Skiing over the weekend, I took a moment to gaze through the lift lines and found that at least half of the people were using their poles wrong. Poles are a simple enough device; how can you possibly use them wrong? After 40 years of experience, I do have a few notes that may open up a door or two for you.
If you’re in the market for new poles, then there are a few concerns to take into account. If not, skip ahead to learn how to grip the poles correctly. Aluminum and carbon are the primary materials used to manufacture ski poles. Some exotics like bamboo are available but provide no real benefit, so let's leave them out of the discussion. Aluminum is the most cost-effective option and will last you years; however, they do bend easily. Aluminum poles will likely have a few new kinks and wags at the end of life than that first day. If you are a frequent faller (like me), they will show their age quickly. I prefer carbon, they cost quite a bit more, but they last me 4X as long. I am on my second pair since I upgraded 20 years ago.
Telescoping vs. fixed is an interesting question. If your primary use for skis is on a mountain with lifts, there is no good reason to have adjustable poles. The more you lean toward the backcountry, the more you will appreciate the flexibility of varying the length. You may also find telescoping varieties useful for hiking, snowshoeing, and backpacking, so one size will fit all. However, a downhill pole plant can have a significant impact and premature wear on the telescoping hardware.
Baskets, the little plastic things at the end of your poles, have a big job. All of the muscle you put into the handle is translated to forward motion through the basket. Poles with small baskets look a bit sleeker and drove my decision for years. Somehow I equated good skiing with the tiny baskets I saw the racers use. But racers don’t ski powder, and a big basket makes a big difference in powder. I ended up replacing my baskets a few years ago because I couldn’t keep up when pushing through the deep snowdrifts on a powder day. Baskets are still universally replaceable, for the most part. If you plan on many deep powder days, go big on baskets, or buy your favorite poles and replace the basket.
Grips come in all shapes, sizes, and gimmicks. Find the ones you like based on comfort and fit. I don’t read too much into grips. I like the basic ones with no bells or whistles; my gloves add the padding, and I prefer no other complications. However, the one no-compromise feature is the long strap/loop extending from the grip's top.
Straps are a useful tether to your poles, but they can do so much more for your push strength, wrist health, and endurance when used correctly. This is the one move that half the skiers on the mountain should learn. Follow this method of threading your glove through, and they become a precious tool to give you the extra push to propel you to the next powder stash. The correct use of the straps, depicted below, is to come up through the bottom of the loop, then come down on the straps where it connects to the handle. You will be gripping the strap as it comes together on the handle. It takes some adjustment, but when tuned correctly, your glove will fit through the strap from the bottom but tighten as you firm up your grip. The strap across your wrist will absorb all the pushing force taking your hand strength and wrist muscles out of the equation transferring the power to the bigger muscles in your arms. This method attaches the pole more fully to your body geometry, allowing the pole to be an extension of your arm.