Poles or no poles? One pole or two? These questions can pose quite a conundrum for snowshoers. Of course, poles can provide balance and stability while snowshoeing, but whether or not to use them is another matter. The truth is the answer to selecting poles truly lies in the intended purpose and functions of the poles and the user’s preference.
When I snowshoe, I use a single staff. But, some snowshoeing enthusiasts prefer hiking with dual poles or Nordic poles for upper-body aerobic exercise. But since I most often hike or snowshoe at a moderate pace while stopping to take in views every so often, I usually do not want an upper cardio workout with poles.
Here, we discuss the difference between using one pole or two, tips for choosing the best poles for you, and a few brands of poles to keep in mind.
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Using a Single Pole
There are multiple functions for my single hiking staff, including the following:
- Maintain balance while crossing a log or hiking on a boardwalk or a narrow path. The older I get, the more I find the balance function relevant.
- Help with momentum or propulsion when ascending a steep hill or grade
- Reduces stress on the knees when putting weight on the staff while descending a hill. An adjustable staff is ideal so you can make the pole shorter when going up and longer when going down.
The staff I prefer using is my Austrian-made Komperdell Hiker Staff. I use it year-round when hiking and snowshoeing. Unfortunately, the model I use is no longer made, but it’s similar to Komperdell’s adjustable Camera Walking Staff. The Camera Walking Staff is a twist-lock, 3-section telescoping aluminum staff. It has a combination cork/foam grip, a wrist strap, and a cork top that unscrews and serves as a camera mount. Many photos in articles with me in the foreground are taken with a camera placed atop my Komperdell staff using a timer function.
Jokingly I tell people I also use my single staff for poking the person in front of me who is moving too slow and fighting bears, although bears hibernate in winter. But I prefer the single-pole because it frees my other hand when needed, such as taking something out of my daypack or pocket, grabbing small trees to pull me up a steep hill, or moving branches that may be in my way along a trail.
Using Two Poles
In the book, Snowshoeing: From Novice to Master, the late Gene Prater (edited by Dave Felkley) wrote, “There is no reason to be in two-wheel drive while in four-wheel-drive country. Using one pole or an ice ax in mountainous terrain or deep snow will provide you with power-assist only. Using double poles, however, will give you fully available balance and power, making snowshoeing much easier.” Thus, dual hiking poles have many advantages.
Dual trekking poles also have a slightly different function than single poles. “I like poles to maintain a rhythm while hiking uphill, for added stability on downhills or sidehills.” writes Claire Walter in The Snowshoe Experience. She sums it up with dual poles providing a rhythm on hills or a straight-packed trail. They do help to keep a cadence. One could almost hum the tune to John Philip Sousa’s “The Stars and Stripes Forever” when in motion with snowshoes and poles…….right pole, left ‘shoe; left pole, right ‘shoe; repeat.
So, One Pole or Two?
So as a summation, using two poles provides more balance, more propulsion, and a rhythm to your snowshoeing. Plus, two poles can give an upper-body workout. However, using two poles also takes up both of your hands.
Only carrying one staff allows you to free up a hand so you can access your pockets or gear when needed. However, you still get the benefits of balance and propulsion while snowshoeing, though not to the level you would with two poles.
Choosing Your Poles
After you’ve decided whether you prefer dual trekking poles or single hiking staff (perhaps you may want both), what type of poles will you choose? Here are a few tips.
Adjustable or Fixed?
If you are in the market for buying poles or staff for snowshoeing, I recommend you first decide for what purpose you intend to use them, such as for leisure hiking, power-walking, backpacking, nature photography, etc. Then, your goal can help you decide if you want adjustable to fixed poles.
Some snowshoers use a fixed wooden staff or a pair of cross-country ski poles. These poles work well for snowshoeing on flat terrain, rolling hills, and leisurely strolls.
But adjustable or telescoping poles are more versatile for high climbs, traversing steep hills, or frequent variations in elevation. In addition, adjustable poles break down to a packable and transportable size, so you can store them easily when not in use (sizes can range from 22 inches collapsed to 55 inches extended).
Two or Three Sections?
If you choose an adjustable staff, they come in a two-piece or three-piece pole.
Two-piece poles are usually more rigid compared to three-piece. Thus, they are helpful for fairly level hikes or hikes that don’t require drastic adjustments in pole length. But, two-piece poles typically don’t collapse as small and can be harder to store. However, two-piece poles can work well if you expect to use them throughout the hike or have a backpack with a pole loop or other features to consider.
On the other hand, three-piece poles tend to be more compact (therefore easier to store in your pack) and practical when regularly ascending or descending hills. But, they may not be as rigid. So, like using one pole or two, it’s your preference when choosing a two or three-piece pole.
MSR’s DynaLock poles include the two-section DynaLock Trail Backcountry Poles and the three-section DynaLock Ascent Backcountry Poles. The Trail is the lowest cost of the DynaLock options and is excellent for recreational hikes that don’t require drastic adjustments. The Ascent, on the other hand, are lightweight, technical poles made of Kevlar-reinforced carbon fiber and an excellent option for the mountaineer.
