What Are Ski Poles REALLY For? (Simple Explanation for New Skiers)

by Robert Stanley | Updated: October 27th, 2022 |  Skiing Articles

When skiers first took to the snow hundreds of years ago they used long poles to push themselves forward. Nowadays, most skiing is recreational and gravity is the driving force that takes us down the hill. So, why do we still have ski poles? What do they accomplish?

Ski poles provide the skier with balance, timing, and stability.  The pole plant sets the forward motion, which affects the timing of turns. Using a correct pole plant sets the rhythm and timing through the turn. It can make the difference between intermediate and advanced skiing.

using ski poles

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If Ski Poles are So Important, Why Do You First Learn to Ski Without Them?

ethan walsweer

When you are first learning to ski, you have so many things to think about and juggle. You need to keep the right stance, keep your skis parallel, hold your poles correctly and lean a little forward, among others.

It's a lot to take in, and so if you can simplify things and eliminate one, you will find learning a much quicker process. When first starting out your speed will be that much slower, so you don't actually need poles to help you turn.

You need to crawl before you can walk, right? Learning to ski without poles enables you later to ski successfully with poles, that's the key. 

This includes learning how to make a wedge and transfer your weight from one side to the other so you can make successful turns.  With so much to learn in the beginning, not having poles is one less thing to think about.

You might have skied past some first-day beginners in the past, instantly recognizable from their frozen posture, tongues flicking wildly around their mouths in concentration, and ski poles pointing vertically to the sky. You have more than enough to think about in the early days and that's why you forget about the ski poles.

Should I Use Ski Poles Once I Am Past the Beginner Stage?

Ski poles are an important tool and should be treated as a third point of contact with the ground during each turn. They are a vital part of the balance. If a situation arises out of the blue and you are caught off-balance a quick correcting stab from your ski pole will often get you back under control, where ordinarily you might have fallen.

Key Takeaway: It's best to think of ski poles as corrective instruments, for initiating turns and checking your balance.

They are usually made from aluminum and while strong vertically, it doesn't take much to bend or snap them. So, they're not to be used to put your body weight on.

Do I Need to Use Ski Poles?

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Many new skiers often wonder if ski poles are really required.  After all, you don’t need poles to snowboard. So, ski poles are not required, but they are highly recommended.

Key Takeaway: Ski poles assist with maintaining balance and developing rhythm through your turns, which is the foundation of skiing in more challenging terrain.

The Many Benefits of Ski Poles 

In many resorts, you will find flat sections of runs or areas with only a slight incline.  These areas tend to be toward the bottom of a run, for example, when you are heading back into town.

Poles are very helpful in pushing. If you still have some momentum from the previous hill you can use your poles to extend your pace for some time, especially if you combine it with skating.

Trying to skate on skis can be especially challenging for new and beginning skiers.  In addition, poles can be used to help you get back on your feet if you have fallen but your skis haven't come off.

skier with back protector

As you grow more confident and advance as a skier, poles will also help with your balance and rhythm.  As you advance with parallel turns, moguls, and other challenging terrains, it becomes clear how important poles are in maintaining balance.

Key Takeaway: The ‘downhill’ pole plant is a great habit to get into. By physically touching the snow surface with your downhill pole you initiate the turn.

It is really useful when making short, sharp turns on a steep section, as it gives an extra element of control to your descent.

You can use the downhill pole plant for every turn, although when the turns are easier you can just touch the snow with the tip of your pole rather than a full plant.

Did you know that ski poles can also be used as tools?  It’s true!  Ski poles are handy for a variety of jobs including:

  • Knock off snow stuck underneath boots
  • Flick out powder from bindings
  • Search for a lost ski with the probe of the ski pole
  • Quickly get out of your bindings by popping them open
  • Picking up that glove you always drop when taking a pic

Although you may not realize it, ski poles can give you confidence!  Having the poles in your hands can give you a psychological edge, as they offer an extra level of confidence, as you head down the slopes.

When holding your poles always keep your hands in front and slightly to the side of you when skiing.  There's no need to make large swinging movements when planting a pole to make a turn. The movement should just be in the rhythm of your skiing, as you turn left and right.

What to Keep in Mind When Renting or Buying Ski Poles

Ski Pole Length

Ski poles come in a wide variety of lengths and styles.  So, how do you know which are right for your needs? 

There are different factors to consider in choosing poles, including your height and the type of terrain you are planning to ski.  However, there are also three factors regarding the poles themselves that you need to take into consideration. These are the pole length, what they are made of, and the basket size. Let’s take a look at the importance of each one.

Pole Length

This is hands down the most important factor of the three.  Balance can only be achieved if the pole length fits exactly with the skier’s height.

It is important to note that recreational skiers should use a regular-length pole, while for freestyle skiing, you need a shorter pole that won't catch when you are jumping or rotating.

For racing, a longer-than-average pole is best, which provides more leverage and allows for better tucking.


Aluminum ski poles are often recommended for recreational use, but they do tend to bend or snap easily during falls.  Heat-treated aluminum poles are sturdier and usually have the quality number printed directly on the pole with 6 being the strongest.

Key Takeaway: Although expensive, the best quality ski poles you can buy are made of carbon fiber. These poles offer high stability and damping while remaining super lightweight. 

Basket Size

skiing in Beaver Creek
Photo by Snow Snow licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0

The basket on a ski pole is the circular disc just above the ski tip. The ideal basket size for your ski pole depends on the terrain.  So, where you will be skiing is a determining factor in the size of the basket you will need.

If you are skiing groomed runs, a smaller basket is the best bet, as they lighten the poles and reduce the risk of falling. There is no deep snow on a groomed run, so the pole is unlikely to sink in.

For freeriding ski sessions, you will want a larger basket.  These baskets give you a better grip in the deep snow and help prevent sinking.

Ski poles help skiers to improve their skiing technique.  By providing balance, timing, and stability skiers feel confident, knowing that they are able to negotiate snowy terrain with minimal effort.

Learning to turn with the help of the pole plant is an underrated technique in skiing. It improves your confidence and makes you feel like you are in control.  Finding the right ski pole may take a little extra bit of effort, but in terms of improved confidence and better control, you will experience it is well worth it.