I’m weird about poles. I’ll cop to that right now. I’ve got strong, strong feelings about what is basically a fancy stick.
As previously explained, I think two segment poles are stupid – despite it being what I normally ski with.
To recap a prior diatribe – two segment poles don’t get short enough to fit in your pack for mountaineering type stuff which makes their collapse-ability pretty useless (and I can count the number of people I’ve seen adjust their poles mid-trip for side-hilling or whatever on one hand), but they still come with all the drawbacks of multi-segment poles. My argument is that you should probably have two sets of poles – a set of three segment poles for mountaineering stuff and a set of fixed length poles for days when you don’t need to toss your poles in your pack. Fixed length poles are stronger, lighter and cheaper if you break them.
Ever since I wrote that piece, I’ve been looking for a set of fixed length poles that were reasonably priced and ideally – brought something new to the table.
Turns out there’s not exactly a lot of innovation happening in poles for skiing powder. In fact, for a while, it looked like there was none. I mean, who’s innovating in the design of fancy sticks?
The answer my friend – is Panda Poles.
Panda Poles is run by a group of skiers, and as far as I can tell, they basically decided they were going to start 100% from scratch in their design and took nothing for granted. With something simple like ski poles, you figure a company might have one feature that they use to differentiate themselves. Panda Poles on the other hand are straight up completely different.
When you buy your Panda Poles, you go onto the Panda Poles website and then configure them up the way you like. Grips, straps, shaft, baskets, everything can be tweaked to be exactly what you like.
The poles I'm reviewing today I paid for (but took advantage of a sale), so there's no paid shill thing going on here despite my overwhelming exuberance. They're 117cm and weigh a rather embarrassingly portly 692g. Oh damn. That ain't light. Exuberance tempered
That ain't light
Let’s start with the simplest part of the pole – the shaft. Most poles are aluminum, some are carbon and Panda Poles are bamboo. Now, they aren’t the only bamboo poles out there, but it’s certainly different. It’s an interesting choice and actually what drew me to the poles in the first place – they look cool, and as Panda Poles point out - they're biodegradable if you break them. Without disassembling the poles to weigh the individual components, I get the impression the bamboo is responsible for a chunk of the weight of these things, and they aren’t exactly featherweights. Panda Poles offers a lighter weight bamboo option, but being someone who breaks gear at an absolutely terrifying pace, I wanted the burliest option.
bamboo and cuteness
Okay, now let’s look at what actually separates these from the rest of the market.
First, and the reason I ponied up for a set of these, is the grips. You can get your grips in different lengths. Yep – different lengths. They’re all tubular grips (no contouring for fingers), which initially worried me about them sliding in my hand, but the rubber of the grips is crazy tacky. In fact, as soon as I touched them, I flipped them upside down and saw an ODI logo on the underside of the grip – yep, looks like the guys at Panda Poles are re-purposing bicycle grips. Wicked idea which lets a small shop keep costs in check AND after a bunch of testing, these don’t move in your hands at all.
The Katana Grips
So long, so grippy
You can pick between a variety of colours and lengths of 6, 8, 9, or 11”. Weird eh? It’s also what makes these amazing. I got the 11” grip which lets me continuously adjust my grip up and down when I’m side-hilling while skinning. Get the 11” grip. It’s way better than the choke-up grip on poles like my Black Diamond Traverses because it’s both more secure thanks to the tacky rubber and easier to fine tune up and down since there is no variation to the diameter is continuous.
Brace yourself for the greatest innovation in straps for backcountry ski poles I’ve ever seen. Are you braced? Like really holding on? You can order Panda Poles with NO STRAPS. Holy shit. Revolutionary. I can’t remember the last time I used the straps on any of my poles – they’re an absolute no-no when in avi terrain, which for me is always. Panda Poles – I just ticked the ‘no straps’ box. Boom. Done. Amazing.
What, are you planning on skiing at a resort?
Up until now I’ve thought the best baskets out there were the Black Diamond ¾ Powder Baskets – they had decent float but the cut-out portion kept the baskets (if properly oriented) from causing the tips to skate when skinning up steep hard-pack.
NOW, there’s the Panda Poles baskets and I never want to use anything else again. Instead of a flexible flat disc, the Panda Poles use a rigid conical basket. You can take your pick from a few colours and diameters of 5, 7, 9, or 10cm baskets (yes, it’s infuriating that they measure their grips in inches and their baskets in centimeters) depending on where you lie on the resort to backcountry spectrum.
