The snowplough is where the skis are in a "V" shape. It is a very stable position, which also acts as a brake. Although the snowplough is not used so much once someone can ski well, it is the easiest way to start learning to ski.
To make a snowplough you put your skis into a V-shape with the ski tips about 10cm apart, and the back of the skis further apart. The ski tips are kept at about 10cm (4") apart because this keeps them close together, but yet far enough apart that the skis won't hit each other or cross over very easily. The distance between the back of the skis changes the angle of the "V" shape the skis make, and how far apart the back of the skis are will vary depending on what you are trying to do.
The snowplough position is very stable because of how far apart your feet are, with the wide stance making it easy to keep your balance at slower speeds. The "V" shape of the skis also acts as a brake, making the snowplough very good for speed control at slower speeds. You may think the snowplough doesn't look like a very natural position, and to be honest it isn't, but it is the position that will give you the most control and stability as you start learning to ski.
Aim of the Snowplough
The basic snowplough described here has one aim, to let us slide straight down a gentle to moderate slope in a straight line, while controlling our speed and being able to stop. When using a basic snowplough, we always travel straight down the slope in the direction of the fall line, only controlling the speed we travel at, not the direction we travel in. Controlling direction comes in the next step, snowplough turns.
How The Snowplough Works
When we look at a snowplough position there are 3 different directions we need to take into account, the direction we want to travel in (straight down the slope), and the direction each of the skis are pointing in. Naturally a ski wants to slide straight along its length, as that is its direction of least resistance. As both skis are pointing across the slope at an angle, as they move down the slope they will both try to travel diagonally across the slope, although each in a different direction. Since we want to slide straight down the slope, it means the skis will have to slide diagonally sideways as they move. When skis move diagonally sideways two things happen, firstly more resistance is created than if the skis were straight, which creates a braking effect, and secondly each ski produces a force sideways (resistance effects).
For us to travel straight down a slope in a steady position, we need to stop the sideways forces produced by the skis, from either pushing us sideways across the slope as a whole, or from moving either of the skis sideways. Fortunately, because of the nice even "V" shape of the skis, if we put our weight in the middle of the two skis, it puts the same weight on each ski, which in turn makes each ski push sideways towards the other by the same amount (lateral weight distribution). This, in effect, makes the skis cancel each other out, with no overall sideways effect on the direction we slide in.
Although there are no overall sideways forces from the skis, each ski is still trying to move sideways, and to stop this we have to use our legs. By holding our legs in a fairly rigid snowplough position, and not allowing our feet to get closer together, we push sideways against the skis, and absorb their sideways forces through our body and muscles. This stops the either of the skis from moving sideways, and the end result is that both our body and our skis slide straight down the slope, in a steady position.
While snowploughing it is also important to make sure you have your weight over the balls of your feet, so that your weight is in the middle of the skis lengthways. This ensures you have full control of the length of the skis by pushing on them in the middle (longitudinal weight distribution). If you lean too far backwards or forwards, it can be hard to hold the skis at the right angle to keep the "V" shape you want.
The snowplough is very good for learning to ski because it is a braking position, and can be used to control your speed. As both skis are traveling diagonally sideways they have more resistance than if the skis were both pointing straight. This makes them act as a brake, and the more the skis travel in a sideways direction (i.e. the wider the snowplough is), the larger the braking force becomes. This means that, assuming you are on a suitable slope, making a narrower snowplough will let you speed up, and making a wider snowplough will slow you down, and can even bring you to a halt. Also, if you use a snowplough of the right width, it will keep you at a constant speed.
As shown in the diagram, when the skis are in a narrower snowplough they don't push on so much snow as they travel forwards, and don't provide so much resistance. When the skis are in a wider snowplough though, the inside edges have a lot more contact with the snow in the direction that they are traveling, and provide more resistance, which creates a larger braking effect.
Using The Edges
While snowploughing you can also use the angle of the edges to create more or less resistance. If you bring your knees closer together, the skis come onto their sides more, which makes the edges of the skis dig into the snow more (edge pressure). This extra edge pressure also creates a larger braking effect.
In the "walk through explanation" below, bringing the knees closer together and further apart to control your speed, is not included until you want to stop. This is because although it does help with speed control, it is more important to make a bigger or smaller "V" shape with the skis, and this is what should be concentrated on more.
It is important to keep your weight evenly distributed between your skis, otherwise one ski will influence what happens more than the other, and the steady slide straight down the slope will not work as planned. When you snowplough down a slope in real life, the skis will be pushed about by the snow. This will make the skis wobble about a bit, with the tips of the skis getting closer together and further apart, and the angle of each ski constantly changing slightly. The skis will not stay in a perfect "V" shape all the time. This is not a problem however, it's just how the snowplough is in real life. As long as you keep your weight evenly on each ski and over the balls of your feet, while keeping a fairly rigid "V" shape with your legs, any movements and wobbles will correct themselves naturally, without you needing to do anything.
How much resistance you need will depend on the steepness of the slope, and the snow conditions. On a very gentle slope, anything more than a slight snowplough might create so much resistance that you stop sliding. So for your speed control you will have to use variations of a narrow snowplough. Whereas on a steeper slope you may need a larger snowplough to stop you from accelerating, and your speed control will have to use a much wider snowplough.
