A skier comes down an untracked powder run on a beautiful bluebird day.
SKI & SNOW

How to Ski Powder Like an Olympic Athlete

We sat down with Olympic silver medalist Alex Ferreira to talk all things powder
BY RACHEL CAVANAUGH
You’ve finally graduated beyond the bunny hill and you’re skiing groomers like a boss. Your turns are perfectly linked and your speed is improving. Every time you go out, you’re learning how to ski better. Now it’s time to progress to the next level: powder skiing. This is the whole reason people go skiing in the first place. Big bowls of fluffy powder…deep, untouched tree runs. It's the most magical thing in the world.

But all that wonder doesn’t come for free. Skiing powder has its challenges. Learning how to maneuver through thick, deep snow is a whole new skill set compared to hard-packed ski runs. Plus, it’s a serious workout. You have to be in good shape to ski powder.

With all of that, you’re probably going to need some pointers. And who better to give them to you than an Olympic silver medalist? In our interview below, Columbia Sportswear athlete Alex Ferreira (also known by his Aspen alter ego "Hotdog Hans") offers expert advice on getting off the main trails and exploring the world of powder skiing.
Alex Ferreira skis down a gorgeous powder bowl as a giant spray of snow envelops his entire body as light reflects around him. 
Olympic skier and Columbia Sportswear athlete Alex Ferreira, pictured above in a spray of fluffy snow, describes powder skiing as an “unbelievable feeling” that’s “almost euphoric.”

Photo credit: Vital Films

Understanding powder basics

Q: Thanks so much for taking the time to talk to us. Let’s start with a definition. What exactly is “powder” in skiing?

Alex Ferreira: I would define powder as any snowfall that’s over 9 to 10 inches. Unlike groomed ski runs, which are hard-packed, powder hasn’t been groomed—it’s completely untouched. This makes it softer and more buoyant. It doesn't feel like you’re skiing on the ground. It feels like you have a 10-inch cushion underneath you.

Q: Why do people love skiing powder so much?

Alex Ferreira: It's an unbelievable feeling. It's almost euphoric. When you ski down a normal groomed run, there’s a lot of impact in your turns and jumps. But when you jump into powder, it’s like you’re jumping into a pillow. It’s a much floatier sensation, like you're in a kayak or a little boat. On a nice powder day, you’ll have snow coming up over your boots, your pants, your chest—sometimes it’s flying over your head. It’s an amazing sensation.

Dialing in your equipment

Q: Is it easy to ski in powder? What challenges does it present?

Alex Ferreira: Powder can definitely be more difficult at first. The snow is thicker and deeper. It’s a more intense workout and you can get stuck fairly easily, especially as a beginner. When you’re skiing powder for the first time, you need to learn new skiing techniques. And your equipment comes into play more.
A skier stands in front of a giant cornice of untouched powder as she looks at the camera and smiles.
You can use any size of skis for powder but wider options will be easier and more fun. 

Q: How so? Do you need special skis to ski powder?

Alex Ferreira: No, you don’t necessarily need special skis—but having extra width will give you more buoyancy and help keep you above the snow.

Q: How does that work?

Alex Ferreira: Wider skis have more surface area. You're able to lean back a little bit easier compared to more narrow skis. It's easier on your knees, your legs—your whole body really. The extra width basically absorbs some of what you’d have on your back legs if you were on the skinnier skis.

Q: So does that mean people need two sets of skis?

Alex Ferreira: No, you can usually find all-mountain skis that work fine in powder. I mean, if you have the economic means, sure, go for it. But most people can get away with just one set of skis. If you plan to ski powder a lot, maybe opt for a pair that’s a bit wider. But not too wide. Somewhere in the 90- to 100-millimeter range, depending on your height and weight.
A skier with snow caked in his mustache removes his ski coat as he stands on a powdery ski run. 
The key to dressing for powder skiing is knowing how to layer properly so you can regulate your body temperature, adding or removing articles of clothing throughout the day.

