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After researching over 50 of the best backcountry ski poles on the market today, we bought 12 models to test and compare. Our team of ski and splitboard experts includes ski guides, ski patrollers, and seasoned backcountry thrill-seekers. We reviewed backcountry touring poles designed for splitboarders, skiers, and some that work for both. Each model went through our testing gauntlet in the backcountry of the Sierra and Teton ranges. Whether you go on short tours, skin to access the side country from the resort, or are constantly logging 10,000 vertical-foot days, our review will help you find the best backcountry poles for your needs and budget.
Shaft Material: Aluminum | Measured Weight (pair): 19 oz
REASONS TO BUY
Ample length adjustment
Nice swing weight
REASONS TO AVOID
Top of handle could be better
The Leki Helicon Lite delivers excellent performance in every way, edging out the competition to be named our favorite backcountry ski pole. And, it is one of the least expensive poles on the market, making it our top choice for users on a budget as well. The grip is well-contoured and comfortable to hold, with tacky rubber that makes it easy to grasp. The wrist straps adjust easily, the handle can be used to flip tech bindings between ski and walk mode, and the secondary grip is great as well. This pole features 35 centimeters of length adjustment, which is plenty for switching from extended lengths for uphill travel to short poles for steep downhill turns, to nordic length for skating out lengthy exits. In every way, this pole is awesome, and it's more affordable than pretty much any other pole on the market.
We have little to complain about with this pole. The lower shaft could be a bit stiffer, and the pole could be lighter overall. The colors are a bit loud. But these are minor criticisms; the Helicon Lite poles perform well across the board, from the most important considerations like a comfortable grip and their solid construction to the bells and whistles like an ice/snow scraper on the powder baskets. These poles do all of this at a low price, making your decision a no-brainer. We feel they are the best poles on the market, and surprisingly, also the best value.
Shaft Material: Carbon | Measured Weight (pair): 18 oz
REASONS TO BUY
Collapsible z-pole design
REASONS TO AVOID
Not the fastest transition time
The MSR DynaLock Ascent Carbon is a lightweight and compact carbon-fiber pole that folds down to a small size to fit easily into a backpack, earning our recommendation for the best splitboarding pole. These poles have 20 centimeters of length adjustment, which is plenty for the uphill, as well as excellent secondary grips and padded wrist straps. They also have large powder baskets which help when touring on those deep powder days. An incredibly low swing weight helps save energy, and at the top of the skin track, they disappear into a pack for the ride down with a collapsed length of just 14.25 inches—the smallest packed size we have ever tested. These poles are the total package for splitboarding: comfortable on the way up, and nonexistent on the ride back down. As a bonus, these are also some of the least expensive, high-quality collapsible poles on the market.
One major downside to the Dynalock Ascent Carbon is durability. These poles have carbon shafts, which are light, but not as strong as aluminum. They stand up to uphill skinning, but they won't take a beating on the way down if used by skiers. They are also slightly unwieldy when folded up, and rely on a small velcro strap to stay together. The MSR pole basket is awkwardly shaped, but it still does the job. In short, these poles are everything we'd ever want in a splitboarding pole, just don't treat them carelessly.
Some backcountry skiers and ski mountaineers want a tool with the potential to replace an ice axe for steep snow climbing, and that can add to their ability to arrest a fall in steep terrain while skiing down. For these users, the Black Diamond Whippet is a classic standby in the steep skiing world. The most recent iteration builds upon the product's past successes, adding a removable pick design. In short, it functions as a standard three-section telescoping backcountry ski pole while skinning up or skiing down, with the option to attach the pick to the top of the grip when you want. The result is a high-performance pole and the best of the ski pole/ice axe hybrids on the market.
The biggest downside to the Whippet is its weight. With the pick attached, the pole weighs about twice as much as other models. The higher swing weight is not particularly noticeable, especially in steep terrain, where our minds are generally on other things. We're a bit dismayed that the pole is sold only as a single, individual pole. If it came in a set, it would be the only pair of backcountry poles you'd ever need.
The Black Crows Big Mountain Oxus is a baton-style pole, meaning that it has a fixed length and a long, slender grip without contours. This long, straight design gives the pole versatility and structural integrity, designed to be grasped in different positions for different parts of the day. So, while it doesn't have an adjustable length, the skier can adjust their grip position to the same effect of changing a pole's length. On the skin track, the pole can be held in a variety of positions depending on the angle of the traverse, allowing plenty of space for choking up with the uphill hand. On the downhill, where skiers tend to shorten their poles in steeper terrain, the pole can be grasped lower, creating a fulcrum that allows for better ski technique in consequential terrain, as the arms don't have to swing as much to bring the hands forward. When climbing steep snow, the poles can be plunged grip-first into the snow like the shaft of an ice axe, and when making steep descents, the plunged poles can be used as an anchor. If you spend a lot of time ski mountaineering on big peaks, these poles can be a useful tool.
