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Skiing on Sand vs. Snow – Similarities? Differences?

A photo collage of skiing on snow and sand.

“Snow skiing dates back at least 7,000 years to Norway, where hunters and trappers would use skis to move through the snow in order to track their prey, while the ancient Egyptians are thought to have surfed down the sand using wood and pottery.” – Alltracks Academy 

Today we can glide down the slopes on skis recreationally, and with the growing popularity of sand skiing, we can do it year-round. Before you toss your winter ski gear into a dune buggy and head out to the dunes, let’s take stock of the similarities and differences between skiing on sand vs. skiing on snow.

What Is Snow Skiing?

Man skiing on snow slope.

Traditional, or snow skiing, involves gliding quickly down low friction hills, trails, and tracks during the winter when the powder is aplenty. To ski in the snow, you typically use skis, boots, poles, and a combination of safety and cold weather gear.

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What Is Sand Skiing?

Sand skiing is a newer niche sport that involves gliding down sandy desert hills or dunes. To ski on the sand, you typically use a set of skis, poles, goggles, sand wax, and warm weather gear, depending on the temperature.

How Are Both Sports Similar?

As you can see, both sports involve moving from very high places to very low areas on a set of skis with the help of poles. You can sandboard and sled on the sand just as you can on ice and snow. The list of differences stacks up far more than the similarities, however. Let’s do a bit more of a deep dive together.

You can also find travel insurance to cover your sand ski vacay just as you can for traditional winter sports getaways.

All About Skiing On Snow

Man skiing on snow.

As we’ve mentioned, snow skiing is thousands of years old. Remnants of skis have been found that date back to 6000 BCE. There are also 5000-year-old cave paintings in Xinjiang, China, between Mongolia and Kazakhstan.

The recreational sport we know as skiing today originated in the 1800s in the Telemark region of Norway.

There are many types and disciplines of recreational and competitive snow skiing.

  • Downhill Skiing
  • Backcountry Skiing
  • Alpine Touring & Skiing
  • Cross-Country Skiing

There Is A “Best” Season For Snow Skiing

Unless you rely on indoor ski resorts and snow parks, snow skiing is a seasonal sport. The best time of year to ski is between November and March, the winter or ski season.

There are also “perfect” ski conditions: where snow coverage is excessive, and the snow is soft and slick.

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Cold Weather & High Altitudes – Investment In Comfort

Man skier on snow.

Winter sports like skiing sometimes require expensive, specialized gear. It’s not just a matter of getting any pair of boots or a helmet. You need more equipment from your base layers to your balaclava (think gloves, ski socks, etc.) and more specialized gear for the most comfortable, safe, and rewarding time in the snow.

You want to stay dry, keep warm, protect exposed skin from the sun, and protect your eyes from glare and your head from accidental dings, bumps, and bangs.

The Busy, Busy Ski Season

Ski resorts are generally seasonal, and towns known for great powder and winter weather can be crowded and expensive during peak season. That being said, man, are they convenient. You can expect ski lifts to take you up for your next run and plenty of shopping and dining nearby for last-minute gear pickups or fun off the slopes too.

Some Of The Best Places To Snow Ski Worldwide

  • Three Valleys, France
  • Dolomites, Italy
  • Whistler, Canada
  •  St. Anton, Austria
  • Zermatt, Switzerland
  • Aspen, Colorado, USA
  • Park City, Utah, USA
  • Niseko, Japan
  • Portillo, Chile
  • Bariloche, Argentina
  • The Remarkables, New Zealand

Skiing In A Winter Wonderland

People skiing on winter wonderland.

Spending time in cool, snowy weather has a winter wonderland beauty all its own. The snow-dusted trees, northern lights, and ski towns done up like gingerbread villages for the holidays.

Winter Sports Competitions Include Skiing

If you have a competitive streak, then snow skiing has plenty of ways for you to compete and perfect your craft. Even spectators enjoy the excitement of the Winter X Games in Aspen, CO, and the annual Winter Olympics.

