New To Ski

Skiers Guide to Different Types of Snow (& What They Look Like 🌨 )

by Simon Naylor | Updated: October 27th, 2022
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If you’re new to the mountain you might not realize that there are a whole host of different types of snow depending on how it’s formed and what it’s like to ski on. Skiing or snowboarding is wildly different depending on the snow conditions. Some types of snow are much easier to ski on, while others need much more concentration just to stay on their feet.

Some terms are more widespread while some skiers use slang terms to describe the conditions. I’ve put some slang alternatives beneath each snow type and a technical run-through of the words and acronyms ski resorts use in their weather reports.

As you grow in confidence and ability and take on more of the mountain in all weather, you’ll eventually get to experience every snow condition for yourself. In the meantime, here’s some insight on what to expect and some tips on how to adjust your skiing technique, so you can crash less and have more fun!

Bumpy, Choppy, Or Tracked Out

moguls skiing

This usually happens later in the day when the fresh powder has been ridden over and ‘chopped’ up into troughs and banks. As more and more skiers ride through the powder and whip up the powder it clumps up in areas.

While it’s not perfect, it’s still fun to ride (especially compared with hard-packed or concrete snow). Powder with several clean lines through it is known as Chop.

⛷Technique:

Flexible knees, ready to bounce.

Slang:

Crud

Concrete

Frozen snow is as hard as its name. It might look like powder from a distance but you’ll soon notice the distinctive shimmer and feel its solid surface beneath you.

⛷Technique:

Brace yourself, hold a strong stance, no sudden movements, and ski to safety.

Slang:

California Concrete

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Corduroy Or Cord

corduroy

Each day snowplows plow the groomed slopes to loosen up the snow and create an evenly grooved surface. Riding a freshly groomed run without snow cannons will have lots of tiny grooves to ride over created by the snowplow tracks imprinted on the snow.

⛷Technique:

Ignore the sound it makes.

Crust

Crusting snow like a crumble has a hard outer shell and a softer inner if you can break through to it. This typically happens when the snow softens a little in warmer temperatures and then a cold snap freezes the top layer.

Dust On Crust

backcountry skiing

This happens when a light snow dusting drops fresh snow onto crusty or concrete snow. You might mistake it for powder, but you’ll quickly feel the hard bottom.

⛷Technique:

Be aware; that you might still break through the crust.

Slang:

Breakable Crust

Dusting

winter wonderland
Photo by GollyGforce – Living My Worst Nightmare under CC BY 2.0

Just like dusting sugar on a sponge. This means a light snowfall that has left a very small amount of fresh snow that won’t last long before being blown away.

⛷Technique:

Pretend you are riding through a cake shop.

Groomers

Groomer
Photo by Yellowstone National Park licensed under Public Domain Mark 1.0

The term for any ski run that has been prepared by the resort’s snowplow. Conditions vary wildly from ‘cord’ to fresh snow cannon powder.

Hard Pack

Compacted snow crystals form a hard solid surface. More challenging to ski on but not as bad as concrete. With this type of surface, you’ll benefit from sharper edges and a more solid skier’s stance.

See Also:  Can You Ride Down A Ski Lift? (Why It's Not Always Possible)

⛷Technique:

Slightly wider stance, slide with patience.

Slang:

Bulletproof

Read my free guide: How to Ski Safely on Ice and Hard Packed Snow.

Champagne Powder

Champagne powder snow
Photo by Julian H under CC BY-ND 2.0

This is the name for light, fluffy and fine snow crystals. Found after a recent snow dusting.

⛷Technique:

Float & smile.

Ice

True ice is very rare on the slopes, but this is used to describe very hard-packed completely frozen snow with no dustings. Usually in small patches and has a distinct shimmer appearance to it.

⛷Technique:

Slide through it. No sudden movements unless you have the edge control of a samurai.

Slang: 

Blue

Packed Powder

Old snowfall that has been compacted by time and other skiers. The powder has been squashed but not wholly packed hard. The snow is dry, no longer fluffy but still ok for skiing on.

⛷Technique:

As normal.

Hero Snow

powder ski

A skier’s dream. When there is so much light fluffy snow that every fall is cushioned with a bed of powder.

⛷Technique:

Shred.

Slang: 

Chokable

Powder

skiing in snow

Fresh snowfall. Beautiful light and fluffy snow. Perfect conditions.

⛷Technique:

In deep powder, point your skis and have a slightly narrower stance.

Slang: 

Pow-pow

Sticky

Snow becomes a sticker and slower as the temperatures rise and the water content increases. Snow tends to get sticky after rainfall and then in colder nighttime temperatures may re-freeze.