We recommend sizing them at the longest length that you normally adjust your traditional poles for skinning. In locales where long, flat exits are the norm on ski mountaineering days, we'd recommend sizing up an additional 10 centimeters to allow for Nordic-style skating. The downsides to these poles are that they have no contoured grip or handle features, which makes them slightly uncomfortable to hold, especially for long sections of double-poling or skating across flats. It's also uncomfortable to push down from above on the top of the poles. If the style appeals to you, and you do a lot of ski mountaineering, these poles can help you up your game.
Why You Should Trust Us
Finding the best backcountry ski poles began with hours of market research to weed through all the poles on the market to find the best of the best. We read reviews, asked our friends, sent emails, and asked random people on the skin track about their poles. This research, piled atop our combined 30+ years of experience, resulted in our choices of the models assessed here. Then, we took them out on backcountry tours of all shapes and sizes, from the firm, steep skin tracks of the Wasatch to the deep and powdery woods of Jackson Hole to icy spring couloirs in the Sierra Nevada. We also skied resort laps with the poles to test downhill performance. Throughout the testing process, we paid attention to important metrics like comfort, length adjustment, durability, features, and weight.
Our testing of backcountry ski poles is divided across five different metrics:
Comfort (25% of total score weighting)
Length Adjustment (20% weighting)
Durability (20% weighting)
Features (20% weighting)
Weight (15% weighting)
Our test team is led by Exum Ski Guide and IFMGA Mountain Guide Jeff Dobronyi. From the cold and deep winters of Jackson Hole to the Alaskan steeps to the depths of Patagonia, Jeff leads backcountry skiing and ski mountaineering trips worldwide. He puts the world's best backcountry skiing gear through the wringer for over 100 days a year and knows what gear is good enough to pass the test and what gear won't get the job done. From slamming bumps in Telluride to skiing the steep couloirs of the Central Tetons, Jeff put a lot of stress on his poles during this review.
Jeff is joined by Ross Patton for consult on splitboarding poles. Ross's passion and enthusiasm for splitboarding are well-known in his local backcountry community. From building kickers in the backcountry to slaying steep pillow lines, Ross knows the ins and outs of what makes a great pole for splitboarders.
Analysis and Test Results
As backcountry skiers, we demand a lot from our ski poles. We need them to be durable enough to stand up to the abuse of hard pole plants and possible crashes. We require a comfortable grip, as well as excellent locking mechanisms and adjustability. And yet, we need them to do all of this at a minimum weight because every extra ounce that we have to carry can lead to less skiing over the course of a day. In our review, we analyzed how well these ski poles performed these tasks and scored them appropriately.
The poles in our test vary greatly in price. Surprisingly, we found that in the current backcountry ski pole market, our favorite options are far from the most expensive. This is great news for consumers because the poles that we recommend the most are also good bargains. Many inexpensive poles use aluminum construction, which is slightly heavier than carbon, but we've also found it to be more durable. If we had to choose, we'd prefer a pole that lasts a long time but is a couple of ounces heavier than a pole that shaves a few grams and won't stand up to a full season of abuse in the backcountry. A slightly heavier pole won't ruin your day, but a broken pole might. It doesn't cost much to find a backcountry ski pole with a comfortable grip, a decent amount of length adjustment, a durable aluminum construction, and some useful features like secondary grips and handle tips that can manipulate bindings and risers. All the extra bells and whistles cost more money to manufacture, but the most important performance attributes can be delivered at a low price.
The Leki Helicon Lite is our top choice for a backcountry ski pole, and it's also among the least expensive. It has a comfortable grip, 35 centimeters of length adjustment, good durability, a handle that easily manipulates a tech binding, and relatively low weight. Plus, it has an ice/snow scraper on the powder basket. It swings forward with ease and makes skiing powder even more fun than it already is. It does all this at a reasonable price, a fraction of the cost of the most expensive models in our test.
Splitboard-specific poles are more expensive than the best backcountry skiing poles since they have to incorporate more parts to allow for a collapsible design. Since splitboarders only need a pole for the way up and would prefer not to feel the weight of their poles in their packs on the descent, the best splitboard poles are constructed with carbon. This boosts the price tag considerably.
It is worth noting that most resort poles can be used for backcountry skiing. The only dealbreaker is powder baskets. If you bring a pair of poles into the backcountry with small baskets designed for groomers, they will sink deeply into the snow when you push them down while skinning, making them mostly useless.
The most important attribute of a backcountry ski pole is that it's comfortable to hold. We push down on our poles over and over, all season long on the skin track, so the grip needs to be ergonomic and easy to grasp. The top of the handle should be comfortable to push down upon since we often use our poles like canes on steep skin tracks. The straps should be nice to wear as well, making days at the resort and long skates across flats more bearable. Finally, the pole's swing weight should be light, not impeding our ability to snap our pole forward for the next turn.
