Mar 22 2011

The Need for Knee Pads

Back in the day knee pads were worn because you had to drive low to control skinny skis with leather boots and pins. Thus, we wore 'em like a dorky badge of honor.

Make no mistake about it, if you telemark, it’s not a matter of if, but when you will need a pair of knee pads to save your precious knees. You can make all the excuses you want about how your stance is tall and you never ski low so your knees aren’t at risk but time and numbers (probability & statistics) are against you.

The unique mechanics of the telemark turn require one knee or the other to be closer to the ground and potential trouble with each and every turn, especially compared to alpine skiing or snowboarding. Inevitably you’re going to hit something whether you just compress, hook a tip, or bury a ski in such a way that your trailing knee drives straight into the ground and collides with whatever is there.

Most of the time that will simply be a pile of soft snow. But it only takes one time for that to change and the results could be disastrous.

A personal example should be sufficient to reveal the fallacy of thinking you’re immune from smacking your knees while telemarking. Thanks to the example of a friend who clipped a rock with his knee and drew blood I was already a card carrying member of the knee pad clad tele tribe. However, on this particular tour I didn’t think I needed the pads. It was early season and there wasn’t enough snow covering the rocks to be able to do anything steep, and I reasoned I was good enough that I wouldn’t be skiing aggressive or low so I didn’t need to wear the knee pads. To add insult to injury, they were in my pack, but not on my knees.

So I’m cruising through the trees and decide to turn a bit harder to avoid an obstacle. I genuflect a bit deeper, hit a patch of hollow snow and slide to a baseball stop with my knee connecting with a medium sized chunk of granite hidden beneath the surface.

Owwww! Son of a biscuit!!!

The rock connected just above the knee cap where the ligaments tie under the knee. I was lucky since it only caused some deep tissue pain but also knew from the nausea I felt welling up it was more than just a bruise. I hobbled out for about a mile, then limped for another two weeks before I felt I could walk normally. The pain didn’t completely go away until late summer, eight months after the fact. I still have a small knot of damaged tissue after 14 years. It could have been a lot worse and serves to remind me to always wear knee pads now when I’m telemarking. Always.

Besides wearing the knee pads for protection while skiing, I find they have a couple of side benefits. Most importantly they help to keep my knees warm. This seems like a small thing but I believe while my muscles are still warming up this additional insulation helps prevent injury.

Secondly, there are many times when it may be important to kneel in the snow — like digging snowpits or latching the heel lever of a cable binding. Without knee pads I’m more reluctant to do so for the simple fact that this move means my knees will get iced down in the cold snow. With knee pads on this is no big deal. This, by the way, is a solid reason for snowboarders to use knee pads as well, since they are constantly kneeling in the snow.

There are also plenty of times I end up knocking snow off my ski pole baskets. A simple rap on the knee pad shells does the trick and my knees are no worse for the wear.

Inside or Outside

This question always comes up. Should I wear my knee pads inside my pants or fastened around the outside? If your ski pants don’t have roomy, articulated knees, the lack of room demands you put ‘em on the outside. Most folks I know wear ‘em inside for two reasons. One, so they are less conspicuous, and two, so you get the true benefit of the additional insulation and warmth they provide — regardless of the dangers of flying low to the ground. Added to these reasons is the fact that knee pads worn outside your pants will collect snow. This of course means you’ll soon be skiing with ice packs on your knees. Ironically this could be beneficial should you actually trash a knee. But until you bang your knee, I think you’ll prefer the warmth.

Friends also routinely ask me what the best knee pad for telemarking is. In short, the pair you’re willing to wear.

If you’re on a tight budget, or your local shop is out of stock, you can pick up a pair of knee pads at most hardware stores. While not necessarily optimal they will work. Hardware store kneepads unfortunately do tend to be bulky, and/or, they don’t stay in place well. Every knee pad below is low enough profile to fit under a properly designed ski pant, and they stay put — meaning they don’t ride up or down your legs while walking, skiing, or kneeling.

Arc'teryx Knee Cap. More padding and hard shell protection for your upper shin.  click to enlarge

Arc’teryx Knee Cap. More padding and hard shell protection for your upper shin.
click to enlarge

Arc’teryx Knee Caps
Weight: 5.5 oz. (155 g) • MSRP: $59.00

What do users of the Arc’teryx Knee Caps like most? Besides the low profile it boils down to two factors. First, they stay put and don’t slide down your leg or ride up the knee thanks to an elastic upper strap, and solid strap of webbing below the knee. Secondly, they provide thicker foam and thus more warmth. The hard plastic shell extends below below the knee cap to help protect your upper shin, but is prone to cracking.



Black Diamond's Telekneesis knee pads. Reliable, secure strapping and hard shell protection above and below the knee.

Black Diamond’s Telekneesis knee pads. Reliable, secure strapping and hard shell protection above and below the knee.
click to enlarge

Black Diamond TeleKneesis
Weight/pair: 8.5 oz. (240 g) • MSRP: $39.95

I’ve been using the same pair of Telekneesis pads for six years now. They keep my knees warm, and fit under my ski pants with very little excess bulk. The foam padding is thin, but so far appears adequate. The straps hold securely above and below the knee, keeping these pads where they belong. The upper strap is elastic, to allow for expansion and contraction of your thigh muscles above the knee, while the lower strap is solid webbing, preventing the knee pad from sliding down your leg. These straps have padding on them as well to provide some protection to your lower thigh and upper shin. The knee cap tends to bunch up, but you won’t notice while skiing, only when you’re ready to take them off at the end of the day.


Solid. Simple. Backcountry. Voile's Knee Pads. Solid latches on the straps won't let you down.  click to enlarge

Solid. Simple. Backcountry. Voile’s Knee Pads. Solid latches on the straps won’t let you down.
click to enlarge

Voile Knee Pads
MSRP: $32.00
The beauty of these pads, besides a compelling price, is a solid latch that won’t wear out over time as Velcro has a tendency to do. These pads lack a solid shell of protection below the knee, but do provide plenty of padding for warmth and enough for protecting your upper shin.

© 2011


  • Nils

    Good article Craig. It’s been many years since my knees had an impact with anything other than powder, but I still wear pads since it’s such cheap insurance.

    Might also want to note that the very old Arc Teryx pads eventually develop cracks in the plastic — but Arc Teryx has been good about giving customers a pair of the newer kind under warranty. I think I’ve logged 8 seasons on my ‘new’ pair, with no issues.

  • http://www.thompsonpass.com Valdez Telehead

    Simple, cheap safety thing. Good stuff CD.

    I wear my knee pads under the shell. The straps seem less likely to get knocked around, slip down, etc… With the BD pads, I pull them tight, leaving the strap connectors on the outside of the knees, versus the inside. I doubt anyone even notices I have them.

  • Ddog

    Agree completely, also makes it easier on the knees crawling around in the back of the truck. (BTW I think you could substitute the words “releaseable tele bindings” for “knee pads” in your opening line)

  • Pingback: Review: G-Form Knee Pads for backcountry skiers | EarnYourTurns

  • Grant

    I used to have a pair of Marmot ski pants that had pockets sewn in behind the knees. I dropped a pair of rollerblade knee pads in there and they slipped on and off with the pants. I emailed FlyLow asking if they ever considered it, but to no avail. I’ve now switched to NTN and don’t drop so low and have not considered replacing the knee pads. If anyone makes pants with the knee pad pocket, please post it up!