Learning how to ski powder is not the momentous milestone that people are often led to believe. It’s one of the most amazing experiences to be had on skis, so don’t back out before you’ve begun - it’s worth the time and energy to learn how to ski in deep powder.
Learning how to ski powder is, of course, dependent on the snow conditions and location. Perfect powder days are rare so when they arrive, it’s all the more reason to get out there and go for it. Powder is a term used to describe thick fresh snow that has fallen in at least the last 48 hours. As a skier, you sink into the snow when skiing through it, as opposed to sliding over the flat surface, which creates a feeling of surfing or floating.
Before you get started, it’s a good idea to suss out the gear. There are different types of skis specifically designed for skiing powder, but they are by no means essential. You can ski powder on piste skis or all-mountain skis.
The technique used is more or less the same regardless of the ski and learning how to ski powder can be easier on skis you’re already familiar with, so don’t push yourself out of your comfort zone until you’re ready. The main difference between the skis is that powder skis (sometimes referred to as ‘fat skis’ or even ‘boats’) are much wider. The bigger surface area allows you to float better in soft snow.
Carving skis are designed for high level piste or race skiing and are roughly between 64 - 78mm underfoot, so relatively narrow. ‘All-mountain skis’ are a hybrid between skis for the piste, powder, park and moguls. These are slightly wider underfoot to cater for deeper snow conditions as well so between 78 - 95mm. If you’re on holiday and planning to do both a lot of powder skiing and piste skiing and don’t want to run back to the rental shop every time you switch, then all-mountain skis are a good way to go.
But powder skis are around 95-130mm underfoot - this is wide. If you’re in a resort that reliably delivers powder - or you know you have a big powder week forecasted - and you’re planning to ski deep snow the majority of the time, then you’d certainly be better off hiring powder skis. All of the major brands design and make powder skis of various dimensions, including Atomic (pictured), Salomon, and K2 to name a few.
Before you dive into skiing powder, think about your confidence level. Are you skiing parallel comfortably from blue through to black pistes?
Powder skiing is more demanding in terms of physical stamina, leg strength and control. If you’re skiing a strong parallel on red terrain that certainly works too. But be prepared that any off-piste powder terrain will unlikely have a marked level, so you need the confidence to tackle more unpredictable terrain and snow.
Book a lesson with an instructor and they will assess whether you’re ready to get going, and if you’re not quite there, they will get you up to the level. Discuss the best course of action with the ski school or guide before you book in. If there’s no powder that day, the instructor can still help you with exercises to hone your technique, although you may not get the actual experiential practice with the support of a professional.
Before you get going, you want to get accustomed to skiing with our feet closer together. In the powder this creates a larger surface area, which will help you stay afloat in the snow rather than sink down and get stuck like a truck in the mud.
Exercise: Place a glove between your knees to bring your ankles and knees together. As you turn, start off with wide turns at the top of the piste and gradually turn with an increasingly narrow radius, until you’re doing short turns. This will get you used to different turn shapes with the new narrow stance.
2. Even Pressure:
Unlike the parallel turning you’ve learned so far where your pressure is over the outside ski in the turn, with powder skiing you’re going to make another small adjustment. You want that pressure equal over both skis, so they’re working together.
Exercise: Practise jumping into deep snow with your skis on, launching off both feet. You then want to land on both feet evenly with the pressure falling on each ski at the same time.
Try the same jumping off both feet but land just on the outside ski. You’ll see that having even pressure over both feet means you’re less likely to sink.
Now go for a ski over green terrain. If there is some deeper snow on flatter terrain off the side of the piste, then try and get a feeling for skiing on these snow conditions with your feet closer together and pressure evenly distributed. Feel how skis float easier.
3. Floating the Skis:
To allow the skis to float through the snow as we turn, we need to create a bouncing effect with our legs. We do this by flexing then extending in the hip and knee - think of a trampoline. At the the start of the turn, flex down and bring toes up allowing the tips of the skis to float. Keep your body over your skis, your knees and hips flexed. You’re only pulling those toes up towards your chest- it’s a delicate movement.
A BIG mistake is trying to do this by leaning backwards with your entire body. If you’re legs are in front of your body weight then it will be impossible to turn your legs effectively. This works if you just want to get by in the powder. But if you’re looking to maximise on control, speed, efficiency, variables and very deep snow, this mechanic is a good technique to master.
Once we are transitioning through the turn we want to extend all leg joints, pushing away against the snow, allowing us to lift out towards the next turn. This helps the ski to stay near the surface, and will also help us to turn. It is easier to turn whilst in the extension phase.
Exercises: A good, simple exercise is imagining you are bumping your head against the ceiling, but only by bending and extending your legs and hips. What you don’t want is any collapsing at the waist - keep that core nice and strong.
Now put these mechanics into practice by finding flatter green-blue terrain, with powder slightly off the piste again. Bounce like a kangaroo in the snow, feeling the pressure when flexing, and the light floaty feeling while extending in the turn.
4. Strong Leg Turning:
In powder, you can’t rely on using edge angle to help us change direction so we need to have strong leg turning. You want to turn with both legs together in powder skiing as we have a higher resistance due to lots of snow - the same as when you wade deeper and deeper into the sea.
Exercise: You can practise this by turning in the shape of an upside-down question mark. First ski down the fall line - gathering that momentum that you’ll soon feel in the powder - before turning to control it. Whilst skiing this line, your legs should be extended, feet close together, and even pressure on both skis. As you transition through the turn, flex your ankles, knees and hips, and push away, bouncing off the turn.
5. Controlling Turn Shape:
After mastering this movement of extending and flexing through the turn, next you need to control your turn shape and size. This helps a skier manage different terrain and adjust speed as they progress onto blue powder terrain.
Exercise: Start off linking these question mark turns on a blue terrain feeling the bounce between each turn. After this vary the terrain from green to blue to red. As the slope gets steeper, increase the turn shape to control the speed.
So on flatter powder terrain, you’ll be in control and have ample speed to float through the snow with longer snakey turns. When you’re on steeper terrain your turn shape should get smaller and smaller in order to control the downhill forces.
Every season is different and just as you can’t guarantee sun on an English summer holiday, you cannot say with 100% accuracy that you will get powder days on end. Depending on the place and time of year, here’s a rough outline of how you can maximise your chances to find perfect powder days.
In the northern hemisphere, December to February is usually the best bet for powder days. But you may find a handful of irregular days towards the end of March. Japan has some of the highest snowfall in the world, so if you head to resorts like Rusutsu, Niseko (1), or Hakuba the soft stuff should not be in short supply.
North America also has some great powder days in the Rockies in Utah, Wyoming, and Colorado in the US (3) and British Columbia (2) or Alberta in Canada. In Europe, the same applies and there’s great powder terrain around resorts like Val Thorens, Verbier, Zermatt or St Anton (4).
The Southern Hemisphere is not as reliable for powder. A big snowfall tends to happen less frequently and the deep snow is yield heavier. But there are still some great resorts in Australia, New Zealand and South America (5) where you can luck out with the powder, looking to July as the best month.
To take it to the next step, try ski touring, hiking on skis to remote powder spots to then ski - away from lifts, resort boundaries and other skiers tracking out that fresh snow. And finally always be sure to be safe when skiing off-piste. Check our backcountry section to learn more, but the best policy is always to ski with a professional guide.
Need help learning how to ski powder? Ongosa find and book the best ski lessons for you on-piste or off-piste, including guiding. You can see all your options in one place and enjoy expert advice, at no additional cost. Start your search for ski lessons here.
Photos © enander Engelberg tourism, © Verbier tourism, © Morzine tourism
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