Despite the fact that usually after a couple of days of powder I feel nostalgic for hard-packed trails, skiing powder is one of the most beautiful sensations this sport can produce. Skiing on this unprepared snow transmits a unique sensation of peace and tranquility. It is definitely very quiet skiing. The turns produce almost no noise at all. We feel like we are floating down the mountain instead of sliding downhill.
But what is powder snow? Powder snow is light, soft, newly fallen snow.
Many skiers dream of leaving the groomed trails behind and making fresh tracks down powdery off-piste slopes. The term off-piste comes from French and is commonly used by skiers and snowboarders to describe terrain that’s off the groomed trails.
It is true that a good skier can ski the whole mountain with any ski. But powder or off-piste specific skis make that type of skiing easier, because of the larger surface area they have making us float higher in the snow and thus turn easier. An off-piste ski would make things much easier, however, any snow is still skiable on any ski.
In this post, we discuss a few tips for skiing this type of terrain, particularly if we are on on-piste skis. On-piste skis are heavy, very narrow at the waist, have a lot of camber, and are stiff tip-to-tail. All of them are advantages for skiing on hard surfaces at fast speeds and with lots of grip. But all cons for skiing powder…
Slalom skis will work off-piste, but will be much harder work than something more all-mountain/designed for off-trails. The SL skis are designed to sink down through the loose stuff and find the ice to cut their edges into while the more off-piste the ski the more it tries to float on top. Also, Slalom skis will be very “grabby” due to the tight sidecut and stiff flex so they need subtle inputs in soft snow.
A common misconception is that in order to float, we need to move our Center of Mass back. And that is wrong. We always should be centered on our skis, with the athletic stance, just as on the groomers. To control the skis and make the turns, we still need to get to the shovel of that new outside ski. That is impossible if we are in the backseat.
Remember, the key concept is “floating”. The higher we float on the snowpack, the easier it will be to turn.
These are the 3 most important tips to adapt your technique to powder skiing:
1) Narrow stance: mimic a “uniform platform”
2) Balance distribution more even on both skis
3) Speed helps
Always be centered on your skis… Photo credit Guun Producciones
“Remember, the key concept is ‘floating’. The higher we float on the snowpack, the easier it will be to turn.”
1) Narrow stance: the goal is to try to keep the skis close together to form one platform on the snow, like if our skis would mimic a snowboard or a monoski for that matter. A uniform single platform floats better than two separate ones.
2) Balance distribution is more even on both skis: Balance is key. Try not to pressure the outside ski heavily as you would on hard snow during the middle of a turn to avoid the outside ski sinking and hooking.. Do that in powder and you will fall instantly! Even though the outside ski is still dominant, the load distribution is not as aggressive on the outside ski as in the groomers. Regarding load, 60% outside and 40% inside ski should be the goal. Putting all your weight on one ski will cause it to sink to China and the other one to rise with the result that you will trip. Also, directing a lot of force to the tip of the ski will drive that tip down into the snow and trip you up as well. So we should avoid going too forward on the ski.
3) Speed helps: “Speed is your friend” is a common saying in powder skiing. Speed helps to float higher. Also, trust and commitment are key in pow, but that generally applies to most conditions.
Often powder novices make the mistake of trying to turn more often (overturn) than their speed dictates, they lose momentum, and get bogged down. The buoyancy of deep 3D snow (with its friction and resistance) takes the place of a lot of the speed control which, on hardpack, is achieved by turning. That “vertical arc in the snow” of the turns in powder slows you down a lot. If we ski defensively, using our skis and edges primarily as brakes to scrub off speed by skidding sideways, we will quickly find that those habits and techniques don’t work well in powder. So in powder, we must ski more offensively and do a more direct line down with more elongated round turns (skiing closer to the fall line with less turn finish than you would use on hard-packed snow).
A common mistake with skiers who are new to powder is attempting to turn with little speed, often on flat terrain. That makes turning really difficult, particularly on on-piste skis. This can be challenging because most beginner skiers want to go slow and ski on easier terrain when learning.
Having said that, remember to always ski in complete control, and with a speed you feel comfortable at.
–“Hop or retraction turns”: AKA Cresting or bouncing turns, are the best type of turn in deep snow. Start out going straight down the fall line to gain some speed. Then we bounce up and down a bit and then start turning on the up bounce. It’s essential to bounce just from our ankles and knees, not using our upper body.
To achieve this, we should pushdown both skis at the end of the turn, and when the snow compresses and the ski flexes, it produces a rebound which we should take advantage of flexing our legs in order to steer the skis in the highest point on the snow surface. One must bounce off the snow compaction underfoot. It’s very active and dynamic skiing. This is the best way to ski powder with on-piste skis.
– Rhythm & Patience: in powder, everything is slower… In really deep powder patience is a must, with slow-motion moves. The deeper one is down in the snow, the more needed patience.
Rhythm is key also. Rhythmic short turns are the best strategy for skiing down off-piste slopes.
–Be ready to adapt to changing conditions: in powder (or any snow where you are skiing “in” rather than “on”), you don’t really know what you’re going to encounter. The density of the snow can change without warning during the day (or sometimes even at the different altitudes of the slope such as heavier snow at lower altitudes), and there can be logs or stones below. A balanced approach helps a lot when in variable snow conditions.
–Hockey stops: on powder is quite difficult to stop using a sharp hockey stop. Sometimes it is better to make a complete “J turn” in order to stop. But if we want to attempt a hockey stop in powder, in order to keep the downhill ski from sinking and hooking and falling down (because of our momentum going downhill), we should lean more inside and break using both skis as support.
*Disclaimer: Modern powder skis (“fat” skis with Rocker profile), which already have great buoyancy, allow off-piste skiing with the skis in a wider stance and predominantly loading the outside ski, similar to skiing on the groomers. Also, the need for bouncing is reduced.
See you on the slopes!