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Skiing On Sand – What You Need To Know

Man skiing on sand.

So, who invented sand skiing? We believe sand skiing originated in Namibia. Although there are records of a sand skiing attempt in the Saharas by French military aviator Marie Marvingt in 1927, the sport was popularized by Henrik May who set the fastest sand skiing record (57.24 mph) in Swakopmund, Namibia, on 31 May 2010 according to Guinness World Records.

Being fairly new, you won’t find a lot of opportunities for competitions or a variety of specialized sand skiing techniques just yet.

Sand Is Always Accessible

Missing the slopes in September? You can desert ski year-round. You usually don’t have to worry about a sudden weather shift or plan your yearly ski trip during a specific season to get in some good runs.

Where To Sand Ski From Australia To Africa To Peru?

Although there are a few specialized indoor parks and resorts geared towards sandboarding, which is more established (remember those Egyptians we mentioned) and popular worldwide, you are more likely to find yourself renting an ATV to climb the dunes or lugging your skis and poles up yourself.

Don’t count on chairlifts, equipment rentals, or food to be as close as you’re used to.

Some Of The Most Popular Sand Skiing Destinations Worldwide

Father and son skiing on sand.

  • Great Sand Dunes National Park, Colorado – 750-Foot-High Dunes
  • Jockey’s Ridge State Park, North Carolina
  • Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area
  • Monte Kaolino, Germany – 350-Foot Artificial Dunes & Chairlifts
  • Al Hebab, Dubai, Middle East
  • Cerro Blanco, Peru, South America – Highest Sand Dunes In The World
  • Huacachina, Peru, South America
  • The Sahara Desert, Algeria, Africa
  • The Namib Desert, Namibia, Africa – The Capital Of Sand Skiing
  • The Great Sand Sea, Egypt
  • Kangaroo Island, Australia
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Does Sand Skiing Ruin Skis?

“Sand is not as slippery as snow, so it’s like skiing in slow motion. You have to make shallow turns, but it’s definitely real skiing.” – Al Tyler

Now let’s talk costs and gear. Yes, sand is less slippery (about 20 times less slippery), but you are fighting against friction. So, many sand skiers will take an old set of skis or pick a set dedicated for sand use and add Formica or another layer of laminate to the base. Then, if allowed in the park or recreational site you’ve chosen, you wax up before each trip.

You can expect some wear and tear, think sandpaper, but you can always resharpen edges. In locales specializing in sand skiing, you can even rent equipment and forget about the upkeep.

Wind Powered Skis?

If you don’t like the idea of lugging up the dunes between runs, you have other options. You can try out cable skiing on the sand where you are pulled behind an ATV, or you can try sand gliding with the wind at your back and sand beneath your skis.

Safety On The Sand

Man skier walking on the sandbar.

You may not need to layer up or invest in a bunch of heavy winter gear, but it’s a good idea to stay covered and use sunscreen in the desert. Skiing down the dunes in a bikini or pair of shorts might sound fun, but just wait until the wind picks up. Ouch.

Sand makes for a softer fall, but you can still get dirt in your teeth, and the national parks service has some good safety advice for beginning desert ski enthusiasts:

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“Be aware of where the dune slope meets the desert floor. While the dune sand is soft, the area at the base of the dune can be very hard, and unintentional injuries are surprisingly common. Make sure the sledding path does not cross the roadway or parking areas and is free from hazards such as vegetation, hard clumps of sand, or other obstructions.” – NPS, White Sands National Park, New Mexico

Which Is Better, Snow Skiing Or Sand Skiing?

All in all, whether snow or sand skiing is right for you will be a personal choice. The views can be just as beautiful, and at the end of the day, you have an excuse to get away with friends without the restraint of weather restrictions or resort schedules. So, if both sports are accessible to you, why not do both?