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Every new skier at one time or another will be faced with an icy patch of ski slope. It can be difficult, intimidating and scary, especially for skiers who are still learning to ski. There are some key pieces of information you need to stay upright on skis while moving across ice or hard-packed snow.
If you’re a new skier and it’s very icy, keep your skis flat and slide through the turns. If you’re a better skier, you can edge your downhill ski and put more weight into the inside edge to turn at speed.
Difference between ice and hard packed snow?
Ice is frozen water, whereas hard packed snow is compressed snow crystals.
Ice could come from a melted and then re-frozen patch of snow, a frozen water channel or where rainfall has frozen over. Old snow that has melted and re-frozen can also become ice.
During the night time cold, the fresh powder will freeze over and become hard crud snow. Ungroomed areas of the slope or where light snow has been blown off by the wind or skiers movements will often leave just the hard packed surface to ski on.
When are snow conditions icy?
Icy skiing conditions are most common when fresh snow has not fallen in a while. The older the snow, the more likely it is to be frozen, compact and hard.
Groomed slopes are plowed by machines each day to create a fluffed up surface to ski on. You’ll find icy conditions in the following areas:
- Off the groomed slope (when the snow has frozen)
- Areas where the snow cannons are off Or it hasn’t snowed in a long time.
- After many skiers have moved all the snow into moguls.
- Near rivers or watercourses.
- When it has rained and then frozen.
- Where snow has melted and re-frozen.A fresh snowfall and snow cannons bring light fluffy snow that’s cushioning and fun to ski in.
- At night time, when night skiing.
Why is it hard to ski on icy snow?
Ice is much more slippery than snow and the lack of friction makes it hard to turn, stay upright and move confidently.
Hard packed snow is not as bad as ice, but the tightly compressed snow crystals do behave very similar and skiing on hard packed snow is slippery and requires control.
The typical frozen granular slush that often exists on clear spring mornings, usually thought of as ‘ice’ by most recreational skiers, would in fact be classified by international racers as ‘hard/grippy’. Martin Bell
How to ski on ice or hard snow?
You need to be extra careful and more subtle with your edge control. Because hard packed snow and icy patches are much more slippery, your slide faster than on fluffy snow.
Turning on hard snow is the same technique as on powder, but you because there is less friction, you’ll need to be more patient for your skis to react and more precise with your movements.
To turn faster on hard packed ice you must put more pressure on the inside edge of your downhill ski.
However, for new skiers, pacing too much pressure on your edges can result in a fall.
Hard packed snow is a lot less forgiving, so your edge control and weight transfer through turns need to be spot on.
If you’re still getting to grips with this type of snow, then don’t make sharp turns, but stay stable over your skis until you pass over onto more powder.
Slide with patience
If you’re midway through a turn and you slide on to an icy patch don’t panic, but allow your skis to slide through into a larger turn radius.
On small patches, keep your skis parallel and slide through the turn. On larger patches complete the turn but at a controlled pace. Don’t make sudden edge changes or movements, just focus on keeping yourself balanced through the full movement of the turn.
Slightly wider stance
Many skiers find that a slightly wider stance on ice makes for a more stable position.
Obviously, you don’t want to be doing the splits, but make a bit more room in your stance and see if that helps you to ski hard snow.
If you’re skis start to slide, let them slide and go with it. As they regain traction on softer snow, you’ll be able to complete your turn.
Pivot vs Edge
The harder the snow, the more difficult it will be to dig into your edges and not loose control.
Unless your a very experienced skier with the ability to control your edges and counter-balance to stop yourself falling -- then try this technique instead:
Keep a stable wide stance and pivot through the turn and gently edge towards the end of the turn or when you come into contact with softer snow.
The more icy the snow, the more you’ll slide and the more difficult edge control becomes.
The more skilled you become at edge control and counter-balancing your body-weight the faster and harder you can edge on hard snow.
⚠️ Be cautious and slowly build your muscle memory rather than risk loosing your inside edge, falling and hurting yourself.
If you’re on a particularly steep and icy section and don’t feel like you can easily turn then slide down vertically.
To side slip, release your edges that are digging into the mountain and keeping your still.
Release. Slide & then grip your edges to regain control.
Repeat this process to slide through steep icy sections or tight corridors that make it hard to turn.
How to stop on hard snow?
To stop on icy snow is much more of a challenge. You’ll need to sharply dig into your edge at a greater ankle to get any bit into the snow.
On solid ice, it is almost impossible to stop if the gradient is steep or you are moving at speed -- but this surface is quite rare on parts of the mountain you are likely to ski.
On hard packed snow you can stop using your edges, but you’ll need to put more pressure on your inside edges.
Making a hockey stop on hard packed ice is much more difficult and requires greater balance control and reflexes to be able to micro-adjust your skis and body posture to not slop over.
How to traverse on ice or frozen powder?
If you’re skiing across from one piste to another and find yourself traversing ‘off-piste’ across frozen powder crud you’ll need to:
Lock your legs
Moving over frozen powder requires you to activate more muscles to keep your legs still and from sliding out from under you.
