What is the Difference between Nordic Walking & Trekking Poles?
Ah, the perennial question…
Trekking poles are designed to support load, assist climb and are placed in front of the body, while Nordic Walking poles are a tool placed behind the body and are designed specifically to facilitate a workout which includes the upper body.
If you compare the two poles at close range, you will probably notice that the NW pole is significantly lighter in weight. Two key visual differences between the different poles are that Nordic Walking poles have angled rubber pads (paws) to enable the correct plant angle to be achieved and have hand specific, adjustable glove straps, which are essential to enable forward propulsion, while trekking poles have flat rubber pads and ergonomically shaped handles with a loose, band-like strap which exists simply to prevent you dropping the pole. The trekking pole may or may not be spring loaded to help assist load bearing. Other minor differences between the two types of pole may include the size or absence of snow baskets and the shape of the tungsten carbide tip.
While there is a limited amount of crossover (it’s walking, after all), most trekking poles are not suitable for a proper NW workout walk (insufficient propulsion) and high end, carbon NW poles are not suitable for the rigours of trekking (too brittle to take heavy loads repeatedly).
One exception to this rule is the Gabel Fusion, which is a crossover pole designed specifically to cope with the demands of both trekking and Nordic Walking.
How Much Do I Need to Spend on Poles?
The old adage, “you get what you pay for” holds good when it comes to Nordic walking poles. While you don’t need to spend a fortune to get a reliable pole, you do need to consider what you’re going to be using it for.
While a £40 set of adjustable aluminium poles may be entirely adequate for a 9 stone user who covers a leisurely 3 miles each week, they aren’t suitable for a strapping 6’ 2” man who averages 15+ miles per week.
The average Nordic Walker will find something suitable in the £50-£90 range. Read on and bear in mind that you tend to get more features for your money if you opt for fixed length poles.
What’s the Difference between Carbon, Aluminium and Heat Treated or HTS (high tensile strength) Aluminium?
- HTS aluminium or basic grade?
- 100% carbon or combination?
These are all vexed questions, which are best addressed by asking yourself how often you intend to use your poles and how much you want to spend.
The rule is that while carbon offers a “stiffer” and reduced vibration walk, aluminium, especially heat-treated HTS aluminium is more robust and less inclined to break under stress. Therefore, if you’re a bit heavy on your poles, inclined to trip over them or planning high intensity bounding or running workouts, you’re best advised to stick with a strong aluminium pole such as Leki Prestige, whereas experienced high mileage walkers will likely enjoy the cleanness of walking with a high end 100% carbon pole such as Leki Speed Pacer Vario or Excel ALIS Ultimate.
What’s Best – Fixed Length, Adjustable or Vario?
Nordic Walking poles come either in fixed lengths at 5cm intervals ranging between 100cm-130cm (i.e 100cm, 105cm, 110cm, 115cm etc.) or with shafts that are adjustable by means of a locking system, to a any specific length required by a user.
The debate about fixed length or adjustable poles is interminable. For myself, I love the flexibility of adjustable poles, as both an instructor and a walker. Like 4 out of 5 other walkers, I don’t “fit” the 5cm increments available in fixed length poles and walk best when I’m using poles which are adjusted to my exact requirements (112cm). Other walkers report the convenience of having poles which can be adjusted to accommodate irregularities between different sides of the body or restricted shoulder movement. A further point in favour of adjustables over fixed length poles is that they offer a flexibility which allows walkers of less than 5’ 5” in height to adjust their poles to a maximum of 130cm for ski bounding and skating exercises. A higher pole is recommended for use during these activities in order to increase push off when jumping and reduce impact on hamstrings, knees and Achilles tendons.
Those who argue for fixed length poles claim that they’re safer than adjustables and that they vibrate less. Manufacturers such as Leki claim their adjustable poles are designed to be used by walkers weighing up to 140kg. I use adjustable poles with a wide variety of learners and have never had one fail me yet. The key is of course to ensure that they have been adequately tightened before beginning a walk.
I have to agree that there is noticeable vibration in the average adjustable pole, especially if it is a three-piece “traveller” type pole. However, you’ll also find vibration in fixed length aluminium poles. It’s safe to say the most important factor in reducing vibration in a pole is its composition: the more carbon, the less vibration, regardless of whether it’s adjustable or fixed length.
