Best Backcountry Ski Poles of 2020
|Price||$169.95 at Amazon||$150 List||$154.95 at Backcountry|
Compare at 2 sellers
|$199.95 at Amazon||$110 List|
|Pros||Packs very short and slender, lightweight, simple and fast to use||Comfortable grip, lightweight, good features||Nice grip features, relatively light, easy to use||Very comfortable to hold, packs small for splitboarding, good length adjustment||Simple design, good durability, comfortable grip|
|Cons||Fixed length, not as strong as other poles||Not as durable as some, doesn't pack small enough for splitboarders||Not durable, grip only works for large hands, doesn't pack small||Some play in the pole sections when extended, relatively heavy, expensive, slow in transition||Sluggish swing weight, doesn't pack as small as we hoped|
|Bottom Line||The right choice for splitboarding, this pair is simple to use and packs small||These lightweight poles are great for big days in the hills||A good carbon pole for users with large hands||A high-performance pole for splitboarders or skiers with some room for improvement||An unremarkable 3-section backcountry ski pole, but can double as a trekking pole|
|Rating Categories||Black Diamond Carbon Compactor||Black Diamond Razor Carbon Pro||G3 Via Carbon||Leki Tour Stick Vario Carbon||Black Diamond Expedition 3|
|Ease Of Use (35%)|
|Packed Size (15%)|
|Specs||Black Diamond...||Black Diamond...||G3 Via Carbon||Leki Tour Stick...||Black Diamond...|
|Size Tested||120 cm||140 cm||Long||135 cm||140 cm|
|Measured Weight Per Pair (oz)||18 oz||18 oz||18 oz||19 oz||19 oz|
|Shaft Material||Carbon fiber||Carbon||Carbon||Carbon, aluminum||Aluminum|
|Min Length (cm)||120 cm||115 cm||115 cm||115 cm||62 cm|
|Max Length (cm)||120 cm||140 cm||145 cm||135 cm||140 cm|
|Pole Design||Z-Pole||Adjustable||Adjustable||Adjustable||Double Adjustable|
|Locking Mechanism||Z-Pole||Flick Lock||Flick Lock||Speed Lock 2||Dual Flick Lock|
Best Overall Backcountry Ski Poles
Black Diamond Razor Carbon Pro
The Black Diamond Razor Carbon Pro edges out the rest of the competition, providing a solid, useful, and comfortable pole at a low weight while still retaining the necessary durability performance of a daily driver. The grip shape fits all hand sizes, and the swing weight is pleasant, making for a very comfortable experience. At 18 ounces, it is among the lightest poles in our test. The solid flick lock mechanism, large pad atop the grip, releasable wrist straps make this pole a breeze to use. Ideally, ski poles are so streamlined that we forget they are even there, and these poles fit that description perfectly.
As with all carbon poles, durability is more of a concern than with fully aluminum options. This pole features an aluminum upper shaft and a carbon lower shaft, decreasing the amount of susceptible carbon in the design while also retaining weight savings. Still, the pole feels solid, and we have no concerns about durability for all but careless use. This pole also doesn't collapse very small, making it unsuitable for splitboarders. Backcountry skiers looking for the best poles they can buy, though, should look no further than this pair.
Read review: Black Diamond Razor Carbon Pro
Best Overall for Splitboarders
Black Diamond Carbon Compactor
The Black Diamond Carbon Compactor is a three-section collapsible z-style pole that packs down to a remarkable 16 inches, fitting easily on the outside or inside 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 during 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 the one we recommend most.
Read review: Black Diamond Carbon Compactor
Best Bang for the Buck
Black Diamond Traverse
For backcountry travelers who want to maximize value, we recommend the Black Diamond Traverse. The Traverse is an aluminum two-section pole with many of the same features as the high-performance and more expensive poles in the test. The grip features a sizeable top pad that is very comfortable to push down on when skinning steeply. The secondary grip is made of sticky rubber that is comfortable to grab when side-hilling. But perhaps the largest asset of the Traverse is its durability. Ski poles take a beating in the backcountry: we use them for balance on slick uptracks, to test snow surfaces, and to bash dead branches out of the way. Aside from scratches, this pole showed no signs of any durability issues. Our testers and their colleagues have been using these poles for years, and their durability is unmatched. For the price, that makes a pole with outstanding value.
The Traverse is light on the wallet when compared to other poles in our test. However, it is not the lightest pole on the market and has a slightly heavier swing weight, though it's not unpleasant. The basket is made from stiff plastic that flexes only slightly on firm sidehill traverses, and it 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 this is the pole 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 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 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 a single individual 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
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.
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 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, our test's least expensive products provide all the necessary functions to go backcountry skiing. Weight and features are what set 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 mostly useless.
Ease of Use
After carefully selecting all of the other gear that we need to go backcountry skiing, poles should be easy to select. 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 handles are found on the Black Diamond poles. They feature a well-contoured design that fits all hand sizes with ease, and a large platform on the top of the grip that can be used to push down upon when skinning up steep skin tracks. They also have a stiff lip at the front of the handle to flip the heel risers up and down and manipulate the locking mechanisms on tech toe pieces.
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. Most 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 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.
Powder baskets should prevent your poles from post-holing next to the skin track. 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 hinder 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 snow surface slope. The BD Razor Carbon Pro and G3 Via Carbon have moved towards a smaller, asymmetrical powder basket that doesn't hang up on snow surfaces as easily but still provides the floatation necessary for deep powder travel.
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 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 delicate handling to guarantee longevity.
The lightest poles in the test are the Black Crows Duos, at 16 ounces per pair. They feature carbon shafts and are also some of the most expensive poles in our test. Most lightweight poles weighed in about 2 ounces heavier, like the BD Razor Carbon Pro, G3 Via Carbon, and BD Carbon Compactor. 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 with 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 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. Due to a very balanced design, the BD Razor Carbon Pro is barely noticeable when skiing, which is a good thing.
A broken ski pole in the backcountry is a big deal. We apply significant force to the pole during 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, from design to materials to real-world performance, to establish our estimate of each pair's long-term durability. In some instances, we even broke poles during normal use. The Black Diamond Traverse, Expedition 3, and Whippet held up best to our abusive testing. They are made from aluminum, and their shaft construction has changed relatively little over the years.
Carbon is lighter than aluminum, but it 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 broke three poles: the MSR Dyna-Lock 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.
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 appreciate 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 is the Leki Tour Stick Vario Carbon, which packs down to roughly 16 inches, and also features an impressive 8 inches of length adjustment when extended. The Black Diamond Carbon Compactor packs to a similar size, and is a perennial favorite for splitboarders, fitting easily into small day-touring backpacks. 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, 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 side-hilling and traversing, and the secondary grip.
The BD Razor Carbon Pro and Black Diamond Traverse feature very comfortable grips that are well-contoured to fit all hand sizes. We couldn't find a single tester who didn't like the grip shape of these poles. Leki also makes very ergonomic grips with foam handles that are a pleasure to hold. The G3 Via Carbon is comfortable to hold for users with large hands, perhaps even more comfortable than the Black Diamond grips, but anyone with hands smaller than a standard men's large had trouble finding comfort when gripping them.
After thoroughly testing the best backcountry ski poles on the market, we ranked the competitors in key metrics. We looked at overall performance to select the best poles for different backcountry skiing uses and budgets. In general, most poles we tested 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. We'll see you on the skin track.
— Jeff Dobronyi and Henry Feder