Keep your legs slightly bent but still. Move at across at a slight donwhill angle and led gravity move you.
Keep your weight centered
Maintain a balanced and stable posture over your skis.
Keep more weight over the downhill ski and your skis edged to maintain your forward movement instead of sliding sideways across the slope.
How to avoid ice or hard snow?
It’s not always possible to avoid icy snow because it can suddenly appear from nowhere or simply be unavoidable. Nevertheless, here is what you can do if you want to ski less ice.
In mogul conditions where the hard snow is as a result of many skiers pushing snow into clumps -- you can avoid the ice by skiing over the mounds of snow.
This is for more confident skiers who can handle the change in height by flexing their knees and ankles. Practice on one or two small mounds to start and build up to a larger sequence of reverse mogul skiing. You’ll avoid the ice but you’ll need to cope with the undulating terrain.
Look ahead for ice 👀
Ice or hard snow looks smoother and has a shine to it. Ice tends to glitter in the sun and be more reflective than powdery snow.
If you see a patch that’s got a sheen or different color to it than the rest of the trail, then ski away from it to avoid it.
Look for snow channels ❄️
Oftenimes on hard packed snow, the best part of the slope is at the margins, where snow has been repeatedly sprayed by skiers.
You can make short sharp turns down these snow corridors to avoid sections of hard snow in the middle of the slope.
Don’t go off-piste 🌲
If you’re skiing on groomed ski slopes, be careful not to ski outside the area of the slope. Typically marked by a signs and an obvious difference in how the snow appears.
Groomed slopes are churned up each day by snowplows to soften the snow. If it has not snowed recently, then the sides of the piste that have not been groomed are likely to be frozen snow that is hard and very difficult to ski on.
Unless its fresh powder, don’t stray off the ski trail.
Don’t go onto a race-prepared course 🏁
You may accidentally stray onto slopes that are being prepared for a ski race.
Some of these trails have water injected into the snow to speed up the skiers.
Race skis have sharper edges and are better equipped to deal with this type of surface.
Avoid skiing over any race courses!
Ski when its snowing ❄️
While you can’t control the weather, you can choose to go skiing on a day with better conditions.
If you can check the weather and plan to ski on or near days that are likely to snow.
The more recently it has snowed the less the softer the trails. Off and on-piste skiing will be more fun -- with light and fresh snow crystals for everyone.
Avoid the last run of the day
It’s common for skiers to descend on mass at the end of the day to the last run back to town. The slope is often shaded, icy and full of moguls.
Take the gondola and save yourself a last minute injury.
How to ski churned up crud snow?
- Make smooth round turns.
- Keep your torso and arms stable.
- Pole plant each turn.
- Keep yourself firm but not rigid so your body adapts to each turn.
- Have faith in the skis, even if the snow looks choppy.
- Be prepared for hidden uneven ground by letting your legs absorb everything.
- Look ahead and plot your turns to avoid obstacles or large bumps.
Do skis need to be sharpened?
Skis should be filled after 8-10 days of full ski days. This means deburring and flattening the edge of the skis rather than a full machine sharpen which should be done once per season for the average skier who skis 1-2 weeks per year.
Less if your skiing on soft snow and more regularly if they take a beating on hard snow.
If you own your skis, you’ll need to tune and wax them yourself (only if you know how) or take them into a ski shop for a professional service.
Sharp skis for ice and hard snow.
You need sharp skis to ski on the hard-packed snow surface. Without an edge to dig into, your edges won’t be able to grip as much.
With blunt or less sharp skis, you’ll need to slide more through the ice and wait for the softer snow before edging.
How to ski while it’s raining? 🌧
If it’s not cold enough, rain or sleet (melted snow and rain) can fall instead of snow.
This can make the ground slushier or more icy, depending on the temperature.
Skiing in rain is not dangerous but it can be miserable. Make sure you have a ski jacket and trousers with very good waterproofing (over 2okmm).
Read my full guide: What To Do If You Ski While Raining
How to ski while it’s snowing? 🌨
Skiing during snowfall can be glorious or dangerous. If the snow is light and fluffy and visibility is good then fresh powder makes for beautiful skiing.
If a snowstorm is on the way and the wind picks up, skiing can become hazardous even in familiar areas.
Stick with your ski buddy and go slowly.
Keep your skis closer together in powder and read my free guide: Know THIS if You Ski While it’s Snowing!
Skiing on other snow conditions?
Yup, there’s more types of snow than powder and hard packed. I run through the most common types of snow and how to adjust your skiing technique over on my: Guide to Different Types of Snow.
Ice is tricky to ski on and it requires more concentration and more muscle activation.
Skiing on hard packed slopes is tiring and is not as enjoyable, but its important to get to grips with how it feels on shallow gradients before you move to steeper icy sections.
If you’re a new skier and it’s very icy, keep your skis flat and slide through the turns.
If you’re a better skier, you can edge your downhill ski and put more weight into the inside edge.