Updated June 28th, 2023
If you like to ski a lot sooner or later you will encounter a run with shiny, granite hard ice and you won’t have any other way down. Skiing on ice can be frightening but if you use some caution and proper technique you can safely make it down almost any run. Let’s discuss how to ski on ice so you can make it to the bottom next time you encounter ice on the slopes.
- What is icy snow?
- Ice vs Hard Pack
- What causes icy ski conditions
- Why does ice make skiing difficult?
- 10 tips for how to ski on ice and hardpack snow
- 1 – Have patience and don't act quickly
- 2 – It's easier to control your speed than it is to slow down
- 3 – Ski with a wider stance
- 4 – Use your outside edge
- 5 – Slide from side to side
- 6 – Side slipping can save you
- 7 – Look for clumps of snow to turn on
- 8 – If you fall try to stop as quick as possible
- 9 – Take your time if you have to traverse across icy snow
- 10 – You need more distance to stop on icy snow
- How to avoid skiing on ice?
- Keep your skis tuned and use the correct skis for icy days
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What is icy snow?
I grew up skiing out east in Vermont. The East Coast is sometimes referred to as the “Ice Coast” for good reason. Icy snow is when the snow has thawed into liquid form and refrozen into ice. It has a nice shiny look to it similar to looking at a giant ice cube or skate rink on the ground.
The worst ice day I can ever remember was at Mount Bohemia in the Michigan upper peninsula. That place you may have read about that is “no beginners allowed” that doesn’t groom or make snow. We arrived and there was a sign by the register “it’s icy, no refunds”. We drove 12 hours to get there so we were skiing.
We took the lift up. It had rained earlier in the week and refroze. The whole face of the mountain was shiny boiler plate hard ice. We did a couple of very cautious runs mostly skidding and sliding before trying out the glades where we found decent non-ice snow.
Ice vs Hard Pack
A lot of skiers, especially those out west, will refer to hardpack snow as ice. It’s really not. Hardpack snow is compressed snowflakes. Hardpack can compress into a really hard firm surface. It will have less grip than a soft new snow day. Hardpack has a lot more grip than true ice. Learning to ski confidently on hardpack will help when you do encounter a true ice day. See this article on different classifications of snow to learn more.
READ ALSO: First Time Guide To Skiing Out West
What causes icy ski conditions
The worst ice ski conditions occur when you have a warm or rainy day followed by a very cold day. This melts the top of the snow surface into liquid and then refreezes it into solid ice. This is known as a thaw freeze cycle. You can also find ice when all the snow has been scraped or blown off leaving just an icy base behind to ski on.
Why does ice make skiing difficult?
Ice is slippery. We have all gone ice skating or walked on a frozen lake or parking lot and know how slippery it is. It is far harder and more slippery than snow. When you ski on snow, your ski tends to sink into the snow giving you a ledge to stand or edge on.
When the snow surface has frozen into ice, your edges don’t sink in and you are balancing on just the metal edge instead of most of the bottom of your skis.
Skiing on ice really presents 2 challenges. The first is balancing on your edges so you remain upright. The second is your edges having much less grip giving you less control.
10 tips for how to ski on ice and hardpack snow
Let’s discuss a few ways you can ski on ice safely and with more control.
1 – Have patience and don’t act quickly
You have to take it easy and not apply too much edge or movement at one time while skiing on ice. If you do something very drastic and quick there is a very good chance you’re ski is just going to slide out from under you and you’ll fall. You have to let pressure build up on your edges gradually. The key to ice is not overdoing it and feeling your skis and their grip.
2 – It’s easier to control your speed than it is to slow down
When skiing ice speed control becomes very important. You want to keep your speed down at a pace you can easily stop from. If you let yourself pick up a big head of steam you may then find you can’t turn or stop without losing control and falling. When you are skiing on a slippery surface it is better to keep your speed in check.
3 – Ski with a wider stance
You have better balance with a wider stance. Keep your skis shoulder width apart so you have a stable base to stand on. If you ski with your skis close together there is a better than good chance you will fall if you start sliding on either ski.
4 – Use your outside edge
When skiing on ice, you need to get as much pressure as your can against the ice to turn or stop. By putting most of your weight onto your outside or downhill ski you can apply more force to the ice. Use your outside edge to do most of the work for turning and stopping. Use your uphill or inside ski for balance.
5 – Slide from side to side
Skiing on ice is about making it down the mountain safely. One technique that works very well on shiny bright boiler plate ice surfaces is to use more of a controlled skid or slide. Slide on one ski followed by a turn and slide on the other ski. Carving on ice is extremely difficult and requires advanced skills most skiers do not have.
