Skiers Guide to Different Types of Snow 🌨

glasses snowboarding

If you’re new to the mountain you might not realize that there are 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 your 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 conditions for yourself. In the meantime, here’s is 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

chopped powder
Choppy Powder. Photo by Ruth Hartnup

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

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

Slang: California Concrete

Corduroy Or Cord

Cord Snow
Cord Snow. Photo by Ruth Hartnup

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 snowplows 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 snow softens a little in warmer temperatures and then a cold snap freezes the top layer.

⛷Technique: Be ready to fall through the crust and keep your ski tips pointed slightly up.

Dust On Crust

snow crust
Crusty snow

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; you might still break through the crust.

Slang: Breakable Crust

Dusting

light dusting snow
Light dusting. Photo by Rudi Riet

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 your riding through a cake shop.

Groomers

ski blue trail
Groomed piste

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

 

Hard Pack

Compacted snow crystals that 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 skiers stance.

⛷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 snowChampagne Powder. Photo by Julian H

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 completed packed hard. The snow is dry, no longer fluffy but still ok for skiing on.

⛷Technique: As normal.

Hero Snow

powder ski

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

⛷Technique: Shred.

Slang: Chokable

 

Powderskiing 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 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

Read: Your Guide to Warm Weather or Spring Skiing

 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

Data source

More snow slang you might hear ❄: 

  • Snow Pellets: hail.
  • Wet powder: powder after a 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 potatoes: lumpy, soft snow in the spring.
  • Freshie: Virgin snowfall found in the morning.
  • Ball Bearings: little 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, beautiful and unstable.
  • Pow-pow: loose, fluffy powder.
  • Pillow drift: snow drift 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 that freeze at night then loosen in 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 a hard surface 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-crystalized 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 be 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. 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. 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 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 on until it re-freezes and become 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 resorts 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.

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.

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

Hoarfrost
Hoarfrost

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

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
Hail. Photo by Keith Moore

Research help from livelearn.ca

Types of snowfall 🌨

Blizzards: a powerful winter storm that lasts at least three hours by often lasts for days. Freezing temperatures and very strong wind. 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.

Snow squall: Characterised by an intense but brief snowfall. Reduced visibility and strong winds, but over quickly.

Blowing snow: Wind causes ground snow to rise up and reduce visibility. Can be dangerous to ski and drive in these conditions.

Snow flurry: Light fluttering of snow in varying degrees of intensity for a short while.

Skis for different snow 🎿

powder vs piste skis
Salomon: XMAX 10 Downhill vs QST 118 Powder Skis.

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

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.

Powder: The deeper the powder the more benefit 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.

Machine-made vs natural snow?

Man-made snow is real snow, its 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 resorts 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 full sun. A bluebird day after fresh power is the perfect skiing conditions.

bluebird ski days
Powder tracks on a clear bluebird day.

Whiteout ⚠️

The exact opposite of a bluebird day. As heavy cloud or fog rolls in, visibility on the mountain can be reduced to less than an outstretched hand. The white sky and white ground makes 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)

Author: Simon Naylor

Hi – I’m Simon, I started NewToSki.com to write about everything I wish someone had told me when I started learning to ski.