What Is Dry Snow?

Lisa Marie Mercer
powder snow

What is dry snow? If you spend a good deal of time at ski areas, you will no doubt hear conversations about wet snow, granular snow, corn snow and dry snow. While it might be relatively easy to figure out the meanings of wet, granular and corn snow, the idea of dry snow may sound like a contradiction in terms. How can snow possibly be dry? Snow is considered wet or dry based on the "snow to liquid equivalent".

Snow to Liquid Equivalent

The snow to liquid equivalent is a ratio indicating the amount of liquid precipitation produced as snow melts. In order to calculate this, one uses both the earth's surface temperature as well as the temperature of the troposphere. The troposphere is the bottom-most layer of the earth's atmosphere, which contains 75 percent of the atmosphere's mass, and most of its water vapor.

Ten to one is the average snow to liquid equivalent ratio of wet snow. The ratio can be interpreted as follows: if ten inches of snow fall at a ski resort, these ten inches of snow would produce one inch of liquid precipitation.

Definition: What Is Dry Snow?

Dry snow occurs when both the troposphere temperature and the surface temperature fall below the freezing mark, causing this snow to have a minimal amount of liquid. In contrast to wet snow, whose average snow to liquid ratio is ten to one, dry snow may have a ratio as high as 30 to one, meaning that there are more air pockets between the snow crystals.

Since dry snow is less dense than wet snow, it is not 'sticky', and is ineffective for making snowballs or snowmen. Dry snow's lack of stickiness makes the snow unlikely to stick together to form what ski resorts call "packed powder". However, dry snow does form "champagne powder", which is a skier's equivalent to a surfer's perfect wave. Dry snow is prevalent in the ski areas of Utah, Wyoming and Niseko, Japan.

Comparing Dry Snow and Wet Snow

Now that you know the answer to the question, "what is dry snow?", it is interesting to compare dry snow to wet snow. As mentioned, wet snow will usually have a snow to liquid equivalent ratio of ten to one. While dry snow produces a large number of small snowflakes, wet snow produces a small amount of large snowflakes. Once it is on the ground, wet snow usually goes through a few melt and freeze cycles, allowing a crust to form, which supports your weight while skiing, or snowboarding. Unfortunately, the heat of the midday sun turns this crust to slush, which can be dangerous for less-skilled skiers and riders.

Wet snow is prevalent in Canada and the areas of the Pacific Northwest, such as the Mt Baker Ski Resort.

Skiing in Dry Snow

If you usually ski at ski resorts in the eastern regions of the US and Canada, known for its wet and icy conditions, skiing in dry snow or powder conditions can be a challenge. In general, dry snow skiing involves a bit less carving technique and movements should be subtle. Keep in mind that dry snow will slow you down, so don't be afraid to face point your skis down the fall line.

Dry Snow and Dry Ski Slopes

Many people get confused between the terms dry snow and dry ski slopes. The two terms are actually totally unrelated. Dry ski slopes, also known as artificial ski slopes, are indoor ski areas that are usually located in parts of the world that get little snow. Dry slopes do not use dry snow, or any other type of snow. Instead, they use artificial snow, which is usually made from a product known as dendix, also used to make hairbrushes. Wikipedia has an extensive list of artificial ski slopes for those who live in regions where real snow, wet or dry, is rare.

Hitting the Slopes

Whether you, generally speaking, ski in wet or dry snow, it is always fun to check out what different types of snow are like to ski on. Even skiing on artificial snow is an experience all its own, so if you've only ever experienced one type of snow, you'll probably be delighted to experience the differences that different types of snow offer.

What Is Dry Snow?