When I was sixteen, I fell and shattered my ankle in Mexico while dancing dressed as a circus clown. (Don’t ask).
Ever since then, I have felt apprehensive to play a sport or do any physical activity where my ankles did not feel supported — cross country skiing included. After all, skiing can be a slippery slope. (Badum-pshh!)
But with the right cross country ski poles, a successful, fun, and memorable ski trip is completely possible. Ski poles are made to help you maneuver obstacles and keep yourself upright, and to also be light, flexible, and sturdy enough to support you as you climb or pivot.
Let’s discover more about the poles in question, and see which ones are appropriate for you and the lifelong memories you’re about to create.
Cross Country Ski Poles 101
Before we begin, let’s review ski pole basics.
Most skiers use downhill poles or all-mountain poles.
- Downhill ski poles: the most common type of poles. Straight, sturdy, and light, and made with flexible components that resist cracking or breaking.
- Park and pipe ski poles: similar to downhill poles, and usually one size smaller than normal to boost maneuverability.
- Freestyle ski poles: shorter poles with small grips that make them easier to hold.
- Mountaineering ski poles: telescoping with larger baskets to handle powder, and adjustable length suitable for climbing or descending.
- Backcountry ski poles: adjustable like mountaineering poles with detachable baskets, and ice picks.
- Racing ski poles: lightweight and durable with curved designs to improve aerodynamics.
- Slalom ski poles: straight, similar to downhill poles, and use hand guards.
And lastly…cross-country ski poles.
Before choosing the best ski poles for your cross country skiing endeavors, you need to first identify whether you will be classic skiing or skate skiing. Your ski poles must compliment your style and the conditions in which you ski.
Each type of skiing requires a different type of pole. The pole’s material determines its fundamental components: weight, flexibility, and strength, and plays a significant role in the price tag of the poles.
Classic skiing resembles how you normally walk or run, and consists of a striding motion going back and forth. This is the practical and ideal introduction for new cross-country skiers.
Skate skiing is more of a resemblance to an ice skater speeding on ice. The skis go out to the side as the skier uses the edges of the skis to propel forward. While a fun activity, it is more advanced and not usually the place where new cross country skiers begin.
Cross Country Ski Pole Baskets
If you plan on standard cross-country skiing, you will need small semicircle baskets. These work well on heavy, packed snow, which is where you’ll need them.
However, if you plan on skiing in deep, lighter snow, you will need poles with larger baskets — 3 inches in diameter is a good estimate.
Cross Country Ski Pole Straps
Cross-country ski pole straps can have basic webbing loops for standard cross-country skiing or hook-and-loop fasteners with quick-release features for skate skiing.
The basic webbing loops allow the skier to keep the poles with them, and when used properly, give the skier something to push off from while poling. Correct use requires the skier to place their hand through the bottom of the loop, before pulling down and gripping the poles. This supports the skier’s wrists and heels of their hands, allowing them to keep a relaxed grip on the poles.
The more elaborate ski pole straps grip the skier’s hands tightly, keeping the poles perfectly positioned for poling.
Cross Country Ski Pole Length
The best ski pole length for standard cross country skiing is to have a pole that goes from the ground to between your shoulder and armpit. For skate skiing, a few centimeters longer than that is ideal — usually from the ground to between your chin and lips.
Types of Cross Country Ski Poles
Cross country ski poles are made of either aluminum, composite material, carbon, or fiberglass.
1. Aluminum poles
Made for beginners, aluminum poles are heavier and more durable and economical than other poles. They are strong and lightweight. They are certainly sturdy and not too expensive.
An aluminum pole purchased a decade ago can perform about the same today as it did when it was first purchased (assuming the pole hasn’t been bent or bruised too much over the years; but if it has, you can oftentimes bend it back into shape pretty easily).
In the event you must replace the handles or baskets of an aluminum pole, you have a simple task ahead of you when compared to the complex and complicated process of replacing parts for an expensive pair of carbon poles (which we will discuss in a moment).
Carbon poles and other expensive poles have their purpose, but aluminum poles work well in nearly any and all capacities.
