XC Skiing Explained (Part 6): Classic Cross-Country Ski Poles

Copyright © 2017 Jared Manninen

When I hand first-time cross-country skiers their ski poles (in the rental shop where I seasonally work), I’m often met with disbelief. New customers will say something to the effect of, “these are so much longer than my alpine ski poles” or “are you sure they’re supposed to be so long?”

They are a lot longer than those alpine ski poles, and for good reason. Poling is an integral part of classic cross-country skiing, whether you’re double poling across the flats, diagonal striding up a hill, or cresting a steep pitch while executing the herringbone technique.

The effective use of poles provides you the necessary power to propel yourself forward no matter the angle of terrain.

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I couldn’t say what percentage of effort should be used when poling in conjunction with lower body movement when classic cross-country skiing.

However, I suspect those percentages ultimately vary based on terrain, conditions of the snow, and your technique.

The bottom line is that you’re not going to ski very far without correctly sized poles and the knowledge to use them.

To effectively use classic cross-country ski poles you first need to start with a ski pole that’s the correct length for your body height. It’s also in your best interest to understand some of the other aspects to classic ski poles, such as the type of material of which it’s constructed and the style of handle/strap and basket/tip that are fixed to the pole.

Determining the Correct Length of Your Classic Cross-Country Ski Poles

The old method of determining the appropriate length for your classic cross-country ski poles was to choose a pole that you could fit under your armpit.

Basically, a person stood next to the ski pole, raised their arm, then stuck the ski pole (which was standing upright) under their armpit. Apparently, if the person could (mostly?) fold their arm back down they would’ve found the correct length.

The trend, however, has been to use slightly taller classic ski poles. This has mostly been the result of World Cup racers using longer ski poles on classic race courses so that they could more effectively double pole (which is faster than diagonal striding, at least on the flats).

In some cases, for example, racers would literally double pole entire courses rather than perform any diagonal striding. In response, the International Ski Federation (FIS) imposed an 83% rule on racers for the 2016/2017 season when choosing a length of ski pole for use in classic races.

The point of this rule was to “preserve” classic diagonal striding technique. Although, simply including more hills on classic race courses would accomplish the same goal.

What I find most interesting about this 83% standard is that many of the racers, who feared having to cut down in size their ski poles, measured and found that they were actually already in compliance. This tells me that through the process of experimentation and innovation, the professionals had already determined the ideal length that struck a balance between double poling and diagonal striding (i.e. classic cross-country ski technique).

There are few industries, if any, that don’t evolve based on the experience and experimentation of its highest level contributors and practitioners. So I guess the reason I get so annoyed at watching people still do this armpit trick is that it represents (to me) a lack of acknowledgement that the sport has evolved over the years.

While standing and wearing ski boots, the length of the classic ski pole (from its tip to where the strap is fixed to the handle) cannot exceed 83% of a skier’s body length (in centimeters).

I’m approximately 169 centimeters tall when wearing ski boots: 169cms x 83% (.83) = 140.27 centimeters. Therefore, I use 140cm ski poles when classic cross-country skiing.

The 83% rule means that a classic ski pole (where the strap is fixed to the handle) should measure up to a point somewhere between your armpit and the top of your shoulder. In my case, the top of the ski pole handle (140cm) nearly reaches the top of my shoulder and the location of where the strap is fixed to the pole is a couple centimeters below that.

The length for my classic cross-country ski poles are 140cm according to the 83% standard. As you can see, the top of the handle is nearly to the top of my shoulder, while the strap (where it exists the handle) is well above the armpit height. When measuring people for classic cross-country ski poles, I often choose one where the strap (coming out of the handle) is around mid-shoulder height. © Theresa Avance

We’re only talking about a few centimeters, at most, difference between the old method of measurement (in the armpit) and the contemporary standard (83% of body length). But that extra length enables you to double pole more easily as you won’t have to bend at the waist quite so far in order to get a full “stroke.”

Also, the extra length provides a more effective push when diagonal striding. This is because the angle of the longer ski pole, as it strikes the snow, is more in line with the direction of travel (i.e. forward and across the snow).

Too short of a pole will be angled more upright, potentially causing you to push your body upward rather than forward. And, you’ll compromise your posture by bending lower in order to accommodate the shorter ski pole. I also suspect that a shorter length pole more easily allows a person to plant their poles in front of themselves. This, however, is an indicator that the person lacks an understanding of proper technique. You shouldn’t really ever be planting your ski poles in front of your feet. Pole tips landing in front of your feet means that you’re pulling yourself with the poles.

Instead, those poles should be landing behind your feet so that you can push off with them. And if you’re using the ski poles to stop yourself (by sticking them in the snow in front of you), do yourself a huge favor and learn how to properly stop yourself through the use of the edges of your skis. Otherwise, you run the risk of impaling yourself on your ski pole(s).

On the other hand, classic ski poles that are taller than your shoulders will be a nuisance to deal with when diagonal striding. This is because they’ll be too long for your arm swing, yielding too shallow of an angle (of ski pole) for you to effectively set the tip into the snow.

