Nordic walking versus trekking

I’m often asked how Nordic walking is any different from trekking with poles, given that they are both a form of walking with sticks. There’s undoubtedly a crossover between two, but there are key differences in the design of the poles and how they are intended to be used.

Nordic walking is primarily intended as a fitness activity, adding poles to regular walking to increase fitness, strengthen posture and provide a whole range of other health benefits. To that end, the poles are designed to be angled backwards so that you can continue to walk in a natural way with a full arm swing. The pole handles are smooth and slender with a glove-type strap attached to facilitate the specific Nordic walking technique, allowing you to slide your hand along the grip and let go of the handle entirely, pushing through the strap so that you can swing your arm far behind your body. This increases the health and fitness benefits. Even the paws for covering the tip of the pole when walking on tarmac and other hard surfaces are slanted to ensure the correct pole angle and arm swing can be maintained whatever the terrain.

In contrast, trekking poles have a chunky grip, often with finger grooves and a ledge at the bottom to rest your hand on; this encourages your hand into a fixed position while you walk. They also have an adjustable looped strap which, depending on how you use it, can offer support for your hand while walking as well as keeping the poles attached to your wrist, should you let go for any reason. There’s no angled paw at the bottom, just a rounded stopper.

Using poles is a long-established way of supporting you on a long walk or trek and making it easier to traverse rocky ground and up and down hills. But there’s no particular technique for this and trekking poles are not designed to strengthen your posture or provide any specific health benefits. If you look around you, you will see that many people only use one pole and those who use two poles generally place them in front and in an upright position. The grip design encourages this vertical plant, but it means that your elbows are always bent, mostly at a right angle, and it’s impossible to swing your arm to a full extension and in a natural way. Consequently, you are walking with an inhibited upper body action and arm swing. Even if you did angle your trekking poles backwards to allow your arms to swing naturally, it’s simply not possible to extend your arm behind your body because the loop strap doesn’t allow you to maintain con- trol of the pole if you let go of the grip. The obvious impact of using just one trekking pole is that your body is not supported in a balanced way, and you’ll be working one side of your upper body harder than the other, which is likely to have a knock-on effect throughout your body.

While you can’t Nordic walk effectively using trekking poles, you can trek with Nordic walking poles. Done correctly, this will greatly boost your walking style, provide extra propulsion and enable you to trek long distances with good posture. I love using my Nordic walking poles on long hikes and have been able to complete some seriously challenging walks without blisters or pain. Where there are particularly difficult rocky or downhill sections, I just unclip my straps so that I’m not attached to the pole.

Trekking poles have been around for decades and are well loved and highly regarded as a walking aid, even though they don’t facilitate a natural walking pattern. As the popularity of Nordic walking and the understanding of what it has to offer has grown, I have noticed the design of trekking poles changing. They are becoming lighter and the grips more ergonomically shaped. Some trekking poles and most trail running poles now have the Nordic walking style strap. This is good news as it increases the versatility of trekking poles and provides the opportunity to overlay the Nordic walking technique on trekking.