Cover Image By ©Stephen Shelesky
AUTHOR: Pat Donahue
Backcountry skiing requires an exceptional amount of gear. Between special bindings, boots, climbing skins, avalanche gear, and backpacks, there is a whole lot of gear to account for. Some skiers, in an attempt to be economical and resourceful, will look to cut corners to get out in the backcountry without needing to sell a kidney to buy a pile of fancy equipment. One piece of gear that may seem like an easy target to transfer from the resort to the backcountry is your poles.
While a set of ski poles may seem like a low-tech piece of your kit to spend money on, it is critical to have a set of backcountry-specific ski poles. While you certainly can make your alpine poles work in the backcountry, it’s not a great idea.
Here are some key benefits of backcountry ski poles:
Extended grip– Perhaps the most important attribute of a backcountry-specific pole is the extended grip. Underneath the primary grip that you would hold for downhill skiing is a secondary or extended grip. This allows you to choke up on the pole and hold it further down the shaft. This is very important on the ascent.
This is critical when you are traversing a slope as you ascend. One side of your body is on the uphill side. Choking up on the pole allows you to hold the pole lower and be able to stabilize yourself evenly. In addition, gnarly tight switchbacks can also require quite a bit of adjustment of your grip. Long story short; the more ways to adjust the way you are holding a pole, the safer and more efficient you can be.
Touring-specific poles often have comfortable, even insulated, grips. When climbing, you are more likely to wear thin gloves. In the spring, you might not be wearing gloves at all. This makes a comfortable and ergonomic surface all the more important. Touring grips tend to be ergonomic and constructed with quality materials like cork or foam.
Adjustability– Many backcountry ski poles will have a telescoping design. The pole will consist of two pieces, a slightly wider upper shaft and a narrower lower. There will be a locking mechanism where the two shafts meet and you can adjust the overall length of the pole depending on the situation. Some poles even have three pieces. These poles pack down quite small which is ideal for split boarders who need to stow away their poles for the descent.
On a long, low-angle approach, having the pole in a slightly longer setting is more efficient. You can get more leverage with each step. In addition, when finishing up your epic lap, a longer pole setting is a good idea if you are skating across a flat surface to get back to the car. On the ascent, having the pole in a shorter position is beneficial on sketchy switchbacks and steep portions of the skin track. You can shorten the distance of each step and make smaller, quicker moves.
Swing weight– Regular old alpine poles do not prioritize weight. Backcountry ski poles often emphasize a reduced weight.
I know what you are thinking, “I ain’t no weight-weenie”. While durability and functionality are certainly more important than weight, having a reduced swing weight can be important on longer tours. A lighter pole is less fatiguing which conserves energy for shredding downhill. Each time you take a step, you are also swinging your pole to the next pole plant location. Think about how many steps/pole plants are required on a three, five, eight-hour tour. A whole lot. Saving several ounces here could be quite noticeable.
The basket – At the resort, you might not give much much thought to the basket on your ski poles. Most alpine poles have a smaller basket as resort skiers are often on firmer surfaces. Backcountry ski poles have bigger baskets. While this might seem like a small detail, it is critical.
A small alpine basket will poke right through soft snow. When you are using your poles as a stabilizing force to propel yourself up a skin track, you absolutely can’t have your poles sink deep into the soft snow. This will require a whole lot of energy to correct and could be downright dangerous in the wrong situation. A wider basket plants more effectively near the surface of the snow. It resists simply sinking into deep snow.
In addition, a wider basket is very important for operating your bindings. It is much easier to adjust your bindings’ climbing risers with a larger basket. Many touring-specific baskets will have a flat edge. This maximizes leverage and contact area when adjusting your risers This sounds like a small detail, but it is not. Clumsily, trying to adjust your risers three hours into a climb with a tiny basket is no fun. Also, larger baskets with a flat surface are excellent for scraping snow/ice off your climbing skins.
Durability– This seems like a statement of the obvious: your backcountry poles need to be reliable. Touring-specific poles are constructed with high-quality materials. You’re banged up alpine poles that have been smashed around on trees, chairlifts, and beer cans may not be of the same quality. Alpine poles can get dented or bent pretty easily. If a bend were to become more severe or even snap on a backcountry mission miles from your car, it could be bad.
There you have it. While a backcountry ski pole isn’t absolutely mandatory, it makes your tour a whole lot more fun, safe, and efficient. They are a relatively small investment for the huge advantage a set of touring-specific poles have over a regular ‘ol alpine pole.
Here at Unofficial, we love the LEKI Helicon poles. These poles tick all of the boxes. They offer all of the features you need and none that you don’t. These workhorse poles feature a sturdy aluminum construction and use a telescoping two-piece design. The Speed Lock + mechanism flawlessly secures the two pieces of the poles without any dreaded pole slip. These bad boys pack down to 95cm making them easy to affix to your pack. They have an extended grip with a high-quality EVOCON upper grip. Leki’s Backcountry Basket helps you stay above the snow and the ultra-reasonable 267-gram weight per pole won’t wear you out. Oh yeah, best of all, at $79.95 they won’t break the bank. We love these poles and you will too.
Looking to go all-in on your backcountry setup? LEKI Tour Stick Vario Carbon are top-of-the-line poles with a carbon upper tube. These bad boys feature a foldable design and pack down to a stunning 42cm. Whether you are on the skin track or on a summer backpacking trip, these high-end poles are slick.