Ski poles tend to just hang there without calling much attention to themselves. But these trivial sticks do an important job.
Humans have been picking up sticks for many thousands of years. How complicated can it be to hold a stick right? But add a simple webbing strap to that stick and it becomes very complicated indeed, at least to look at some of the improvised gripping techniques one can see on any sunny Saturday in winter.
Even the most modest touring pole comes with a strap that will adequately support your hand and transfer your poling power to the snow without demanding that you apply a crushing grip to the slim, smooth handle found on most cross-country ski poles. Your fingers merely guide the pole using that slim handle. So relax your forearms, if you haven’t already, and let the pole do its whole job, from strap to tip.
The basic pole strap is just a loop of flat webbing. It may come out of a vertical slot in the grip or a horizontal one, but in either case it should flow smoothly around your hand without any uncomfortable twists or wrinkles.
Put your hand through this loop from underneath, so the outer part of the loop goes around the back of your hand and the part nearest the handle crosses your palm, extending between your thumb and index finger. Close your hand lightly around the pole. You should then be able to press downward and the loop will tighten around your hand to support as much weight as you want to put on it. Do not just reach through the loop and grab your pole, so the webbing just goes under your wrist like a sling. That will provide a little support, but nothing like the support and control you get from holding the pole properly.
As you go up in quality to better and better poles, you get progressively better straps. At first these are only wider, which is nothing to sneer at. Wider straps do spread the load over more of your hand. But the newer strap systems support the hand much better than any single loop. I am no fan of needless complication or change for the sake of change. These new straps really work.
The fancy straps show their strength first in skate skiing. Because a skate skier uses the poles vigorously and forcefully, at a fast cadence in a shorter stroke, the control and support provided by a full, surrounding harness become indispensable aids to smooth skiing. Traditional straps tend to ride up around the fingers, requiring constant fidgeting to shift them back into place.
Biathlon competitors skate with the traditional straps so they can get out and deploy their rifle quickly. Most of us do not have to worry about weapon handling when we ski, but if you like to be prepared for anything in these uncertain times you might want to consider all your options.
When you buy the pole, you get the shaft. The basic touring pole has a cylindrical shaft that is the same diameter all the way down its length. It also has a fairly large basket to work in ungroomed snow. For slower skiing a pole like that is a fine workhorse. If you are skiing in ungroomed snow you probably aren’t blazing along anyway. If you tour at a leisurely pace even at groomed touring centers you also don’t run into the limitations of poles like that. But when you try to ski faster, the heavy, unbalanced pole will take energy from you and be harder to manage as you get tired.
Better poles have tapered shafts and are made of lighter materials than the basic pole. Poles intended for faster skiing in groomed areas also have smaller baskets, further enhancing balance and light weight. The more you pay for the pole, the lighter it will be. Be warned: once you use light poles you will never go back to heavier ones.
Before we get into poling technique, let’s give a quick nod to adjustable poles. These have telescoping shafts so you can adjust the length for different types of use. They usually have symmetrical baskets for use in deep, ungroomed snow. They are a vital tool for real back-country skiing because you can set them at full length for striding when terrain allows, mid-length for climbing, when a slightly shorter pole is more useful and less fatiguing than a long one, and at downhill length for going...down hill. You will feel much more secure and be able to use more correct downhill technique if you can set your poles to that length. You can keep your hands low and in front of you, where you want them, and plant your poles to time your turns.
You’ll see skiers using poles as outriggers, walking sticks and even just sort of waving them one at a time down the trail because the guy in the lesson said so. Occasionally you will even see someone using them efficiently.
Poling rhythm matches skiing rhythm. Plant the pole as you plant the kick zone. Plant it at an angle, so the basket is pointing back. Apply increasing force as your hand comes down and back. About the time your hand passes your body, the pole basket should be lifting from the snow. Keep swinging your arm back to follow through smoothly.
Do not hold your hands out to the sides. Your hands want to swing up in line with your shoulders, not winged out in the “flying stork” technique. Arms and legs move parallel to each other, parallel to your direction of travel.
You do not need to jam the poles in with great force. Only after the pole is securely planted should you increase the force on it. You can swing at the ground and miss if you try to put too much sting into the pole plant itself. You aren’t hammering a nail.
People ski without poles so they can concentrate on foot and leg technique. Less often you see someone ski with poles alone to feel how the pole stroke works from beginning to end. I don’t mean double poling, where you push with both at once. That’s a great technique in its own right. But you can use a level stretch of trail to work on single poling by itself. Just as when skiing without poles you then can add them to the leg motion, so too can you pole along and then start kicking and gliding in the same tempo.
Use the parts of the body together, but with an awareness of what each part is doing. You can apply this idea to many activities. Cross-country skiing happens to use a lot of simultaneous but separable motions you can study individually and then combine into a stronger whole.