Finding the Best Ski Poles for You: A Buying Guide
Whether you’re buying your first set of ski poles or you’re looking to upgrade the set you have been using for some time now, it’s important that you are able to make an informed buying decision. That can be tough to do today, thanks to the wide range of styles and designs on the market, as well as the additional features available with various sets of skiing poles. We’ve assembled this buying guide to help clear the air and point you in the direction of the most essential considerations when buying a pair of poles.
Why Are Ski Poles Necessary?
We’ll start the discussion off with what might be the most basic of all questions. Why do you need poles in the first place? Snowboarders don’t use poles, so why do skiers need them? Is it just to push you along until you get to the lifts? Actually, there’s much more to ski poles than many people assume, even seasoned skiers who have lots of experience under their belts.
Ski poles do provide propulsion to start your downhill run. They also help you get to the lift. They’re important for staying stable during certain activities, too. However, they’re a vital part of many forms of skiing. For instance, in alpine skiing, you’ll be called on to navigate tight areas and moguls, and your use of the poles will generate the timing and rhythm that you need. In cross-country skiing, they provide tempo and propulsion.
In short, ski poles are more than what they might appear at first glance. They’re important parts of your kit that no skier should be without.
Now that we’ve explored why they’re important, it’s time to take a deeper dive into the topic.
General Types of Poles
When you think of ski poles, how many types come to mind? If you’re like most skiers, you can think of only one – general use. However, there are actually three types that you should know. The type of pole used also touches on the activity involved, as well.
General Use: General use poles are usually labeled as “all-mountain” poles. They’re all-around good performers in a number of different situations. They’re usually outfitted with standard baskets and grips, and are widely used in recreational skiing.
Racing: Racing ski poles are styled differently from the other two. The handles are designed to protect your hands from starting gates, as well as to provide better aerodynamics on your run. They’re narrower in diameter, and ultra-lightweight in design, as well. However, they tend to be more expensive than other types of poles, and are usually not necessary unless you’re getting into competitions.
Powder: Powder poles are designed for cross-country use, and have wider baskets that help prevent your poles from sinking too deep into the snow. In contrast, mud baskets you’ll find on poles designed for backcountry use are narrower and usually thicker in order to stand up to abuse like knocking into tree trunks or rocks.
While there are three types of poles, you’ll find that there are other factors that go into making one a better choice for your needs. For instance, a powder pole outfitted with a mud basket offers different capabilities. Construction material choices also affect your use experience.
The material used to construct ski poles has many different impacts. Weight is certainly one of them, but there’s also durability, rigidity versus flexibility, longevity, and more. You’ll find four primary materials in use within the ski industry for pole construction and we’ll explore them all below.
Aluminum – One of the most common materials for ski pole construction today is aluminum. All but one of the poles in our list used aluminum for at least some of the shaft. There are many reasons for this. Aluminum will not rust like ferrous metals (steel, for instance), and it is far, far lighter than other metals. It is affordable and widely available, as well. When an aluminum pole is bent out of shape, it can often be bent back, rather than breaking or needing to be replaced.
Fiberglass – Fiberglass ski poles are not as common as aluminum ski poles. In fact, there are none on our list. That is not because the material is inferior. Actually, fiberglass can be one of the more durable choices on the market. It’s also pretty lightweight and cost-effective. However, it does not hold up well to knocks and bumps, and can crack if abused. With that being said, it’s far more flexible than aluminum, which can provide benefits.
Carbon Fiber – Carbon fiber is the newest material on offer for ski pole construction. It’s super strong, super light, and super durable in most applications. It also delivers natural flexibility under lighter pressure without breaking. However, there are some drawbacks here. Carbon fiber is more expensive than other materials, and it can also shatter under more extreme conditions, or may splinter and break the way fiberglass can.
Composite – Finally, we have composite materials. Basically, these ski poles combine more than one shaft material to achieve benefits that cannot be obtained with a single material alone. We have one such pole on our list that uses 50% carbon fiber and 50% aluminum to achieve an excellent strength to flexibility ratio. You’ll find other material composites on the market, as well.
