What about Man-Made Snow?

Demo day at Craftsbury in December of last year was another Craftsbury miracle. There is snow there... see it? Just to the left of Amy?
Demo day at Craftsbury in December of last year was another Craftsbury miracle. There is snow there… see it? Just to the left of Amy?

In the east we’re getting pretty accustomed to skiing on manmade snow, thanks to the huge investment by the Craftsbury Outdoor Center, and many other venues to ensure early (and often enough, any) skiing. Around the world we see racing surviving thanks to efforts to produce snow, and to save snow over the summer for early skiing the following season. The Midwest has now seen some truly huge investments in manmade skiing infrastructure, and Kincaid park in Anchorage has also installed a system which has been sputtering into use over the past two seasons (apparently they had a few problems with sediment in their water supply at the outset). Soldier Hollow has been hosting races on a manmade base since they hosted the Olympics in 2002, and we always count on their aggressive grooming to bring manmade snow into play, even if the surrounding terrain is white with natural snow. We see similar aggressive snowmaking and grooming combine to ensure a unique snowpack heavily characterized by manmade crystals at the Canmore Nordic Center.

In the world of racing and race preparation we have become accustomed to making fast skis on manmade snow, and it’s something that more and more racers will face with increasing regularity. In 2018 the Masters World Cup will come to Minneapolis to race at Theodore Wirth Park, where they have – you guessed it – snowmaking capacity. We’re already getting orders this season for skis targeting that event. Some parts of the country (and the world) are secure in reliable snow, but I think that the majority of racers will become increasingly familiar with manmade conditions.

At the end of this article I’ve included some additional information on the differences between natural and manmade snow. But first, I want to discuss some of the strategies we utilize to address these manmade conditions. I’ll focus mostly on colder conditions, because when snow gets wet the level of transformation often makes the differences relatively minor.


Gunnar, racing (after the Super Tour event) on manmade snow that was spread-out at the base of the Olympic jumps in Lake Placid. He's actually skiing on the main driveway there. Super-impressive efforts by ORDA and the NYSSRA crew to pull-off quality races!
Gunnar, racing (after the Super Tour event) on manmade snow that was spread-out at the base of the Olympic jumps in Lake Placid. He’s actually skiing on the main driveway there. Super-impressive efforts by ORDA and the NYSSRA crew to pull-off quality races!

When selecting skis for manmade snow we often emphasize stability. Manmade snow can set-up very hard, and often packs to an icy surface that can really challenge edge stability. When manmade snow gets worked hard, by repeated grooming and high skier traffic, it can become incredibly sugary and loose. That’s because the crystals become so rounded that they don’t compact well. It’s fairly common for a high traffic manmade loop to have areas that are icy and areas that are soft and sugary. This can make ski selection challenging. But on the whole, skis with good edging and stability characteristics are a really good bet.
In general, we find that skis with low camber heights tend to perform well and predictably on manmade snow. Low camber usually combines with strong finishing flex, and these characteristics tend to offer good speed and predictability. Even as I type this, I’m thinking of exceptions. But I don’t mind making that generalization as long as everybody realizes that’s what it is.

Pressure distribution and camber transitions on manmade snow are not as critical as on natural snow. Often, skis with sharp transitions, strongly defined bridge characteristics, and focused pressure distributions do very well.

The low-camber rule extends to classic skis as well, with the caveat that well established pocket strength and carrying capacity are critical. We’re always working with binders, klisters, and combinations of the two to ensure kick and durability, even when they’re covered with hardwax. It’s important for the skis to have good carrying capacity, but early access to kick.

In our experience, linear structures work reliably well in manmade conditions. We have had reliably great skis on manmade snow all over the world with our L2-0 and L2-0S structures in temperatures from extreme cold to zero C. When Noah Hoffman and Kris Freeman were eighth and tenth in the World Cup Skiathlon in Canmore in 2012 they both ran those grinds on both classic and skate skis. I’m certain that other structures can work well on manmade snow at in places, and at times, but we’re most interested in consistency and reliability.

