Snowkiting – Getting into the Sport – Q&A

If you’re obsessed with kiteboarding but haven’t given up your love of skiing or snowboarding, snowkiting might be the activity that’s missing from your life.

We recently got a chance to chat with an experienced NorthEast Snow Kiter, Lody Steyn is the CEO of Steyen Sports, and he gave us some great advice for kiters who want answers about northeast snowkiting (and other areas)! If you’re interested in taking your kite from the water to the snow, read on!

Green Hat Kiteboarding (GHK:) How long have you been snow kiting?

LS: I started snowkiting 10 years ago, one year after I started kiteboarding. However, I spent most of my first year of kiteboarding recovering from an ACL injury, unrelated to kiteboarding, so I pretty much started both at the same time.

GHK: Do you think it’s necessary to come from kiteboarding in order to kite on snow?

LS: Because I started both about the same time, kiteboarding didn’t help my snowkiting. I actually made faster progress snowkiting than I did with kiteboarding. I couldn’t go upwind on a kiteboard when I started snowkiting. I went upwind for the first time while snowkiting.

Boosting on a foil kiteI still vividly remember it. It was a light wind afternoon. The wind was blowing maybe 8-12 knots, and there was about 5 or 6 inches of relatively fresh snow on Lake Quannapowitt. I went out, set up my Best Bularoo 10m kite and went for it. The best part of the experience was seeing the tracks I made in the snow. I could actually see that I was going upwind. It was really cool!

Obviously, kiteboarding experience will be helpful for snowkiting because you’ll already have kiting skills. However, if you want to jump into kiting without any kiting experience, starting on the snow is a great way to do it.

GHK: What do you like best about snowkiting?

LS: I love that it’s so clean! I know it sounds funny, but it’s really nice that snow is generally clean. When you’re done snowkiting, you can dry out your gear and you’re ready for the next session. On a more serious note, I love the 3D aspect of snowkiting. The fact that you can go up hills is just so cool. I also like the fact that you can stop and sit/stand and you won’t float around as in the water. You won’t drown while snowkiting unless it is extremely deep powder.

Jumping with a Snow Kite
Seat Harness Works Well for Snowkiting

GHK: How Do you Find New Spots for Snowkiting?

LS: The easiest way to find spots is to get engaged in the snowkiting community. There are several NE kiting forums–including Masskiting on Facebook and here–that cover snowkiting. Joining these groups is a great way to find spots that have been checked out by other kiters. 

To check the snow level, I use both https://www.nohrsc.noaa.gov/nsa/  and https://www.weather.gov/nerfc/snow. These are both great for checking if a particular area has good snow depth and fresh snow.

There aren’t a lot of iKitesurf wind meters for snowkiting spots, so you may have to guess the wind from other meter readings. When it comes to wind on land, you will find that it can be VASTLY variable from one spot to the next–much more than on the water–because the terrain can create wind shadows and wind funnels. There are only a few NE spots that are situated on elevated plateau-like terrain where you will find unobstructed wind.

For a more detailed explanation of how to find new snowkiting spots, please see the expanded post “How to Find the Best Snowkiting Spots.”

GHK: How is kiting on snow different than kiting on the water? 

LS: It’s certainly colder! That being said, if you dress appropriately you should be able to snowkite as comfortably as in the water. And, like I mentioned, snowkiting has the whole terrain aspect to it. You can go up and down hills and mountains if you want. The feeling is also a little different. Riding on fresh powder is very smooth–maybe not quite as smooth as foil boarding–but it’s still very smooth.

On flat terrain, you can kite in much lighter winds on the snow than you can on the water, provided you’re not in deep power. Packed powder and light winds present a great learning opportunity for beginners using a small kite.  The surface conditions affect the kite-able wind range quite a bit. For example, on flat glare ice with sharp edges, you can go upwind as long as you can get the kite in the air. Deep powder has roughly the same kite size requirements for a given wind speed as you need on the water.

GHK: What is the biggest difference between kiting on lakes vs. kiting on snow?

LS: Lakes are usually flat unless there are ice pressure ridges.  Sometimes you can find a few terrain features surrounding a lake that make things more fun. Lakes offer everything from rock hard glare ice to soft powder. I’m a big fan of powder, but a nice, smooth, freshly frozen lake with sharp ski edges can make for some really fun light wind kiting.  I recommend wearing some pads in addition to the usual helmet since surface is so hard.

My biggest caution for lake snowkiting is the danger of falling into the water. You need to watch out for ice fishing holes. They may have ice fishing gear attached to them that will cause injury if you kite into them.

For kiting on land/terrain, you need a decent snow base to cover any smaller obstacles. Four inches of snow is usually enough for flat sports fields, but you’ll want at least 8-10 includes on farmland. Be mindful of larger obstacles such as rocks, shrubs, sprinkler heads, pipes, fences, ditches, creeks, wind turbines and power lines. Make sure you scope out the area to identify obstacles before you kite and always kite downwind of power lines.

GHK: Skis vs. snowboard. What do you use, and are there also different conditions where skis are better than a snowboard for snow kiting?

LS: First and foremost, you want to start with whatever you were already using on the snow. If you used to be a skier, you probably should start out on skis. I used to snowboard before taking up kiteboarding, so I started on a snowboard.

