The Best Backcountry Ski Poles of 2020
Best Overall Backcountry Ski Poles
Backcountry Access Scepter Carbon
The BCA Scepter Carbon wins our Editor's Choice Award for the best backcountry ski pole. Our ski testers reached for the Scepter more than any other pair of poles in our test. The scraper handle is unlike any other backcountry ski pole currently on the market. Its ability to clear snow off the top sheet of your skis or splitboard creates noticeable weight savings. The locking mechanism is easy to operate with bulky gloves. Two-piece construction means faster transitions at the top and the bottom of the skin track. The basket of the Scepter is also flexible which meant a lot less struggling on steep and firm skin tracks.
While the Scepter Carbon got many things right, it wasn't perfect. The secondary grip, made of a spray-on grip material, wore off quickly. The Scepter is a very lightweight ski pole but is not the most cost-effective. BCA makes an aluminum version of the Scepter at a lower price point. But, the price isn't nearly as high as many other lower-performing products, and as an overall product, we like these poles the best, and readily recommend them to our ski touring friends.
Read review: Backcountry Access Scepter Carbon
Best Overall for Splitboarders
Black Diamond Carbon Compactor
The Black Diamond Carbon Compactor wins our Editors' Choice Award for splitboarding poles. It is a three-section collapsible z-style pole that packs down to a remarkable 16 inches, fitting easily on the outside or inside of a day pack. It also stays securely folded up when in packed mode, unlike other foldable models. It comes with a comfortable grip, a solid powder basket, and carbon construction. Our splitboard testers love how simple it is to break down at transitions, saving them time and hassle. It's also light and won't be noticeable on the descent.
The major downside is that there is no length adjustment. Splitboarders who know exactly how long they like their pole for skinning won't have a problem with this, but be sure to figure out your preferred length before purchasing. Furthermore, the links don't tighten as securely as telescoping poles do. This isn't a problem if you'll only be using the pole when skinning uphill, but if you are planning on skiing downhill with these, or want the most bomber pole on the market, the Compactor will not fit your needs. But for most splitboarders, this pole is perfect.
Read review: Black Diamond Carbon Compactor
Best Bang for the Buck
Black Diamond Traverse
For backcountry travelers who want the most bang for their buck, we recommend the Black Diamond Traverse. The Traverse is an all-aluminum, two-section pole that has many of the same features as our favorite more expensive poles in the test. The grip features a large top pad that is very comfortable to push down on steep skin tracks. The secondary grip is a large piece of rubber that we liked to grab when side-hilling. We did not test the Traverse lightly. Some of our testers are ski patrollers who used the traverse to beat rime off ropes and signs. Aside from small scratches, the Traverse showed no signs of any durability issues. They can take a beating, and make a great ski pole for days in the backcountry and days at the resort. It wouldn't be hard for us to argue that this is the perfect daily driver for every backcountry skier to own. Regular skiers could then benefit from a second pair of carbon or hybrid poles for big days.
The Traverse is light on the wallet when compared to other poles in our test. It was not, however, the lightest pole in our test, and has a slightly heavier swing weight, but it's not unpleasant. The basket is made from stiff plastic that flexes only slightly on firm sidehill traverses, and can feel awkward on hard snow. That said, if you are looking for a durable pair of backcountry ski poles that work for all types of skiing, then the Traverse is for you.
Read review: Black Diamond Traverse
Best Ski Pole/Ice Axe Hybrid
Black Diamond Whippet
Some backcountry skiers and ski mountaineers want a tool that can 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 of the steep skiing world. The most recent iteration builds upon the product's past successes, with a removable pick design. In short, it functions as a normal, 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 whenever it is desired. The result is a high-performance pole with the best design in the sub-category of ski pole/ice axe hybrids.
The biggest downside to the Whippet is its weight. With the pick attached, the pole weighs about twice as much as other poles. The higher swing weight is not noticeable, especially in steep terrain, where our minds are on other things. Another major bummer is that the pole is sold as an individual single pole. If it also came with another pole, then it would be the only pair of backcountry poles you'd ever need.
