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 Tactics for Terrains and Snow Textures and Racing--Skiing Powder Snow
by Bill Jones, Ski Instructor

Certified Professional Ski Instructor (Registration #110478), Level III
private ski lessons at Keystone, Breckenridge, Vail, Beaver Creek, Arapahoe Basin, other areas

What is powder snow, anyway? In his book, Ski Powder 9 Ways, Boot Gordon describes powder this way, "It's what skiers are in when you hear their yips, yodels and yahoos of joy." Here we think of powder snow as any snow into which the skis sink below the snow surface, and in that context powder snow comes in many forms. Newly fallen snow may be light and fluffy if the temperature is cold during its storm or heavy and slushy if warmer. Snow of course is water in another form. Water has a density defined as 1. Snow, being composed of varying kinds of crystals, all in the hexagonal or 6-sided system, has little arms and columns and dendrites that keep the flakes apart and make it less dense than water. Density of cold, new snow may be as low as .02, that is, a given volume of it is only 2% as dense as water, the rest of the volume being air. Wouldn't you sink in that, indeed! Warmer new snow may be more in the range of 0.1, or 10% water, into which we would sink only a little. As snow remains in the pack, it gradually increases in density until we sink in it little or not at all, and then it is powder no more. Now, read more about why you should learn to ski the snow before it loses more air, the next section.

Why bother to learn to ski powder? And how to do it! Why is skiing powder difficult at first?  One reason is a lack of familiarity, for many skiers encounter powder rarely. Such skiers might be used to looking at their skis to see what they are doing down there, but in powder, the skis can't be seen! Many more reasons make powder skiing tricky.  So why bother to learn to ski powder? Because to ski powder is to experience skiing at its finest; skiing powder can be euphoric. A wag said, "Skiing powder is like having sex; only it lasts longer." As in all skiing, control in the form of managing speed and direction must be mastered to enjoy the powder experience. Although our sliding skis in any snow condition have friction with the snow that slows us, with powder this factor is greater, giving a new option to manage speed as the powder not only drags against the skis but also the legs. A skier with an effective groomed-snow turn that utilizes ski design can progress readily into powder skiing. But many will need to make some adjustments to their standard technique first. And do not delay too long adding powder skiing to your repertoire, for you can groove in your groomed-snow slope technique too thoroughly to easily add the needed new feel for powder. To learn how to ski powder, find a situation where the snow is most consistent, the powder is shallower, and the slope is not so steep as to give undue acceleration. Note, however, that you may not slide well in a heavy, wet snow due to its resistance, and you may need to select a slope slightly steeper than you might otherwise think. Although a given snowstorm may produce much variety on a ski mountain, there are usually places that are easier to learn to ski powder. For instance, find a blue trail that was groomed during the storm but on which a few more inches then fell. If not ready to make a turn at first, ski across the slope and stop. Make a turn standing in place--either the matador turn or kick turn. You can even work backward down the skill ladder and if the snow allows, try a wedge- or stem-christie turn or even a snowplow to get a feel for the snow. In fact, advanced powder skiers often do the same before diving into place with unknown snow depths and textures.

Powder snow comes in many forms and depths. Powder snow is newly fallen or falling snow that has not yet metamorphosed into denser forms. It can range from soft, fluffy, and deep or shallow to a condition of dense wind-blown snow that may have a variable surface to the classic "Sierra cement" of wet heavy snow (which can be encountered during spring months in the Rockies, too). Once skiers get into new powder, they cut the snow into areas of ski tracks and virgin snow, called chop or if wetter, crud, giving a jerky  ride as the skis accelerate crossing or following the shallower tracks and decelerating where the snow is still deep. The snow's base may also be uneven or the snow inconsistent in density, so the ride may also be bumpy. A most difficult condition is when the powder snow has a dense upper surface with loose snow beneath; this is caused either by wind blowing the snow around so the crystals lose their intricate arms and pack together in a layer or by the sun partly melting the upper surface, which then partly refreezes. Another condition is a fairyland delight, however: when a period of cold, dry weather follows a snowfall with little wind and then the snow reforms into larger crystals of an inch across or so and tinkle as the skier slices through, sparkling where in the sunlight.

