How To Buy Ski Poles

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.


Downhill

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.


Nordic

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.