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Buying the best walking stick, walking frame or rollator

How to choose the best walking stick for you. Plus, the benefits and drawbacks of walking frames – or Zimmer frames – and wheeled walkers for those who need a little more support
Which?Editorial team

Choosing a walking stick

Walking sticks are useful if you still have reasonably good mobility, but would like something to give you a little extra confidence and balance. There are many different types, from folding walking sticks to those with added seats.

Metal and carbon fibre sticks tend to be stronger than wooden ones, and some are height adjustable, whereas wooden walking sticks will need to be cut to the correct height. 

It’s very important that your walking stick is the right height for you, otherwise it can be potentially unsafe. If the stick is too high, it won’t give you proper support. If it’s too low, you’ll be forced to stoop. 

Follow these steps to get the right fit:

  1. Wear your normal walking shoes
  2. Place the base of the stick on a flat floor, around 15cm from the side of your foot
  3. Stand in a natural, upright position
  4. Let your arms hang by your side with a normal, slight bend at the elbow
  5. The top of the stick should be level with your wrist joint.

Different handles will suit different people – some will be preferable for those with painful joints or a weaker grip, for example – so it’s a good idea to try out different types before settling on one.

Different types of walking stick

Folding walking sticks

A folding walking stick can be discreetly carried in a bag or shopping trolley, or left in the car. Look for a model that’s light, easy to fold and unfold, and reasonably compact when folded. The unfolded stick should feel robust and the handle comfortable to grip.

Tripod and tetrapod walking sticks

If you need a little more support, you could try a tripod (three-footed) or tetrapod (four-footed) walking stick. The feet are spaced apart to give the walking stick a wider base. The neck of the stick is either straight or swan-necked; finding the right style of neck can help you distribute your weight most effectively.

One advantage of tripod and tetrapod walking sticks is they can be left standing up by themselves, so you’re less likely to have to bend down to pick it up from the floor.

Walking sticks with folding seats

Walking longer distances can be tiring and can also put a strain on sensitive muscles or joints. A walking stick that has a foldaway seat (sometimes known as folding seat canes or stick seats) can be a useful aid, allowing you to sit down for a rest when needed. Look for one that’s height adjustable.

Walking stick ferrules

All walking sticks and walking frames without wheels have rubber feet on the legs, known as ferrules. Check the ferrules regularly to ensure they haven’t become worn or damaged. Replacements are available in different diameters from hardware shops, chemists, mobility shops and online. To stay safe, replace them regularly.

What are walking frames and rollators?

If you need a bit more support than a walking stick can offer, there are two main types of equipment that can help:

  • Walking frames without wheels – commonly referred to as ‘zimmer frames’ (although Zimmer is actually a brand name)
  • Wheeled walkers – known as rollators or mobility walkers.

These can be a good option if you need a little extra confidence with balance or to reduce effort. However, if you need more support or something to bear your weight, you may want to consider other options, such as a mobility scooter or wheelchair.

How to choose a walking frame or Zimmer frame

The most stable walking frames have four legs and four ferrules (rubber feet), although models with three legs are available, too.

Walking frames without wheels require reasonable strength in your arms, as you have to lift the frame every time you step forward – although, most are constructed to be very lightweight. They’re usually height adjustable and, as with all walking aids, setting the frame at the correct height is very important.

A wider base will generally be more stable than a narrow one, but wider bases may be trickier to manoeuvre around the home, such as through doorways.

Folding walking frames

Folding walking frames without wheels can be packed into the boot of a car or tucked into the corner of a room when not in use (potentially useful in smaller homes). However, because these walking frames have several joints, they may not feel quite as sturdy as non-folding ones.

Two-wheeled walking frames

These walking frames are very similar to a Zimmer, but they have wheels on the two front legs and the back legs have rubber feet. They’re used by lifting the two back feet clear of the ground as you move forward, requiring less arm strength than a non-wheeled walker, where the whole frame has to be lifted up. The back legs act as a brake when your weight bears down through the frame.

This type of wheeled walker tends to be suited to use around the home. They come in a variety of widths and folding versions are available, too

Rollators explained

A walker that only has wheels is usually known as a rollator. They generally come with three or four wheels and are more suited to getting around outside the home. Four-wheeled rollators are more common than three-wheeled versions. Some people find the three-wheeled models easier to turn, but they can also feel less stable.

Rollators are generally bulkier than other walkers and have large wheels that cope better on uneven surfaces. While other walkers require a kind of stop/start motion, rollators allow for a more fluent walking rhythm. 

Rollators have air-filled tyres and are easier to manoeuvre than two-wheeled walkers. Some models also have an integrated seat and shopping basket. Most rollators can be folded. However, there are also smaller walkers with three or four wheels, designed primarily for indoor use.

All wheeled walkers have brakes, so it’s important that you can use them and be in control of your walking speed. Lever-style brakes are intuitive to use (similar to squeezing the brakes on a bicycle), but pain or stiffness in the fingers can make this difficult to do. Press-down brakes can suit people with arthritic hands who don’t need to lean on their frame too much. But they can be more challenging for people with weak wrists.

If you need more help to get around than a walking frame can realistically provide, read our guide to choosing a wheelchair.

Where to get walking aids

If you're interested in buying or renting walking aids or other mobility aids, the best place to start is usually to discuss the options with your GP, or with an occupational therapist or physiotherapist.

Fall detectors and alarms

If you’re concerned about the possibility of suffering a fall, you may want to consider wearing a fall detector. These devices sense if you’ve had a fall and can send an alert to a call centre, carer or family member.

Read more about fall detectors and other personal alarms.