Weight is a significant consideration for all skiers, and this is due to a couple of reasons. First, you’ll be carrying your poles with you pretty much the entire time you’re on the slopes. Second, you’ll be using your poles for a significant portion of your ski day, and the heavier they are, the harder they become to use over time. Repeated lifting will tire your arm, and what seems like a light pole in the beginning becomes an object of torture before you’re done. Finally, there’s the fact that greater weight affects your speed. If you’re a speed skier, lighter poles are definitely what you want.
However, you don’t necessarily want to use the lightest pole that you can find. Usually, weight is a function of material and size/thickness. So, lighter poles are usually narrower and made of materials like fiberglass that might reduce weight but can suffer from durability issues. It is important that you balance weight with durability and strength. All of the ski poles on our list offer a good balance between these two factors.
Solid vs. Adjustable
You no doubt noticed that some of the options we covered were adjustable ski poles, while others were solid ski poles. Is there really a difference between the two beyond personal preference? Actually, yes, there are differences and they should factor into your purchase decision.
With a solid pole, you have a single, rigid structure every time you plant. It’s stable and predictable. This makes solid poles a good option for those who tend to stick to groomed areas of the park. With an adjustable/telescoping pole, you have the ability to adjust the length to meet your requirements, whether you’re going downhill or up. This makes adjustable poles better choices for those who prefer to head out of bounds, touring, and similar uses.
With that being said, there are some considerations to be made when buying an adjustable ski pole. For instance, the locking mechanism must be high quality and dependable. With an inferior lock, there’s a chance that the pole will collapse when you plant it. There’s also the possibility that the lock will allow the pole to slowly slide in on itself, collapsing over time, as it were.
All of the adjustable ski poles on our list feature strong locks and are made by top-tier brands in the industry, so collapse is not something you should need to worry about.
Pole length is one of the more difficult things to determine, because your ideal length changes depending on whether you’re going uphill or downhill. You’ll want a shorter pole for going downhill and a longer one for up. But what about park skiers? What about ski tricks?
Length plays a major role in overall fit, so we’re going to combine the two and offer some tips on fitting and sizing your pole depending on what you want to do with it.
Tips for Fitting and Sizing: To determine if a pole is the right size, hold the pole upside down. Your hand should be just below the basket. Make sure that your elbow is at a 90-degree angle. If it is, then the pole fits. If it is less than 90, then the pole is too long for you. If it’s more than 90, you need to choose a longer pole.
With that being said, you will likely want a shorter pole if you’re going to spend time in the park, simply because shorter poles are easier to handle. This presents less risk of you snagging your pole on an obstacle, such as a halfpipe.
An optional sizing method is to repeat the elbow maneuver we described above, but rather than sticking with the pole that leaves the handle flat on the ground, swap for one that’s a size shorter. Why do this? Some experts have found that it helps ensure that they cross over their skis with their body, as well as in changing edges and even in maintaining your balance forward during mogul skiing.
Saying that, skiers going for cross-country will want longer poles, and backcountry skiers, while they’ll want to avoid hitting rocks and trees, often benefit from longer poles, too.
Reading through our ski pole reviews, you probably noticed that the grips varied to an extent. Some were pretty basic, while others were highly sculpted with ergonomic curves. Some used a rubber-like material, while others used a combination of two materials. Does grip really matter here? Yes, it does, but you have more leeway than with other aspects of pole design.
The best rule of thumb here is to choose a pole with a grip that fits your hand well and that feels comfortable to hold. Don’t let yourself get distracted by other features or additional functions built into the handle. The primary consideration here is your ability to hold the grip as you’re skiing.
You will also want to consider the type of gloves that you wear. If you wear fingered gloves, then you’ll want to go with a more sculpted grip. If you tend to wear mitten-style gloves, lighter finger groves will work better for you.
Grip size is also a consideration, particularly for those with smaller hands. If your hand width is smaller than average, it might be worth considering either poles made for children or those made for women. The average men’s pole will have larger grips that may make them harder to use. With that being said, because women’s poles often have smaller diameter grips, they may not be the right fit for all female skiers.
When it comes to grip material, rubber is usually the most comfortable. Plastic is used, but it can become slick with melted snow and it is not as easily gripped as rubber or rubber-like materials. A couple of the model we reviewed on our list of the best ski poles for 2019 used dual-density foam instead of rubber or plastic.
Straps are supposed to do one thing – help you keep a hold of your poles if you accidentally let go of the handle. In that sense, just about any type of strap will be fine. Most of the ones on the market today are made from nylon webbing and feature a relatively wide opening so they will fit over your ski glove. Most of the ones we’ve reviewed are adjustable so that you can get them over your glove, then cinch the loop tighter for more security.
