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How We Tested Backcountry Ski Poles

Friday March 20, 2020

We tested these poles for weeks under punishing conditions. The home base of the test was South Lake Tahoe. We took them on ski tours varying from morning jaunts to all-day epics. We also used these poles inbounds at Heavenly Mountain and Kirkwood Mountain to be able to test their hard-charging downhill capabilities repeatedly. The Sierra Nevada is known for its huge snowfall and long approaches. The fondly known Sierra Cement snow can be filled with a lot of moisture, adding torque to our poles in the heavy powder. Commonly, Tahoe skin tracks are icy and steep, and are a great proving ground for backcountry poles. We also tested poles in the backcountry around Jackson Hole, Wyoming, where ascents and descents usually clock in around 3,500 vertical feet at a minimum. Backcountry skiers in Jackson need lightweight, high-performance ski poles that excel on both the climb and the ski down. Of course, we also got splitboarders involved to test the most collapsible and foldable models.

We tested a dozen ski poles in the backcountry  day after day  to separate the best from the rest.
We tested a dozen ski poles in the backcountry, day after day, to separate the best from the rest.

Ease of Use


The most important aspect of a pole is how easy it is to use in the backcountry. We test this by using all of the features of the pole, including locking our toepieces with the pole handles, flicking the heel risers with the powder baskets, and locking the poles at different lengths. We take them touring in all kinds of conditions to see what comes up. Sometimes, poles have features that seem useful at first glance but aren't actually ever used in the field, and sometimes poles have features that seem gimmicky but actually make our days easier.

How well does the handle flick heel risers up and down? We test each pole on a variety of tech bindings to find out.
How well does the handle flick heel risers up and down? We test each pole on a variety of tech bindings to find out.

The scraper tool is one such device that is new to backcountry pole design but truly makes life easier in the mountains. For the ski pole/ice axe hybrids, we use each pole in firm conditions while skiing tight, steep couloirs, and judge how well each pick digs into the snow and arrests a slip. We also find water ice to see how each pick holds in ice.

Testing two different ski pole/ ice axe hybrids for pick effectiveness in water ice beneath snow in a couloir.
Testing two different ski pole/ ice axe hybrids for pick effectiveness in water ice beneath snow in a couloir.

Weight


After weighing each pair of poles, we also consider how the construction impacts the weight on the scale. Some poles add useful features that also add a few grams, which is tolerable in many cases. We also get a feel for how the weight is distributed throughout the length of the pole. More weight towards the tip will increase the swing weight, making the pole feel sluggish when pole planting and swinging our arms forward with each ski turn. Poles with a pleasant swing weight add to our experience on the slopes, while poles with a sluggish swing weight will make skiing a chore, and even prevent us from turning quickly in tight, steep terrain. Splitboarders don't care as much about swing weight and generally prefer a lightweight pole that won't weigh them down on the descent.

Durability


Backcountry ski poles need to do a lot more than just plant in the snow while skinning and skiing. Ski guides use them to bang snow off upcoming tree branches, to isolate columns for hand shear tests, and to scrape out kick-turns on steep slopes. Poles that bend or show signs of damage from these tasks may be adequate for the occasional backcountry skier, but aren't useful for hardcore locals who are in the backcountry every day. We used and abused these poles, making an effort to put them through the wringer.

We constantly inspect the gear for signs of durability flaws. If products are standing up to testing showing only minor wear and tear  we make a note of that as well.
We constantly inspect the gear for signs of durability flaws. If products are standing up to testing showing only minor wear and tear, we make a note of that as well.

Packed Size


We measured each pole in its smallest configuration, and then strapped them on the outside of our backpacks to see what they looked like. Finally, we took them out on splitboarding tours and actually strapped them on our backpacks while we rode downhill. It was obvious which poles are appropriate for splitboarding and which aren't.

A side-by-side comparison of poles in their smallest collapsed configuration.
A side-by-side comparison of poles in their smallest collapsed configuration.

Comfort


Our main test for comfort is going skiing with each pole and observing how the pole feels in our hands. Some grips are a pleasure to hold, and even allow us to keep a loose grip without losing the pole. Others are not contoured to the shape of the hand and require a tight grip at all times. We use each pole with thick gloves, standard gloves, and bare hands to ensure compatibility with all hand sizes and weather conditions. We also thoroughly assess the comfort of the secondary grip, since we use this feature almost the entire time when skinning uphill. Swing weight also plays a part in our scoring for comfort.

The Tour Stick Carbon's grip is comfortable to grab from all angles. Here  a closeup of the rounded top of the grip  which is comfortable to push down when climbing steeply.
The Tour Stick Carbon's grip is comfortable to grab from all angles. Here, a closeup of the rounded top of the grip, which is comfortable to push down when climbing steeply.