Ski poles provide balance and propulsion to downhill skiing. For Nordic skiing, poles are critical tools. In the backcountry, poles are needed for climbing as much as descending—even snowboarders may use poles to skin up mountains on splitboards.
Because poles vary dramatically from one discipline to another, this guide is organized by type of skiing.
Poles for downhill skiing are used mostly in pushing around the base area and in initiating and finishing turns while zipping downhill. In downhill, poles are not completely necessary and people, especially beginners and park riders, regularly ski without them.
Yet they are accepted as standard gear and the vast majority of skiers do use poles for every outing. There are several features that set one pole apart from another.
Length: To order ski poles online, have a friend measure the height of your arm with your elbow bent at a 90-degree angle. Poles are sized in two-inch (or five centimeter) increments. If you get the opportunity to size yourself for downhill ski poles, do so while wearing thick-soled shoes or ski boots. Turn the pole upside-down and grasp the pole just below the basket. When the handle is resting on the floor, your elbow should be at about a 90 degree angle.
Weight: Most people want the lightest downhill pole that is also sufficiently strong. Like many types of outdoor gear, light weight means more money. If you’re just starting out, aluminum poles are a great place to start and are moderately priced. Lighter poles will generally cost more and the added benefits will make little difference to the novice skier.
Baskets: These keep the pole from sinking deeply into the snow. Most downhill poles come with a useful, generalist basket. As a rule of thumb, bigger baskets are better for deep powder. Small baskets are fine on packed conditions.
Straps: Most poles come with an adjustable nylon strap that keeps the pole attached to your wrist. Very inexpensive poles may use plastic straps and some high-end poles may come with padded straps or unique design features.
Grips: Plastic, cork and rubber are common materials used on downhill ski poles. Reputable brands choose top-quality materials for their grips. If you’re reading this guide then you will be happy with any of the materials. As you gain experience and try out various poles you may form a personal preference based on comfort.
Flex: Downhill poles are quite stiff but will bend a little bit during hard plants and falls.
Strength: Downhill poles take a beating in all kinds of scenarios. They can last for many years under great conditions, but one hard fall can bend or snap a pole. The sturdier the better.
Materials: Aluminum, fiberglass and carbon fiber are the most common materials for downhill ski poles. Aluminum is a great material as it is inexpensive and effective. Carbon Fiber is expensive but very light and is often blended with other materials in high-end poles. Pure fiberglass is probably the last choice of the three. While inexpensive, it does not offer many advantages over aluminum and breaks easier.
Telescoping and multi-use: Some downhill skiers use poles designed for multiple disciplines when alpine skiing. Some trekking poles and backcountry poles with adjustable lengths come with removable baskets. These poles can be great for downhill skiing, but usually cost more and are a little more fragile.
Poles are a big deal in Nordic skiing. When racing or even just cruising at marathon distances, every pole plant counts.
We spoke with Lowell McCoy, a PSIA Level Three ski instructor in Breckenridge, to help you select a good pole for cross country skiing.
Straps: These make a big difference in Nordic skiing. The strap should fit so that the skier does not need to grip the pole. They should be able to hold the pole with just a thumb and forefinger. Modern poles wrap around the hand, usually with a Velcro closure. They should be fit with gloves you use for cross country skiing.
The straps on inexpensive poles are known as biathlon straps and provide minimal support. They are simple wrist straps that are easy to put on and take off.
Fit: For skate skiing, poles should be about 9/10 of your height. Convert your height into centimeters. Multiply that by .9 to find an appropriate height. For classic skiing, in which skis remain parallel during strides, multiply your height by .85. A more experienced skier may go with a little longer pole.
“The reason for that is that inexperienced skiers will stand up to straight and not bend their knees enough,” McCoy said. The length is measured from the tip of the pole to the end of the handle. The functional length is a little shorter.
Weight: Weight and cost go hand in hand. “In a marathon ski race, I’ll probably lift those poles 7,000 times over three hours,” McCoy says. “They need to be light. There are certain things you just can’t do with a heavy pole.”
Baskets: A sprint pole may have no more than a square inch of contact for a hard packed trail. Average baskets for groomed conditions are about two square inches. Much larger baskets are available for use in soft conditions and off groomed trails.
Shaft Materials: The least expensive poles are aluminum and fiberglass. Carbon fiber adds price and reduces weight. Solid carbon fiber is the most expensive and best. Most people are well served by a low to mid level pole.
Flex: This is important for bigger, stronger skiers. Elite skiers will flex a pole and the pole is designed to take it. The down side to flex is lost energy. A really light pole that is stiff will cost more money. There is no industry standard for measuring flex, yet each manufacturer will discuss their stiffness and weight in sales and marketing materials. Cheaper, fiberglass poles flex more.
Grips: Grips are most commonly made from cork or rubber. They are sometimes made from plastic. Experienced skiers prefer cork or rubber over plastic because they are easier to hold onto with snow in the air.
Plastic: While the slipperiest option, plastic grips will last forever and are less expensive.
Cork: Cork grips are breathable in warm weather, while still insulating your hands in the cold. It takes some time to break them in, but once you do they fit the mold of your hand.
Rubber: Rubber grips do not retain moisture and they are the best insulator. They also are best for reducing vibration, so it’s a good choice for high impact activities like mountain climbing.