Ski poles might seem like an unimportant item on your gear list, and an awful lot of good skiing has been done with plain old vanilla poles. When I’m doing ski patrol work I use a pair of old, unmatched, slightly crooked beaters. But once you’ve used really nice poles, especially easily adjustable ones, you will quickly start to appreciate the qualities of skiing with finer technology.
There are a few things you should look at when checking out backcountry poles. The handles should be comfortable, grip well in your hands, and—in my opinion—have a broad top that you can push down on with your palm when you’re climbing or side-hilling. A nice extra is if the handle has a lip on the top that you can use to open your ski bindings and flip the climbing heels up or down. All of the poles featured in our test did have that feature.
The straps—if you use them—should provide comfortable support and adjust easily for different gloves. You want pole shafts that are strong and durable. And an adjustment mechanism that operates easily and holds tightly through all sorts of abuse. Baskets are a little more subjective to your needs—you might want big powder baskets, or something smaller for corn or icy conditions, so it’s nice if those are changeable but firmly installed.
A crucial quality that’s a little harder to quantify is how a pole handles. Materials, balance, and swing weight all work together to produce a pole that either goes effortlessly where you point it while landing lightly and firmly on the snow, or on the other end of the spectrum feels like a piece of vibrating rebar yanking on your arm.
We tested six adjustable poles: an assortment from Black Diamond’s collection and a new design from DPS. They all held up very well to use and abuse, and there was no breakage or parts failure.
All of the poles were taken out on my ski patrol job, and my co-workers and I passed them around, using them daily for three weeks. The poles were tossed into toboggans and snowmobiles, used to pound slat fences and signposts into snow, and to beat rime off of ropes and signs. They also served as spindles for spools of rope and handles for being pulled behind snowmobiles waterskiing style. Each pole was also used for hiking and skinning, and they even got used just for skiing around.