If you spend a lot of time in the mountains during the winter, you are likely to see many different types of snow. For skiers, knowing the different kinds of snow and what it looks like can help you understand the conditions before you step into your skis.
I’m Christine, the founder of this blog and a lifelong skier. Through decades of experience in the snow, I know and understand the different types of snow. I know what these snow varieties look like and how that impacts skiing.
This post will take a look at the different types of snow you’ll see while skiing. I’ll explain the differences between each type and let you know what they look like. This information can help you understand skiing conditions and terrain more in-depth.
Let it snow.
There are two primary ways to think about the different types of snow.
A scientific look examines the type of crystal that forms into a snowflake. This is based on moisture and temperature conditions.
A skier’s description of the snow type is still based on moisture and temperature, but the names will describe the snow conditions rather than a scientific name.
Both of these methods of snow type classification are valid. But for this article, I’ll spend more time on the skier’s description of snow type than the exact scientific classification of the snow crystals.
Different Types of Snow
You probably already know that every snowflake that forms in the ski and falls to earth has a unique shape and structure. Each one of these flakes is as individual as human fingerprints, which is mind-blowing if you think about it.
Luckily, there aren’t an infinite amount of snow types. Looking at these types of snow related to skiing, there is only a handful you should be aware of.
Powder snow is the best type of snow for most skiers. It is light and fluffy, and when the powder starts to pile up, you can expect some of the best ski conditions possible. Powder is my favorite type of snow to ski, and many other skiers feel the same way.
This type of snow is created when the moisture and temperature are just right. Ideal powder conditions involve larger snowflakes and relatively dry moisture content. Dry snow might sound weird, but this is ideal for skiing because it stays fluffy rather than sticky.
Powder snow is possible when the temperature is between -20C to -10C (-5F to 15F). This is the ideal temperature range for larger snowflakes to develop because they can freeze without compacting or melting.
But just because the temperature is right, powder conditions still aren’t guaranteed. The moisture content also needs to be right, and you need a snow to water ratio between 20:1 to 30:1.
What Does Powder Snow Look Like?
Powder snow looks like light and fluffy powder. Imagine powdered sugar but less dense. Powder can stack up high because the flakes are large and don’t stick to one another. It will look soft and dry compared to other types of snow.
If you pick up a handful of powder, it will shake off your hand. It won’t form easily into snowballs because it is relatively dry. If you look at a single powder snowflake, it will be pretty large and have the classic snowflake shape.
2. Wet Snow
Wet snow is another common type of snow that occurs during the ski season. Wet snow has a higher moisture content than powder, leading to more compact conditions that aren’t as good for skiing.
Wet snow occurs when temperatures are warmer, and there is more water content in each snowflake. This snow often falls during the beginning and end of the ski season when the temperatures stay closer to the freezing point than below it.
If you have ever heard a skier talk about spring snow or spring conditions, this refers to wet snow. These flakes won’t be as large as powder flakes and will be denser with a lower snow-to-water ratio.
What Does Wet Snow Look Like?
Wet snow will look more shiny and dense than powder snow on the surface. This shininess can make it look wetter, and you can usually tell by looking at it that the snow is wet rather than powder.
If you pick up wet snow, it will feel heavier because of the high moisture content and will form a snowball much easier because the higher temperatures and water make it much easier to compact.
3. Icy Snow (Graupel)
Icy snow (also called Graupel) is a unique type of snow that is not ideal for skiing. This snow is created by snowflakes that turn into a different compacted crystal that turns into a rounder shape as it falls from the sky.
This type of snow is sometimes confused with hail, but it is still snow and not completely ice. Icy snow doesn’t stack up as smoothly as other snow types, making for sketchy snow conditions and an increased chance for avalanches.
What Does Icy Snow Look Like?
Icy snow will look like pellets rather than flakes. The crystals have a rounder and more compact shape, which will make them look like little balls and fall faster from the ski. When icy snow falls while skiing, it can be pretty uncomfortable.
Icy snow will appear somewhat sharp and jagged when it stacks up. It can sometimes look like powder from a distance, but you’ll notice that the snow is courser and not as smooth when you pick it up.
Snow Types vs Snow Conditions
There is a difference between the snow types I just described and the snow conditions you ski in.
If you look at a snow report, you’ll see these conditions: powder, packed powder, packed, ice, and spring conditions.
Powder conditions obviously involved powder snow. Once this snow gets skied on for a while and there are no fresh flakes to refresh it, the conditions become packed powder. Both of these conditions are a lot of fun to ski.
Packed snow conditions occur when there are a lot of skiers and there hasn’t been fresh snow for a while. This snow can be more slippery and occur from any type of snow that has fallen and been skied on.
Icy conditions happen when a lot of icy snow falls or the snow has gotten packed out and gone through freeze/thaw cycles. This makes for less-than-ideal snow conditions, but it’s still skiable.
Spring snow conditions occur when temperatures are warmer, and the snow has more water content. This type of snow can be slow, sticky, and mushy. This isn’t an ideal condition either, but it’s still skiable.
The main types of snow you will see while skiing are powder, wet snow, and icy snow. Skiing is possible on all of these, but powder is the ideal condition because it is soft, surfy, and a lot of fun.
Knowing what type of snow is falling can help you better understand what conditions are likely on the mountain, allowing you to prepare and adapt as needed.