What Type of Locking Mechanism?
Adjustable poles have various types of locking mechanisms.
Decide what kind of locking mechanism you prefer – twist, flick, lever, push-button. Then, check the poles to ensure the lock doesn’t slip when applying pressure to the pole. Many poles now also have an auto-deploy mechanism. So with the push of a button, your poles will unsnap for you.
Black Diamond, for example, makes some poles, such as their Trail Trekking Poles, with a unique locking system called “FlickLock.” This system allows the hiker to quickly and easily alter the pole’s lengths with gloves while snowshoeing.
Although Leki has a wide price range for their many pole selections, their Super Lock is available on a wide variety of poles (like on the single Super Micro Trekking Pole) and has proven to withstand over 300 lbs of force!
Don’t Forget the Basket
Pole baskets (small baskets near the pole tip) are crucial in the snow. The basket prevents your pole from puncturing too deep into the snow, so you don’t accidentally lose balance or dip too deep with your pole.
Some poles will come with snow baskets as an attachment. Or, some will have interchangeable baskets for all-year-round use. No matter, make sure the pole comes with an adequate size basket.
As a backup to my go-to Komperdell staff, I use an REI Summit Trekking Staff, made in collaboration with Komperdell. Unfortunately, the Summit Trekking Staff is also no longer produced. However, a similar comparison is REI’s Trailbreak Trekking Poles. The Trailbreak poles are only sold as a pair. They are a three-section aluminum pole with a slightly larger basket (called a snow or powder basket), foam grip, and fabric wrist straps.
Take Materials Into Account
Typically poles with shafts made of high-quality aluminum alloy or carbon fiber tend to be strong. The strength of the pole is important since you’ll most likely be putting weight on the pole for balance and propulsion while ascending or descending a hill.
In addition to the material, look for poles with a flex carbide tip and rubber cap. You can use the cap to go over the end during the non-snow season. In winter, I remove the rubber cap that covers the metal carbide tip. Then, I attach the small round plastic basket (see point above) that helps keep the pole from sinking into the snow.
The materials also affect the pole’s weight. For example, carbon fiber is strong but tends to weigh less than aluminum. Thus, carbon fiber is an excellent material for poles to use when mountaineering. Unfortunately, though, carbon fiber can also be expensive.
Gossamer Gear has ultra-light carbon-fiber compact poles with carbide tips, including the LT5 Three-Piece. This model is the updated version of their popular LT3 and LT4.
Select a Comfortable Grip
Select a pole/staff with a comfortable grip and wrist strap for your hands and wrists.
Various grips include plastic, foam, rubber, or cork. Rubber grips tend to provide the most insulation for cold-weather activities. Cork grips can most easily conform to the hands, while foam grips tend to be the softest.
Some grips are also designed ergonomically with a slight 10 to 15-degree bent angle.
I own a pair of twist-adjust, 3-section aluminum Sherpa trekking poles from Yukon Charlie’s. These poles have rubber grips to prevent slipping and include snow and trekking baskets that you can change. I tend to use these poles while snowshoeing on a snow-packed trail and those rare occasions when I add an aerobic twist to my hike.
In addition to the tips above, you may want to decide whether you want additional features in your pole.
For example, if you enjoy outdoor photography, do you want a pole with a camera mount (like Komperdell’s Camera Walking Staff)?
Or, if you want additional protection for your joints, you may wish for poles with shock-absorbing capability. Note that poles with anti-shock mechanisms weigh more than poles without.
Mountainsmith has an aluminum three-section trekking pole, the Carbonlite Pro, with extended-length handles and a spring-loaded anti-shock system.
Double Check Sizing
Like snowshoes, try your poles out for size.
Make sure the adjustable staff extends to the length you need. Your elbows should be bent slightly above a right angle when holding the poles. Also, your hand should be slightly higher than your elbow.
If you’re taller than 6 feet, you may want to choose poles with a maximum length of at least 51 inches.
Decide How Much To Spend
The more technology features and the higher quality of the pole that you choose, the higher the price. Top-quality poles can cost from about $100 to $200 a pair. Some good-quality single and dual poles range from $30 to $100.
I would caution against buying an inferior brand staff or set of poles for, say, $10 to $20. You get what you pay for in that case. And since you will be relying on poles for safety and comfort when snowshoeing, I recommend upping the ante when purchasing them.
Try Poles on Your Next Snowshoeing Adventure
If never having used a staff or trekking poles, give them a try. You may discover the many benefits. And again, are two poles better than one? After giving them a try, it depends on what you like the most.
If only Moses had a pair of three-section telescoping, 6,000 aluminum alloy trekking poles with locking mechanisms and an anti-shock cushioning system, and a tungsten carbide flex tip with a supersize powder basket. Add in a camera mount, and he probably could have parted the Red Sea in awesome style. And he could have taken some incredible photos too.
Do you use poles while snowshoeing? One pole or two? Please share your favorites with us in the comments below.
This article was first published on February 11, 2013. Susan Wowk most recently updated it on August 18, 2022.