The stem cell niche provides a regulatory microenvironment for cells as diverse as totipotent embryonic stem cells to cancer stem cells (CSCs) which exhibit stem cell-like characteristics and have the capability of regenerating the bulk of tumor cells while maintaining self-renewal potential. The transmembrane glycoprotein CD44 is a common component of the stem cell niche and exists as a standard isoform (CD44s) and a range of variant isoforms (CD44v) generated though alternative splicing. CD44 modulates signal transduction through post-translational modifications as well as interactions with hyaluronan, extracellular matrix molecules and growth factors and their cognate receptor tyrosine kinases. While the function of CD44 in hematopoietic stem cells has been studied in considerable detail, our knowledge of CD44 function in tissue-derived stem cell niches remains limited. Here we review CD44s and CD44v in both hematopoietic and tissue-derived stem cell niches, focusing on their roles in regulating stem cell behavior including self-renewal and differentiation in addition to cell-matrix interactions and signal transduction during cell migration and tumor progression. Determining the role of CD44 and CD44v in normal stem cell, CSC and (pre)metastatic niches and elucidating their unique functions could provide tools and therapeutic strategies for treating diseases as diverse as fibrosis during injury repair to cancer progression.