Note: This guide applies to downhill/backcountry skiing only – cross country pole choice is quite different and changes depending on the particular discipline.
Don’t let your ski poles be an afterthought! They may not be as exciting and alluring as the latest skis or boots, but for most skiers, beginner or advanced, they still play a critical part in the execution of many fundamental ski techniques. When you think about it, your poles help you to:
Keep your balance and tell your brain where the hill is by providing extra contact points with the ground (a process known as proprioception)
Shift weight correctly and align your body while making turns (particularly in steep terrain)
Keep forward and out of the ‘backseat’
Generate the correct timing and ‘rhythm’ (pardon the pun) you need to stay in control of your turns and speed
Connect the upper portion of your body to movement on the hill in a physical way
So, you can see choosing the right pole is important – but where to begin?
Length is by far the most important aspect of choosing a ski pole. Before worrying about construction, grips, baskets, adjustability, steeze factor etc. you must first ensure you have the correct length.
Poles generally come in size intervals of 5cm, which is small enough to suit the majority of skiers.
To check pole length, the first thing to do is flip the pole upside-down (tip up) and hold it just beneath the basket with the grip touching the ground. The angle at your elbow should be 90 degrees – in other words, your forearm will be parallel with the ground.
If you don’t have a pole to measure up with, take a tape measure while holding your arm at a right angle (as if holding a pole, forearm parallel with the ground, upper arm parallel with your torso) and measure the distance to the ground from the top of your hand (thumb).
It is not uncommon to go slightly shorter than normal however, particularly with bump/mogul/park skiers. Contemporary thought is that going with a slightly shorter pole helps get your weight forward and keeps you out of the backseat, especially helpful in steeper terrain. However, there is some debate over this so it is up to you to decide on your personal preference. If unsure, go standard size.
Generally, most grips will suit any hand size, with some being ergonomically moulded to fit and others being straight grips like on a BMX bike. Grips are generally scaled up for men’s poles, and scaled down for women’s and children’s poles. If you are concerned with grips, coming into the shop is the best idea.
The pole shaft is commonly made of one of two materials – aluminium or carbon. Aluminium poles are generally cheaper and are highly durable, but heavier than carbon. Carbon poles on the other hand are more expensive and lighter, but can suffer durability issues so they do need to be looked after. Pole stiffness can vary depending on the construction material and thickness, but unless you are really overdoing your pole plants this should not be too noticeable.
Baskets generally come in two varieties; standard for resort skiing, and powder for backcountry and deep snow.
Standard baskets are smaller and lighter, and prevent the pole sinking too far in most conditions. The lighter weight means the poles have a lower swing weight and are easier to control.
Powder baskets are of a large diameter and are designed to prevent (as much as possible) the pole sinking too far in deep snow. They tend to be slightly heavier, and so should only be used when necessary.
Another basket you may find is the conical shaped basket, and these feature only on race poles. They are designed to be aerodynamic and prevent the pole getting stuck on gates.
Some poles feature adjustable shafts. Generally this is recommended for backcountry skiers as they are designed to be used in both uphill and downhill travel. The locking mechanisms generally come in one of two types:
A Pin-Hole system uses a metal pin that locks in through a hole. These poles are less adjustable (generally the adjustment points are 5cm apart) but essentially will never move under pressure.
The other system in use is the friction-locking style that grips the pole at the joints of each telescoping section and uses friction to prevent movement. They are infinitely adjustable, but can be more prone to slippage during use.