Read review: Black Diamond Whippet
Why You Should Trust Us
This review is brought to you by Ski Patroller, mountain guide, and OutdoorGearLab contributor, Henry Feder. Henry lives, patrols, and plays in one of the greatest mountain ranges in the world, the Sierra Nevada. He can be found patrolling the slopes of Heavenly Mountain during the workweek. On his days off he is likely out ski touring. Known for being tough on his gear, Henry makes for an excellent tester of backcountry ski poles. He was assisted by AMGA Certified Ski Guide and Exum Guide Jeff Dobronyi. Over long and deep ski seasons in Jackson Hole, Jeff tests all kinds of gear and puts them through the wringer. Leading our team of splitboarders is Ross Patton. Ross's passion and enthusiasm for splitboarding could change the minds of the most devote skiers, and this man can SEND. Often found building kickers in the backcountry, Ross knows the ins and outs of what makes a great pole for splitboards — they must skin well, then pack away fast, tiny, and with low weight.
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 10 different models discussed 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 the ease of use, weight, durability, packed size, and comfort.
Related: How We Tested Backcountry Ski Poles
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 need them to have excellent locking mechanisms and adjustability, and to have comfortable grips. 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 cost. Some of the high-end poles in our test are made by small boutique companies while others are made by larger outdoor brands that can charge less. A budget ski pole will not prohibit you from being able to go backcountry skiing. Unless you are a truly particular backcountry traveler, the least expensive products in our test provide all the necessary functions in order to go backcountry skiing. Weight and features are really what sets the budget options apart from the more expensive options. Carbon shafts, backcountry specific pole grips, adjustable lengths, foldable designs, and touring specific powder baskets will cost you more than your standard pair of resort poles.
It is worth noting that most resort poles can be used for backcountry skiing. The only deal-breaker 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 useless.
Ease of Use
After carefully selecting all of the other gear that we need to go backcountry skiing, poles should be easy to choose and stress-free. The last thing we want is to fail on a tour or objective because our poles weren't up to the task. A good pole has a decent amount of adjustable length, an easy-to-use length locking mechanism, simple straps, and a well-functioning powder basket. It also needs to easily flip the heel riser of your touring binding up and down.
Our favorite handle is the BCA Scepter Carbon. This pole features a large platform on the top of the grip that can be used to push down upon when skinning up steep skin tracks, to flip the heel riser up and down, and to scrape snow off your ski top sheets, preventing the buildup of heavy snow and unnecessary weight.
Other features also add to a pole's ease of use. The lower, secondary grip should be intuitive to grab as you traverse a hillside. Our favorite secondary grip is on the Black Diamond Traverse, while the Black Crows Duos Freebird also has an excellent secondary grip. The Black Diamond poles feature nice rubber secondary grips that make traversing and choking up easy.
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 like the Black Diamond Traverse's lever locks, which can be adjusted for tightness in the field with a small screwdriver or credit card. We also like the BD Whippet's durable, metal lever locks.
Powder baskets should prevent your poles from post-holing next to the skin track. In fact, venturing out into the backcountry without powder baskets is a recipe for disaster. However, a powder basket that is too large and too stiff can be a hindrance when skinning across firm snow. In this case, the powder basket may resist our efforts to stick the pole into the snow vertically, making the pole less effective at assisting our balance. The Black Crows Duos Freebird has an excellent swiveling pole basket that pivots with the slope of the snow surface. Alternatively, the Black Diamond Traverse's powder basket is stiff and gets in the way on firm slopes. Similarly the MSR DynaLock's massive powder basket is too big and prevented the tip from penetrating while sidehilling or skinning steep firm terrain.
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 not much of an issue. If you regularly skin more than 3,000 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 to manufacture with 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 to check for slabs.
The lightest poles in the test are the Black Crows Duos and the Black Diamond Carbon Compactor. They feature carbon shafts, and are also two of the most expensive poles in our test. The ski pole/ice axe hybrid poles were the heaviest poles in the test, but they also include steel picks for more friction in steep snow.
Swing weight is another factor that contributed to this metric. In general, we want poles that have a little bit of momentum when swung forward, which helps with stability when downhill skiing. But, too much swing weight makes a pole feel sluggish and like it can't keep up with the skier's turning cadence. The bottom of a pole is heavy due to the powder basket, so we like to see poles with lightweight construction in the bottom half. The G3 Via Carbon has a very pleasant swing weight and was a breeze to swing forward with each turn. The MSR Dynalock Trail felt heavy and sluggish, and couldn't keep up when testers were making short radius turns.
