The perfect snowball... when you've made it, you'll know. It's unmistakable - that perfect weight and texture for packing, the ease on the elbow as you throw it, splattering perfectly across your hapless victim upon impact. So how do we make the best possible snowball, the winter projectile of our dreams? You have to know where to get the best snow, and then how to shape it for best results.
They say no two snowflakes are the same, and the same is true of snowballs. But there are different kinds of snow that we can define. There's slush, light powder, heavy snow and popcorn snow, to name a few kinds. The Inuit have many more names for snow than we use (though I bet we Seattleites have them beat in the rain department), and we can learn a lot from their distinctions; we're down here trying to make the best possible snowball, but for them, knowledge of snow is a matter of survival.
- Moisture and air content. You know that light powder mentioned earlier? It is light-weight because of its low moisture content. This snow is the driest kind, containing lots of air. The lower the temperature, the drier the snow will be. Try packing it, and you'll discover that it tends to just slide right out of your gloves (or bare hands, if you're trying to impress someone). This snow makes for terrible snowballs because it won't pack - and it won't pack because of its low moisture content. If your yard is filled with powder, don't despair. Powder is beautiful! And besides, you can still make an excellent snowball. You just have to apply that formidable intellect.
- Try looking for a place where you know the snow will be slightly warmer. The heat given off by a house, for example, could make the difference between unpackable snow and snow that has heated up just enough that its moisture makes it good for snowballs.
- Be patient. If all else fails, lie down on some snow for a few minutes; your body heat will begin to melt the snow just a bit, providing that moisture you need to pack it better.
- Depth of the snow. If you have more than a few inches of snow, then you have another element to consider - depth. Let's say you go outside for a snowball fight and the snow is still falling. There's always a fresh layer of accumulation building on the ground. Skip the snow on the very surface; your strategy should be to scoop snow out from underneath that top layer. Why? It has already been packed together gently, which means less work for you to make your snowball! Even the lightest snow, after an accumulation like this, will be easier to pack after being buried beneath snow layers. The Inuit know this rule of natural snow packing; they can get more water from melting this below-surface snow than they can from melting the top layer.
- Temperature. Familiarize yourself with the weather report before your snowball fight, or check a thermometer. The ideal temperature for snowballs is right around freezing. If you know the temperature is around 32 degrees Fahrenheit, then don't waste your time scooping snow from near a house; the world's your oyster!
- Gloves or mitts? For a snowball fight, choose gloves. Avoid mittens for a couple serious reasons. First of all, have you ever felt like your hands stay warmer in mitts? I would agree with you. If they feel warmer, it's because less heat is escaping them. But a little bit of heat from our hands helps immensely when it comes to packing snow into a snowball (especially when the snow is a little lighter and less moist), so the gloves make more sense. Not only that, but have you ever tried to throw a snowball in mittens? It's kind of reminiscent of those childhood nightmares in which you're trying to defend yourself from some villain, but you have absolutely no physical strength.
- The delicate art of packing. Now that we know where to find the best snow, we have to examine how best to pack it into a snowball. The best packers can compensate for sub-par snow by packing it just right. Don't have that soft touch? Practice makes perfect!
- Scoop up enough snow that your cupped hands are full. You'll inevitably lose a little of it as you pack, and the packing will condense the snow as well.
- From this cupped position, slowly close your hands together. As you do so, begin rotating them as if you were trying to trap an insect without killing it.
- Apply increasing pressure as you rotate your hands into this position, and once they are hiding most of the snow, increase your pressure. Rotate your hands back and forth ever-so-slightly as you do; you'll be able to hear the muted sounds of friction as the snowflakes compress.
- Careful not to pack too forcefully. If you don't apply enough pressure, the snowball will never be firm, but too much force applied rapidly will just cause the snowball to fall apart! Gradual pressure allows you to withdraw pressure as you feel resistance.
- When you feel that the gradual pressure is met with some resistance, withdraw a hand from the snowball. Rotate the ball slightly in your other hand to reveal the rough oval shape of the ball. Position it so that you can round out the oval into a true sphere, and begin pressing again in the same fashion. Repeat until you have the perfect snowball!
- If the snowball still lacks the firmness needed for throwing, then you need to start planning ahead. Choosing an inconspicuous location, pack some reserve snowballs - snowballs that you don't intend to throw automatically, but instead keep around for the right moment. The pressure and hand heat from your packing will cause the snow to release a little bit of moisture; if left alone, the new moisture of these snowballs will cause just enough firming to make them ideal. When you revisit them, apply just a little packing pressure and then strike!
A perfect snowball should leave its mark. If you have found the right snow and applied that magic amount of pressure, your snowball should leave a clinging mark, physically and psychologically. A brief mark of humiliation on your foe! But there's little time to wallow in self-admiration. You have to start all over again. You're a snowball artist, one of the most romantic of all arts - alternately pure and transgressive but, above all, ephemeral.