As the winter sports season gets underway in Europe and North America, it's a good time to be reminded of the elements of risk in snow sports that common sense and personal awareness can help reduce.
Every year in the United States alone, an average of 39 people lose their lives on the slopes as a result of accident in skiing and snowboarding, according to the most recent report from the National Ski Areas Association. The U.S. 10-year average for catastrophic injuries — including forms of paralysis, broken necks or broken backs, and life-altering severe head injuries — is 50 injuries per season.
Excess speed, loss of control and collisions with stationary objects, such as a tree or lift tower, are the most common factors associated with skiing and snowboarding fatalities, research from the National Safety Council shows.
Driving in the mountains in winter conditions to a ski resort also has risks. Navigating a vehicle in icy and snowy conditions can be very challenging. Prepare your vehicle and enhance your winter driving skills, and you'll be up to the challenge and arrive at your destination safely.
Here are 16 skiing and snowboarding safety tips everyone should be aware of when taking a trip to enjoy a day of powder on the slopes.
1. Wear a helmet
To reduce the risk of injury, always wear a helmet. Helmets can reduce your risk of head injury by 35% to 50%, according to the National Ski Patrol.
Helmets are designed to reduce the severity of head injuries, but they are most effective at providing protection from a direct blow to the head at speeds under 14 mph, according to LidsOnKids.org. If you lose control and hit a tree, object or another skier at moderate or high speed, a helmet may not prevent or reduce a serious injury. Therefore, it’s important not to take more risks simply because you are wearing a helmet.
Make sure it fits properly
At some resorts, helmets are mandatory for children taking lessons as part of ski and snowboard school, and many resorts offer inexpensive daily helmet rentals. The most important consideration when buying or renting a helmet is to make sure it fits properly.
Traumatic brain injury is the leading cause of serious injuries among skiers and snowboarders and is also the most common cause of death, according to the Center for Injury Research & Policy of the Research Institute at Nationwide Children’s Hospital.
2. Know the risks of riding on a chairlift and take safety seriously
There are always risks involved when people and moving machines come together.
Passengers falling out of chairlifts are typically not recorded or collected by most state regulatory agencies. The best statistical information regarding the causes of falls from ski chairlifts comes from the state of Colorado.
A National Ski Areas Association analysis of 2001-2012 Colorado data showed 86% of all falls from lifts were attributed to skier error and 4% of falls were because of medical issues of the rider. Only 2% of falls were the result of mechanical or operator error.
Here are some tips for responsible lift use from KidsOnLifts.org:
- If you need assistance, ask the lift attendant for help. Smallest kids should load closest to the attendant.
- Remove and carry packs.
- Don’t use phones, music or games while loading or unloading.
- When loading, watch for the approaching chair, then sit to the back once seated.
- If you drop something, let it fall. Any item dropped can be picked up later.
- Horseplay on the lifts is dangerous.
3. Avoid collisions with other skiers and snowboarders
All skiers and snowboarders should always show respect for others. Here are the best ways to avoid a collision:
- Stay in control.
- Stop in a safe place for you and others.
- When starting downhill or merging, look uphill and yield.
- Obey signs designating slow zone and intersecting areas.
- Minimize distractions (avoid headphones, loud music, texting or smartphone use).
4. Snowboarders should wear a good quality pair of wrist guards
On average, snowboarding has an injury rate about twice that of alpine skiing — mainly because of wrist injuries among beginner snowboarders falling onto outstretched hands, according to Mike Langran, a Scottish doctor who specializes in skiing safety and related issues.
Some snowboarding gloves and mittens have built-in wrist guards, which are excellent for novice snowboarders.
5. Have your equipment checked regularly or use a reputable equipment rental company
Boots should fit snugly without your ankle moving around inside. If your skis, board, boots or bindings don’t feel right, don’t be afraid to go back to the retailer or rental shop. Staff should take time to fit your equipment properly — if they don't ask you any questions about your ability/height/weight then go somewhere else to buy or rent your gear — even if it is a bit more expensive and a bit of a hassle.
Don’t be tempted to overstate your level of skill — longer skis are more difficult to turn and bindings set too high for your ability are more likely to cause injury.
Improvements to equipment have led to reductions in injury rates. For instance, the introduction of quick release mechanisms dramatically cut the number of lower leg fractures, while smarter ski design is helping the downward injury trend in all the alpine sports, according to the International Society for Skiing Safety statistics.