⛷Technique:

Make longer wider turns so you’re not as tired.

Slang:

Chowder, Colorado Super Chunk.

Slush Or Spring Snow

When the temperatures rise, the snow starts melting and has an even higher water content. Slushy snow starts in the spring and summer and gets slushier the warmer it is and lower down the mountain you are.

⛷Technique:

Use warm weather wax.

Slang:

Corn, Mashed potatoes

Untouched

Fresh powder that has yet to be skied in. The opposite of tracked-out snow. Make your own lines and ride in any direction across the slope to claim your first line.

⛷Technique:

Flexible knees for hidden bumps or troughs.

Slang:

Freshies

More Snow Slang You Might Hear ❄: 

Snow Pellets: Hail
Wet powder: Powder after rainfall
Grapple: Like hail or sleet but rounder and thicker
Surface Hoar:Flaked frost that forms on cold snow at night
Watermelon:Reddish/pink snow caused by algae
Snow Grains:Very small grains of ice
Cold Smoke:Light floating crystals that follow skiers in fresh powder
Mashed potatoesLumpy, soft snow in the spring
Freshie:Virgin snowfall found in the morning
Ball Bearingslittle firm balls of snow
Snirt: Dirty snow
Wind slab:Hard stiff snow blown into banks
Loose Granular:When wet snow is groomed it can create small pellets
Styrofoam:Snow feels empty and hollow
Poo ice:Dirty packed snow (exposed soil)
Cauliflower:Snow near the snow cannons: lumpy powder
Brown:Dirty snow or mud showing through
Granular:Big flakes like rock salt
Cornice:Windblown snow formation is beautiful and unstable
Pow-pow:Loose, fluffy powder
Pillow drift:Snowdrift across roads
Penitents:Tall blades of snow
Data source.

Ski Forecast Terms (Technical)

Ski resorts will often report the snow conditions using a variety of the terms below.

⛷Ease of skiing scale: 1=Very difficult. 10=Very easy.

Average base:The depth of the snow on a run in the middle of the mountain.
Base:The range of the base depth from low to high across each open ski trail.
Corn:Semi-loose granules freeze at night and then loosen during the day. Usually found in the spring. Ease of skiing: varies between 4 – 6
Frozen Granular (FG):Sugary texture to the snow. FG surfaces will generally support a ski pole plant but are the hard surfaces of old snow formed by granules freezing together after rain or warm temperatures. Opaque and difficult to ski on. Ease of skiing: varies greatly between 4 – 8
Hard Pack (HP):Firmly packed snow. HP snow is packed from snowplow grooming or by wind rather than re-crystallized like FG. Your skis won’t puncture a hard-packed surface. Ease of skiing: varies between 5 – 7
Ice (I or Icy):Hard, glazed surface caused by frozen rain. Not very common, but look for the shimmer it creates to avoid. Ease of skiing: 1 – 3
Loose Granular (LSGR):This occurs when snow or sleet thaws and then refreezes. An icy surface that often breaks apart on contact. Even more difficult to ski on than FG or ice. Ease of skiing: varies between 1 – 2
Machine Groomed Granular (MGG):Repeatedly groomed LSGR that is more compact by snowplows. It occurs after thaws and re-freezes and then a machine has groomed the slope.  Ease of skiing: varies between 3 – 6
Man-Made Granular (MMG):Exactly the same as MGG, just a different way of saying it.
Packed Powder (PP):Dry snow that has been packed down by machines or other skiers. Decent surface to ski on. Slang: fully tracked out.  Ease of skiing: varies between 7 – 10
Primary Surface:The conditions you can expect on 70% of the open terrain at a ski resort.
Secondary Surface:What you expect on at least 20% of the terrain.
Variable Conditions (VC):A range of conditions and no primary surface. Expect a range of conditions from bad to good depending on the area of the mountain. Ease of skiing: 4 – 6
Wet Granular Snow (WETGR):Loose or frozen granular snow that gets wet after rainfall or warmer temps. Not difficult to ski on. Ease of skiing: 6 – 8
Wet Packed Snow (WETPS):Packed snow from skiers or machines that then gets wet from snowfall or mist. Moderately difficult to ski until it re-freezes and becomes more challenging. Ease of skiing: 6
Wet Snow (WETSN):Powder that gets wet from melting in the sun or originally falls with higher water content. Challenging to ski on until it packs out. Not light or fluffy. Ease of skiing: 4
Windblown Snow (WBLN):Drifts and banks of windblown snow. Ease of skiing: 4
Data source.