Q: What about your clothes and other gear? What are the best types of jackets or pants for powder?

Alex Ferreira: The biggest thing is that you need to be able to manage your body temperature. On a powder day, it’s cold outside, so you need something that will keep you warm. But that’s mainly on the chairlift or sitting on the patio. When you’re out there skiing, you're actually going to get hot. You might think, “There's a lot of snow, I'm going to be cold.” But, no—you're working hard. Skiing powder involves a lot of cardio. You need ski gear that is breathable and quick-drying because you’re going to be sweating a lot, especially in your baselayers. And with your outer layers, it’s nice to have ventilation features like pit zips.

Q: Can you describe the layering system you use on powder days?

Alex Ferreira: It's going to be different for every person, but I wear a waterproof, insulated jacket with Omni-Heat as a top layer to keep me warm and dry. Then underneath it, I have moisture-wicking long johns on both the top and bottom. Depending on how cold it is, I sometimes wear a midlayer too—typically a warm hoodie or fleece. I like the midlayers with Helix because they add extra warmth while still being breathable.
A skier comes down a scenic ski run with trees in the background as she navigates deep powder. 
Leaning back slightly and engaging your core will help you be successful when you’re first learning how to ski powder. 

Powder skiing tips and techniques

Q: Aside from the equipment and gear, what else is helpful for skiing powder? What are some special tips or techniques you can offer?

Alex Ferreira: There are several things that help when you’re skiing in deep powder. Leaning back, keeping your hands forward, engaging your core, managing your speed. These kinds of techniques will help you stay above the snow and prevent you from wearing yourself out right away. 

Q: Can you break down each of those tips into more detail? You said:

  1. Leaning back
  2. Keeping your hands forward
  3. Engaging your core
  4. Managing your speed

Alex Ferreira: Sure thing. For the first one—leaning back—this is because there’s an overwhelming amount of snow when you’re skiing powder, so it’s easy to start sinking. It helps to lean back on your skis a bit to keep those tips up. This is counterintuitive because most of the time when you're in your ski boots, you want to lean forward—that's proper ski form. But in powder you actually need to sit back a bit.

In terms of keeping your hands forward, you want to hold your poles right in front of you to get that perfect pole plant. This is called a four-point landing—it’s the same thing you want to do on groomed runs, but in powder, people often forget. They’ll put their poles down at their side. Keep them in front of you in the proper position. And keep your shoulders nice and square.

For engaging your core, the reason to do this is to take some of the lift off of your lower body. I try to squeeze my core whenever I’m coming down a powder run. Otherwise you end up relying on your legs too much and they get sore. Now don’t get me wrong—your legs are going to be sore anyway on a powder day. There’s no question. But you want to use other parts of your body, too, so you can conserve some energy and disperse the load.

Last, keep your speed up. This is super important when you’re skiing powder, especially if you're not on a steep slope. They don’t groom the whole mountain on a heavy powder day, so you have to keep up your speed so you can make those longer traverses and cat tracks and you don’t get stuck.
Two skiers lie on their backs in a field of snow as hey smile and laugh together. 
Getting stuck in the snow is an unavoidable part of powder skiing, Ferreira explains, noting that the best thing to do is to stay calm and try to get your feet below you. 

Getting stuck (and unstuck)

Q: Speaking of getting stuck—that comes up a lot when you’re skiing powder. How do you keep yourself from getting stuck in deep snow?

Alex Ferreira: The thing is, the first couple times you ski powder, you're going to get stuck. That’s just how it is. I still get stuck sometimes. But one of the best things you can do is to read your trail map. That’s my first piece of advice. Read the map so you know where you’re going. The other thing is to always be thinking about what you're going to do next before you do it. If you see a catwalk or flat area coming, stop 100 feet above it so you can assess the situation. Decide where you're going to go and how you’ll keep your speed. If you’re skiing in deep powder or through the trees, be looking ahead and thinking, “How am I going to maneuver through this area?”

