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How to Decipher the Snow Report

August 19, 2020
Siobhan Cardus
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Siobhan Cardus

Some common terms and their definitions to help skiers and snowboarders learn a thing or two about how we describe the current conditions in the daily snow report.

If you’ve been reading our daily snow report and getting stuck on some of the commonly-used jargon, you’re in luck! We’ve created a glossary of snow and weather-related terms so everyone can head up the mountain prepared for the conditions at Cardrona that day.


Wind affected snow can sometimes be known as "drifts'. You guessed it... drifts occur when high winds push snow around the mountain and it catches in spots where there is more shelter from the wind. This often creates a berm effect, along with firmer terrain in more exposed areas.


Powder is a term used when snow is light in weight and density - it’s when you get your snorkel out! It’s delightful to turn in and is usually found when snow has freshly fallen.


Graupel is formed by the process of ice crystals sticking to the branches on a snowflake, which creates a brittle icy barrier around each individual snowflake. Graupel is also commonly known as ice pallets and soft hail-  it’s usually found in convective storms (commonly known as thunderstorms). This process then creates the end result of riming (explained below).


The formation of graupel (ice crystals) settling onto surfaces and the ground is called snow rime or riming. When settled, this is called rime, which tends to feel like a rough, crusty layer when shredding and also sticks to everything from buildings to chairs, jackets and lift towers.


Lumps or clumps of snow on top of the surface. Many people find this can affect their ability to ski with as much precision and often prefer to turn around these clumps to save their leg muscles for later in the day!


When it begins to sleet up the mountain, this means that the precipitation is very wet. Unlike light powder snow, sleet is heavy to turn in and feels sticky on the base of your ski/snowboard.


Piles in the snow usually made by snow pushed when skiers turn are called moguls. They look like snowy bumps and there are usually lots heaped together - they’re often found on steeper slopes where people have had to speed dump.


Groomed areas are made by a groomer or "cat" with specialised equipment attached to create better snow conditions on trails with harder snowpack. This creates small line indents in the snow (known as cord). Many love to take advantage of the early morning cord with a few speed laps and wide carving turns.

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When something has been tracked out, this usually means many people have ridden terrain with fresh snow and pushed the snow around with their skis or boards, meaning that the snow doesn’t sit as an even coating anymore. Instead, it’s more like soft moguls.  


Skiing and snowboarding on-piste is usually on the groomed trails - these are usually the marked blue, green, red, and groomed black trails. Off-piste is considered to be outside of the trails. When skiing off-piste, snow tends to be more natural conditions (as you won’t find a groomer off-piste).

Some people prefer on-piste while others like off-piste terrain. It just depends on your preference.


When reports talk about snow coverage, they mean the amount of snow on the ground. This is often described in the report under the "snow depth/base" measurements - basically the bigger the number, the more snow is under your feet on trail as you ski/snowboard around the mountain.

Cardrona New Zealand - Skiing Powder - Skiing in New Zealand


When the wind is significant outside and the temperature is already low, a windchill may occur. This just means that the wind makes it feel colder than the actual temperature.


Visibility refers to how easy it is to see where you're going when you're skiing and snowboarding. If there is thick cloud sitting on the mountain, visibility is likely to be described as "poor". On a clear day, you'll often hear the term "unlimited visibility".


In basic terms, precipitation is moisture falling from the sky. This happens from the condensation of atmospheric water vapour - this can be rain, snow, sleet or hail or any other moisture. If it’s in a weather report, it means snow could be on the way so get your dancing shoes on and hope that it gets cold enough to snow!


This is the altitude in metres where the air temperature turns to 0 degrees Celsius. The lower the freezing level, the higher the chance that any precipitation falling will arrive as snow on the mountain. Cardrona's Base Area is at 1620m, so we're usually in for a good time if the freezing level is at 1500m or below!


When a weather report talks about an area being isolated, this means that the weather concentrated in smaller areas and not spread over a large amount of land mass.


Light snow with small durations but no accumulation is often referred to as snow flurries.


Snow showers means that small durations of snow falling will occur, and accumulation of snow should happen too.


The density of snow can be different depending on a variety of factors in the weather, which can change the feeling of the snow under your feet when you're skiing or snowboarding.

Fun fact - the snowpack can be measured with devices that use sound waves.

For example, champagne powder snow often found in places like Japan is incredibly light and easy to turn in when skiing/snowboarding. Sleet is much denser and heavier, which makes it harder to turn on.


When the seasons change into warmer conditions, many snow reports talk about "spring conditions", particularly later in the season. As the temperatures rise, this makes the snowmelt during beautiful bluebird days (we'll explain what that is soon too), which creates the feeling of slushy snow beneath your skis or board. Because the temperature often gets below zero overnight even in spring, this makes the terrain feel firmer in the morning while it's still defrosting. In other words, spring conditions tend to mean firm snow in the morning which defrosts throughout the day into softer, "slushier" conditions. On a spring day the sun is usually beaming, which generally means you'll need fewer layers on the hill too!


In simple terms, a bluebird day is a beautiful, warm and sunny day. It's the perfect day to enjoy the snow with a picnic for lunch... make sure you don't forget your sunscreen though!

Safety is most important for skiing on a ski resort, as well as when skiing backcountry. Before touring out of bounds, it is mandatory to have proficient equipment and training before venturing out of bounds (as well as checking in with patrol first). If you want to find out more, check out our article on ski patrol & snow safety.

We want to make everyone have the best day they possibly can on the mountain, which is why we made this straight-forward glossary of lingo used to describe terms all things to do with snow, skiing (or boarding) and weather. Let us know in the comments below if there are any you think we've missed! If you’re planning a trip up to Cardrona, make sure to check out our daily snow reports and weather forecasts.

About the Author

Siobhan Cardus

Siobhan aka “Squid” is a local frother who you’ll find on some planks any day (or lunch break) she gets off. She’s working at Treble Cone this winter, as well as freelance marketing from Wanaka.

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