Rebalancing/equilibrium. An instinctive reaction we humans have when we lose sideways balance is to push on or extend the leg and/or an arm on the side we are toppling toward so that we can then use our muscles to  to reposition ourselves to our usual upright condition. But if there is no surface for our arm or leg to push against, as in deeper powder snow, such a move only weights us more heavily on the side we are toppling toward, and we go over farther still. Thus, to balance in deeper powder, we must move our weight to the side that is opposite the one toward which we are toppling. This move is done internally (proprioceptively), using our muscles to shift body mass around our center of gravity. It is the same move that is required of a person balancing on a surfboard, kayak, or canoe in quiet water, and until mastered its lack makes experiences on such crafts feel--and be--very tippy.  Making this rebalancing move on skis in powder is probably even trickier than on a water craft, for the degree to which we must make this "opposite" balancing move depends on the consistency and depth of the powder so that there is a continuum of finesse required between soft shallow snow with a base, "spongy-base" powder, deep powder, and "bottomless" powder--each with added variables of density.  There are similarities in this rebalancing movement to that used in the retraction turn (also called avalement) in which the legs are pulled toward and extended from the body's trunk using the muscles of the abdomen, performed as though the body were moving in space. This effective powder maneuver is also used in ski racing.

How can one learn to make this powder balancing move, counter-intuitive for most humans? Although coaching is important, retooling of instincts must also be through practice and repeated trial and error--the same way we learned to walk as infants. It may be easier to grasp the powder rebalancing move in a stationary situation such as on the water craft described above. On snow, one should start out with shallower, spongy powder and work up to the bottomless stuff.

How to ski powder versus pack. Normally, when we begin falling to one side we brace against the ground or the floor on that side, push back and recenter.  In skiing  on packed or hard snow the same learned human instinct can again save you. But in skiing on the spongy or  even seemingly bottomless surface of powder snow, if you begin falling to one side and brace against that side there is little or nothing there, so you keep falling. Instead, in powder you must use internal muscles to shift your weight to the other side to recenter. This move is known not only to powder skiers but also to surfboarders, canoeists, paddleboarders, windsurfers, and the like. The move involves tensing the core and working other muscles off of that.  You might practice it on an air mattress in a swimming pool.

 Ski powder fast or ski powder slow? The speed we are moving in powder is another variable to deal with: slower speeds require more finesse in applying the "opposite" powder balancing moves, while at higher speeds the snow pushes against us harder, thus developing a sort of phantom surface we can use to balance upon in the more usual way. There is also a physics factor that an object in motion tends to stay in motion of the same direction and velocity, being influenced only by contact with other elements, and the faster the initial object  goes the surer it will track steady when it comes into contact with something else (this is like riding a bicycle fast versus slowly, where the bike gets very unstable). With speed the powder ride becomes smoother, too, as we even out some of the inconsistencies of the snow pack. For the best ride, maintain a consistent speed, and especially do not turn the skis too far around the corner and thus slow too much to make getting into the next turn harder--unless it is time to stop.