Walk Through Explanation
Below is an explanation of how to snowplough down a slope while controling your speed. This is not how a snowplough should be tried on a first attempt, it is a description of how to use all the different parts of a finished snowplough technique.
Setting Yourself Up and Starting to Slide: To start snowploughing it is easiest to start from a position where the skis are already in a snowplough shape with your body pointing straight down the slope. As you bring yourself from pointing across the slope into this position, it is easiest to have your poles pushed into the snow out in front of you, so that you don't slide as you are setting yourself up. Before you start to slide, it is normally best to get your body in the right position, with your weight evenly on both skis, leaning forwards so that you can feel your shins on the ski boots, and with your ski poles out to the side, pointing backwards and out of the way. To get into this position you will need to have made a snowplough with enough resistance to stop yourself sliding when you take your poles out of the snow, which does create one small problem, starting to slide when you actually want to. To start sliding from this static position there are a few things you can do, you can try to shuffle forward by throwing your weight forwards and backwards slightly, being careful not to let your body get out of position as you do it, you can bring your knees a bit further apart so that the edges don't dig into the snow so much, or you can make a smaller snowplough, but this is not easy to do when you are not moving. Most commonly people use a combination of all 3, shuffling forwards while bringing the skis a bit closer together, and trying not pushing too much on the edges.
Snowploughing Down a Slope: Once we have managed to start sliding, the first thing we are going to do is speed up a little bit. To do this we make a smaller "V" shape with the skis by bringing the back of the skis a bit closer together, while keeping the ski tips about 10cm apart. This decreases the resistance from the skis, and lets ourselves build up a bit more speed and momentum. Once we have a bit more momentum we are going to try to stay at a constant speed for a bit. To do this we make a snowplough big enough to stop ourselves accelerating any further, but not so big that it slows us down. You will have to judge how big this snowplough needs to be, as this will depend a lot on the steepness of the slope and the snow conditions. Once we have a snowplough of the right size we simply stay in the same position, and we should continue travelling down the slope at a constant speed. Next we are going to slow down a bit, to do this we make a larger "V" shape with the skis, by pushing the back of the skis further apart while still keeping the ski tips about 10cm apart. This creates more resistance, and will start to slow us down. Once you have slowed down enough you can repeat what you have just done again, speeding up and slowing down, until you want to stop. You can also try bringing the skis all the way to straight and then back into the snowplough position, if you feel confident enough.
Stopping: When we are ready to stop, we bring the skis into the largest "V" shape that we can, and then push our knees closer together, so that the edges dig in even more. This creates the maximum resistance possible and should bring you to a stop.
Please note that whatever changes you make while snowploughing won't necessarily have an instant effect, it will take a few seconds to speed up/slow down etc, and a bit of patience is required.
In the animation below you can see the 3D skier:
- Start to slide from having the poles out in front
- Come into a fuller snowplough as speed increases
- Make a larger snowplough to slow down
- Come back to a medium snowplough shape
- Make a smaller snowplough to speed up
- Come back to a medium snowplough shape
- Bring the knees closer together digging the edges dig in to slow down
- Return to a medium snowplough at the end
- Leaning back - It is important to make sure you keep your weight in the middle of the skis lengthways. If you lean too far backwards the front of the skis will not push into the snow properly and you will lose the control that front of the skis provided (longitudinal weight distribution).
- Trying to make corrections when bumps in the snow push the skis out of position - Just keeping your weight evenly on both skis and trying to hold your initial position will correct the skis automatically. It just takes a bit of patience.
- Not making a big enough snowplough - To have full control of your speed on some slopes, you really need to be able to make the widest "V" shape possible. If the snowplough doesn't seem to have as much of a braking effect as you want, ask yourself if you are making a large enough snowplough.
- Panicking - If you start going faster than you want to, or start sliding off to one side, panicking about it is the worst thing you can do. When most people panic, they make all the mistakes they don't want to be making, making them lose even more control, and increasing their problems. If you start going too fast or off to one side, try to keep your calm. Make a larger snowplough, keep your weight evenly on both skis and make sure you are leaning forwards gently. This should slow you down and make you slide straight forwards, bringing you back into control.
More general common mistakes can be found in the Common Mistakes page of the Learning to Ski section.
- Until you are more confident with snowploughing, it is always good to practise on a gentle slope with a large flat area at the bottom (or a slight uphill slope at the bottom). This acts as a safety net so that even if you lose control and shoot straight down the slope, you will naturally come to a halt at the bottom without needing to do anything. On a slope like this there should be nothing to worry about as you should always be able to stop safely.
- Be patient, a snowplough is a relatively slow manoeuvre and the changes you make won't have an instant effect. Panicking unnecessarily can really slow down learning to snowplough.
- Taking ski lessons will build your skiing technique step by step through movements that people find easy to make. You will be taken to the right slopes for learning, and use exercises that are optimised for how people find it easiest to learn to ski in real life.
People who can already ski well, will not use the snowplough so often, but the times when they will use it, will be for speed control when they have limited space around them to manoeuvre. The snowplough is special in this situation, as it enables you to control your speed without moving sideways, which is not possible in more advanced parallel skiing. This means there is always a place for the snowplough, no matter how good a skier is.
On to the Snowplough Turns section.