Snow Sports: Staying Safe on the Slopes

by Tracy Zaslow on 12/20/2012

Every year, my family and I head out to enjoy the crisp, refreshing mountain air. Keeping active in the mountains is a great way to bond as a family, and while skiing and snowboarding are popular recreational activities for children and adults, the activities are not without risks. According to a report from the US Consumer Product Safety Commission, in 2010, winter sports-related injuries caused more than 440,000 people to seek medical treatment, making winter sports the second-leading cause of sports-related injury hospitalizations during the season. Many people find themselves in the ER when skiing or snowboarding with leg injuries, wrist injuries and, the most concerning, head and neck injuries.

So how can you keep your family safe while enjoying the winter wonderland?

1. Understand What Factors Are Increasing Your Risk of Injury

It’s important to understand the injury risk factors involved in skiing and snowboarding. Children are at higher risk than adults for injuries in skiing and snowboarding, and males are most at risk for more severe injuries to the head and neck. Experience matters too: 40-50% of injuries occur among beginners, often on their first day of skiing. Learning the skills of skiing and snowboarding is important to enable speed control, better balance and correct form in order to prevent injury.

Does the ski equipment you’re using effect your chance of getting injured? Over the past several decades, improvements in ski equipment, including binding technology, has been a huge factor in decreasing lower extremity, equipment-related injuries including knee sprains and leg fractures. Release bindings should be adjusted to the individual child based on their weight and height; when bindings are adjusted, mounted and maintained properly, lower extremity injuries occur less commonly.

Children are more likely to sustain injuries when using rented equipment rather than their own. This may be due to lack of quality control at ski shops providing rentals. Campaigns to establish worldwide standards for boot-binding fitting have been advocated, but are currently not in place.

Slope conditions also play a role in injuries. Poor grooming, ice, and narrow, overcrowded trails all increase the risk of injuries. Additionally, trails are laden with safety hazards like trees, lift poles and a crowd of other skiers and snowboarders, so it’s important to always be aware of your surroundings and ski/board in control. And, while trails do have obstacles, “out-of-bounds” skiing and snowboarding is even more risky as trails are not patrolled and snow packs are variable and more vulnerable to avalanches.

Strategies to Prevent Injury

1)  Helmets: Helmets do significantly reduce the risk of head injury including skull fractures and bleeds in the brain. And, in skiing and snowboarding, helmets are an easy addition to the outfit as most winter athletes will want to keep their head covered and warm anyway. Helmet use is not currently required by law in any state except New Jersey, where helmets are mandated for children under 18. However, skiers and snowboarders are strongly urged to wear helmets by several national organizations including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the American Medical Association, the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons.  Helmets should be fitted to be snug on the head and with the chinstrap in place; loose and unstrapped helmets can’t do their job to protect the head in case of a fall or accident. Always remember:

  • Helmets decrease injury but do not prevent concussion, so remembering to keep an eye out for signs and symptoms of concussion after a head injury is always important
  • While some helmets have built in headphones, listening to music through head phones while skiing and snowboarding makes you less aware of your surroundings and more at risk for accidents and injury.

2)  Wrist guards: Wrist fractures and sprains are some of the most common injuries among snowboarders and wrist guards significantly reduce that risk. Wrist guards can be worn under gloves, or you can pick up a pair of snowboarding gloves with the guards built in.

3)  Sun protection: Just because it’s cold outside, doesn’t mean that the ultraviolet (UV) light is no longer a problem. Even on cloudy days and in the shade, UV intensity can be deceptively high because of the sun’s reflection off the snow, and the high altitude where there is less atmosphere to absorb the sun’s damaging rays. So, prepare yourself and your family with sun glasses/goggles with UVA/UVB protection and a broad spectrum sunscreen of SPF 30 or higher. It’s great to put on a full coat in the morning before you hit the slopes and stash a small bottle of sunscreen in your coat pocket to reapply during lift rides and hot cocoa breaks.

4)  Formal instruction is key: My own first skiing experience is a great example of the power of formal instruction: My dad tried to teach me by strapping on my skis and trying to hold me up as we headed down the mountain. After almost crashing into a tree and knocking down a few skiers in our path, he put me in ski school and it was smooth sailing from there.

Professionally speaking, medical research studies have shown that first time skiers and snowboarders benefit greatly from instruction, even if it’s just a video lesson prior to hitting the slopes. Ideally, formal teaching from an experienced instructor would provide increased chance of knowing how to avoid injury.

5)  Follow the rules (Alpine Responsibility Code): The Alpine Responsibility code is a set of rules that are aimed at injury prevention, and is part of snow sport injury prevention all over the world. Learn It!

  1. Beginners should take lessons from a certified instructor.
  2. Never ski or snowboard alone.
  3. Maintain and check all equipment and make sure it is fitted appropriately.
  4. Warm-up prior to hitting the slopes each day.
  5. Stay on marked trails; avoid “out-of-bounds” skiing and snowboarding.
  6. Be alert to your surroundings.
  7. Wear appropriate protective gear such as helmets, wrist guards and sunscreen.
  8. Ski and snowboard on runs that are appropriate for your skill level.
  9. Call it a day before you are too worn out; injuries always seem to happen on that “last run of the day.”

Are the snow-capped mountains calling your name? If your family is one of the 78 million heading out to the slopes this winter, remember your risks and be careful out there!

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Jennifer Weberman (@Dr_Weberman) December 20, 2012 at 10:00 AM

I wish I had this information when I was in 8th grade! During a ski trip to Camelback I injured my knee due to defective binding and poor ski conditions. My injury still effects me to this day. If only I had these tips back then! My hope is that this article will help parents prevent the same or worse with their own children.
Thank you Tracy!


Brian C. December 20, 2012 at 2:39 PM

Pre-conditioning is important. If you haven’t been exercising lately, you may be surprised at how quickly your legs turn to jello. Recognize fatigue before you crash and tear your ACL or dislocate your shoulder. Great article Dr. Z!


Tracy Zaslow December 24, 2012 at 3:20 PM

Thanks Jennifer and Brian! And, yes, Brian you are totally right~Getting in shape before you hit the slopes is key to injury prevention! Also, I agree it’s essential to be honest with yourself once the fatigue sets in to avoid injuries. Hope everyone has fun in the snow this season!


fitness franchise business January 24, 2013 at 1:31 AM

I enjoyed the ski trip this Christmas and followed all the preventive measures shared by you Tracy. It was a wonderful and memorable time.


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