For skiers above a basic level of proficiency, snow conditions can affect a slope’s difficulty more than the steepness. A steep chute with 6 inches of fresh powder may be less daunting than an intermediate trail with hard-packed snow.

Given the importance of snow conditions, skiers and boarders love to discuss crystallized water in all its forms and variations. Here’s a glossary (somewhat in order of desirability depending on preferences).

Powder

Fresh snow is held up as the Holy Grail for ski conditions. Especially when the fresh totals go above 6 inches or so, powder is not necessarily the easiest to ski for those who have never experienced such deep snow. Even with today’s wider skis, deep powder requires some technique adjustment, because turns happen inside a 3-D environment of snow, rather than completely on top of a surface. Learning the right technique is well worth the effort to experience the floating feeling of powder skiing.

Terms for Snow Conditions: Powder

PHOTO: Powder, Eric Wagnon

Hero Snow

This term is based more on subjective opinion, rather than specific physical characteristics of the snow. Hero snow is simply easy to ski, so you can “look like a hero” even with flaws in technique. For most skiers, this translates into forgiving soft snow that’s not too deep with a solid base underneath for making turns.

Corduroy

When resorts groom trails overnight, the snowcats leave behind a pattern of small ridges in the snow that are reminiscent of corduroy fabric. Fresh corduroy is generally smooth and predictable, so it is a favorite of skiers who like to ski fast or “rip corduroy.”

Terms for Snow Conditions cord

PHOTO: Corduroy snow, Eric Wagnon

Crud

The name sounds nastier than the reality. The definition of crud can vary, but often it just means powder that has been tracked out to an extent. Crud can be fun to ski, but in a sense it’s the opposite of corduroy in that it’s unpredictable. Skiers must keep their balance going back and forth between deep and packed snow.

Terms for Snow Conditions Crud

PHOTO: Crud, Eric Wagnon

Packed Powder

When it hasn’t snowed for at least a couple of days, this seems to be the default snow condition for resorts’ morning reports. Packed powder simply means skiers and boarders have packed down the snow, but it’s still fairly soft and skiable.

Terms for Snow Conditions packed powder

PHOTO: Packed powder, Eric Wagnon

Corn

This elusive snow is actually very desirable and often falls in the “hero snow” category, but it can be hard to time. It is generally found in the spring when freeze/melt cycles affect the snow. Large grains of snow freeze together overnight, then they loosen as the sun warms them during the day. Corn refers to the snow during the time window when it has become soft and forgiving, but not too wet and slushy. In other words, it’s the “Goldilocks” of snow—not too hard, not too soft, but just right.

Terms for Snow Conditions: Corn

PHOTO: Corn snow, My Steamboat

Firm Conditions

Again often found in the spring, snow that has refrozen overnight has an icy glaze on it that makes it tough to edge into with skis. The morning skiing can feel like skittering across a coral reef. In the worst cases, clumps of refrozen snow form “frozen chicken heads.” In this situation, head for the corduroy until the corn arrives later in the day.

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  • Cannon fan

    Forgot about ‘mashed potato’ snow. Heavy wet thick leg burning. Also icy concrete when the temp drops after a rain. Oh wait you guys must not be including east coast conditions.

  • Tom Watson

    How about “Sierra Sludge”? Similar to “Mashed Potatoes” but heavier. Wet, Heavy, Rough to navigate in.

    • JFH

      The better-looking younger brother to Sierra Cement!

  • Phylliski

    I’ve always heard of what you called hero snow to be “Ego Snow”…and Tom (below), I always heard it called “Sierra Cement”. And what about back east’s “Blue Ice” and “Eastern Hardpack”? Another, which I hate “Wind Packed”…very crusty and icey on top.

  • Michael

    What about Mank? It goes with mash potatoes but it is generally untracked powder(use to be powder) that has been sitting in the sun usually on a south facing slope. Very heavy and tough to ski especially when it is knee or thigh deep. It usually occurs in mid April into May and June. It sounds like what Tom is commenting on. We just call it Mank.

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  • Ray

    Powder means dry. It is a lower moisture content. Just because it is deep snow, doesn’t mean it it is puffy, loose powder. Powder is light. Is laundry powder wet? No!

  • Buck Stodgers

    East Coast “frozen granular”, aka skiing on a sheet of ice.

  • WisSkier

    Boiler plate but I guess that would be ice and not snow and better suited to ice-skating than skiing, however, it is something I run into on occasion. I make a distinction in crud snows. Chopped snow is what I call snow that is still fresh but well skied on, chopped snow piles are soft, sometimes I use the term fluffencrud. This is *_FUN_* to ski in and even when I do mess up and go through a mogul they are soft and forgiving.

    Crud snow in my mind is now that was recently chopped but now contains hard components, solid snow chunks, ice perhaps, and solid unforgiving moguls.

  • Mike Hardaker
  • banerjek

    This is a strange article — only the good kinds of snow were listed. Mashed potatoes, windblown, and ice are all very common. And anyone who skis/rides much has certainly spent time on snow referred to by the technical term, “crap.”