Stance in powder. In most powder situations, it is useful to ski with the legs a bit closer together--but not together--than usual as in that position we can more easily manage the pressures or lack of same from whatever resistance the snow has and thereby keep one ski from floating and the other diving.. Too, the legs should be held taught (internally tensed) but not tight so that they are not easily knocked away from a desired direction but can still be moved about as needed. In deep powder situations, however, especially if wetter, powder can build up in front of two closely-held legs and then the legs need to open now and then or even be kept a bit more apart to allow the clump of snow to pass on through (or keep it there for speed management). While a useful concept is to keep the weight evenly balanced on the two skis so one ski does not sink and the other float, it is more precise to think of managing the pressure on each ski so the skis stay where the skier wants them, for one ski may be pressed harder by snow inconsistencies or turn forces than the other; this management is done by bending the ankle more or less so the leg extends or retracts accordingly. It's like that exercise in which two persons stand facing with hands touching and press their hands strongly then weakly against their partner's hands, each matching the force of the other so their hands don't move. Yes, you should sit back in powder--but only sometimes. Those times are when you are approaching a hump in the snow surface or a clump in cut-up snow where your skis will plow deeper or more solidly when they come to it, slowing them, but not you. Sitting back in this situation will help your skis plane up higher and carry you through more smoothly. Otherwise, ski in balance fore and aft so that you can best work the ski and utilize its entire length, and especially so you can properly make the cross-over move so effective in producing the round powder turn, to be described next. Nevertheless, some very good powder skiers always sit back, placing more weight on their skis' tails and using various turning techniques. Of course it is rare that a skier would place excess weight on the skis' tips, for fear of going "over the handlebars", so to speak, when the tips plowed more deeply. But for most of us, skiing with fore-aft balance allows us to use our skeletons for support rather than our thighs, leaving our thighs free for us to balance with as we get tossed about in variable powder, and tiring us less so we can last all of a wonderful day--and for some, to have longer apres-ski excitement.

The round powder turn: The most effective powder turn is a round turn that is progressive with no sudden redirection of the skis. This is the same turn that is usually the best in all other conditions. In powder, if the skis are quickly pivoted, as is a common practice of many recreational skiers on groomed slopes, the skis will track crossway to the path of the skier (who is still going straight) and the skis will drag inside the powder, slowing them, a situation of unbalanced forces likely to result in a fall. Thus a powder turn is often much like a carved turn, except the skier planes around on the bases instead of the ski's edges, requiring patience especially at turn initiation to allow the skis to begin turning themselves. Imagine this: at the end of a powder turn, the skier is tilted inward of the turn with body up the hill from the skis, and the skis, being attached perpendicular to the legs, are tilted, too, with their downhill sides up. Thus the skier planes on the low-density snow much as a water-skier does on the water in making a water-ski turn. But the analogy loses its value at this point, for the skier--to initiate a new turn--must move his or her body across the skis. This movement is in a down-the-hill direction so that, referenced along a line perpendicular to the slope, the head is farther downhill than the feet. The movement is like a downhill dive. Such a seemingly precarious re-positioning of the body is not one easily executed in powder at first, even though it is the correct movement for the standard modern ski turn. Thus, as the move occurs, the ski bases tilt from a position at the end of the last turn where their downhill sides are up to a flat-to-the-slope position as the skier's body crosses over the skis to the next position where their downhill sides are down, allowing the skis to plane around in the snow as the turn proceeds. Another tactic to consider is to point the skis down the hill on your first turn when starting into a powder slope. To get the skis to plane in a powder turn, some speed is helpful or essential, and a start across the slope before the first turn may not produce it. Those helicopter guides are not just showing off when they stand above the glacier and kick their ski tails into soft snow before pushing off; they are starting the easier way.

Turning Force. Skis in any snow condition can be turned in a variety of ways. Surely we should strive to use tipping the skis to assist their turning, but that may not produce a result soon or strong enough should there be a tree in the way or a drop-off  with nothing in the way. Although on groomed slopes we usually select twisting of the legs in the direction of the turn should we need to hasten a turn, we have this and more options in powder. These other options on groomed slopes can give too much force, causing an overturn or leaving us unable to adjust the turning forces once started. In powder, however, the snow will dampen the turn for us and so we can start it with more force than on groomed surfaces. In powder we can also initiate turns with whole body rotation, counter-rotation in which the torso moves back from the turn direction as the legs move forward with the turn, and split rotation in which the torso first moves forward into the turn but at the fall line is blocked by tensing the abdomen and then moves back, imparting continuing turning force to the skis.

