How to Find the Perfect Ski Poles for You
Ski expert Conor Doyle explains everything you need to know about this oft-forgotten piece of ski equipment.
Everyone knows that you need skis and boots to get out on the mountain. Most know bindings are a must, too, even if they aren’t as interesting as the planks we attach them to. But there is one piece of gear that most never think about before they get on the lift: poles. The oft-forgotten, rarely-replaced stepchild of your ski setup.
As long as the poles are straight and in one piece, they are all the same, right? Well, even though they might get you down the slopes in one piece, that doesn’t mean they're the best fit for you. To find that, we need to look at a few different things. The following tips will help you make sure that the poles you choose are perfect for you. Make sure you read through everything below before you buy a new set of ski poles!
The length of your ski poles can make your day easier, or it can be a constant reminder that the poles aren’t right for you. While there are lots of different reasons to have slightly longer or shorter poles, the size chart below is a good guide to use to ensure that you are buying poles in the right size:
Like I said, there are some reasons why you might want poles to be slightly longer or shorter than the recommended size. For example, you can size down two inches or so if you are going to be doing lots of park skiing. This is because shorter poles are easier to keep out of the way when throwing tricks or hitting rails. Others might choose to go with a longer pole if they know they like to really plant their poles in every turn. If you find yourself on a lot of flat ground, maybe traversing from one run to another, longer poles are a great pick! Cross-country ski poles also tend to be much longer than alpine poles.
One more unique type of pole is the adjustable-length ski pole. These are made for backcountry skiers who need a shorter pole as they climb uphill and a standard-length pole as they descend. These tend to be more expensive but are VERY helpful when you are in the backcountry.
Maybe you have poles right now but aren’t sure what size they are or if they are right for you. Thankfully, we have a test to see if your poles really are the perfect size for you!
While standing on hard ground (maybe a living room or garage floor) and wearing shoes or ski boots, turn your pole upside down. Holding the pole below the basket (not at the very tip), place the grip on the ground. If your elbow makes a nice 90-degree angle, you have the right general fit!
There are three main materials that make up most of the skis on the market: aluminum, carbon fiber, and composite. All three have their pros and cons, but depending on how you like to ski, there is definitely a right fit for you!
Aluminum ski poles are the most commonly found on the market today. These poles are lightweight and sturdy enough that any recreational skier should be able to keep a pair for years without any issues. Aluminum is a material that is more likely to bend than snap, which can be your saving grace if you know you may take your fair share of falls! The best part about aluminum poles is the price. These are some of the most affordable poles on the market while still being light and durable. There is, of course, a range of quality and build among aluminum poles, but these are the perfect material for the day-to-day recreational skier.
Carbon-fiber ski poles are the next step up from aluminum. With additional strength and durability, plus lighter weight, these poles are made for those who are serious about their skiing and prioritize a pole that is lightweight and durable. These tend to be more expensive than aluminum poles, but they offer the benefits that come from a bombproof pole. If you are rocking carbon poles, there is no need to worry about whether you might need to buy poles next year—these things will last you well into the future.
Composite ski poles are newer in the ski industry. These are ski poles that are made from a mix of materials like aluminum, fiberglass, and carbon fiber. This means that they have a mix of features from all of the different materials! That comes with some pros and cons though. For example, composite poles usually have added shock absorption to help absorb more energy when skiing on hardpack snow, but the downside of this is that the composite materials tend to make these poles more prone to snapping instead of just bending. In terms of cost, these tend to fall between the price of aluminum and full carbon fiber poles, but they can vary widely depending on what the poles are made of in the composition mix!
Snow baskets are the circles that sit just above the pole tips at the bottom of your ski pole. They have one dedicated purpose: to keep your pole from breaking too deeply through the surface of the snow. So simply put—the bigger the basket, the less likely the poles are to sink through the snow.
Baskets are going to be the simplest part of your ski-pole choosing process. That’s because you can always change them! That’s right, baskets are almost always interchangeable. Most poles come with standard, mid-sized baskets attached. These are meant for most on-piste or groomed runs at a resort. If you are lucky, the pair you choose may also come with powder baskets. These are going to be even larger baskets, and these should be used when you think you may be in deep, fluffy snow. The larger footprint of the powder basket helps to keep your poles on top of the soft snow—working in a similar way to a snowshoe—spreading the weight over a larger area to stay afloat!