One handy feature you might want to consider, particularly if you’ll be skiing a lot, is a strap release. Some poles offer straps that connect to the grip by a fabric loop, and a release button built into the handle so you can get your hand free without having to bother with adjusting the strap, sliding it over your glove, and then reversing the process when you want to put it back on.
Another consideration here is safety. During a fall, poles attached to you by straps can become safety hazards. To get around this issue, some companies offer a breakaway style of strap. It allows convenience when you’re skiing, but will pull away from the handle during an accident.
Just above the tip of your ski pole, you’ll find a basket. All of them have one, although they vary in style and design. For all poles, the point of the basic is to ensure that you do not go too deep when you plant. However, different skiing styles require different types of baskets. There are a few ways that these differences manifest.
Wider baskets help to catch your pole better before it plunges deep into the powder. You’ll find these primarily on powder poles. Most general use poles use standard baskets, which are smaller than powder baskets and are designed for use on well-groomed slopes. There are also mud baskets available for other needs.
If you anticipate taking on different types of skiing and don’t want to buy multiple sets of ski poles, the best option is to purchase a set that allows you to swap out your baskets. Usually, you’ll simply slide the old one off and the new one on, and you’re good to go.
Check out this related article on the best ski and snowboard rack
Skiing Style and Area
While all of the things we have discussed so far will play into your ultimate purchase decision, your preferred type of skiing and the area in which you’ll be active will play perhaps the largest role. Simply put, your intended use will really affect your purchase more than anything else.
All Around General Use – Not sure what your terrain might be? Want something that will perform well in just about all situations? Go with a solid shaft aluminum, composite, or carbon fiber pole. Make sure that you can swap out the baskets, though, to match the terrain at hand. Note that tool-free swapping is preferred.
Park – If you’ll be heading to a terrain park more often than not, you’ll want to choose a shorter pole with high strength. Standard baskets will be more than enough here. Our vote is for an aluminum pole, as fiberglass and carbon fiber can splinter and break.
Groomed Runs – If you’ll be skiing at the average resort and headed down a groomed run, you’ll want a solid pole (not adjustable) with a standard basket. We recommend aluminum, but composite will also work.
Advanced Runs – For those who want to take on some of the more serious runs out there (that are still groomed), you’ll need essentially the same pole as someone on a standard run, but you might want to think about carbon fiber for the additional flexibility and weight reduction.
Backcountry/Touring/Out of Bounds – For skiers looking to get off the beaten path, the better option is going to be an adjustable pole with a powder basket. However, if you anticipate lots of trees where snow cover is thinner, mud baskets might be the better option. Look for carbon fiber poles for reduced weight.
Common Questions and Answers
We’ve covered a lot about ski poles, but chances are good that you still have a few questions. We’ll dedicate the last portion of this guide to answering those ski pole FAQs.
Does the basket type really matter?
Yes, you really do need to make sure you’re using the right type of basket for your ski activity, particularly if you’re on deep powder.
Do breakaway safety straps/self-releasing safety straps really make a difference?
The problem with wearing your pole strap is that if the pole becomes trapped, so are you. It can also be problematic in the event that you take a spill. Breakaway straps/safety straps are designed to pull away from the handle under moderate pressure and should be considered, although they’re not a necessity.
Is there one construction material that is better than another?
Not really, all of the materials have their pros and cons. Aluminum is usually the best option for the widest range of needs, though, as it is not as fragile as carbon fiber and fiberglass, can often be bent back if damaged, and aluminum poles are pretty affordable.
What are the differences between men’s, women’s, and children’s poles?
There are several differences, primarily in length, diameter, grip size, and weight. Generally, men’s poles are longer, heavier, and wider than others.
How are ski poles measured?
In most instances, unless the manufacturer states otherwise, the pole is measured from the tip of the grip to the end of the bottom tip.
Whether you’re new to skiing or you’re looking to change things up with a different type, ski poles are a vital part of the equation. They’re not just for propulsion. They play an essential role in you being able to perform at your peak, and they also touch on other aspects, such as safety. However, there is no one-size-fits-all option here. It’s important that you make an informed choice when it comes to buying your ski poles.