With all of that said, I understand that there are always exceptions to the rules. Certain conditions, such as injury or physical limitations, may require you to use shorter ski poles.

Or, when breaking trail through deep snow, you may need a shorter length classic pole in order to raise the ski pole (tip) out of the snow.

Materials Used for Classic Cross-Country Ski Poles

Over the years, there have been countless materials and combinations of materials used in the construction of cross-country ski poles. I imagine this also goes for bicycles, tennis rackets, golf clubs, and microwave ovens.

I’m not going to waste your time or mine by listing every possible option in existence. Just know that there will never be one perfect material or combination of materials that will serve everyone’s need.

Instead, learn the pros and cons of the more common materials used for the construction of cross-country ski poles. And base your selection on your intended use.

First things, first. If you’re using an old ski pole made from bamboo, fiberglass, or extruded plastic, get rid of it. Take solace in the fact that it’s lived a long life and can now retire comfortably somewhere in a landfill. ‘Nuff said about that.

Contemporary cross-country ski poles fall into two basic categories:

  1. Aluminum
  2. Composite/carbon fiber-based
Copyright © 2019 Jared Manninen
This basket is medium-sized and appropriate for an all-around recreational cross-country ski pole. The basket is the shape of a typical cross-country ski pole basket used for groomed terrain, but it’s large enough to prevent the tip from sinking too far into fresh snow. This ski pole is made of polished aluminum. © Jared Manninen

Aluminum Cross-Country Ski Poles

My personal preference for an all-around ski pole is something made from aluminum. They’re inexpensive, durable, and dependable. An aluminum pole made 10 years ago will perform about the same today as it did when it was first purchased (assuming it hasn’t been bent or bruised too much over the years).

Aluminum poles can be bent back into shape relatively easy (in the off-chance that you do manage to bend one).

Also, replacing the handles and baskets on an aluminum pole is a cinch compared to the irritating (and sometimes stressful) process of replacing either element on an expensive pair of carbon fiber poles with cork handles.

That’s not to say I don’t love those expensive carbon fiber poles, but aluminum works just fine for nearly any application.

Sure, the weight of an aluminum pole is more than that of a composite or carbon fiber-based ski pole. However, years ago I thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail (2,200+ miles) using a pair of aluminum Leki brand hiking poles.

Never once did I experience arm fatigue because the poles were too heavy. Nor did the “swing weight” of said poles cause me to hike wonky or herky-jerky.

Aluminum poles are stiffer than, and not as responsive as, composite or carbon fiber-based poles. This is what I consider to be their main drawback.

With aluminum poles, you lose a lot of the potential energy and springy-ness or liveliness that comes with a more flexible pole. I would argue that this is more important for racers, however.

So if you’re a recreational skier I wouldn’t worry about this loss of potential energy. The tradeoff is durability.

Other reasons I appreciate standard aluminum poles are because you can use them for emergency purposes. For example, you could use them to construct a splint, an improvised stretcher (for smaller objects or beings, obviously), a framework for a shelter, or a dead man’s anchor. You can also re-purpose an aluminum pole if it does actually break or you’re done trying to straightening it out after multiple bends, by cutting pieces from it to use as tent pole splints or parts for a wind chime. I’m an artist who does a lot off off-trail and backcountry cross-country skiing, mind you.

Copyright © 2019 Jared Manninen
This cross-country ski pole basket is relatively small and is designed for use on groomed trails. Because the snow on groomed trails is so compacted, you don’t need a large basket to prevent the pole from sinking into the snow. This pole is made of carbon fiber. © Jared Manninen

Composite and Carbon Fiber Cross-Country Ski Poles

Composite and carbon fiber-based ski poles are performance-oriented compared to basic aluminum poles. They’re lighter and more responsive. Their lightweight nature means you’ll experience less arm fatigue (groan), and their swing weight will have less of an impact on your technique. This last bit has some merit.

To illustrate “swing weight,” just try to run while carrying in each hand a 10 lbs. weight. You’ll be flying all over the trail. In fact, this is how Thor flies with his hammer – he throws it into the air (while his hand is secured to it by the strap or thong) and rides along its trajectory.

That said, you don’t want to be Thor when it comes to your cross-country skiing technique.

By the same token, the difference in weight between composite and carbon fiber poles and those made from aluminum is still quite negligible. The average person will notice that the carbon poles are lighter, but they’ll not necessarily notice that the “heavy” aluminum ones affect their motion and technique.

What an average person will notice about a performance pole, however, is that because it’s lighter, any deviation from an ideal hand position (while holding the pole) will cause the ski pole to flinch.

Basically, it just takes a lot less effort to move the lightweight ski pole. So if you’re still developing your technique and body position, you may have trouble consistently landing that tip of the lightweight ski pole in the correct location.

One more important note about composite and carbon fiber-based poles is that they’re expensive and can snap and splinter with very little effort.