The Leki Vario poles (Flash Vario & Speed Pacer Vario) offer a wonderful compromise: with just 10cm of adjustment available at the top of a carbon shaft, they give a firm, vibration-free walk, whatever the terrain and can be adjusted to your specific needs.
What about Travel Poles?
Travel poles are poles which collapse down sufficiently to allow them to be packed away with standard-sized luggage. As such they make it possible to continue your Nordic Walking regime even in far-flung destinations and are a very useful addition to your kit list, but I’m reluctant to recommend that you purchase a pair of these poles to use as your main set.
Despite their relatively high cost, traveller poles such as Leki Traveller Alu, Leki Traveller Carbon and Gabel Tour XT do not offer the same degree of robustness as their regular counterparts. They are inclined to provide a very noticeable vibration when being planted, which can distract from the pleasure of walking. This is because the shaft is composed of three, rather than one or two pieces.
If you want to walk when abroad and need to fly, you might think about buying the Gabel Stretch or the Leki Walker XS (latter poles available for use up to 115cm). Although marketed as adjustable rather than travel poles, they’re only marginally longer than the real travel poles when collapsed and are a good deal cheaper than all of them. They also doesn’t have the same degree of shake. As aluminium poles which retail at less than £50, they won’t suit large people or in the the case of the Stretch, those who intend using them every day as their main pole but they will suffice for small or light users. Of similar collapsed size, but with the benefit of 30% carbon is the Exel Sport X Adjust.
Straps & Grips
You don’t realise just how important a quick release strap is until you don’t have one. Even if you don’t have gates or stiles to negotiate, being able to free yourself from your poles comes in very handy when your phone goes off or you need to blow your nose.
Fortunately, most well-respected Nordic Walking poles now come with quick release straps, the exception being the Exel Sport X Adjust. In my opinion, the easiest of these to negotiate is the Leki Trigger 3 Shark system (found on mid-high end poles such as Prestige, Instructor, Smart Carbon, Speed Pacer Vario etc), which simply requires you to click a loop into place, but all are very easy to use.
While a standard-sized strap is provided with Gabel, Leki and Exel poles, all three manufacturers also supply large and small sizes, so if your strap doesn’t feel comfortable, consider buying an extra pair of straps.
Pole handles are constructed from plastic and may have a plastic, rubber or cork finger grip. While plastic and rubber are perhaps longer lasting, cork grips are undoubtedly the most comfortable, providing an absorbent, non-slip grip, especially during the hot summer months. All can be replaced when worn.
Pole Tips & Paws
The average Nordic Walking tip system is a piece of plastic with a carbide tungsten metal tip in one form or another. Most Leki and Gabel tips have a blunt tungsten carbide end, while Leki Speed Pacer Vario and all Exel poles have a sharpened spike tip which “bites” the soil that much better for greater propulsion. This tip is covered with a removable rubber pad or “paw” when walking on asphalt or overly soft ground such as mud or soft sand.
What about ultra “fancy” tips?
While the standard tip system described above is perfectly adequate, there are circumstances in which it is an absolute nuisance. Smooth pavements and asphalt often lead to rubber paws slipping, while constantly varying terrain requires interminable swapping between carbide and paws. This can be unpleasant when walking in areas which are very muddy or strewn with animal droppings.
Both Leki and Exel have produced innovations which help walkers work a way around this problem.
Leki’s Silent Spikes look exactly like their Powergrip standard paws when viewed from above, but turn them over and you discover 6 tiny carbide spikes on each sole. These spikes enable walkers to traverse a variety of terrains without removing the paws and without slipping.
- Able to achieve propulsion with paws attached (no need to constantly attach/remove paws)
- Avoids slipping on asphalt.
- Quieter than walking on naked carbide tips on pavements.
- Can be used on a wide variety of poles.
They cost more than twice the price of a pair of replacement carbide tips when they wear out. It might therefore make more economic sense to walk on naked carbide, then replace tips as necessary.
Smart Tips offer an integrated solution to the problem of what to do with dirty paws. Produced by Leki, Smart Tips offer a paw with an integrated carbide tip which is released and retracted by using a lever.
- An end to the conundrum of what to do with a pair of dirty paws.
- You still have to touch the dirty end of your pole in order to release or retract the tip.
- Smart Tips are only available for use with specially designed Leki poles – they can’t be added as an upgrade to standard designs.