P.S Checking a resort’s webcam is another way to get an idea of how the snow conditions look; and at least to see how busy the slopes are.

ski resort webcam
Webcam snapshot from Sierra Nevada, Spain

Four Types of Snow Crystals ❄:

Not only is there a massive difference in the snow conditions across different weather, but snow itself can fall and form into four different types of crystals.

See Also:  Night Skiing? Read This Guide

1. Snowflakes

these are single or clusters of ice crystals that fall from clouds. They are white, flakes and are often symmetrical (but never identical). On the ski slopes, this will settle as powder on the first day and become packed snow over time.

2. Hoarfrost

When ice crystals fall onto a surface (branches, leaves, etc) that has a lower temperature than the surrounding atmosphere, the crystal rapidly freezes into a solid state with beautiful unique shapes.

Hortensia and hoarfrost
Photo by Michael Mueller under CC BY 2.0

3. Polycrystals

This is the name given for snow crystals made up of lots of individual ice crystals.

4. Hail

These are opaque, pill-shaped ice crystals that are formed when ice crystals move through supercooled water droplets. When these are below 5mm in size they’re known as graupel.

Hail Snow
Hail. Photo by Keith Moore

Research help from livelearn.ca

Types of Snowfall 🌨

1. Blizzards

A powerful winter storm that lasts at least three hours often lasts for days. Freezing temperatures and very strong wind. It can produce heavy amounts of snow, increased avalanche risk, and fierce dangerous conditions. Time to seek shelter and get off the mountain if a blizzard is approaching. Ski lifts and gondolas will become dangerous to use.

2. Snow squall

Characterized by an intense but brief snowfall. Reduced visibility and strong winds, but over quickly.

3. Blowing snow

Wind causes ground snow to rise up and reduce visibility. It can be dangerous to ski and drive in these conditions.

4. Snow flurry

A light fluttering of snow in varying degrees of intensity for a short while.

Skis for Different Snow 🎿

Different shapes and styles of skis work better or worse in different conditions of snow.

1. Hard Packed Snow / Groomers

Broadly speaking, stiffer skis work better on hard-packed snow because you can dig your edges in harder and at speed. Piste Rocker skis have an hourglass shape and naturally want to carve into a parallel turn and hold their grip.

2. Powder

The deeper the powder the more beneficial wider skis are so you don’t get buried and your tips don’t dip into the snow. The less edge control you need in powder as you ‘float’ so skis can be softer. Powder skis aren’t as shaped but tend to have more rocker at the tips and tails (bend upward)

An all-mountain ski is a compromise between a wide and stiff ski and works well across many types of snow conditions from powder to hardpacked groomers.

Further reading: Quora.

3. Machine-made vs Natural Snow?

Man-made snow is real snow, it is just artificially made by pumping water droplets at high speed through a snow canon when the temperatures are below -2°C (28°F) source.

Machine-made snow is great to ski on, but it is not as light or fluffy as natural snow because its crystalline structure is not as complex.

Many resorts (at huge expense) use cannons to supplement their natural snowfall and keep their groomers open throughout the season. While snow cannons are becoming more efficient, they still require huge amounts of water to be pumped uphill and consume lots of electricity.

While writing my article: Why do ski resorts with snow close early? I found out that some mid-sized alternatives may spend $30-40,000 per day making snow! Luckily resorts tend to run their cannon at the start of the season to guarantee the opening of groomers if the weather doesn’t produce.

Visibility

Bluebird ☀️

A bluebird day is when you can see far into the distance and the sky is blue. There might be a few fluffy clouds but the full sun. A bluebird day after the fresh powder is the perfect skiing condition.

Bluebird day
Photo by Mt. Washington Valley Chamber of Commerce under CC BY-ND 2.0

Whiteout ⚠️

The exact opposite of a bluebird day. As heavy clouds or fog rolls in, visibility on the mountain can be reduced to less than an outstretched hand. The white sky and white ground make for a disorientating experience for the skier (causing ski sickness in some) and making it difficult to tell how fast you’re moving.

There are a few things you need to know about skiing in these conditions. I wrote a much longer piece on the topic you should check out: How to Ski in a Whiteout with Zero Visibility.

low visibility skiing
Riding into a whiteout

Ski Goggles for Low Light 🥽

In flat light or darker environments (overcast / whiteout) having the right pair of goggles can make the difference between having a miserable or fun time on the mountain.

See: Best Goggles for Low Light (Fog, Cloudy & Whiteout Conditions)

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NewToSki.com is where over 1 million people a year come to learn more about skiing. I share everything I wish someone had told me when I was learning to ski. My name is Simon & I've been skiing since 2005. This winter, our family is taking a 3-month camper ski trip across the Alps. If you enjoy our articles, please join the free email club. We'd love to have you.
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