The bounce and the not-bounce. First, the not-bounce: while going downhill, the skier tips the legs by pressing the ankle bones against the boot sides, balancing by tilting the body or just the torso; the ski bases change their angle and, with patience from the skier, the skis make the turn themselves. If the legs are tipped left, the skis turn the skier left; if the legs are tipped right, the skis turn the skier right. Likewise, if the legs are tipped uphill, the skis turn the skier uphill and if the legs are tipped downhill, the skis turn the skier downhill. Now, the bounce: To effect a round powder turn with a cross-over of the skier's body, powder skiers often bounce a bit, pumping up and down in each turn. They have the option, then, when the skis are higher in the snow and therefore have less resistance to turning, of progressively turning the skis with their legs to make a tighter turn. When their skis go deeper into the snow as the turn goes around, they can extend their legs to push their skis deeper, creating more resistance against their legs and managing their speed in this way. If they next relax their legs a bit the skis will tend to plane more upward again. With the bounce, powder skiers often hold their arms higher than skiers on groomed runs--at shoulder level or above. This not only helps them extend and flex their bodies in order to bounce, but keeps their hands and poles from dragging so much in the snow. Also note that in shallower powder where a base or a spongy surface can be felt, the bounce can originate by extending in the ankles off this platform to raise the body, but in deeper snow it may be necessary to pull the legs upward to a stable torso using stomach muscles in order to get the skis higher in the snowpack. In conditions of windslab or suncrust, where a denser layer of snow overlies looser snow, a more forceful bounce (but not so forceful as to break through the crust, a delicate touch indeed) may be used to get the skis above the snow surface where they can be turned in the air. But when the skis land again, a soft landing should be attempted by flexing the legs so the skis are less likely to punch through the top layer; be ready to bounce upward again if they do. Light use of the pole touched so its contact defines a line out from the ski center that is about 45 degrees to the ski is helpful in this "breakable crust" situation for this creates an effective triangular base between the point where the pole touches and the lines connecting that point to your ski's tip and tail (called "triangular sustentation"). With this position and weight evenly distributed along the length of the ski, breaking of  the snow's surface layer is minimized.

Special powder equipment. Wider skis are easier to use in powder than narrower ones. The wider ones, having more surface area than narrower ones of the same length, will plane higher in the snow, making them easier to turn and reducing some of the balancing movements otherwise required. Still, the skier needs good balance both fore-and-aft and side-to-side to use the wider skis effectively. Depending on how wide the wider skis are, a shorter wide pair may still have more surface area than a longer narrow pair. Too short a powder ski is judged by some, however, to not have enough length to plane up to the surface if the snow is deep. Also, some find shorter skis to give a bumpier, choppier ride than longer ones which seem to smooth out irregularities in the snow. Softer-flexing powder skis allow the skis to bend more along their length and create a form that is more likely to want to go to the surface rather than through it or down deeper. Thin or tapered sidewalls of the skis allow skis to slice through powder more easily. Ski edges should be smoothly filed as always, but will not otherwise have much effect on powder skiing, although good edges are useful in getting over groomed snow going to and from powder stashes--and what if you encounter ice below the powder? Ski bases should glide freely and be waxed with the right wax for temperature and for type of powder-snow crystal so that the skis will turn more easily in the deeper snow. Bindings should be adjusted properly, for skiing powder may cause a ski binding to release more readily than when skiing groomed slopes. Powder straps are brightly colored ribbons attached to each ski's bindings; these are tucked up inside the ski pant legs and then are pulled out  when a ski comes off, hopefully floating upward and making it easier to find a ski otherwise lost forever in deep snow. Poles should be thin and baskets small to avoid dragging in the powder. Either the pole straps should  detach or the hands should be removed from the straps if in a place where a pole might catch on something, especially if skiing near trees or over brush. Clothing should be fastened to avoid scooping up snow in the event of a fall. Goggles should be worn to keep faces warmer and snow from flying into eyes; lenses should be appropriate to the day's light, using rose, amber, or orange colors when darker and on snowy days (rose or vermillion colors seem best during snowstorms). Darker lenses are for bright days. Sunscreen is a must for exposed flesh on sunny new powder days, for powder snow has a high albedo and this reflected light can burn skin more than sun reflecting from water or beach sand, especially because there is less air at altitude to block sun rays.

