Thursday, 31 January 2008

How to ski powder

Skiing powder is one of the most rewarding, exhilarating and at the same time potentially frustrating experiences you can find on a pair of skis. The technique is not necessarily difficult, if the snow is friendly, but it is one that many skiers struggle to get to grips with. This is particularly true in the many ski areas worldwide where powder snow is a cherished rarity rather than a daily occurence, meaning this is a technique that skiers do not get to practice that often.

Since I wrote this post around three years ago it has consistently been one of the most visited pages on the whole blog. With this in mind  an update with new photos and a few extra tips seems a good idea.

It is true that very deep powder, or deep snow that is heavy or crusty, can be difficult to ski and require very precise balance. On the other hand a manageable depth of light fluffy powder is not that difficult to ski but it can be quite counter intuitive as you have to forget a portion of what you have learnt for skiing on the pistes.

The biggest difference in powder is that the ski is floating within the snow, rather than riding on top of a hard surface. What is actually happening is that the ski compresses the soft snow beneath it until it can support the ski. This means that the ski tends to bend under the skier's weight with the tip and tail being pushed upwards by the snow. The diagram below shows a weighted and unweighted ski in powder. The difference on the shapes means that the weighted ski will tend to float upwards and the unweighted one to dive downwards.

The upshot of this (apologies for getting a bit technical there) is that weighting the outside ski, as you might on piste, will result in the inside ski nosediving and the skier making a spectacular cartwheel. To avoid this you need to apply the weight to both skis equally. Try to develop a rhythm - push down on the skis so that they bounce up closer to the surface, then turn and sink down ready for the next bounce.
As noted in the comments below, there is a common myth that it is important to lean back in powder. This is definitely not the case - if you lean back your legs get tired and it is much harder to turn. I explain this in more detail in the post Why We Dont Lean Back In Powder.

It is also quite important to ski quite delicately in powder, and even more so in more difficult soft snow conditions. If you over-pressure or over-edge a ski it tends to cut into the snow, sink and stop. I like to think of a bounce and float turn - bounce to initiate the turn as described above, then gently float both skis through the turn as they unweight.

It is important to note that powder is normally found off piste, and skiing off piste carries a whole new set of inherent risks. Avalanches, route finding, unmarked hazards like cliffs and ravines, crevasses on glaciated terraine, tree wells in the trees are just a few. I don't want to put you off, but you do need to be prepared. Learn about the hazards and how to deal with them. Seek local advice, check the avalanche and weather forecasts, take safety equipment (transceiver, shovel, probe) and know how to use it. The safest option is to hire a qualified guide. That said, it is often possible to find powder snow on the edge of the pistes, or in patrolled areas of resorts that are deliberately left unpisted, and these areas are relatively safe to go and play in.

Updated 9th April 2011


  1. I've got that problem! Thanks for explaining the reason behind it.

  2. Oh, and should I be leaning back "like they all say?" ....forward, or center?

  3. Generally you want to be centred on your skis, with your weight over your feet, although you might need to be a little further back than normal - heel and arch of foot rather than toes and ball of foot. This post - explains why there it is a common misconception that you need to lean back.

  4. Thank you so much for the details provided. I am a former CSIA certified ski instructor who has almost exclusively skied the hard-packed, blasting-cap, machine-groomed, granular mess that typifies my region. Skiing those conditions are natural for me but getting in the pow-pow I tend to over-edge (not that I knew it before reading the article) in the soft stuff and get annoyed when I almost am thrown over my skis. Powder is a far and few between rare commodity and each time I encounter it I have to feel things out before I can really get my skis under me which usually means my legs are burned out by the time I pull that off.

    This blog post gave me just what I needed to understand the nuances between what I am used to and what powder requires of me. Thank you!

    And just in time for a trip to Sugarloaf and the snowfields! ;)