As for the pro’s and con’s – everyone has their opinion. If you’re a beginner, skis have the benefit of allowing you to stand and “waddle” around. The ability to walk makes self-launching easier on flat terrain. Skis also provide two edges vs. one for a snowboard, so they do better in icy conditions. Some snowkiters use the older style straight edge skis on glare ice / frozen lakes. You can reach incredible speeds even if the wind is fairly light.

A snowboard would have a more similar feel to a twintip kiteboard. In fact, if you haven’t really done many snow sports, but you have been kiting for a while, I definitely recommend going with a snowboard. As a snowboarder, I feel going uphill can sometimes be a bit of a pain. If the wind is blowing up a hill, on skis you can simply point them downwind and up the hill and you do kiteloops. It’s a little trickier on a snowboard. To me, that’s a small sacrifice for the fun I experience when going downhill on powder, and I like being attached to the snowboard. It’s more secure than I you would be on skis.

walking to Snowkiting spot
View looking down the hill

GHK: Are you using inflatable or foil kites? And can you tell us which conditions that work best for the different types of kites?

LS: I prefer foil kites. I find them easier to self-launch, and they’re easier to fully depower. When you’re caught in a crazy gust, which happens more often in the mountains, the ability to depower easily is very important. The setup is also much easier in the snow when everything is cold, and it’s easier to pack a backup kite if you head out a bit further. Conditions can change quickly when snowkiting, and they are also very dependent on your location. You may have very little wind at the bottom of a hill, but then it could be howling at the top.

I have a large snowboarding backpack that fits two foil kites – usually my 8m and 12m. In some cases, the launch site might be a bit of a hike, so I pack two kites, put my snowboard on the backpack and then snowshoe to the launch site. When I reach the launch site, I take out one of the kites, put the snowshoes on the backpack, launch the first kite and off I go. If I find a spot with terrain I particularly like, I would remove the backpack and kite nearby. But if the wind dies or becomes too nasty, I can always pack it up and snowshoe back.

Rigging up Snow Kite Gear
Packing it in for your snowkiting session

When it comes to foil kites, you have two options – open cell and closed cell foil kites. I prefer open cell foil kites on the snow. They inflate a little faster, and they also flag out quicker and easier–using only four lines–if you need to depower the kite. It’s very easy to re-setup the kite to start riding again. Foil kites are also slightly lighter and pack slightly easier and more compactly than closed cell foil kites. Closed cell kites generally required a fifth line for safety, whereas a 5th line is generally not needed on open cell kites, keeping things a little simpler.

Closed cell foil kites, as you can imagine, stay inflated a little longer and, for a given kite shape and design, are more stable than the equivalent open cell design–if everything else is equal. Bear in mind that the foil kite shape and design has a much greater impact on kite stability than open vs. closed cell alone. A well-designed, newer, open cell kite can be much more stable than an older closed cell kite.

Inflatable kites are generally more stable in the air and have a wider wind ranges than foil kites. You are more likely to get away with one kite size if you’re using an inflatable. A lot of kiters prefer inflatables, but again, the choice to use foil or inflatable kites is very much a matter of personal choice. If you decide to go with foil kites, I recommend going with the newer models. Foil kite technology has improved quite a bit in the past few years.

Helmets are important for snow kiting safety
A helmet is a must for snowkiting

GHK: What is the biggest considerations for a kiter transitioning between snow and water kiting?

LS: Safety considerations for snowkiting are very different that for water kiting. Here’s a list of the most important things to remember before starting:

  • Wearing a helmet is a must. There are more solid obstacles around when snowkiting and besides a good, comfortable helmet will keep your head warm.
  • Winds can be gusty, so you always want to be mindful of what would happen if you get lofted.
  • Be very careful along the ridgelines. That’s where the wind blows the strongest. If you get lofted over the ridge, you may find yourself in a wind shadow with a long way to fall.
  • There are generally more solid obstacles, rocks, etc with snowkiting.
  • Once you graduate to steeper terrain, you’ll have additional challenges to consider. You will want to be aware of avalanche conditions, which is why it’s a good idea to take an avalanche safety course. I know many people won’t do it, but at the very least they should read up on avalanche safety, carry a beacon, probe and shovel. Don’t just have these things on you, practice how to use them! Even a little avalanche can get you stuck, and it goes without saying that you should never kite alone, especially in avalanche conditions.
  • On steeper terrain, you ALWAYS want to be careful about getting lofted. If you do intend to glide–like many advanced snowkiters do–please start small. Ensure that your lines, kite, etc are in top condition. It’s one thing to have a kite line break over the water when you’re jumping, but it’s a whole different story when you’re gliding 150 feet in the air.
Ozone has great snow kites!
Photo Credit Ozone

GHK: Any other advice for Kiteboarders who want to start snow kiting? 

LS: I think I’ve mentioned pretty much everything, but I definitely recommend a seat harness for snowkiting. Many kiters–even the pro’s–use the same waist harnesses they use on the water, but I think the waist harnesses rides up more than a seat harness.

Also, please don’t be discouraged by the fact that I stress safety in my responses. Snowkiting is a ton of fun and gives you the excuse to explore and discover the northeast in ways that most people won’t.

GHK: If you have any questions or want to see what gear Green Hat has to offer, check out this page or contact us! See you out on the water…I mean, snow!

Kristin Vincenzo

A long time windsurfer, Kristin now spends her time agonizing over whether to kite with a twintip, kite surfboard or foilboard. So many places to kite, so little time!