Winter Precipitation: What’s the Difference Between Snow, Hail, Freezing Rain, and Sleet?

Fact checked by Olga Sadouskaya, MD
Clinical Pharmacologist, Chief Medical Officer

We’re all familiar with the typical winter weather conditions: snow, ice, and freezing temperatures. But did you know that there are different types of winter precipitation?

Depending on where you live, you’re likely to encounter different types of precipitation in winter. Some of them can be quite dangerous and may require precautions. Additionally, they can take many forms, each with unique characteristics and potential hazards. So what is the difference between snow, hail, freezing rain, and sleet?

Let’s take a closer look at each type of winter precipitation, its characteristics, potential hazards, and ways to stay safe in any weather.

How does snow form?

Snow is frozen precipitation that falls from clouds. It consists of tiny ice crystals formed when supercooled water droplets freeze on contact with a solid surface.

Snow forms when the temperature in the atmosphere is below freezing, typically 32 F (0 C), and water vapor freezes into ice crystals. These ice crystals then fall to the ground, forming snow.

There are several ways that snow can form, depending on the temperature and humidity in the atmosphere.

One way that snow forms is through the process of dendritic growth. This is when water vapor freezes onto a small particle, such as dust or pollen, in the atmosphere. As it freezes, it grows into a complex, branching shape called a dendrite. These dendrites can then fall to the ground as snowflakes.

Another way that snow forms is through the process of riming. This occurs when supercooled water droplets, liquid water at a temperature below freezing, freeze onto the surface of an ice crystal, snowflake, or graupel (a small hail pellet). This forms a coating of ice around the particle, which can then fall to the ground as sleet or soft hail.

A person on a snow-covered street holding a red umbrella to protect from sleet

In the clouds, if the temperature is below freezing and the conditions are right, the water droplets can freeze into ice crystals. These ice crystals grow larger and eventually fall to the ground as snow. Overall, snow is a type of precipitation in the form of ice crystals, which usually fall from clouds in the atmosphere when the temperature is below freezing.

What is sleet?

Frozen rain — also known as sleet — is a form of winter precipitation that forms as raindrops freeze into ice pellets before they fall to the ground. These ice pellets are also known as sleet. They are small, round or irregularly shaped balls of ice. They are typically made of ice or a combination of ice and snow.

What is sleet weather? Sleet weather happens when a layer of freezing air is located above the ground, and the temperature at the surface is above freezing. Raindrops falling from above the freezing layer pass through the freezing air and freeze into ice pellets before they reach the surface. The ice pellets then fall to the ground, where they can accumulate and create slippery conditions on roads and sidewalks.

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When does snow become sleet?

Snow becomes sleet when it falls through a layer of above-freezing air before reaching the ground. This can happen when a storm system brings in warmer air at higher altitudes, causing the snowflakes to partially melt and refreeze into balls of ice called sleet before reaching the surface.

The process begins when snowflakes are falling from clouds and the temperature on the ground is above freezing. As they fall, they pass through a layer of air above the freezing point and begin to melt and become raindrops. But as they continue to fall, they pass through another layer of below-freezing air, causing them to refreeze and become sleet.

What’s the difference between freezing rain and sleet?

Considering freezing rain vs. sleet, they have distinct differences in their formation and characteristics. Freezing rain forms when liquid precipitation falls from above-freezing clouds and hits the ground at a temperature that is below freezing. As a result, the rain droplets freeze on contact and create a layer of ice on surfaces like roads, sidewalks, and power lines.

Freezing rain is clear and can create dangerous travel conditions, as it can make surfaces slippery, cause power outages, and damage buildings, roads, and trees.

On the other hand, sleet forms when raindrops fall through a layer of freezing air and freeze into balls of ice before reaching the ground. These ice pellets are typically transparent or translucent and can be made of ice or a combination of ice and snow. Sleet does not create a layer of ice on surfaces as freezing rain does, but it can create slippery conditions on roads and sidewalks and cause damage.

In summary, the main difference between freezing rain and sleet is that freezing rain is liquid precipitation that freezes when it comes in contact with the ground and creates a layer of ice. In contrast, sleet is frozen precipitation that falls as ice pellets and does not create a layer of ice.

Sleet vs. hail: How are they different?

When looking at hail vs. sleet, we already know that sleet is frozen precipitation that falls as small ice pellets. Hail is similar precipitation, falling in the form of balls or irregular lumps of ice, but it is typically formed inside thunderstorm clouds by strong updrafts and can be much larger than sleet.

A man walking on a busy street at nights with an umbrella to shield himself against snow and sleet

Sleeting means sleet is falling from the sky, potentially causing slippery roads and sidewalks. Hail can also cause significant damage to buildings, vehicles, and crops.

How to prepare for different types of winter precipitation

Preparing for different types of winter precipitation can help you stay safe and minimize potential damage to your property. Here are a few things you can do to prepare for different types of winter precipitation:

  • Snow: Keep a supply of warm clothing, blankets, and nonperishable food in case of a power outage. Keep your driveway and sidewalks clear of snow and ice to prevent slips and falls.
  • Hail: Consider protecting your vehicle and other property by parking in a garage or under a covered area. If you’re caught outside during a hailstorm, seek shelter immediately to avoid injury.
  • Freezing rain: Be prepared for icy road conditions and potential power outages. Keep a supply of deicing salt or sand on hand to sprinkle on sidewalks and driveways.
  • Sleet: Dress warmly and be prepared for slippery roads and sidewalks. Keep a supply of deicing salt or sand to add traction to sidewalks and driveways.

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Regardless of what type of weather you’re dealing with this winter, here are a few tips to be prepared for whatever mother nature throws your way:

  • Check the weather forecast regularly and be prepared for any forecasted winter storm. Get informed about the type of precipitation, temperature, wind speed, and other related information.
  • Create an emergency kit, including flashlights, batteries, warm blankets, nonperishable food, and water.
  • Have a plan in case of power outages and ensure that you have a backup heating source, such as a fireplace, wood stove, or generator.
  • Keep your car’s gas tank full, keep an emergency kit in your car, and be aware of road conditions.
  • Keep your home, car, and other property insurance updated and understand what your policy covers.

These steps can help protect you and your property during the winter months and keep you better prepared for different types of winter precipitation.

Bottom line

Let’s be honest: No one looks forward to cold, harsh winters. We hope this article has helped answer your questions and alleviated some confusion regarding snow vs. sleet, hail, and freezing rain. One thing is for sure — if you follow these tips for winter precipitation, you will definitely be prepared for any of them.

March 14, 2023