Ski Safely on Icy and Hard Packed Snow

Skier taking a turn in deep powder on a sunny day
Daniel Milchev / Getty Images

Every skier, beginner to expert, will at some point come upon icy or hard-packed snow and it's good to hear from an expert on how to safely ski through these conditions.

Martin Heckelman, known internationally as ‘Mr. Ski Tips’, is now based in Val d'Isere France, but he grew up skiing and started teaching skiing in the northeast United States so you can be sure he's an expert on explaining how to safely ski through and over difficult icy, or very hard packed snow.

When and Where Icy Conditions Set Up

Almost every skier will encounter icy conditions at some point in their career and here are some reasons why you'll find icy conditions. Snow which falls at low altitude is usually very moist and easily turns to ice when the temperature drops below freezing - this holds true for a lot of man-made snow also. In the springtime especially, the higher altitude snow that catches hot afternoon sun will thaw and freeze up overnight when the temperature drops. Another factor to consider is that after a windy storm the loose snow is blown off exposing very hard or icy surfaces.

Properly Tuned Skis

If your ski edges are dull or rusted or dinged up, it will impair your ability to turn or stop on ice or hard packed snow, so it's a good practice to keep your ski edges sharp and burr free. It's not hard to sharpen your own skis, and with a little practice you can keep them in tip-top shape, and you might want to check them daily for burrs or dings especially if you have recently been skiing on ice or hard packed snow.

Modify Your Ski Stance on Ice or Hard Pack

With sharp edges, it is still necessary to adjust your body position to best hold your edges and keep your skis from slipping out from under you. On the ice, you want more of your body center over the center of your skis so as to keep your edges gripping, but so you are stabilizing your traverse on the ice.

To assume this position, lower your hips and, bending from the waist, lean your upper body down the fall-line. This movement helps keep your body weight more on the inside edge of your downhill ski all the while leaning your feet and ankles into the hill for edge grip.

The best body position for controlling your skis on ice depends on the type of skis you are on - twin-tip, fat, the amount of sidecut, ski length and your body-weight distribution. With all these variables it's necessary to practice on a low angle hard packed or icy trail using the modified body position above until you find that 'sweet spot' of positive control.

Special Tips From Martin

  • If you ski with skis close together separate your skis a little more on ice for better stability - but not so far apart that it is difficult to position your weight over the downhill ski.
  • If the icy area is just a small patch and you see soft snow downhill from the ice ski across the ice maintaining balance and then turn in the soft snow.
  • When coming to a stop on ice don't try to stop by suddenly digging your edges into the ice. Rather, initiate the stop by sideslipping to a gradual stop applying gentle pressure to the ski edges.

Ski safe and remember in the northeast U.S. we didn't call it ice it was just 'Loud Powder.

Martin Heckelman, known as ‘Mr. Ski Tips’, is the author of‘ The New Guide To Skiing,’ ‘The Hamlyn Guide To Skiing’ and ‘Step-by-Step Skiing Skills.’

He is also the instructor and demonstrator in the 'Ski Tips' series of videos and DVDs as well as the recently released 'Ski Tips' Apps series for smartphones. He is based in Val d’Isere, France, one of the world’s top ski resorts. 

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