Inside Tracks Tips for Powder Skiing

Every year in ski movies deep powder is portrayed as the ultimate experience in skiing. For many vacationing skiers the reality falls far short of the image. Do you jump onto an untracked slope only to bottom out on the moguls or hard snow underneath? Are you exhausted after a few runs from fighting heavy new snow? Is the mountain completely tracked out by the time you take a few practice runs to reacquaint yourself with powder conditions? Here we provide a few suggestions to help you get to the goods more often.


99% of skiers will find powder skiing greatly enhanced by buying or renting wider skis. The original powder skis of the early 1990's were about 110mm. wide under the boot (vs. 62mm. for a typical modern shaped ski) and felt like water skis on any kind of packed snow. Most current powder skis are 80-90mm. underfoot and much more versatile, with icy conditions being the only real weakness. Powder skis provide the greatest assistance in the heavy or tracked-up snow, which one frequently encounters at lift-serviced areas. Several of these skis were reviewed in October 1997 IT. If powder is a top priority, it is worth investing in a dedicated powder ski to complement whatever you use in packed or hard conditions.

For those who want a single ski to cover all conditions, consider the hybrid "mid-fats" introduced over the past couple of years (reviewed September 1998 IT). These have a shaped ski sidecut but range from 68-75mm. in width underfoot. It's important to demo these skis in both packed and soft conditions to assess their performance with your personal skiing style. If you're on vacation and get lucky with a big storm, the safest bet is to rent a dedicated powder ski.

While the ski movies usually show blue-sky powder days, the reality is that most powder skiing at resorts will be during storms. You'll be most comfortable in a one-piece suit with a well-designed attached hood and high quality gloves and goggles. On the east and west coasts clothing and gloves need to be waterproof / breathable.

Think Local

Weather prediction is very unreliable more than a few days in the future. An advance booking for a week at the snowiest of ski areas still has only about a 40% chance of seeing serious powder. At most destination resorts the odds are more like 10-20%. Your best chance for powder may be a short-notice day trip to a local area during or right after a big storm. If you live in Seattle or San Francisco, for example, you'll get far more powder from well-timed day skiing than from longer trips planned in advance. Even in less obvious places like Boston, Phoenix or Los Angeles you can average a couple of high-quality midweek local powder days per season. Also, at your local area you are the expert who knows where the best stashes are and when lifts and runs are likely to open following a big dump.

Powder Criteria for Choosing a Destination Resort

  1. The obvious #1 priority is maximum annual snowfall. Look for an average of at least 350 inches. In the regional recommendations below, we rarely mention anyplace under 300. Within the recommendations, areas are listed in order of preference based upon the combination of snow and terrain.
  2. Terrain and layout of the ski area. Gladed trees are most desirable, followed by open bowls. If the only runs are cut trails, powder won't last long. Terrain difficulty at the red or black level is ideal. In flatter terrain you'll bog down in deep snow. The really steep yellow-rated runs can be ecstatic in fresh snow but will often be closed for avalanche control. An expansive area with traversing or short hikes to reach the best stashes will permit the fresh snow to be skied out more gradually.
  3. Low skier density. Minimizing the number of skiers per acre of fresh snow is essential to maximizing the number of powder runs you'll get in a day. There is usually a tradeoff of low density vs. skiing the signature runs at the premier ski areas, depending upon each skier's personal preference. Are you willing to put up with liftlines and a long traverse to get that one waist-deep run down High Rustler at Alta, or would you rather get more runs in at a second-tier area like Brighton or Solitude? Do you want to be at the rope drop for Vail's back bowls or have a less frenzied experience next door at Beaver Creek? The lowest density powder areas are usually smaller with fewer modern facilities such as high-speed quad lifts, or in very remote locations.
  4. In our regional recommendations, we'll focus primarily on these most important factors, but here are few others you may wish to consider.

  5. Snow quality. Most skiers prefer the "champagne powder" of the Rockies to the oft-maligned Sierra Cement or Cascade Concrete on the West Coast. With the advent of powder skis, most of the extra effort of skiing high water content snow has been eliminated. If the snow is really thick, the wider skis will just float on top. There is no question that the heavier snow will set up during the first couple of days after a storm, while well-sheltered Rockies powder can remain enjoyable for a week or more (if you can still find it!).
  6. Volatility of snowfall is a positive for powder. If you ski after a 3-6 inch snowfall, you're really skiing on the base surface under the new snow. You need a dump of a foot or more, especially on steeper terrain, for true powder skiing. The West Coast and Utah are more likely than other regions to get the most intense snowfalls.
  7. Seasonal variations in snow. Through most of the West, average snowfall is similar for the four months December to March. Exceptions will be noted in the regional detail. In March, the sun will set up the new snow more quickly, particularly if not north-exposed. In December, some of the steeper runs may not be adequately covered, even in high snow areas.


Despite the outstanding snow quality, most destination resorts average only about 250 inches. The tendency towards frequent consistent small snowfalls means you'll have to be very lucky to get deep powder. In all our regional recommendations, annual snow is indicated in brackets.

Best Snow: Wolf Creek (375), also a stronger tendency to big dumps than elsewhere in the state.

Best Terrain: Steamboat (350), Vail (350).

Other Recommended Areas: Winter Park (350), Beaver Creek (300), A-Basin (325), Loveland (350)

Lowest Skier Density: Wolf Creek, Berthoud Pass (350)

Seasonality: Colorado is unique in the West in that March is the best month for powder. March has the highest average snowfall especially in the southwest, and the high altitudes and mostly north exposures make spring snow preservation the best in the West. Considering these factors plus their terrain and higher snowfall volatility, Taos and Telluride (both 275) are reasonable options for powder in March. At Steamboat and Vail March is less reliable for snow quality than other Colorado areas due to significant south exposed terrain.