6 – Side slipping can save you
If you get to a point where it’s very icy and steep and you just aren’t sure you can always side slip down it. There is no shame in side slipping terrain you aren’t comfortable skiing. I’ll take side slipping down something over a season ending injury any day.
7 – Look for clumps of snow to turn on
If you look at the snow on many runs later in the day you will notice that the snow tends to get pushed into clumps with ice spots in between. One strategy for dealing with icy conditions is to do your turns on the clumps of snow where you have good grip. Look down the hill and plan 2 to 3 turns ahead where you have snow to do turns.
8 – If you fall try to stop as quick as possible
Falling happens. If you are new to skiing on ice, chances are your going to fall. You don’t want to be that person that slides the whole way down the mountain on their back after falling.
If you fall, do whatever you can do to stop yourself as quickly as possible. Dig your skis, gloves, boots, etc.. into the ice and try to stop yourself. You don’t want to injure someone else by sliding into them. You don’t want to slide off the trail into trees or rocks.
Once you are sliding on your back or stomach you can’t see where you are going or what is below you. Don’t ever assume it’s safe to just blindly slide down the run.
9 – Take your time if you have to traverse across icy snow
If you come across an icy slope that you need to cross what do you do? You can traverse an icy slope much the same way you normally do. Take your time and don’t rush. Just like skiing on ice, it’s easier to control your speed than it is to slow down from high speeds. Focus on your balance. Keep a wide stance with your arms out. Keep most of your weight on your downhill ski and use your uphill ski for balance.
10 – You need more distance to stop on icy snow
The easiest way to stop is to not get going really fast to begin with. If you need to stop on ice, remember that it is going to take more distance than hardpack snow or soft snow. You have to build up pressure on your edges gradually.
This is one time where you really need to pay attention to what is going on farther down slope from you. If you need to stop, start slowing down earlier since you don’t have the grip to really dig in quickly.
How to avoid skiing on ice?
Some people just don’t like to ski on ice and would rather avoid it. Here are a few ways to avoid skiing on ice.
1 – Don’t go skiing on a freezing cold day, the day after it rains or was warm.
The worst ice days happen on below freezing days that happen right after above freezing days. A frozen day, the day after it rained will almost guarantee very icy conditions. If you don’t want to ski on ice, don’t ski for a couple of days after a thaw cycle.
2 – Avoid steep groomed runs late in the day that have been scraped off.
People scrape the snow off while skiing and snowboarding. Later in the day, runs tend to have a lot of scraped off hardpacked and icy spots with snow clumps in between. This tends to be worse on steep groomed runs where a lot of skiers do more skidding than carving. If you want a nice fast surface that isn’t icy, go ski in the morning.
3 – Snow gets scraped from the middle to the edges of the slope
As the day goes by, snow tends to get pushed from the middle to the edges of the slope. People tend to ski the middle of the slope because they are afraid of going off the edges. You can find much better snow on the edge of the slope where the snow has gotten pushed to or just not skied yet. The middle of the run will have lots of ice.
4 – Avoid moguls
Mogul skiing can be fun. It can also be a lot of challenge. The snow tends to be scraped off moguls and the snow between bumps can be very icy also. If it’s cold out and it’s been a few days since the last snow fall, you can expect moguls to be very hard and icy.
5 – Try skiing in the glades trees
Tree cover in glades can shelter the snow from direct sunlight and also rain. It may not thaw as much as snow on an open run. The snow doesn’t get blown away in the trees either. If the wide open on piste runs are all icy, you might try checking out the trees to look for better snow conditions.
Keep your skis tuned and use the correct skis for icy days
Your skis will have a better grip on ice if the edges are sharp and tuned correctly. Keeping your skis waxed and tuned will make sure you are always ready for icy days.
Some skis do not perform as well on icy conditions. The best skis for icy conditions are stiff cambered skis or front side skis. Rocker-camber-rocker all mountain skis will work okay on ice but not as well. They will get you down the mountain okay.
Full rockered skis made for powder skiing are the worst skis to have for ice. The full rocker shape means the edges don’t put much pressure on the ice which leaves you very little control.
Ice feels about the same as concrete if you fall and hit your head on it. Always wear a helmet when skiing on icy days.
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Co-Founder & Chief Editor
I grew up back east in Pennsylvania and learned to ski on a family trip to Killington, Vermont when I was 6. I immediately fell in love with the mountains and outdoors and have been skiing across the US and Canada ever since. I went to school for Mechanical Engineering, and have a Master’s Degree in Material Science and Reliability.
I am a total gear nerd and love learning how things work and thinking about how they could be improved. Nothing excites me more than trying out new gear. I’d rather spend 3 hours taking my bike apart and learning how to change something than go to a bike shop. These days I reside in Michigan by the Great Lakes and go skiing, biking, and boating as much as possible.