A wide range of kites can be used to snow kite. We all know there isn't much friction out there on the snow or ice, particularly if you're wearing skis or skates! So in theory, just about any kite with a bit of pull will get you moving.
However, from a practical point of view, some kites are much more suited than others. In fact, some traction kites are made specifically for powering across snow and ice.
As a general rule, 'de-powerable' 4-line parafoils are the ideal snow
kite. Some people with a sailing or kite-surfing background use the term
'sheetable' instead of 'de-powerable'.
This kind of setup takes care of the 4 most important aspects of a snow kite:
It's pretty obvious that you need some sort of steering ability. Just like the mainsail of a sailing boat, you need to position the kite according to whether you are running downwind, crosswind or trying to make progress upwind.
On top of that, if you're more adventurous, you might be into getting 'big air' off the ground. This involves flying the kite high and piling on the power. The ground drops away, and you're just hanging on, floating in air! Some snowkiters use C-kites, or Leading Edge Inflatables, rather than foils. See the photo below...
Photo courtesy of Juozas Šalna.
Like any aerial hobby where you fly something into the air, it's going to hit the ground hard once in a while. With practice, the crashes happen less and less. It would be frustrating and expensive to always be replacing spars, so a soft flexible design makes the best snow kite. Parafoil designs are ideal, although even these vary in how much punishment they can take.
What happens if you make a mistake and the kite ends up on the snow? That would be really inconvenient if the kite wasn't reverse launchable. That means you can get the kite into the air again, from where you are, a huge bonus. The kite lifts off trailing edge first, before you spin it around and start flying leading-edge first as usual.
Unlike kite surfing, conditions on the snow can change every day. You need more power for powder snow than for when it's more icy. A big snow kite is good for light winds, but a smaller one is needed when there is strong wind. For many years, skiers had to own quite a number of kites if they wanted to kite ski in all conditions.
But now there are kites designed to deliver variable power. The control bar is pushed away from your body to reduce the kite's pull, and pulled in again whenever you need more power. These kites cover the wind strength range of 2 or 3 traction kite sizes. So if you choose wisely, according to your body weight and local weather conditions, you can snow kite with just the one kite most of the time.
Does anyone out there snow kite with anything else besides foils? Yes, there is one main exception. That is the inflatable style of kite that is mainly used in water. Tubular spars pumped tight with air hold the kite's shape. It looks a bit like the letter C from a distance, so they are also known as C-kites.
The nice pic of an Ozone Instinct sitting on the sand is kindly supplied by A Wind Of Change.
Some of these 'tube kites' have been modified so you can snow kite with them. They are de-powerable too. However, if you slam it into the ground one too many times and an inflatable spar springs a leak, you're in trouble! Get out the pump, if you remembered to pack it...
What's the difference between ordinary 4-line foils and the de-powerable variety?
The ordinary type have 2 steering lines which hold nearly all the tension most of the time. The other 2 lines are rigged to the rear edges of the kite, which act as brakes. Like on the PKD Buster over there. Photo kindly supplied by WindPower Sports.
For stunt flying, these brake lines can be used for more precise
control of the direction the kite flies. But for snowkiting, they are a
good safety measure. The brakes can be used to slow the kite down or
even stop it flying altogether.
Talking of 4-liners, this Tensor 5.0 Power Kite on Amazon looks pretty good!
A de-powerable kite is flown on all 4 lines at once, so it's angle to the wind can be altered. Just like the mainsail of a sailing boat. 'Sheet' the back edge of the kite in, and it slows down and pulls like crazy. 'Sheet' the back edge away from you, and the kite speeds up but has less tension in the lines. Hence some people call them 'sheetable kites'.