Other Considerations: Colorado does have a couple of microclimates with average snow in excess of 400 inches. Irwin Lodge snowcat skiing is located near Kebler Pass and received 430 inches in Colorado's very average 1997-98 season. The ranges near Kebler Pass unfortunately block out much of this snow from nearby Crested Butte (250). There is also snowcat skiing at Buffalo Pass (well over 400) near Steamboat.


Alta and Snowbird provide the ultimate combination of snow and terrain for lift-serviced powder skiing in North America and probably the world. The price of fame is often excessive lift lines at Alta and intense competition at Snowbird. There are some alternative areas to consider in Utah if you're there at a particularly busy time.

Best Snow: Alta (525), Snowbird (475)

Best Terrain: Snowbird, Alta

Other Recommended Areas: Solitude (400), Brighton (400), Jupiter Bowl sector (350) of Park City (150-300 elsewhere)

Lowest Skier Density: Powder Mt. (400), smallish area expands on powder days to shuttle bus and pay-by-the-ride snowcat pickup areas. Snow Basin (325). Brighton and Solitude are pretty empty midweek.

Seasonality: Snowfall averages are fairly even among the months. January is the least busy month.

Other Considerations: Wasatch Powderbirds heliskiing at Snowbird (currently renegotiating permit with Forest Service).

Northern Rockies

There are several regional climates in both the northern U.S. and Canada to consider. Most of the destination resorts are remote from population centers, so skier density tends to be lower than in Utah, Colorado or the West Coast.

Best Snow: Grand Targhee (450)

Best Terrain: Jackson Hole (375), Red Mt. (300)

Other Recommended Areas: Fernie (400), Big Mountain (300), Bridger Bowl (300), Schweitzer (300), Lone Peak (300) at Big Sky (250 on lower mt.)

Lowest Skier Density: Whitewater (400), just 2 lifts but extensive lift-accessible backcountry, recommended especially for telemarkers. The Ridge at Bridger Bowl (hike above the top lift). Among larger ski areas (over 2,000 acres, over 2,500 vertical), Fernie, Big Mountain and Red Mt. have the lowest skier density in North America.

Seasonality: Low altitudes or variable exposures can be a problem in spring. January and February are recommended. Grand Targhee and Fernie are good bets in December, too.

Other Considerations: High Mountain heliskiing at Jackson. Snowcat skiing at Grand Targhee. Island Lake Lodge (of ski flick fame) snowcat skiing at Fernie.

Pacific Northwest

From a local's perspective the whole region is a powder paradise, averaging over 400 inches snowfall per season. Vacationers must beware of the considerable chance of rain, which will turn yesterday's powder into today's sheet ice or mashed potatoes. The two major destination resorts, Mt. Bachelor and Whistler/Blackcomb's alpine region, are at high enough altitude to minimize, though not eliminate, the chance of rain. However, the above timberline terrain at both resorts will usually be closed during big storms.

Best Snow: Mt. Baker (600), highest lift-serviced snowfall in North America.

Best Terrain: Whistler/Blackcomb (400 in alpine, 200-350 at lower elevation)

Other Recommended Areas: Crystal Mt. (350), Mt. Bachelor (375), Stevens Pass (450), Mt. Hood (450), White Pass (350), Alpental (400)

Lowest Skier Density: Everything is within day commute distance of Portland, Seattle or Vancouver, but Mt. Baker is the most remote. Crystal's north and south backcountry require traversing and some hiking, so some powder can last a few days.

Seasonality: Above 6,000 feet snowfall is even among the months. At lower elevations, December and January get the most snow.

Other Considerations: Whistler and Tyax day heliskiing at Whistler. TLH Heliskiing 3 hours north of Whistler provides pickup from Whistler or Vancouver.


Although marine-influenced, the Sierra is less vulnerable to rain than the Northwest due to higher altitude. At the highest resorts (Mammoth, Kirkwood, Mt. Rose and the upper half of Heavenly), rain is rare. The snow is still high enough in water content that fat skis are strongly recommended.

Best Snow: Kirkwood (450), also 1,000 feet higher in average elevation than other Tahoe areas

Best Terrain: Squaw Valley (300-400)

Other Recommended Areas: Alpine Meadows (375), Sugar Bowl (425), Mammoth (350)

Lowest Skier Density: California has a large population base, but there are quite a few smaller areas where there will be less competition. For example, Bear Valley (400, accessible only from the Central Valley, not Tahoe), Mt. Rose (300), Sierra-at-Tahoe (400), Homewood (350). Among the larger areas, Kirkwood has the lowest density as it is a 45-minute drive from most of Tahoe's lodging.

Seasonality: Average snowfall is similar December to March. November and April are proportionately lower than in other regions of the West.

Other Considerations: The extensive above timberline terrain at Mammoth, Squaw Valley and Alpine Meadows will nearly always be closed during storms. At this time, the tree skiing at Heavenly (250), Northstar (275) and June Mountain (250) will be outstanding. Since Sierra snow is most likely to fall in big dumps, these areas will have plenty of powder during storms despite their lower snow averages.


With no open terrain, limited glade skiing and lower snow averages, it is essential to use the local's strategy for eastern powder skiing. By taking midweek trips in response to snowy weather forecasts, you can get some fresh tracks with less competition than on weekends or holidays.

Best Snow: Jay Peak (325), Le Massif (overlooks unfrozen Gulf of St. Lawrence, possibly highest snowfall in the East)

Other Recommended Areas: Stowe, Mad River Glen, Sugarbush, Smuggler's Notch, Killington, Wildcat (all 250). Few other areas average over 200.

Lowest Skier Density: Le Massif

Seasonality: Snowfall is similar among the months. Rain is least likely in December and January.