Shockingly, I went for the 10cm baskets.
more importantly, they don't get hung up in trees
Panda Poles claims this gives lower drag when the poles move through powder. I didn’t notice any difference on that front. What I did notice was two big advantages.
The first was that like the BD ¾ baskets, there’s no tip-skate when skinning steep hardpack – the rigid baskets can actually grip compacted snow themselves, so while the tip might not be gripping, your poles doesn’t go anywhere and unlike the BD baskets, you don't need to worry about the orientation of the basket.
The second big advantage I discovered is basically life changing for people who spend a lot of quality time swimming through alder on heinous bushwhacks. The conical pole basket means the poles don’t get hung up in trees or bushes. The conical shape guides the pole out before it gets jammed. I want these baskets on every set of poles I own. Zero hyperbole. They’d be amazing (especially the smaller diameter ones) in the summer, shoulder season, mid-winter, any time of year. All baskets, it turns out, should be cones.
The Down Sides
Okay, I’ve raved a lot about these things, but there’s some downsides. Downsides big enough to turn some people off of these otherwise awesome poles.
They weigh a ton.
My set are about 100g heavier the two segment BD Traverse Poles and almost 200g heavier than the G3 Fixie. This is not an insignificant weight difference. Like I said, there’s a lighter weight bamboo available (which Panda Poles estimates would save about 50g per pair so might be worth it) which would reduce the weight penalty, but the pole baskets themselves are giant pieces of rigid plastic and I think there’s a lot of room to shave that weight down. Some cutouts, like you see on standard powder baskets, would be a start. I may take a power drill to mine to lighten them up and I’m not exactly a weight weenie. The poles don’t have a great swing weight, and reducing some of the tip mass would go a long way to fixing that.
Tech Binding Compatibility
I know what you’re asking – how can a pole be tech-binding compatible. Take a look at the grips on your touring poles – see that little ridge or lip on the underside of the top piece of the pole? That’s there to let you lock your toe-pieces when you’re skinning. Flip the pole upside down and flip up the toe-lock.
The Panda Poles don’t have molded grips like normal poles (remember, they’re re-purposed bike grips), so they don’t have a lip for locking your toe-pieces. The rubber is grippy enough to allow you flick heel lifters up and down, but it doesn’t really work for me for toe-pieces.
There’s a solution of course – and that’s to just bend down and lock your toes by hand, but it’s required that I change up how I do things and I don’t like change. At some point I may try and modify the grip to let me lock my toes with it, but it’ll be more involved than just drilling holes like for the baskets.
If in the future Panda Poles adds some cut-outs to the baskets to reduce weight, if they were to add one big enough to hook your toe-lock, that would be an appreciated solution to both problems.
Call this a bonus con. If you live in the states, shipping is a super reasonable $10USD. If you live outside the US? Holy hell it’s expensive. Shipping to Calgary was going to cost $65USD for a set of poles that list for $75USD. I ended up shipping them to a US border town and getting someone to mule them across for me (dutifully declaring them, I swear). The result is that if you live in Canada and don’t have an easy way to pick them up in the states, the shipping basically makes them unmanageably expensive.
So, two big cons – heavy and tech-compatibility and one location dependent mega one. If you can get around the international shipping, then I don’t think the binding thing will be a deal breaker for many people but the weight? That could be a killer. I’ve reached out to Panda Poles to ask for the difference in shaft weight between the two types of bamboo to see if that actually helps appreciably, but the rest of the poles just sort of pile onto the problem
I love these things. They’re too heavy, I hate having to bend over to lock my toes, but I love everything else. I love that they don’t skate when I’m skinning up steep hard pack. I love that they don’t get trapped by branches when I’m bushwhacking. I love that they don’t have straps. I love that they have goofy long grips that let me tweak my hand position up and down.
Panda Poles went back to the drawing board for a product that doesn't see a ton of innovation and has come up with something wildly different that genuinely solves problems. They also did it at a price point that is very reasonable (international shipping aside).
If you live in the states or are have a post box down there or something – add these to your pole quiver (is that a thing?).
Grumpy, cantankerous, wildly opinionated and so much more! Getting really tired on skis is what makes me happy.