The G3 Via Carbon has the most comfortable grip in our review. It is perfectly contoured to the curves of the hand. We also like the grips on the Leki poles, which also feature an ergonomic curvature. The Black Diamond grips have been a long-time favorite, with their slight curves and generic fit, but these grips lack refinement and have been surpassed over time. Still, we like the top of the handle on the BD poles the best.
Secondary grips are used whenever the skin track starts to switchback uphill, as it is more comfortable for the uphill hand to choke up on the pole rather than reaching up to remain on the grip. We like the Leki Helicon Lite's secondary grip the most, with its slightly grippy surface and smooth connection to the primary grip.
Among the splitboard-specific poles, we preferred the contoured grip and secondary handle of the MSR Dynalock Ascent Carbon to the more generic contouring of the Black Diamond Carbon Compactor.
A good backcountry ski pole allows for some length adjustment to match the activity at hand. For mellow powder touring, some users might ski with their poles at the same length that they used for the ascent. Many serious skiers, however, will shorten their poles in steep terrain in an effort to keep their hands forward to maintain an aggressive and controlled body position. When the powder gets deep, shorter poles make skiing a lot more fun because the powder baskets don't get stuck behind you in the deep snow. On the flip side, whenever the out-tracks are long and flat, and double-poling or skating is required, a long Nordic-style pole can save you a lot of energy.
In general, telescoping poles allow more length adjustment than foldable poles. This is fine, because backcountry skiers tend to use telescoping poles, and these are the users who need lots of length adjustment. Splitboarders need poles that can adjust to their exact preferred length for the ascent, and that's about it, with some extended length preferred for double-poling when the luge track at the bottom of a run as some short uphills. Collapsible, folding poles typically offer less adjustment — 20 cm in the case of the MSR Dynalock Ascent Carbon.
The Black Diamond Expedition 3 and Black Diamond Traverse feature the most length adjustment in our review. They can telescope a whopping 50 centimeters, allowing for as much length variability as you could ever need. The majority of the other telescoping poles we tested offer between 30 and 40 centimeters of adjustment, which should be adequate for most users. The Black Crows Oxus doesn't have a telescoping length adjustment mechanism, but rather it features a 38-centimeter long grip that allows the user to grasp the pole at various heights, depending on their needs. It also allows the user to choke up with the uphill hand when sidehilling, and to have a sticky secondary grip wherever they decide their uphill hand is most comfortable.
Ski poles take a beating, from being thrown into pickup trucks, car trunks, and ski boxes, to whacking snow off of trees on the skin track, to bearing the brunt of yardsale wipeouts. They need to be strong to last a full season or more of use and abuse, and we generally expect our poles to last at least this long. Furthermore, when a pole breaks, it can seriously impact your day, making further ascent more difficult or the descent more dangerous.
The most durable poles in our test are made from aluminum, which is a lightweight metal that bends under stress, and rarely snaps completely. This characteristic makes aluminum especially beneficial for ski pole design because any trauma that the pole endures might not break it completely, leaving some usefulness after the bend occurs. This might help us continue with our day, and it may even allow the poles to continue to live out their expected lifespan. Our testers have used and loved the Black Diamond Traverse pole for years because it can take a beating and come back for more, day after day. Their only weak spot is the plastic buckle in the wrist strap.
We also like the durability of the fixed-length Oxus because it uses a thick aluminum shaft with no moving parts to break. The Black Diamond Whippet and Leki Helicon Lite also perform highly in the durability metric. All of these poles use aluminum shafts, and there is little surprise that these poles also fill out the podium of our testers' favorite backcountry ski poles.
Locking mechanisms keep the pole's sections fixed into place once you've decided how long of a pole you need for a given ascent or descent. In general, skiers use shorter poles for skiing down, medium-length poles for skinning uphill, and long, Nordic-style pole lengths for crossing flat terrain on long approaches or slogs. We prefer the durable, sturdy metal lever locks found on the BD Razor Carbon Pro, G3 Via Carbon, and BD Whippet. We also like the Black Diamond Traverse's lever locks, which can be adjusted for tightness in the field with a small screwdriver or credit card.
During our testing period, we broke three poles: the MSR DynaLock Trail, Black Crows Duos Freebird, and G3 Via Carbon. The first two broke from hard pole plants while skiing downhill at high speeds, while the G3 broke when tapping the edge of a ski to remove glopped snow. All three poles broke mid-shaft on the lower segment. The Duos and Via are carbon fiber poles and some of the most expensive in our test. We were rough on these poles but still feel like they should have held up to more abuse. That said, no pole is safe from excessive use, bending, and smashing in firm conditions.