Like always with wax, you need to test. I don’t have proven formulas that work reliable on all manmade snow, and our test results tend to be variable from location to location, even in “similar” conditions. But here are some hints and tricks:

  • Kick-Wax – it’s a moving target, but in the early season, try Vauhti K-base klister covered with K12, even in temperatures down into the teens F.
  • Try a long-chain synthetic hardener or cold powder as un underlayer, below your race paraffin. Scrape it and brush it before applying your race paraffin. I still don’t have a clear answer about how this works, but I believe that it aids in the crystallization of the race paraffin. We have ended up using this trick with increasing frequency as recent testing has pointed us this way more and more.
  • Don’t assume that graphite or moly are going to be superior on manmade snow. If you know your venue and you know that you have a “black” wax that works, then use it! But otherwise, be careful, because those additives can be dangerous.
  • In colder conditions you may want a somewhat softer paraffin than you expect, while in wet conditions you are very likely to want a harder Another head-scratcher, I know. My feeling is that moisture doesn’t move as readily or quickly in these dull crystals, and the manmade snow demands a narrower range of bulk-properties from the wax than natural snow. Whatever the case, we had astonish luck with the new Star VF4 throughout the season last year, from quite cold up to well above freezing temps, and we raced on it frequently. I haven’t linked that item because we haven’t added it to our webstore yet, but it’s coming!
  • Fluoro coatings. We have had outstanding success with alarming frequency from several fluoro products on manmade snow. Vauhti C11 is a race-service product, and was in fact the first version of hfC15. We still use it for manmade snow with regularity, but availability is questionable. The new formulation of Star F30 has been quickly become a favorite, and was an outright winner for us last year on multiple occasions. We’ve got a new Red Creek powder for “grained” snow which we’ll be testing early and often this year, as well.
  • Fluoro applications. Last season we experimented heavily with utilizing the Red Creek felt roller for fluoro application – especially for combining liquids and powders in a “slurry”. Some of the most alarming results we had all season came from these combinations – particularly the Star slurry on manmade snow in Craftsbury.
  • Top Coats. Fluid-dispersion top-coat methods are a reliable winner for us in manmade snow – usually much better than fluoro blocks. We used the Vauhti hfC9.1 (now called Wet) fluid with excellent results last season, even well below freezing. The 15.1 (Mid) has never done well on manmade snow, but in more extreme cold the 21.1 (Cold) has been good. We have new Star liquids to test this season, and one of them is specifically formulated for “old” and manmade snow. Stay tuned!
  • Hand-Structure. We have had surprising luck using the Red Creek Coarse structure tool on manmade snow, even in quite cold conditions. If you push lightly on the tool, it makes a lighter impression. We often combine that with a true-linear 2mm roller. In our new-snow testing we often prefer a traversing linear, like one of the Finite CP-17 roller, but in manmade we almost always use the straight linear. K-G Lundqvist has a “secret” formula for manmade and “grained” snow, which is the Coarse, the -5/-15, and the 2mm. Perhaps we’ve made it 2/3s of the way there on our own! We’ll definitely be testing that combination this winter. In the meantime, it’s already being packaged as a kit for stores in Sweden! So much for secrets… One final note on hand-structure – we always apply it prior to our final application of fluoro liquid.

Manmade snow is different from natural snow because it forms rapidly as fine ice pellets. Natural snow forms slowly aloft (in a cloud) through a process of accretion – the gradual addition of ice in a crystalline pattern around a central nucleus (usually a tiny bit of dust). Natural snow literally falls out of suspension in the air when it forms to sufficient size to be heavy enough. This video might help to explain.

Manmade snow is blasted into existence very quickly by forcing micro-droplets of water into cold and dry air. These droplets freeze quickly into something more pellet-like in form, and don’t typically have time to form a very complex crystalline structure.

As natural snow ages with repeated grooming, added skier traffic, and freeze-thaw cycles, its crystals dull and it can behave more like natural snow. This is what Red Creek refers to as “Grained” snow. All of these ski selection and preparation tips can help in those conditions as well!