Not all snow feels the same when you're skiing at a ski resort. Different snow surfaces demand different body positions and techniques to master.
In this article, we’ll break down what the primary snow surfaces are. Then, we’ll tell you how best to ski them. Finally, we’ll list some slang terms you may hear on the slopes and what they mean.
Why Are There Different Types Of Snow?
The simple answer is that there’s a lot going on, and it varies by location. The types of snow are really just phases that snowfall goes through once it hits the ground.
Once the snow falls, the sun, wind, and temperature have a say in how the snow acts. For example, the sun can melt the top layer of snow, creating slush. If the sun disappears and the temperature drops, the slush can refreeze into hardpack snow. How the wind blows will impact which areas get the most snow.
The interplay between snow, wind, sun, temperatures, and moisture is why snow can feel so different depending on when and where you’re skiing.
Wet vs. Dry Snow
Distance from a body of water affects the content of the snow. In general, areas closer to oceans or very large lakes may get more volume, but the snow is wetter. Areas farther from water can get drier accumulations but in smaller amounts.
Wet snow is snow with a lot of moisture content. Skiing in wet snow requires a lot of energy because it’s heavier. Learning how to ski in wet snow is generally tougher than learning in drier snow. Areas that pull in a large amount of heavy, wet snow include the Coast Ranges, Cascade Volcanoes, and occasionally the Sierra Nevada of western North America.
Dry snow is light, fluffy, and delightful to ski on. Dry snow occurs in areas farther from big bodies of water. Examples include interior mountain ranges with enough prominence to create an orographic lift. The Rocky Mountains are often singled out for their light, fluffy powder.
Beginner Tips For Skiing The 5 Types Of Snow
For skiers and riders just starting out, stick to groomed terrain. It is the most easily managed. I also strongly recommend ski lessons until you can stop on command and connect at least five parallel turns while traveling at speed.
Below are the five most common types of snow found at ski resorts. Think of them like primary colors, there are many snow variations, but they all borrow elements from one of the five below. In all cases, you want the right pair of skis to handle various types of snow.
1. Groomed Terrain
Groomed terrain, or groomers, is a type of skiing that relies on slopes that have been manipulated by ski resort equipment. These slopes are usually managed for smooth skiing and speed.
How To ski Groomed Terrain
Use the Grooming Report
Resorts groom runs after the last lift of the day and before the first lift the following day. They usually release a grooming report that shows what they groomed and when they groomed it. Runs that have been groomed recently have the best conditions.
Learn on it
Groomed terrain is by far the best learning environment for new skiers and riders. Find low-angle groomed slopes (usually marked Green in North America) and practice stopping, turning, and managing speed.
Forward body position
Lean slightly forward so that your shins touch the tongue of your boots. You don’t need to lean far, but a forward-leaning athletic stance encourages control.
Outside ski pressure
When you make a turn on a groomer, you have a downhill and uphill ski. When you turn left, your downhill ski is your right ski. For a right turn, it’s your left ski. Push down more on your outside ski to create more fluid turns.
Connect your turns
Groomed ski runs can help you pick up lots of speed. A series of connected turns while pressing down on your outside ski will help you manage speed and slow down when you need to.
Using your edges for stopping
On groomed snow, as you turn, tilt your skis so that your ski edges scrape against the snow. This added friction will help you to stop a lot faster.
The hardest part of skiing is getting comfortable with the equipment and how it works. This takes time. Don’t be tempted to head into ungroomed terrain if you aren’t ready. It only takes one ski accident to ruin a season.
Of the five types of snow skiing, powder is the most sought-after. Powder is natural snow that has just fallen from the sky. For beginners, powder is also one of the hardest types of snow to ski.
How To Ski Powder
Powder skiing is fun, but it can be very cold, wet, and windy. If you have poor circulation, look into heated gloves.
Get the right skis
You want a wider ski width underfoot to help you float on top of the powder. Skinny skis will sink, which can eject you out of your bindings.
Keep your skis closer together
Skis that drift apart in powder will lead to awkward falls. If your skis are together, you have a wider platform underfoot to push through new snow.
Keep the pressure even
Unlike the groomers, in powder, you want even pressure on both skis through a turn. If you favor the downhill ski, it will sink under the snow.
Adjust your body position
For powder skiing, either center your stance over the middle of your skis or lean slightly back to help keep those ski tips up. Keep in mind that if you lean back too far, you’ll either fall or hurting your knees.
Use the right ski goggle lenses
For low visibility, you want low-light lenses. These are the lenses that are lighter in color and will allow you to identify terrain obstacles when it's otherwise tough to see. Dark lenses are for bright days and help blunt sun glare.
