People often assume that the use of fancy two or three-section poles is de rigeur for backcountry use. They reason that climbing uphill may require a shorter length of pole than skiing, and that long traverses will make a short pole desirable on the uphill side, a long one better on the downhill.
Other more budget-minded folks wonder why they can't just tour with the alpine poles they already own. The short answer is that you can tour with non-adjustable poles, and in most cases will hardly notice the difference. In practice, most experienced backcountry skiers seldom adjust the length of their poles, preferring the faster method of simply gripping the pole by the shaft when they need a shorter length (ie. while traversing a steep slope). Very occasionally they will shorten the pole dramatically (for a steep boot-up section, to keep the pole from getting in their way) or lengthen it dramatically (to pole "nordic style" across a frozen lake or flat).
That said, most backcountry folk eventually shell out the cash for adjustable poles of some sort. I've pictured some of the offerings from Black Diamond, but quality adjustable poles are produced by Life-Link, Dynafit, Leki, Gipron, and others. Adjustable poles come in either two or three-section designs, with the three-section models preferred for their shorter length by snowboarders, who commonly carry the poles on their pack for descending.
The joints between sections are typically the weak link in adjustable poles, and personal experience has lead me to conclude that the Black Diamond Flicklock system is both the easiest to adjust in the field and least likely to slip if adjusted properly. Gipron, who used to manufacture the Black Diamond poles, also uses the Flicklock system under license.
There is also a choice between all-aluminum, carbon fiber lowers with aluminum upper shafts, and all carbon-fiber poles. Carbon fiber versions have a somewhat reduced swing weight and take up less space (sometimes an advantage, say when carrying your kid's skis in the same hand with your poles) but may splinter rather than bending, and may also be harder to repair by "splinting" in the field. Many experienced skiers carry a short section of tubing that will fit inside their pole shafts plus a couple of hose clamps for emergency field repairs. With any pole, examine the lower shafts periodically for ski edge nicks that might compromise the strength of the shaft, and replace if necessary.
Whether or not to use the pole straps is a personal decision. There are those who always use them, those who take them off in high avalanche conditions or skiing trees, and those who never use them. If you're in the latter category, you may as well remove them completely to keep them from flopping around.
Self-arrest handles, as represented by the Black Diamond "Whippet" above, are often used by steep skiers anticipating icy conditions. They can be an asset during the climbing phase as well as in an unexpected fall. Other versions are marketed by Life Link and Grivel - the Grivel Condor has a pick that can be retracted when not needed.
© 2015 Gregory C. Louie