I bought Panda Poles because they looked fun, and fun is the reason why I ski. My expectations for them were relatively low; I just wanted a pair of poles that wouldn’t separate when navigating the dense brush that plagues low-elevation skiing just about anywhere but Iceland. While this now past Colorado 2017/2018 ski season was sub-par, my signature set of bamboo Panda Poles put an extra bit of smile on my face every time I went out. My expectations were fairly neutral (as long as they didn’t auto-separate, I would have been happy), yet I found myself very impressed with the functionality of these sticks I bought solely on fun factor.
Everyone notices the green, BMX-inspiried 11 inch Katana grips. The first words out of my snowboarding buddy’s mouth were, “If had to have ski poles, those would be the ski poles I would have.” The somewhat comical-looking combo of the extra-long grips, and bulky Fatty Kush straps provide an assortment of hand position options on deep and / or sidehilling skin tracks that negates the need for adjustable length poles.
On my first over-zealous outing of the year, punching through a minimal snow layer to the ground below, punting myself over fallen logs not yet covered with snow, I was concerned I had purchased a length too short for effective ski touring. Once the snow cover accumulated to the “barely adequate” level that was to define our truncated winter season, I found the sizing guide I had followed on the Panda Poles website was spot-on for my needs. “Hidden Panda,” a balance between “mobility,” and “agility,” for a “square, balanced stance,” gave me an adequate length for propelling myself uphill, and while remaining nimble on the turns down.
The serrated, conical baskets offered a surprising advantage in stability and grip on the ascent compared to the flat, snowflake shaped basket of my previous poles. The flat baskets want to push the pole to an angle perpendicular to the snowpack, while the jagged edges of the Zero Drag Powder Basket bite in with the authority of a sharp hole saw into soft pine. On slopes steep enough to warrant switching to the tallest position on my heel risers, the poles would stand on their own if given a firm jab into the snow.
Bushwhackability was the main advantage I was hoping to gain with the Zero Drag baskets, and the Panda Poles design performed flawlessly in this regard. This past winter, I got in several days of exploring an abandoned ski resort. The mellow pillow lines over basalt rock flows were sublime, a backcountry skier’s dream of open, untracked runs. The second-growth aspen was much more discouraging. In the clarity of hindsight, I wish development hadn’t got as far as it did. Ski runs bulldozed out of aspen groves that would have made for great tree skiing were now nearly impenetrable thickets of second-growth shoots. Eventually, my wanderings brought me to a point where I had to “ski” through several hundred meters of this mess. It’s the sort of skiing that requires one to channel their inner bull elk spirit, point for the least dense section, lower your helmet as a battering ram and charge through to the next opening where you pick your line, and do it all over again. If ever there is a time that ski baskets are likely to hang up, it is during this sort of “skiing.” The cone shape of the Zero Drag basket glided through the thickest of thickets without the slightest snag or awkward tug.
Purchased on a mid-summer whim, my customized Panda Poles helped keep a smile on my face through a low tide winter with their balance of fun and functionality. The grips and straps provided a variety of hand placement options, while the cone-shaped baskets provided stability on on steep slopes, and impeccable bushwhacking. The degree of customization offered by the Panda Poles website is all but irresistible to those such as myself who enjoy sporting the most unique gear on the mountain, with the pragmatism of being able to order a very specific set of, literally, sticks.
The lack of technical features, and propensity for snow-packing will probably not appeal to the mountaineering/expedition crowd, but for the skier more focused on grins rather than grams, Panda Poles are a most excellent choice.