A broken ski pole in the backcountry is a big deal. We use our poles to push on both the uphill and downhill, and we use them to provide stability when skiing difficult terrain. If a pole breaks when we are miles from the trailhead, it becomes a lot harder to get back out. We looked at each pole's construction, both in terms of design and materials, in addition to real-world performance, to determine the long-term durability of each pair.
Carbon is lighter than aluminum but is not nearly as durable. An aluminum pole can take a beating, literally banging against tree branches, rocks, and firm snow without breaking. Carbon poles require more care because they are a lot less tolerant of impacts with firm objects. Carbon is strong in compression, meaning that the pole will be strong when pushed straight down, but is weak when bent or torqued.
During our testing period, we did break two poles. We broke the MSR Dyna-Lock Trail and Black Crow's Duos Freebird. Both broke from hard pole plants while skiing downhill at high speeds. Both poles broke mid-shaft on the lower segment. The Duos is a carbon fiber pole and one of the most expensive in our test. That said, no pole is safe from excessive use, bending, and smashing in firm conditions.
Alternatively, the Black Diamond Traverse, Expedition 3, and Whippet held up to our abusive testing. They are made from aluminum, and their shaft construction has changed relatively little over the years. The G3 Via Carbon also showed strong construction and high durability. It is constructed with thick carbon and features a burly aluminum lever to lock the two shaft sections into place.
In general, the smaller a pole can pack down, the better. This matters most for splitboarders, who often strap their poles onto their backpacks for the descent. Skiers like packability as well, especially when stowing poles on their packs when using their ice axes or when making short rock scrambling moves while ski mountaineering. Furthermore, packed size is important when traveling for backcountry skiing.
The most compact pole, and our Editors' Choice Award winner for splitboarding, is the Black Diamond Carbon Compactor. This pole collapses down to a length of about 40cm, or 16 inches. The Leki Tour Stick Vario Carbon also packs down to roughly 16 inches, and also features an impressive 8 inches of length adjustment when extended. However, the Carbon Compactor packs away more neatly and slimmer, and takes noticeably less time to do so.
Another great option for a small packed size is the Black Diamond Expedition 3, which is a three-section telescoping pole, not a folding pole. It doesn't fold as small as the Tourstick or Compactor, but it is much stronger. It won't fit inside most single-day touring packs, but strapping them to the outside of the pack works well.
While packed size among the ski pole/ice axe hybrid models might not matter to all, there was a significant difference between the Leki and Black Diamond models we tested. Since the BD model has a removable pick and collapses down much smaller, it's noticeably more packable and convenient for ski travel.
Overall, there is a large range in packed sizes among the poles we tested. Again, this comparison is of most interest to splitboarders, and less to skiers. However, if you frequently travel to ski destinations, or engage in ski mountaineering where you strap your poles to your pack, this factor increases in importance.
Whether you are skinning up or skiing down, you'll have poles in your hands for most of the day in the backcountry. As such, grip comfort should be taken into account. It's not the end of the world if a pole's grip isn't comfortable, but with all of the different grip designs and materials on the market, we can be picky. And, since these poles are in our hands for the entirety of a ski tour (and for most of the time on a splitboard tour), it's not a non-issue. Comfort is also influenced by the swing weight, pole basket design for steep, firm sidehilling and traversing, and the secondary grip.
The G3 Via Carbon, BCA Scepter Carbon, and Black Diamond Traverse all featured very comfortable grips. Leki also makes very ergonomic grips with foam handles that are a pleasure to hold. The MSR DynaLock Trail features a small grip and is uncomfortable to use if you have big hands or wear large mittens. The Leki Condor grip is bulky and awkward to hold.
After thoroughly testing the best backcountry ski poles on the market, we ranked the competitors in key metrics, and also looked at overall performance to select the best poles for different backcountry skiing uses and budgets. In general, most poles perform well. Still, certain poles have key features that help them rise above the rest. We hope we've been helpful as you search for some poles to fill out your backcountry kit. Remember, beacon, shovel, probe, knowledge of how to use them, and a reliable ski partner are the most important parts of your setup.
— Jeff Dobronyi and Henry Feder