Two of the most frequently asked questions by skiers of all levels are, "What do I use my ski poles for?" and "What do you look for in a good pair of ski poles?" True, they come in handy for whacking the snow off the bottom of your boots or popping your heel out of your bindings, but there must be a reason why expert skiers will pay over $200 for a sleek pair of ski poles.

Ski poles, depending on a skier's experience and ability, can be either an essential part of your equipment or just something extra you have to tote back and forth to the car. Beginning skiers often find comfort in knowing they have something extra to lean on while learning how to ski and to help them get back onto their feet after a tumble.

However, ski poles can actually hinder your skiing more than they help it once you reach the intermediate level or higher. Many ski instructors actually take their students' poles away from them during classes so that they focus more on what their feet are doing than what contribution their poles are making.

Ski poles come in an infinite number of shapes and materials, from thick and heavy to lightweight and lithe. You can spend anywhere from $20 for a simple pair of poles to more than $200 for graphite or carbon fiber beauties. Just about any simple pole will suffice if you've just learned how to ski and are still learning how to navigate on groomers.

Look for sturdy poles with shafts made out of aluminum or some other metal material. Turn the pole upside down and grab the shaft just underneath the basket retainer to determine the correct size. Your forearm will be parallel to the floor if you have the correct length ski pole. If your poles are too short, they will prevent you from standing erect while skiing. If your poles are too long, they will push you back onto your heels and make turning difficult.

Once you've reached the advanced-intermediate level and start exploring black diamond runs, moguls, skiing off-piste, or skiing in variable snow conditions, your poles become your best friend. Poles serve as an extended platform in advanced levels of skiing that contributes toward better balance and timing. It's often helpful to use lighter weight ski poles made from graphite or carbon fiber material at this level. Lighter weight poles are easier to swing and react better to sudden changes in conditions.

Two other important parts of ski poles are the grips and baskets. Most ski pole grips are made from a hard rubber, non-slip material, and are pre-formed to fit comfortably in your hand. The strap is attached at the top of the grip. Straps are designed to be worn while you ski and can offer added support when using them to support your weight. They insure that your poles stay with you and won't get accidentally dropped behind you.

While the straps on most popular ski poles are permanently attached to the grip, there are models that are designed to release from the grip if your pole gets stuck in the snow or in the trees. This can save you from expensive and painful shoulder injuries. Many people using poles without releasing straps choose to ski without them when they ski in the trees or through other obstacles that could grab onto the baskets.

The majority of the poles you buy off the shelf will come with a simple pair of small, circular baskets designed to be used on groomed or packed runs. However, you may want to invest in a pair of larger baskets that will stay on the top of the snow surface if you enjoy skiing off-piste or in deep powder. Poles with too small baskets will tend to "post hole" or drive through the snow, causing you to lose your balance or force your weight too far forward on your skis.

Another popular design in ski poles uses "telescoping" segments that can easily be adjusted for specific terrain. They're also handy if you want to loan your poles to someone who's taller than you. Telescoping ski poles are popular for backcountry skiing and hiking during the summer. You simply twist and pull on the segments of the poles to the desired length to adjust the length. Telescoping ski poles can collapse and be tucked into your baggage when it comes time to fly home.

Ski poles, too often overlooked as unimportant parts of your ski equipment, can make big differences in the way you ski and the type of terrain you can handle. They're one of the least expensive but important parts of your gear.