Q: OK, so what about once you’re stuck? How do you get unstuck?

Alex Ferreira: In that scenario, the best thing you can do is to leverage yourself and try to get your feet below you. If you’re stuck in powder and facing downhill, get your feet below you, then use your poles to push yourself up. If your skis have fallen off, grab them and stomp a little area out for yourself to pack the snow down. Once you’ve flattened out a space, lay the skis down flat and start with your downhill ski first. Use the front toe piece of your binding to skim the snow off the bottom of your boot and click in. Once you’ve got the first ski on, use it for leverage so you can get the other one on and start moving again. Most importantly, try to breathe. You may be panicking—I've been there. But breathe. It's all going to be alright.
“You can have all of this information in your head, but until you really get out there and do it, some of it may not make sense. Your body has to experience it. That will be the best teacher.”
Alex Ferreira, Olympic Skier

Tree runs

Q: You mentioned skiing in the trees. People often learn how to do this at the same time they’re learning how to ski powder. Any tips?

Alex Ferreira: The first thing is to go slower when you're in the trees, especially on steeper terrain. You don't need to hit the gas all the time when it's steep. In flatter tree areas, you need to keep your speed. But everywhere else, try slowing everything down just a touch. This will help with your form. And then, as you start to feel more comfortable, you can start going faster. 

Q: Do you look ahead to see where your line is? Or do you decide from moment to moment?

Alex Ferreira: That's a great question. I do both. Sometimes, I'll stop at the beginning of the run and say, “All right, I'm going to go here, then there, then there.” Then other times I’m just completely in the moment, going with the flow. Plans always sound good in theory, but things change. Maybe you got a little extra speed or hit a gap a little too hard—you’ve got to be adaptable. So I definitely go back and forth. But typically, I lean more toward stopping and thinking about what I’m going to do. The main thing is to use good judgment. Trees are full of obstacles, so be safe and don't do anything crazy.
A skier catches air as he rips down a powder-filled ski run in a retro-style Columbia Sportswear ski suit. 
Powder skiing requires a lot of physical endurance which can be developed via cardio and lower body strength training.

Getting started

Q: Let's talk about the physical endurance that's necessary to ski in deep snow. How do you get in shape for powder days?

Alex Ferreira: To get in shape for powder skiing, you definitely need to work your legs a lot. In the gym, I typically do a lot of lower body exercises. Definitely a lot of hamstring exercises, calf raises. Anything in the lower extremities that strengthens your legs. For cardio, a lot of gyms have ellipticals or treadmills, which I like to use. Find a mix of strength-training your legs and also working on your cardiovascular endurance. 

Q: Where is the best snow? What states have the best powder skiing?

Alex Ferreira: There are a number of places you can go for good powder skiing. I've never been out to Montana, but I’ve heard it’s got awesome powder. It's super cold up there, so the moisture in the snow is very low and you have that light, fluffy powder. Out west, you have places around Tahoe like Heavenly and Mammoth. Utah is another great place for powder. Canada is wonderful as well—Whistler gets hammered with snow sometimes. And, of course, I can’t forget my home state of Colorado. 

Q: Can powder skiing be dangerous?

Alex Ferreira: Heavy powder days can come with some risks, so you always want to be safe and stay in bounds. If you’re planning to be skiing in more advanced areas that might be prone to avalanche dangers, carry a shovel, beacon, and probe—and possibly an air bag too. Always ski with a buddy. And if you go into the backcountry, carry avalanche gear and know how to use it. 

Q: Any final tips for skiing powder?

Alex Ferreira: In the end, you're going to have to get out there and try it. You’ll need to do some trial and error—experience what's happening and see what works for you, what doesn't work. You can have all of this information in your head, but until you really get out there and do it, some of it may not make sense. Your body has to experience it. And that will be the best teacher.
Time to hit the slopes? Get some powder day gear.