A guide to the different types of snow for skiers and snowboarders

Article published 25 August 2021

A GUIDE TO DIFFERENT TYPES OF SNOW

For those who are new to skiing and snowboarding it might seem strange that there is more than one type of snow. It’s all white, cold and slippery isn’t it? The fact is there are many different types of snow which can affect your ability to ski or snowboard and must be considered carefully before heading out to the slopes. Take a look at the most common types and how you should approach them during your winter break.

Why are there different types of snow?

There can be thousands of types of snow which fall into a few main categories. This is a result of different atmospheric conditions. Most of us will be familiar with snowflakes but ice crystals can form in different ways depending on temperature or if they land on a tree or the ground. The result is crystals that can be smaller, slippier or harder than other types which can have a real impact on your skiing experience.

You can also encounter different types of snow cover with snow that has just landed or been there for over a year amongst the variations. Many skiers prefer the fresh variety for their sport but others like the challenge of a seasoned slope where the snow has had a chance to harden.

Of course there are also different types of snowfall including flurries, blizzards and winter storms. For those at beginner level it is often best to avoid anything apart from the lighter snow falls or run the risk of visibility issues and the danger caused by heavy winds.

Wet vs dry snow

The type of snow depends on how the ice crystals combine together. If they fall from the sky in dry, cool air the snowflakes tend not to clump together creating the powdery snow skiers prefer. If the temperature is above zero then the snowflakes melt a little and stick together leading to ‘wet’ snow which is great for snowball fights but less attractive to the winter athlete looking to beat their downhill record.

The pros and cons of powder

Powdered snow comes from drier conditions and can ease your journey across the surface, giving you the feeling of floating on air that can be the highlight of any holiday. Many resorts will remove this powdered snow in the early morning using professional groomers but it is likely to be available off-piste. The groomers can create packed powder which compresses the snow down to make a great base for ski-ing that is good for beginners. However, if the conditions are powdery you need to take care and distribute weight evenly so the end of your skis don’t get caught in the snow and send you tumbling. You also have to watch out for rocks and other obstacles that may be hiding under powder. On the plus side, powdery snow is more likely to make for a gentle fall.

Avoid the crud

The aptly named crud snow is generally disliked by winter sports people. Essentially it is fresh snow that has been churned up by others and offers a variety of conditions on the same slope. At one moment you might be gliding over soft, smooth snow and then suddenly go onto a hard and bumpy surface. The end result is the need to concentrate fully at all times. For some this is an exciting challenge but for others it takes some of the fun away. Master crud and you are well on your way to becoming a great skier or snowboarder.

Feeling slushy

Another type of snow that is familiar to many of us is slush. You will not be surprised that slush is created by slightly warmer conditions and can often be encountered during late season holidays. It can slow you down and also interfere with accurate turns as the snow is heavy. Once again, it depends on what you look for in your sport: slush can offer a challenge and is preferred by some for its gentler pace and warmer temperatures. For beginners it is another instance where care needs to be taken and attention focused on every moment.

Sticky moments

When snow begins to melt in warmer conditions then sometimes things get sticky rather than slushy. This often happens when fresh snow starts to melt and is more likely to form around your board or ski as a type of mould that reduces the air under your feet and hence your ability to move forwards at speed. Sticky snow is fairly rare but if you do encounter it then take care as hitting a patch is likely to send you off balance and make turning especially difficult.

Hard and fast

As you might expect, snow that is packed hard or icy is slippery and quick. Hard packed snow is slightly easier to navigate than ice but both offer a challenge to the skier or snowboarder. Snowboarders in particular might find doing tricks where they need to grip and turn quickly more difficult. However, if speed is your thing then you will find plenty to enjoy and breaking personal bests is likely to be much easier. Take care that you don't go too fast and lose control.

Crusty conditions

Like the top of a pie crust, this condition can occur when the top layer of snow is melted by the sun and frozen all over again. It makes for conditions that are unpredictable. At one moment you might have broken through the crust and find yourself zipping over delightful powder. The next moment the crust may stay firm and everything speeds up. When you get a rapid combination of both, concentration is paramount. Some people love this variation and others hate it. It can also provide painful moments as crusty snow hits your legs. You will need to tackle the crust with aggression to become its master. Double check you have got all the essentials for your ski holiday here.

The Eskimos were right

You have probably heard someone state the fact that Eskimos have 50 words for snow. They also have hundreds of expressions to describe the type of snow. The Eskimos were smart because, despite the simple categorisations used in this article, no type of snow is exactly the same. It can vary from one moment to another and it is possible to encounter fresh powder, followed by ice and then slush all on the same ride.

As part of becoming a competent skier or snowboarder, learning about your white, cold friend is important, allowing you to adopt the right style at the right time and avoid accidents. There is also plenty of jargon to get your head around to sound knowledgeable amongst your fellow winter sports enthusiasts.

The best advice we can give is keep an eye on the weather forecast for your resort and enjoy the beauty and the challenge different types of snow bring.