6. Dress appropriately for the sport
Wear adequate clothing, preferably in layers. You don't want to be too hot, nor do you want to be too cold. You want to be just right — and most importantly — dry.
Colorado Ski Country USA recommends dressing in three layers: inside, middle and outer.
Inside layer (moisture management)
Since the inner layer is worn next to your skin, it's important to pick a material that will pull moisture away from your skin, a process called wicking. Also, consider your sock choice. There is nothing worse than frozen toes. A pair of lightweight or medium-weight socks works best. Good fabrics for ski and snowboard socks are wool, polyester and silk. Don't give into the idea that multiple layers of socks are better. That will only restrict circulation and cause your feet to be colder rather than warmer.
Middle layer (insulation)
For the middle layer, look for pullovers, sweat shirts, and vests that will keep you warm by trapping air between the fibers and insulating you. A great material for this is fleece.
Outer/Shell layer (weather protection)
It's important that your jacket and pants guard against the elements and keep out the snow, while allowing some breath-ability. When looking for a jacket, look for one that has a snow guard or is long enough to overlap the pants a couple inches. One of the most important purchases you will make for skiing and snowboarding is your gloves. Hands can easily get wet and it is very important to keep them warm.
7. Be aware of the risks posed by tree wells
In simple terms, a tree well is a hole or void of deep snow around a tree. A tree well forms around the base of a tree can and contain a mix of low hanging branches, loose snow and air. Evergreen trees in particular can have large, deep tree wells that form when low hanging branches block snow from filling in and consolidating around the base of the tree.
Since there is no easy way to identify if a particular tree has a dangerous tree well, treat all tree bases as dangerous.
Tree well accidents happen when a skier or snowboarder falls — usually head first — into a tree well of deep snow and becomes immobilized and trapped under the snow and suffocates.
Most tree well accidents happen in ungroomed terrain. Also, the more fresh snow, the higher the risk.
Steamboat Ski Resort recommends the following precautions to avoid the risk of falling into a tree well:
- Avoid skiing/riding too close to trees, particularly evergreens, in deep snow or after heavy snowstorms.
- Assume all trees have a potentially hazardous tree well.
- Don’t ski/ride alone.
- Keep your partner in sight.
- Be aware of your surroundings.
8. Be sun safe on the slopes
Protect your skin while enjoying the slopes. High elevation exposes your skin to more radiation. The sun reflects off the snow and is stronger than you think. Remember: It’s not the heat of the sun that causes skin damage, but radiation from the sun.
Remember these tips to protect you from the sun and its radiation:
- Apply generous amounts of SPF 30 (or higher) sunscreen on exposed skin every two hours.
- Wear goggles or sunglasses that provide 100% protection from ultraviolet rays.
- Wear pants, long sleeves and gloves even on warm days.
- Put on a hat or helmet that covers your ears.
9. Avoid risk to your eye health
Skiers and snowboarders spend long hours on the snow which can increase your risk of eye damage. Wear good quality sunglasses and googles that offer protection from ultraviolet rays.
Goggles provide the best protection particularly on snowy and windy days. Sunglasses have their limitations. They can fall off easily when you fall, they provide only limited protection on windy days, and they don't provide good protection when it’s snowing.
Ski and snowboard goggles provide the best overall protection on the slopes, according to Colorado Ski Country USA, especially for children. While sunglasses can easily be lost or broken, goggles can be secured to the helmet with the goggle strap.
As the infographic below states, some studies show that ultraviolet rays may be tied to cataracts, eye cancer, temporary sun blindness and Pterygium (a growth on the eye, often called surfer's eye).
10. Safely transport your skis and snowboards when driving
You can either choose to use a ski rack, a roof box or store them in your vehicle, if space will allow. There are pros and cons for each, according to Skyscanner.net.
Using a roof rack system can be cheaper than a roof box and they are simple and quick to load and unload. But a roof rack causes increased wind resistance, which can lead to increased fuel costs as well as annoying wind noises.
Roof boxes are more expensive but also more aerodynamic which should mean less drag, and therefore, less fuel burned. Roof boxes are great for longer journeys, and offer better protection for your gear. You can save money by renting a set of rails and roof box from your local car dealer instead of buying them.
