Snowshoeing Guide: Ice Axes and Snow Poles

ice axeWe’re coming into the home stretch with our Snowshoeing Guide. So far, we’ve touched upon what to wear, choosing the right pair of snowshoes, and the technique involved, and I hope those of you who are newcomers to snowshoeing have learned a lot thus far. Today, we’ll take a closer look at two pieces of gear that you’ll never want to leave home without when you’re snowshoeing: snow poles and an ice axe.

Snow poles are vital to have on a snowshoeing venture to ensure a safe, successful outing. They’ll help improve your balance while traveling forward, as well as when negotiating unsure areas and performing risky moves to find your way over, around, or through obstacles. Furthermore, snow poles also help propel you forward while moving by offering two more points of contact. In an extreme wildlife emergency, you can also use them to defend yourself against animals.

When shopping for snow poles, try to get telescoping poles that come in two or three sections (three is best). Three section telescoping poles pack down to about 30 inches so that they fit nicely in or on your backpack. They also can be easily adjusted to fit your stature (be sure to keep your arms at a 90-degree angle when holding snow poles). Also, it’s important to be able to adjust your poles when traversing a hillside—short pole on the uphill and long pole on the downhill—to stay balanced.

With snow poles it’s also important to buy cross-country, oversized snow baskets that are about five inches in diameter. Small snow baskets tend to get stuck in the snow too easily. If your poles don't come with the oversized baskets, you can buy them separately at most outdoor retailers and then install them yourself.

Any activity that takes you to a mountainous backcountry, not just snowshoeing, is a situation where an ice axe is a potential lifesaver. With an ice axe, you’ll also want to know how to self-arrest and self-belay, which are critical skills that are not hard to learn. Be sure to familiarize yourself with these techniques until they become like second nature, especially if you plan on spending a lot time outdoors each winter.

If you take time to shop carefully and consider your needs, you won’t have any trouble finding several lightweight ice axe options at your local retailer. Models from Grivel, Black Diamond and Camp are safe bets, and tend to be quality, reliable choices.

Snow poles will help keep you safer by distributing your weight over a broader area and offering two more points of contact for balance, while a reliable ice axe can be great not only for emergencies, but to access hard-to-reach spots and navigate obstacles. Any winter outdoorsmen would do well to add both to their gear arsenal this winter.