This is a really clever innovation from Exel that has left all the other “smart” options standing. The All-Terrain Tip is, like the Leki Smart Tip an integrated tip and paw system, but has a proper spike rather than a blunt tip and above all else, is completely hands-free. To change from paw to spike and vice versa, you simply employ the use of your foot. It’s quick, clean and makes dirty pockets, plastic bags and pad butlers seem pre-historic.
- Completely hands-free system
- Proper spike tip
- Paw doesn’t slip on asphalt
- Quick and simple to use
- Possible to retrofit to entire Exel pole range – buy a cheaper pole and upgrade the tip
- Exel Quick-Lok tip system makes replacement simple
- Can only be used on Exel poles
- Smaller surface area to paw than Leki
Exel Suspension Tip
Ideal for use on ice or when racing on asphalt, the suspension tip is a sharp spike which dispenses with the need for a rubber paw by employing the use of a shock absorber which dampens vibration.
- No need to keep changing paws on varying terrain
- Cost-effective way of achieving vibration-free walking, especially when using poles of less than 100% carbon composition.
- Exel Quick-Lok tip system makes replacement/change simple
- Can only be used on Exel poles
- Will need replacing more frequently than a traditional tip/paw system
- Noisy on asphalt
Regardless of the tip you use, it and your paws will need replacing when they become worn. This is an easy process which you can carry out yourself.
When considering what poles to buy, it’s essential that you research the availability of spare parts.
While your pole shaft will, with proper use last many years, it’s inevitable that other parts will in time need replacing. Paws, tips, straps, even handles all wear out and are (in the case of middle and high end poles) cheaper to replace than consider buying a new set of poles. You can’t do this if you buy an unknown brand. Spare parts for Leki, Gabel and Exel poles are all freely available.
Which Pole Accessories Do I Need?
Integrated gloves, pad butlers, pole lights, paw upgrades…the list of “must have” accessories is endless. None are actually “must haves” – they simply make life easier…sometimes.
For example, pad butlers on the face of it provide an effective solution to the problem of what to do with dirty paws when you’re using the carbide tips on your poles. You simply sit your paw on top of the butler, which holds it on place. Or does it?
Pad butlers work very well all the time your poles are held upright. Unfortunately, that angle changes if you go over a stile, or start using your poles for cool down or MSE exercises. I know I’m not the first Nordic Walker to have crossed a stile, then walked on, oblivious to the fact that one of my paws had slipped off pad butler and into the grass. It’s no fun, having to retrace your steps in order to recover one half of a set of expensive Silent Spikes!
Pole lights are cool, especially if you’re nervous about your footing or being seen by oncoming traffic on roads. I have some and swear by them. However, they are no substitute for a strong headlamp on winter nights.
If you have Leki, Gabel or Exerstrider poles, the only accessory I feel makes a qualitative difference to your walk is a pair of Silent Spikes. If you have Exel poles, invest in a pair of All-Terrain Tips.
OK, I’m Ready to Buy – Where Can I Get Nordic Walking Poles?
Unless you’re fortunate enough to live in a town that hosts one of the handful of mountaineering shops whose owners know their stuff, you are very unlikely to find a set of proper Nordic Walking poles in any high street or shopping mall shop in the UK. Don’t be persuaded to buy poles unless they are one of the brands listed below and meet the specifications I’ve also listed below. As a new sport, very few retailers, both online and offline, fully understand what Nordic Walking actually involves and will often try to sell you poles that are in reality better suited to trekking than Nordic Walking as we know it.
Your Nordic Walking pole needs to be able to cope with repeated loads (so in an ideal world, manufactured from heat treated aluminium, it needs to have hand-specific, adjustable straps, angled removable paws and if an adjustable length pole, needs a reliable locking system. You also need to be able to freely access spare parts to replace worn items.
Reliable pole manufacturers include Leki, Gabel, Swix and Exel, all of which have been manufacturing Nordic Walking poles for years. It is notable that these companies are also manufacturers of ski poles with an international reputation – they are companies who understand their market and have the resources to research and develop their products. If you have mobility and/or hand flexibility issues, you might also want to consider a purchase from the Exerstrider range, which is a specially adapted range of poles
Nordic Walking UK (also trading as Exercise Anywhere) are probably the biggest retailer of Nordic Walking poles in the UK and offer very competitive rates for Gabel, Leki and Exerstrider poles, including a £5.00 discount if having been registered for their Freedom Card, you buy from their website or offline through one of their Delivery Partners (your instructor).
Exel poles are not available via Exercise Anywhere.