Uncertainties of powder skiing. Although skier falls in powder are often cushioned by the deep, loose snow, a slow and twisting fall can also occur or one in which the skier falls backward, bending the leg excessively when the ski is held by the snow. Both falls are dangerous. Although the snow surface may appear smooth, the base may be irregular and have concealed objects like boulders or downed trees into which moving skis can crash or under which they can slip. Limited visibility can be a factor. An extreme is a condition known as "white-out" in which in flat light the snow surface lacks texture, the skis are underneath the powder snow and not visible, and there are no surface objects or horizons in view; total loss of perspective can occur so that a person cannot even stand still in balance without falling over, let alone ski. Combat this by skiing where there are stationary objects visible, such as trees; ski areas sometimes place poles with disks on slopes to help define their gradients. Sometimes icy mogul troughs are filled with wind-blown dense powder, making a condition nearly impossible for anyone to manage. A fall in deep powder may submerge the skier, and the powder may pack in such a way that the skier--if the bindings did not release and cannot be reached--is absolutely stuck, and, should loose snow settle above, cannot even be seen. A comparable dangerous situation is a fall in a powdery tree well (this is a hollow in firmer snow around the base of a tree where the snow has either melted or been blown out, and into which new softer snow may have accumulated thus making an effective trap) into which a headfirst tumble with soft snow following can be and has been disastrous. If in avalanche-prone areas, have special training, get local information, and carry appropriate equipment including avalanche beacon transmitters and receivers, avalanche cords, shovels, probes, and never have all in the party ski suspicious slopes together, if at all. Of course, never ski alone, and have competent partner (partners if in especially hazardous areas).

Commit. Given that all the above factors are important in powder skiing, powder skiing will still not be effective until the skier commits. That is, the skier must COMMIT to a turn in powder. The skier must decide to go around the turn corner at the outset and then stick to that commitment. A powder turn must be a GO turn. Say "I and my skis are going that way." The body then moves to make the turn happen, and does so with elan. This website author recalls learning this lesson. While floundering to ski powder, his powder turn to the left--always made first--worked fine, but when it came to making the turn to the right, he would stall. Time after time he would make a nice turn to the left and then stall on the turn to the right. Something was wrong in his head! Finally, with great frustration and yet with determination, one day he shouted inside his head the word "COMMIT!!!" while entering the turn to the right, and has been making good turns both left and right in powder ever since. Other useful words might be substituted: "Go", "Move", "Around We Go!", "Down the Hill", or your favorite swear word.

Powder non-etiquette. To really impress your skiing friends with your generosity, let them go first into untracked powder. To further impress your skiing friends, don't expect them to do the same for you! A powder skier's creed is that "All is fair in love, war, and powder". But at least say, "Thanks!" when you steal fresh tracks.

A final word: Eventually, after selecting the tactic to apply, you must "Point the skis down the hill; let them buck; the mountain will teach you!"

Skiing Groomed Snow
Skiing Hard Snow/Ice
Skiing Among Trees
Skiing Narrow trails
Skiing Moguls
Skiing Powder Snow--you are on this page.
Skiing Cold Snow-Warm Snow/New Snow-Old Snow
Skiing "Spring" Snow
Skiing Steeps

Skiing Gates/Racing

"SKIING IS A SLIDING SPORT"--a skiing web manual:    Skiing Web Manual Contents   Why Read This Skiing Web Manual That First Skiing Lesson  A Little Skiing History  A Little Skiing History   Motion in Skiing  Conventional Skiing Wisdoms  Skier Excuses   Fear inSkiing   Conditioning for Skiing  How Skis Work   Equipment and Technique  Skiing Equipment  How to Develop Balance on Skis  A Skiing Turn Simplified The Final Skiing Skill: pressure management  TACTICS FOR TERRAINS and SNOW TEXTURES and  RACING  Skiing Tips and Tales--a potpourri    Exercises for Developing Skiing Skills   Children and Skiing  Age and Skiing  Gender & Skiing  Culture & Skiing Skiing Ethics and Slope Survival  Slope Safety Skiing Environment  Videos and Apps Glossary  Acknowledgements SkiMyBest Website Contents  
This "Skiing Powder" page last modified 07/28/2017 02:25:42 AM. Did you come here from a link on another website? For latest version of this page, copy to your browser: Copyright © 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017. William R Jones.