Choosing a grip for your pole largely relies on personal preference. Since the grip is what you will be in contact with whenever you hold your pole, there is one thing you need to be sure of—that it feels comfortable in your hand!
Grips come in lots of different shapes, sizes, and materials. Often, pole grips are made of rubber or foam. These rubber grips are durable and often are shaped so that there are placements for each of your fingers. These can feel great if you are a glove-wearer but odd with a mitten.
On the other hand, foam grips tend to be on the smoother side, with fewer contours to conform to your hand. These can be great if you are prone to wearing really thick gloves or always go for a mitten. One advantage of these less-burly foam grips is that they tend to make the overall pole lighter. This doesn’t make a difference to everyone, but to those who will be spending all day with them in their hands, it can certainly help.
One other material that grips are made from is cork. These cork grips tend to come on higher-end poles and are a favorite of weight-conscious, high-level skiers. This is because of their light weight and customized feel. Cork-gripped poles are something that only the most serious skiers should be looking at, as they really are a more specialized perk!
One final thing you might notice with pole grips is that some are longer than others. Grips that are more than six inches long are designed so that your hand can move up and down the ski pole, depending on what kind of terrain you are on. These grips are meant for backcountry skiers who choose not to use an adjustable pole or will be climbing very steep ascents. The larger grip allows them to quickly "shorten" the pole by simply sliding their hand down the grip!
Ski-pole wrist straps are the key, aside from grips, to keeping you attached to your poles. Their main purpose is to make sure that your poles don’t go anywhere, even if you let go of the grips!
There are a lot of differences across straps that do, more or less, the same job. Most are made of nylon and have simple loop straps—this will work for nearly all skiers. Often these loops have a buckle on them to allow a skier to make the strap larger or smaller, depending on their hand size. You want to make sure that the strap is not so tight that you can't get your hand out easily, but also not so loose that it slides off accidentally.
Some more advanced straps do come with features like quick releases to separate from the poles themselves. Other specialty-shaped straps are built to form around a skier’s hand. These quick-release straps are great for very high-level skiers and backcountry skiers who may find themselves in a situation where they want to separate from their poles quickly, usually during a crash in dangerous terrain. On the other hand, specialty-formed straps are usually made for ski racers and other high-level riders. These poles are much more expensive and are not necessary unless you are racing or skiing at a very high level.
The big thing to remember when you are trying different poles is to make sure the strap is easy to get both on and off your hand. Make sure to try your poles on with gloves or mittens! This will be how you use the poles on the mountain, so they need to be easy on and off with the extra bulk of a glove or mitten on your hand.
To try on a ski-pole strap, simply slide your hand through the bottom of the strap and grasp the grip of the pole with the strap resting in your palm. This ensures your pole can’t fall off in the event of a fall. But make sure you can slide your hand out easily, as you will need to take your poles off when you get on any lift!
If the pole straps are easy on and off, then you have a winner!
Now you know all of the elements that you need to take into account when getting new poles! Making sure you have the right fit and pole for you will make your day on the mountain go from good to great AND can make the difference between starting as a beginner on the slopes and getting more comfortable, exploring, and challenging yourself!
One last thing, below is a quick guide for what kind of poles are usually used for different types of skiing:
- General Alpine Skiing (Groomed and Frontside) – Regular length, aluminum, mid-sized baskets, comfortable grip, nylon loop straps
- Park Skiing (Jumps, Tricks, and Rails) – Shorter length, aluminum, smaller baskets, minimal grip, nylon loop or no straps
- Backcountry Skiing (Hiking and Skiing, No Lifts) – Adjustable length, carbon or composite, wide powder baskets, ergonomic or flat grips, quick-release straps
- Racing Poles (we did not talk about these) – Racing poles are a category all their own and should be used only if you are racing. These tend to be very light, often curved poles with specialty-formed straps. I would not recommend a racing pole for someone who is just looking to have some fun around the mountain or backcountry!
Now that you have your poles picked out, check out how to decide what skis to buy.