Jan 19 2010

Getting a Grip on Cross-Country Poles: They’re Not Just for Skiing, You Know

Gettig a Grip

I use a walking stick when hiking, a sturdy oak “cow cane” of the sort used to shepherd surly bulls through auction barns. When there’s ice and snow on the ground, though, my cow cane isn’t much help. (I’ve sheathed the working end in a crutch tip to keep it from wearing down.) In fact, it’s often a liability. So I swap it out for a pair of cross-country ski poles. These work equally well for snowshoeing or hiking with Yaktrax strapped to my boots. If I know the going will be easy, I’ll sometimes use a single pole. If I expect I’ll be traversing slippery slopes or climbing and descending hills, however, I bring both. Since I like to follow my nose in the backcountry, I usually do just that.

Aren’t ski poles meant for skiers? Sure they are! But there’s no law that says other winter wanderers can’t use them, too. Why be a timid biped when you can be a confident quadruped—or at least a poised triped. Consider ski poles’ many benefits:

  • They improve balance on slippery surfaces and unconsolidated snow.
  • They aid climbing.
  • They help you get up when you take a tumble in deep powder.
  • You can use them to test the integrity of the ice when crossing frozen streams or ponds.
  • You can use them to probe for hollows under the snow.
  • They make great monopods (or bipods) when shooting photos.
  • They can help keep aggressive dogs at bay.

Cross-country ski poles intended for use on groomed trails often have tiny “butterfly” baskets, but those designed for backcountry use are more generously proportioned. If you plan to venture off the beaten track, get the backcountry poles. And while length isn’t as critical as it for skiers, it’s best to get poles that rise about shoulder high. Plant the poles some 18 inches ahead of your feet. Is the handgrip about level with your shoulder? You’re good to go.

Now it’s time to get a grip:

Get a Grip

Note the half-twist in the strap. (I’m holding the sides of the strap apart for clarity’s sake.) This allows the strap to wrap comfortably around your hand and wrist. Here’s the drill:

Get a Grip

Bring your hand UP through the loop, as shown in the first photo above. Now open your hand wide (second photo) and grasp the pole, clamping the strap between your palm and the grip (final photo). The result? Your hand is securely cradled by the strap.

Walking with poles takes some practice, though cross-country skiers will find it easy at the outset. Swing your poles as you’d swing your arms—I’m assuming you’re using two poles here—planting the tip of the lead pole ahead of you and pushing off as you stride past it, while bringing the second pole forward at the same time. Repeat. You’ll pick up the rhythm in no time.

Get a Grip

The wrist strap cradles you hand and eliminates the need to hold the pole in a death grip. You’ll appreciate this when the temperature drops and blood flow to your fingers assumes critical importance.

So much for the basic stride. On steep terrain, or when trekking through brush, you may want to be able to free your hand more easily (and quickly) than the “cradle wrap” allows. At such times, I use this grip, instead:

Get a Grip

By leaving my thumb outside the strap, as shown in the first photo, I can easily ditch the pole if necessary, while still maintaining a secure “controlling” grip (see the second photo, though my hand would normally be higher; I’ve exaggerated the position for clarity).


Get a Grip

The bottom line? Cross-country ski poles are far too useful to be left to skiers. Winter hikers and snowshoers will also find them invaluable. So give them a try the next time you take a walk on the wild side.

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