What is Dry Snow? (Wet vs Dry)

by Robert Stanley | Posted On: April 8th, 2022
Swiss Alps

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As a skier or snowboarder, have you ever wondered what the difference is between a dry snowfall and a wet snowfall? Well, here we have got you covered.

Dry snow is snow that forms and falls in colder surface temperatures – it more resembles a light powder than wet snow. It typically falls further inland than in coastal regions, depending on local temperature, and offers great conditions to ski on. When it snows in temperatures well below freezing, think dry snow.

Skier and Snowboarder
Photo by Ruth Hartnup Professional Photographer licensed under CC BY 2.0

Skiers and snowboarders alike love to talk about weather and snow conditions. Talking about snow conditions on the chairlift is a brief, cordial exchange that most seasoned skiers and snowboarders have likely participated in at some point in time during their days on the mountain. “The snow is wet and choppy this afternoon” someone might say after a fresh snowfall, or conversely, “The snow is so light and powdery this morning”, for example.

There is wet snow and there is dry snow – not all precipitation that falls is created equal – and different kinds of snow will impact the way in which your skis slide across its surface, and how you initiate your turns.

How Does Dry Snow Form?

Dry snow is considered the gold standard, or in skiers, vernacular coined “Champagne Powder” by many. It is powdery in appearance, composition, and texture. This occurs when the local surface temperature and tropospheric temperature (where snow falls from in the atmosphere) are both below or well below zero degrees celsius.

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How Will It Affect Your Skiing?

Skiing in these powdery conditions offers a unique experience for those that are used to skiing your typical groomed resort conditions found on most Eastern US and Canadian resorts. Powder conditions can be challenging as they force you to adjust your standard ski technique – such as leaning back a bit more in your boots in order to rise above the snow and engaging your core more, to list a few.

With less annual precipitation on the East Coast mountains, snow is often made, and with that can come icier conditions that will require more carving with the edges of your skis or snowboard. Skiing powder on the other hand requires less carving with your edges and will naturally slow your momentum – the feeling of floating through powder down a mountain is truly second to none. If you can experience this type of skiing safely at least once, you might be hooked.

Snow to Liquid Ratio

As you may have felt at some point in time if you live in colder climates, dry snow is not as heavy or dense as wet snow. Dry snow has typical snow to liquid ratio of 30:1 in terms of frozen snow crystals to water. This allows for more air and less wetness between each crystallized snowflake while it accumulates on the ground – giving it that light fluffy feel and appearance. A sudden spike in temperature will have dry snow feeling wet before long – so keep in mind that all snow conditions are fleeting during ski season, best to enjoy them all while you can.

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Dry Snow versus Dry Slopes

Dry Snow and dry slopes sound similar but often get confused when describing conditions on the mountain. Dry slopes are usually what happens when snow is manmade and sprayed in subzero temperatures. It gets packed down, groomed, and can often be icy or crusty compared to a dry snow powdery fall. These slope conditions are typical in the Eastern mountain regions in Canada and the US.

So What Is Wet Snow?

Wet-Snow

This type of snow occurs when the temperature at surface level sits slightly above freezing, causing snow to partially melt as it falls from the colder troposphere to the ground. It will feel heavier and stickier as you ski. Coastal mountain ranges in more temperate regions like the Pacific Northwest consistently experience this type of snowfall during the winter. The term packing snow should come to mind – if you have ever made a great snowball or snowman right after a snowfall, odds are, they were made with wet snow.

The snow to liquid ratio of a typical wet snowfall is 10:1, ten parts frozen, crystalized snow, and one part water. So, for example, if there are ten centimeters of snow accumulation, one centimeter will be water – giving it a more sodden and heavier feel than dry snow.

If the temperature rapidly drops after a wet snowfall, an icy crust can form which can be hard on your skis, and knees – so keep an eye on temperatures after a big snowfall as well. Snow conditions are subject to change all season long on the mountain.

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Notes on Safety

For many skiers, wet snow can be difficult to maneuver in and can become dangerous for those that are inexperienced in this domain. Your skis will stick to the snow more and the weight of the snow will make it difficult to initiate turns or find a rhythm downhill, which can lead to more accidents. The two most important things when you are learning how to ski are safety and control – and both go hand in hand.

Closing Thoughts

Ski-in-Red-Jacket
Photo by Owen Richard licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

So now you’re ready to get back on the slopes and experience all forms of snow both dry and wet. Understanding different snow conditions before a day on the mountain, or when it snows while you are out skiing, will only help you improve your technique when conditions change. When snow conditions change, practicing how to adjust your technique accordingly will eventually improve your comfort level in different kinds of snow. This way you can move down the mountain safely and with confidence. Depending on where you ski regularly, you might be used to a certain type of snow – so it will take time and a bit of practice if you are trying out drier snow on a powder day. Practice lots with safety and control in mind and you will be well on your way. Dry snow is snow you will find in colder temperatures and it offers a fun experience for skiers.

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