Modern backcountry ski poles come with a variety of features that make life on the skin track a lot easier. Broad, rounded handle tops with acute lips allow users to flick their heel risers up and down and adjust their tech binding toepieces without bending over. Wrist straps are a nice touch for extra power when skinning uphill or skating, and they come in handy on downhill runs in the resort or when skiing above the treeline. Some poles also feature ice scrapers on the baskets or handles to clear snow off of top sheets or to de-ice skins on spring days. Despite the proliferation of useful features in the backcountry ski pole market, these don't make or break a ski pole's performance. Our testers only care that the pole's handles can flip risers easily and that the powder baskets provide adequate floatation.
The Black Diamond poles have long been known for their grip handle that features an acute lip, which is useful for manipulating bindings. Other poles try to imitate this design, but few can compare. On the other hand, the BD wrist straps are all generally uncomfortable and use a plastic buckle in the middle of the strap, which is uncomfortable to hold when using the poles without threading your wrist through the straps. We feel that other brands have developed much better wrist strap systems.
One feature that we hope to see more of is the releasable wrist strap design of the Black Diamond Razor Carbon Pro and BCA Scepter Carbon. These poles have a wrist strap that releases from one end when pulled with a moderate amount of force. This allows users to wear their wrist straps when skiing trees without risking shoulder dislocation if a pole gets caught on an obstacle. With the flick of a small plastic tab, the strap can be made non-releasable, for pushing hard when skinning uphill and skating.
Powder baskets are another important feature of backcountry ski poles that can make or break the experience. Ask anyone who has ever tried to go backcountry skiing with skinny resort baskets, and they'll tell you that their poles plunged to the ground whenever weighted forcefully. A good powder basket provides floatation that allows the user to push hard on their poles on the ascent, utilizing more upper-body strength to make uphill travel more efficient. The MSR Dynalock Ascent Carbon, Leki Helicon Lite, Black Diamond Traverse, and Black Crows Oxus all have large powder baskets that provide adequate floatation without being so big that they get in the way. Unfortunately, the BD Razor Carbon Pro has smaller powder baskets that don't provide as much floatation in deep powder. The Leki Helicon Lite's powder baskets have a long, straight edge that can be used as a ski scraper, which is a feature that our testers appreciated.
A subset of backcountry ski poles is designed specifically for use while ski mountaineering. The Black Diamond Whippet and Black Crows Oxus each have specific features that help them provide additional security in steep, wild terrain. The Whippet is well-known for attaching an ice pick to the tip of a ski pole, which can be used to grip firm snow/ice on the ascent, and (in theory) for self-arrest in the case of a sliding fall. The idea is that the handle-mounted pick works similarly to an ice axe, saving the user the weight of carrying a complete ice axe. The Oxus omits a typical grip/handle, allowing the extra-long grip to be plunged deep into the snow, creating a snow anchor similar to a vertically-placed picket. The skier can use this feature on the way up or plunge their poles into the snow while skiing in exposed terrain and clip a tether to their pole anchor, attaching themselves to the mountain. In our experience, the baton-style Oxus, and other poles that use this design, are more useful in truly dangerous terrain than ski pole/ice axe hybrids like the Whippet.
The poles in our test varied greatly in terms of weight. Some backcountry travelers care a lot about weight, while some could care less. If you are new to backcountry skiing or generally go on short tours, weight is probably less of a concern. If you regularly skin more than 4,000 vertical feet per day, we recommend a lightweight pole. While skinning, we have to move our poles upwards with each step. Over the course of a long day in the big mountains, that can add up to some tired shoulders.
In general, poles featuring carbon construction are lighter but less durable. Carbon is an expensive material compared to aluminum, and as such, carbon poles cost more than their aluminum counterparts. Carbon poles require more care and generally shouldn't be used to bang snow off your skis or to whack cornices. They require more careful handling to increase longevity.
The lightest poles in the test are the Black Crows Duos, at 16 ounces per pair. They feature carbon lower shafts and are also some of the most expensive poles in our test. The Black Crows Oxus poles also weigh in at 16 ounces and are much more durable with a single aluminum shaft. Most poles weighed 2-3 ounces more, like the Leki Helicon Lite, MSR DynaLock Ascent Carbon, BD Razor Carbon Pro, G3 Via Carbon, and BD Carbon Compactor. The ski pole/ice axe hybrid Whippet is the heaviest pole in the test, but this is due to the addition of the steel pick for climbing and skiing steep terrain.
After thoroughly testing the best backcountry ski poles on the market, we ranked the competitors in several key metrics. We looked at overall performance to select the best models for different backcountry skiing uses and budgets. In general, most poles we tested performed well, but a select few rose above the rest. The good news for backcountry skiers and splitboarders is that we feel the best poles are also among the most affordable ones. We hope we've been helpful as you search for some poles to fill out your backcountry kit. We'll see you on the skin track.
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