While aluminum poles are heavier than composite poles or carbon fiber-made poles, they will not cause you fatigue from being too heavy, nor will they cause you to feel wobbly.
Aluminum cross country ski poles have a stiffer make, and are not as responsive as composite or carbon fiber-made poles — just one of their drawbacks.
As aluminum cross-country poles are not as pliable, professional or competitive skiers lose a lot of the possible energy and springy flexibility than other poles. This is a factor that beginner or average skiers do not need to necessarily concern themselves with as durability is probably a more important tradeoff for them anyway.
Aluminum poles are useful in emergencies, as well. You can use it to construct a splint, a small stretcher, or use it as a part of a shelter’s framework. You can also re-purpose a cross-country aluminum ski pole if it does in fact break or if it is on its last bend.
2. Composite Poles
Composite poles, made for mid-range skiers, feature shafts made either completely or partially from carbon to make them more lightweight.
More expensive than aluminum, composite poles are lighter and usually the preference of hardcore and committed skiers. Composite poles have better shock-absorption capability compared to other poles, however, they are more apt to break under strenuous use.
Cross-country composite ski poles’ lightweight make allows you to avoid arm fatigue. The poles’ swing weight will impact your skiing technique less than it would have had it been heavier.
3. Carbon Poles
Strong and flexible, these high-end, carbon poles are constructed of carbon fiber and are usually incapable of bending or breaking, and making them really sturdy. They are the lightest poles, but also the most fragile. In addition, they are more expensive than other poles.
Beginner and average cross country skiers will notice that carbon poles are lighter than aluminum ones, but may not necessarily notice they may improve motion and technique.
Professional and competitive skiers who use carbon poles know that performance poles (such as carbon ones), is because they are indeed lighter, any divergence from the best hand position while holding the pole will cause the pole to jerk.
It takes much less effort to move a lightweight ski pole like a carbon one. In addition, if you are still in the midst of developing your technique and learning about body position, you may find it difficult to land the lightweight ski pole tip in the correct spot.
Cross-country carbon ski poles can also snap and splinter easily, making their high price tag an even more important factor to consider.
Unfortunately, carbon ski poles cannot be repaired — only replaced. But hang on to the tip and the handle for future use, and buy another set of poles.
4. Fiberglass Poles
Downhill skiers use fiberglass poles as they are thin, yet extremely durable. Fiberglass poles are usually used by high-performing skiers, and usually have a higher price tag than other poles.
FAQs about Cross Country Ski Poles
How long should my cross-country ski poles be?
According to the Tahoe Trail Guide, you want to use “classic cross-country ski poles that come up to the middle of your shoulder.”
The appropriate height of the pole should be between your armpit and the top of your shoulder — where the ski pole strap exits the ski pole grip.
The World Cup suggests a standard of using a pole that is 83% of your height in centimeters.
Why are classic cross-country ski poles longer than downhill ski poles?
Even though they can help you with balance, cross-country ski poles are designed to help you move forward faster by providing a means of propulsion and forward movement.
What is the best way to use cross country ski poles?
Cross country ski poles propel you forward seamlessly and effectively by enabling you to swing your arms as you naturally ski. As your arms swing from the shoulder, they should be slightly bent.
For a normal skier as opposed to a professional competitor, the ski pole tips should not land in front of your feet.
In the event your cross country ski poles were shorter than 83% of your height, you would not be able to use them as they were designed because you would be uncomfortably hunched over.
If they were longer than 83% of your height, the ski poles would end up being angled nearly parallel to the ground, causing the tips to plant at a shallow angle, unable to get a real thrust into the snow.
What is the difference between cross country ski poles and downhill ski poles?
Cross-country ski poles are slightly longer than downhill ski poles and have wider baskets designed for powdery snow. Downhill poles are the most common type of ski pole, and are usually straight, sturdy, and light, and made from flexible materials that fight against breaking in the event of an accident, crash, or fall.
Cross country ski poles typically use harnesses instead of straps to keep your poles close to your hands even in heavier snow.