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In this guide, I’ll explain exactly what ski poles are for and how to use them to improve your skiing. If you’ve always wondered how to properly pole plant or struggling with what to do with your poles, then this guide is for you.
Ski poles are more than just for propulsion on the flats. Ski poles are essential for balance on steep slopes or when skiing powder and for building rhythm through your parallel turns. Once you’ begin to take pole planting seriously, it will be a game-changer for how you ski – I promise!
How to Pole Plant?
Pole planting will help you take your skiing to the next level and becomes really helpful when skiing over bumps or steeper slopes.
Don’t let your arms drag behind or wave up and down wildly. Ski with your arms in front of you and away from the body at a relaxed distance. Outstretch your and then bring in a slight bend, so your arms form an O shape like a small bear hug.
With your arms out in front of you, if you draw a line from your shoulder to your wrist, your elbow should be just outside that line (rather than inside).
Another way to look at your arm position is to imagine a triangle shape extending from your armpit down to your wrist, across to your wrist, and back up to your armpit. If your hands are in the correct position then you’re ready to start pole planting.
Correct arm position
- Hands out front with a slight bend.
- Make an O shape or slight bear hug with your arms.
- Elbow on the outside.
Incorrect arm position
- Hands dragging behind you.
- Elbows tucked in to make an A shape.
- Hands higher than your shoulder.
The timing of a pole plant is critical, get it wrong and it can make your skiing worse not better.Place your pole into the snow just before you make an edge change and initiate your turn. Think of your pole plant as a signal to your body to move your weight to start your turn.
If you pole plant too late, your pole will not push straight back but push out to the side mid-turn. If you pole plant too early, your pole will push towards your inside ski and may knock it.
The Pole Plant Sequence
A pole plant should be made with one pole at a time leading with the pole that is on the inside of your turn. For most skiers, the pole plant will start as their traverse sideways across the mountain. The pole plant comes just before initiating the turn.
1. Traverse with arms out front but poles trailing
Traverse across the mountain with your arms out in front and your body turned slightly downhill. At this stage, your poles will be about 45 degrees angle to the snow trailing behind you.
2. Bring inside arm forward
Bring your weight evenly over your skis and bring your inside arm forward so the pole is facing the ground vertically or pointing slightly forwards ready for the plant.
3. The plant
At the point where we just start to change our edges to initiate the turn, gently put your downhill and outstretched pole into the snow in front of and out to the side of your downhill ski (but don’t support any weight on it). Aim to plant your pole within the first quarter of your ski.
4. The backward flick
As you pole plant, your speed relative to the static snow will naturally flick the pole backward behind you (expect the flick, and don’t resist it). As it does this, shift your weight over your skis (weight over the inside edge of your downhill ski) and turn it into your pole plant. Let your flicked pole come off the snow and fall behind you while keeping both arms upfront in preparation for the same sequence repeated with the opposite pole.
Correct pole plant
- Gently flick the pole into the snow at a straight angle.
- Allow the pole to flick off the snow and fall behind you.
- Change edges and turn in the direction of the pole.
Incorrect pole plant
- Putting the pole into the snow with the tip too far in front of the handle.
- Supporting any weight on the pole
- Starting the pole plant too early or late (pole may hit skis)
- Hitting the pole into the snow too hard (may break or hurt you)
- Resisting the flick of the pole and not allowing the pole to drag backward.
Ski poles can be dangerous if you put them out in front of you at speed. Always pole plant to one side and gently place it in the snow. Too much pressure at the wrong angle and your pole will bend out of shape or hurt you. ( I know, I did this while learning to pole plant!)
A Note on Pole Resistance
The only time some resistance or pressure should be put on the pole is when doing short jump turns, mogul skiing or skiing in powder (I write about this below).
- Pole plant to signal the start of the turn.
- Keep your arms out front with a slight bend.
- Pole plant with a gentle flick of the wrist.
- Allow the pole to fall backward on contact with the snow.
- Do NOT put any weight onto the pole.
- Pole planting on the outside of the turn.
- Pole planting at the wrong time (before your last turn is over or after you’ve changed edged on your skis)
- Thinking the pole is there to support your body weight.
- Stabbing the pole too hard into the snow.
- Not letting the pole fall backward.
Pole Planting Tips
- Learn to pole plant on shallow gradients first before moving up to steeper slopes.
- Start with a nice wide turn radius so you have more time to think through the movements.
- Watch other good skiers and see how they do it or consider taking a professional ski lesson.
Pole Planting in Powder
When skiing off-piste in powder, pole planting becomes even more essential for maintaining balance through your turns. In the video below, expert skier Warren Smith explains how poles on powder act like 4-wheel drive for your skiing.
The poles contact with the snow along with your skis creates three points of contact which gives you better balance and makes you feel light on the powder.
As a lighter skier, you’ll find it easier to manoeuver and turn on steeper powder. Pole planting in powder initiates the turn, allows you to keep a nice timing and shape to your turns and gives your skiing a more enjoyable rhythm. Pole planting is your timing device in the powder to create a smooth flow down the mountain.
Pole planting in a whiteout
Every skier at one time or another will eventually find themselves on the mountain with a heavy cloud or fog approaching and there are few vital techniques you can learn for skiing in a whiteout that will make your day that much easier.