You can only replace them, not repair them, so once a pole breaks it’s garbage. Harvest the tip and handle for the future and buy another set. I’ve seen more than one set of $300+ poles rendered useless because the skier poled too aggressively for the conditions (i.e. the terrain was too firm either because there wasn’t a base layer of snow and the tips sank to the dirt or the top layer of snow was a sheet of ice).

Copyright © 2019 Jared Manninen
A basic handle and strap system on a Leki cross-country ski pole. The handle is made of harder plastic (gray) and rubber (black). The loop at the top of the picture is the excess webbing from adjusting the strap. © Jared Manninen

Handles and Straps of Classic Cross-Country Ski Poles

Another big difference between aluminum poles and more expensive composite or carbon fiber ski poles is the types of handles and wrist straps that come fixed to the poles.

Usually you’ll just find a rubber or plastic handle with a basic wrist strap (and locking mechanism) on an aluminum pole.

I would consider the lack of a quality grip and strap system to be another drawback for aluminum poles.

That said, a basic handle and strap is easy to fix, replace, or deal with if it breaks. And they are adjustable so that you can have a relatively tight connection to an aluminum pole. You do have to keep fishing your hand in and out of the strap when you want to, for example, eat a snack, drink some water, or take a photograph while skiing.

With higher end cross-country ski poles, you’re more likely to find a better grip and strap system. Even moderately priced composite poles will have a nice setup that’s designed to provide you with a more positive connection to the ski pole handle (compared to a simple strap).

My personal favorite type of handle and grip system is the type that enables you to wear the strap, but through the use of a quick release feature, remove your hand completely from the ski pole handle. You do pay for this type of feature, though, and it’s not the norm on most poles.

On the other hand, I’ve met many people who prefer a standard webbing-type strap because it’s simple, accommodates larger gloves or mittens, and isn’t as claustrophobic as a system that “locks” you to the pole.

Handles on many expensive poles feature cork, which is ideal for sweaty and/or wet hands.

Again, these composite and carbon fiber poles are more performance-oriented, so the manufacturers have racers in mind when designing them.

For backcountry use, you’re going to want something made of a more durable material like plastic or rubber.

I will save the tutorial on how to change ski pole handles for another day. However, just know that you can change the handles on any type of pole.

As I mentioned, though, aluminum poles are easier to deal with because both the handles and the shaft are so durable.

As much as I prefer cork handles, they’re a pain in the butt to replace due to their delicate nature. You have to exercise a lot of restraint when warming up the handles of expensive poles and then attempting to remove the handle from the shafts.

Baskets and Tips of Classic Cross-Country Ski Poles

Again, you’ll find a million-and-one different types of baskets and ski pole tips on cross-country ski poles. However, the main concept to understand is that a smaller basket is designed to be used on packed or consolidated snow, such as you would find on machine-groomed trails.

Larger baskets, on the other hand, are more desirable when the snow is soft and deep because the bigger basket will prevent the tip from sinking (too far) into the snow.

When cross-country skiing off-trail and in the backcountry where deeper snow is expected, I usually use a backcountry-oriented set of ski poles that feature a full basket.   

Baskets for use on groomed terrain should only be half baskets. The half basket enables the ski pole tip to dig into the snow. A full loop type of a basket will often prevent the ski pole tip from actually driving into the snow on groomed terrain because the loop itself tends to make first contact with the snow. Then the pole goes skidding backwards without gaining any purchase. Very annoying to say the least. You could still make it work, but you’d have to angle the ski pole upwards more than normal.

The actual tips of a ski pole are either carbide or made from steel. They angle down toward the snow in order to set properly when you’re ready to push off.

If either the basket or the tip breaks on a standard basket (i.e. the whole thing is one piece), you should replace it.

Again, I’ll save this tutorial for later. But these things are easily replaceable. Just know that the taper at the end of a ski pole is unique to its manufacturer. For example, you couldn’t successfully replace a Leki basket/tip with one made by Swix or vice versa.

Sure, you could make something work between the two if you’re life depended on it, but it won’t be a permanent solution and won’t work as effectively as if you used the correct combination.

There’s a lot of information here, so I hope it’s relatively easy for you to understand and assimilate. I try to stick to generalities and let you discover on your own the finer points.

Ultimately, the lesson here is to use poles that are the correct length for your height and to not spend a lot of money on expensive poles (if you aren’t planning to race any time soon). A better use of your money is to invest it on cross-country ski lessons.

Cross-Country Skiing Explained Mini-Series

Please note that I wrote Cross-Country Skiing Explained with the beginner or intermediate cross-country skier in mind. This is the demographic for whom I most often served while working in the outdoor recreation industry at Lake Tahoe. I basically treat these articles as extensions of the conversations I’ve had with those customers.

That said, expert skiers probably could take away something of value from this article. Just know that I don’t intend to address racing-oriented philosophy, technique, or gear selection.

Classic Cross-Country Ski Components

Waxing Your “Waxless” Cross-Country Skis (for beginner and intermediate xc skiers)

Considerations for buying cross-country ski gear (new and beginner xc skiers)