Types of Snow Conditions
While every type of snow begins as a single water droplet, a number of things can affect it by the time it reaches the ground. Altitude, temperature, and other factors determine if the snow falls to the ground as light, powder snow or heavy "Sierra cement." After the snow has been on the ground, it can become "crud," "packed powder," "hard-packed" or "ice."
What makes powder snow so enjoyable to ski is its low moisture content and structure. In the Rocky Mountains and other inland areas, the water content of powder snow can be as low as 5 to 7 percent. Each snowflake gently settles on top of other snowflakes. Contrast that with resorts that are located near the coasts, where the water content can be as high as 15 to 17 percent. High water content snowflakes are heavier, so they lock into other snowflakes, resulting in heavier snow.
If powder snow is the ultimate skiing experience, then skiing crud is the bane of the recreational skier. Crud is the byproduct of skiers "cutting up" acres of untracked powder snow. Skiing crud is hard work. It means wrestling with your skis as they dive and shimmy through alternating snow consistencies. The snow can be light and fluffy one minute and heavy and firm the next. At resorts that groom their slopes, crud ultimately becomes "packed powder."
Sometime during the life of a snowflake, it will be compressed, recycled and smoothed out into "packed powder." Packed powder snow is "groomed" using specially designed Snowcats to produce acres of flawless corduroy that's popular with baby boomer skiers. Packed powder runs are easy to ski and are perfect for producing "carved turns" on shaped skis. It also forms the "base" of most ski runs--the foundation for skiing the entire winter.
Ice and Hard-Packed Conditions
Once the weather turns warm, packed powder snow goes through a transition to heavier, denser snow called "ice" or "hard-packed" snow. Ice and hard-packed snow is formed over time as the relative water content of snow increases, coupled with the daily pressure of skiers' weight on the snow. Some resorts on the East Coast are famous for their "blue ice," or snow that you can literally see through. Ice is very difficult to ski and requires highly tuned skis with razor-sharp edges.