Pole planting in a whiteout is essential because it will give you much greater confidence as you ski into each turn. You can use your poles like antennae to get a sense of how steep the slope is and the depth of the snow when it’s difficult to see what’s in front of you.
Not only will pole planting in low-visibility skiing help you feel the terrain ahead, but it will also allow you to control your speed and set a more accurate course.
Pole planting steep terrain?
Pole planting becomes even more useful when skiing steep slopes and off-piste.When skiing steeper gradients you can use a blocking pole plant to keep your upper body from accelerating downhill.
A blocking pole plant essentially controls (or blocks) the rotation of the upper body and is a great maneuver to make when combined with short quick turns. The key to a blocking pole plant is to plant your pole at the same time as you edge your skis. (you plant the pole into the snow later than you would with a normal pole planting technique.)
This is an advanced pole plant drill and you should be comfortable with a normal pole planting technique on steep blue runs before attempting to block pole plant. Putting your pole into the snow at the wrong angle or if done incorrectly could cause injury.
Blocking Pole Plant Technique
- While skiing short turns, take your downhill pole and plant it below your downhill ski at a 45° angle relative to your ski.
Watch this great video walkthrough by expert skier & instructor Mac…
Blocking pole plants are awesome to be able to use repetitively as you see fit for whenever you feel like you really need to dictate your turn shape and turn speed.
Mac Lyon, Professional Ski Instructors of America
Best Way to Hold Your Ski Poles
Many new skiers struggle with holding their poles correctly and are unsure of how to use the loop.
Using the loops correctly will give you a nice firm grip without having to over clench your knuckles (a major reason for cold hands).
How to Hold Ski Poles
- Use the loops. Put your hand up through the strap hole so the leash of the strap is below your hand.
- Put your hands over the grip of the pole with the strap leash between your hand and the pole.Check out this video walkthrough….
The caveat to this is if you’re off-piste or backcountry skiing many skiers prefer to ski without the loops attached as it’s safer if your poles hit up against a tree or you fall into a tree well.
Benefits of Pole Planting
Learning to pole plant adds a great dimension to your skiing. It sets you up for a smooth turn shape and well-timed rhythm to your body movements.
A well-timed pole plant not only signals an upcoming turn, but it helps you to shift your body weight, change edges and lead to a more natural sequence of right and left turns.
Main Reasons to Use Poles
- Rhythm & timing in turns.
- Propulsion on flats.
- Balance on steeps or powder.
Skiing Without Poles
New skiers learning to snowplough or pizza, control speed, and make their first wedged turns do not need to know how to use their poles to learn the basics of skiing. Many ski instructors see poles are a distraction in the beginning and only become useful (apart from moving on the flats) once the skier has a solid foundation to build upon.
It can even be a benefit to ditch your poles for a few runs while you’re learning to ski. Ski instructors will often take poles off their students for a few runs so the student can focus solely on body position.
Ideally, you have someone with you that can hold you’re poles for a few runs until you reach the flat – if you’re on the baby slopes, then put your poles to one side on a snow bank within easy reach (but not in the way of other skiers).
Once you are able to make wedged turns and on your way to parallel skiing you should begin learning to consciously work on your pole planting technique.
Further reading: Skiing Without Poles: How, Why, and When?
How to Recover a Lost Ski Pole?
If you ever drop your pole off a ski lift – don’t panic. If a skier beneath you sees it, they may try to recover it for you and then either wait for you to get off the lift and ski back down to them or they will go and hand it to the lift operator at the bottom of the slope.
Once you get off the lift, tell the lift operator and he can radio down to the lift operator at the bottom to see if it is being sent up. If not you can ski down to near where you dropped the pole, but unless you’re a good skier don’t go off-piste or near any steep drops.
The terrain may be icy and very difficult to get to. I’d recommend asking a more skilled skier to retrieve your pole – only if it’s safe to do so. If it has fallen down a massive drop or over a cliff then it might be time to say goodbye to your pole. One ski pole isn’t worth risking your life for!
P.S If you want to learn how to ski in challenging snow conditions, read my free guide: How to Ski Safely on Ice and Hard Packed Snow
What to Do With Ski Poles When Getting on Ski Lifts?
Many new skiers struggle with getting on lifts and off ski lifts without their poles being a burden and getting in the way. The best way to keep your poles secure and not get in the way is to take your hands out of the loops and hold both poles in one hand. For chairlifts, Do this just before going through the final barrier where you wait for the approaching lift.
Having a free hand allows you to reach out behind you with your free hand and touch the chair before you sit down. You then have a free hand to pull the bar down over you without your ski poles poking other skies or getting wedged in the lift.
If you want to know more of my top tips for using ski lifts, I wrote a whole guide about it here: How (NOT) to Use Ski Lifts
What to Look for When Buying New Ski Poles?
- The right size for your height.
- Good ergonomic grip.
- Wider ski basket (petal disc above the tip) if you plan to go off-piste skiing.
- Light-weight aluminum (most skiers) of graphite (experts or racers).
- High-quality construction and recommended by other skiers – check the reviews.
If you want to see my in-depth buying guide for ski poles read: Ski Poles – Buyer’s Guide for New Skiers 2019
What size ski pole? Check my ski pole size chart and instruction on how to size your poles here.
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