Be mindful of avalanches
Some ski resorts have steep enough terrain to slide; for backcountry skiing and ski mountaineering, it’s a constant concern. Keep to lower-angle runs and stay out of areas that have been roped off by ski patrol.
Make fewer turns in low-angle terrain
Powder will slow down your top speed. In low-angle terrain, keep momentum by avoiding short turns, which could throw you off balance or slow you down too much.
Crud is the leftovers after powder. There are some powder stashes left, but a lot of crisscrossing ski tracks create an uneven snow surface. This uneven surface can lead to accidents if you aren’t paying attention.
How To ski Crud
Variable conditions can throw off your body position if you’re going too fast.
Center your mass
When skiing through a quick area of powder you need to center your mass and push down with even pressure on both feet.
Use your edges
Use your edges when you're on the tracked-out, harder snow surface between powder pockets.
Make your legs like springs
Maintain a dynamic bend in your ankles and knees. If you stiffen up, you’re more likely to twist or break something.
Crud skiing will wear on your legs. Many accidents occur toward the end of the ski day when your legs are tired, and you don’t want to put in the muscle effort.
Keep your eyes forward
With variable surface conditions, crud is best skied if you can maintain your sight downhill. It’s tempting to look at your feet, but that can lead to nasty surprises if you aren’t paying attention to what’s in front of you.
In many resorts, parts of ski runs are groomed, while others aren’t. Start on a groomer, slow down, and then try a few turns in crud to feel the difference. With the groomer close by, you can always bail back to smoother conditions.
Skiers and riders love to say that you never really get ice on ski slopes, and technically they’re right. But you do get snow that’s so compressed and slippery underfoot that it displays all the classic elements of ice. Skiing on ice or hardpack is difficult.
How To ski hardpack/ice
Falling while skiing on ice or hardpack is like falling into a brick wall; it hurts.
Rely on your edges
Scrape through your turns to increase friction.
Edge through the ice.
If you find an icy section, slow down, turn your skis sideways to the slope and dig your edges in. With a little forward lean your edges can take you across an icy section back to safety. It’s very rare that ice extends entirely across a ski run.
Stay out of the bumps.
While snow coverage may be good, hardpack bump skiing can destroy your knees.
Get the grooming report
Find the groomed slopes and stay on them to develop confidence; they will be the most supportive slopes when the rest of the mountain is icy.
Keep a forward stance
On skis, it’s MUCH easier to fall backward than forwards. While it seems counterintuitive, leaning a little forward gives you more control.
5. Spring Snow
Once the springtime sun regains dominance over the land, its influence on the snow surface increases. Springtime can feature powder, but after storms disappear, fluctuating temperatures create complications.
How To ski spring snow
Choose your time of day
If it freezes overnight, the snow surface will be firm and tougher to ski in the morning. Waiting for the snow surface to soften up will lead to a more enjoyable set of runs.
Watch the temperature
If it doesn’t freeze overnight and it’s supposed to get warm, ski in the morning when the snow is firmer. Warm afternoon snow is skiable, but you’ll be sliding through every turn and using extra energy to maintain your turn shape and speed.
Try the bumps
In early spring, with slushy afternoons, the snow surface will be softer, making it easier to dabble in bump skiing. Keep an eye on the trough or the gaps between bumps; they’re usually the parts that melt out first.
Be very cautious in the trees
Glade skiing or skiing in the trees is great if there's enough snow. When things start to melt, be very, very careful going into the trees. Exposed roots, rocks, and trees can break bones.
Use warm weather wax
You should get your skis waxed regularly to increase glide, but warm-weather wax is tailor-made for warmer temperatures.
Retreat to groomed terrain if it’s too thin or slushy
Even when the rest of the mountain is suffering from slush, you can find a bit of reprieve on equipment-manipulated terrain.
In addition to practice and lessons, proper equipment can turbocharge your progress.
Ski boot selection, in particular, is one of the most important aspects. Take a look at our ski boot size chart to narrow down your options. When you’re ready, pour through our comprehensive beginner, intermediate, and women’s boot guides to compare options.
Learning how to ski in different snow types will dramatically improve your abilities, but patience is the key to successful skiing. If you bite off more than you can chew, you risk season-ending injuries. Building skills slowly and logically gives you the right platform to ski all the types of snow out there.
*The information on this site is based on research and first-hand experience but should not be treated as medical advice. Before beginning any new activity, we recommend consulting with a physician, nutritionist or other relevant professional healthcare provider.