alternative mobility devices (AMDs)

Alternative mobility devices have been developed that provide full protection for people who are either unable to use the cane reliably or move it correctly, either because of physical limitations (including difficulty or pain when moving the wrist) or cognitive disabilities.

For more information, see Alternative Mobility Device.

Personal Stories

  • Father James Warnke-Living a Well Integrated Life
    Father Warnke, who was born with retinitis of prematurity and glaucoma, has had a very successful series of careers as mental health counselor and Episcopal priest, to name just a few of his accomplishments.

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