It’s not easy making a list of North America’s best powder runs.
The most obvious reason why, is that everyone (including me), keeps secrets.
Like mushroom hunters and CIA operatives, powder skiers are loathe to share their intel. While we may utter a few generalizations and vaguely point toward a lift or glade, most of us are more like Jon, a man we met on a Snowbird chairlift in early January.
It was the day after a two-day storm, so I suggested to Jon that perhaps he could share a few tips.
With a wry laugh, he shut the door. “It’s a powder day. I’m not telling you anything.”
How to Find Powder
Here’s the good news: while locals may not be forthcoming, here are some ways to maximize your powder turns this winter.
1. Ski Where Snow Falls
More snowfall equals more powder. One strategy is to ski where it snows the most.
Based on resort-reported annual snowfall data, many resorts in the Pacific Northwest, California, Wyoming and Utah receive well over 450” of snow each season, with big winners — Alyeska, Alaska and Mt. Baker, Washington — each receiving over 600” per year.
Just remember, more snow doesn’t always equal more powder. A wet pacific storm may result in deep total inches, but with snow so heavy it’s nearly impossible to turn, while one of the best powder days we’ve ever had was at Lutsen Mountains, Minnesota, after an 11” storm. It turns out Minnesotans don’t like powder. We had the mountain to ourselves.
Pro Tip: Chasing powder is time-consuming and expensive. Sometimes the best strategy is to ski where you live. Keep a close eye on your local weather. If a storm is coming, you’ve got powder potential. Seize it.
2. Think Small
While powder day lift lines can be notorious at big-name resorts, avoid the crowds by riding at less well-known ski areas. For example, against every impulse we agreed to meet friends at Buttermilk on a powder day, passing up both Aspen Mountain and Aspen Highlands.
While we didn’t score big-time terrain, we had untracked powder the entire day. The tradeoff was worth it.
Pro Tip: Keep an eye on storm totals and lift ticket prices at small resorts near you. In late December, one of our sons skipped Colorado powder days in favor of one ultra-deep day at Arizona Snowbowl. Exploring this mostly local mountain, he was thrilled with the snow, the vast terrain, and the value. Score.
3. Get Up Early
On a powder day, we are all “morning people.” If you want the first set of chairs, and the first set of turns, get up and get to the mountain. Set your alarm clock or bunk with friends who live by the lifts.
Pro Tip: Prep the the night before, laying out everything you need. If you’re driving, pack your car and don’t forget water and snacks. In the morning, pay attention to road and avalanche reports and allow time for slow driving.
4. Ski the Trees
If you’re comfortable skiing trees, find fresh snow days after a storm thanks to fewer people skiing in glades. Go with a buddy and be aware of tree wells.
Pro Tip: If you don’t like trees, get off the beaten path. Be a contrarian and go to the backside of a resort or by-pass the most popular runs in favor of more obscure terrain. In deep or heavy snow, avoid runs with long flat areas or catwalks, especially if skiing with small children. It’s easy to get bogged down.
5. Pay Attention to Terrain Openings
Big storms cause big challenges for ski patrol. Depending upon the terrain, large portions of some mountains may be closed for a day or longer while patrol does avalanche mitigation. As safety improves, look for rope drops. Line up and enjoy fresh turns.
Pro Tip: Never duck a rope. Never enter closed terrain.
6. Go With a Friend
Supposedly there are “no friends on a powder day,” but skiing with friends who know a mountain well is the preferred way to find the best snow and the best lines on any day.
Not only will your friends know which lifts to ride when, they’ll also know how wind impacts the mountain and where the snow refills and piles up.
Pro Tip: Beer, lunch, coffee, chocolate? If you’ve got powder day friends, you owe them.
And hey, if you’ve got a favorite powder run that you love and don’t mind sharing, please call it out in the comments. We can only ask! Thanks.