Inside the vehicle
If you have a big enough vehicle, then stashing your skis or snowboard inside is the best option as your gear will be protected, stay dry and won’t lead to any extra drag, costing less in fuel compared to being on the roof. Just make sure your gear is secure and doesn’t slide around and endanger your passengers — remember, those edges are sharp.
11. Make sure you’re prepared for winter mountain driving conditions
Some preparation before your ski trip can protect both vehicles and driver. Perform a thorough check of your tires, electrical system, lights, brakes, exhaust system, heating and cooling system, and windshield wipers.
Worn tires cannot grip the road well and can be extremely hazardous. Are your tires winter ready? Check out these tips from the Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT):
- When it comes to snow or ice on the ground, all-season tires simply don’t compare to winter tires. Consider investing in safety by having a set of winter tires so you’re prepared for any winter conditions that mountain roads throws at you.
- How do you know if you need new tires? The Quarter Test is a quick and easy way to assess if your tires meet the minimum tread depth (one-eighth of an inch).
- Cell phone.
- Flares/reflectors to signal for help and warn other motorists.
- Small snow shovel.
- Snow brush and sturdy scraper.
- Traction mats or non-clumping kitty litter/sand for traction.
- Flashlight with extra batteries or crank-powered flashlight.
- Window-washing solvent.
- Cloth or paper towels.
- Jumper cables.
- Blanket or sleeping bag.
- Chemical hand warmers.
- Extra set of clothes, including coat hat, gloves/mittens, boots, etc.
- First Aid Kit and essential medications.
- Gallon jug of water and nonperishable food.
- Tire chains and tow strap.
Related: Stay safe when driving this winter
12. Give snow plows room to maneuver on the road
Snow plows need space to work. In Colorado, the CDOT motto is “Bow to the Plow” — to avoid causing a crash, delays or being stuck on a snow-covered road, don't crowd the plow!
Here are three dangerous maneuvers that all motorist should avoid around plows:
- Passing during tandem/echelon plowing. Tandem/echelon plowing staggers multiple plows to cover all lanes and clear the entire roadway in one sweep. This is the safest and most efficient snow removal method. It’s extremely dangerous for motorists to try and pass plows in this formation because you could encounter white out conditions and ridges of snow between lanes.
- Tailgating. Plows need to drop deicer and sand, so make sure you stay back three to four car lengths of space. If you’re too close, deicer and sand could hit your car. You also never know when a plow might need to suddenly stop — make sure you have plenty of room to do the same.
- Passing on the right. Never a good idea! Plows are designed to push all the snow, slush, rocks and other debris to the right of the plow. All that debris will could damage your car and temporarily blind you.
An avalanche danger sign closes off a specific area of the woods due to avalanche risk, on Corona Bowl, known for its extreme skiing, at Eldora Mountain Resort, near Nederland, Colo., Wednesday, Feb. 26, 2014. (Photo: Brennan Linsley/AP Photo)
13. Be aware that avalanches can occur within the boundaries of ski areas
Despite the best efforts of highly trained ski area professionals, avalanches can occur within the boundaries of ski areas. However, it’s comforting to know that the overwhelming majority of avalanche accidents occur in the backcountry outside of ski area boundaries.
“Ski patrols can minimize the danger to an extremely low level, but they can’t completely eliminate it,” explains Karl Birkeland, Ph.D., director of the U.S. Forest Service Avalanche Center, which monitors avalanche activity in national forests.
While there has been an increase in avalanche fatalities at ski areas over the past two decades, most avalanche and industry experts attribute the increase to a combination of unusual weather conditions and recent advancements in ski equipment, as wider skis and all-mountain skis allow easier access to more extreme and steeper terrain on the mountain, increasing the odds of triggering — or becoming caught in — an avalanche or snow slide.
Fatalities resulting from avalanches at ski areas in the United States are still rare, according to the NSAA. Of the 411 total fatalities in the U.S. since 2000, 11 of these avalanche fatalities have involved guests skiing or snowboarding within ski area boundaries at U.S. ski areas. In other words, 3% of all avalanche fatalities in the U.S. since 2000 have happened to guests skiing or snowboarding in-bounds at U.S. ski areas.
Education and personal responsibility
Aggressive training and education efforts by ski areas have minimized the number of avalanche fatalities at resorts in the U.S. Frequent use of explosives to intentionally release unstable snow has also reduced avalanche risks.
Individual personal responsibility remains a hallmark of avalanche precaution and preparedness. NSAA emphasizes that skiers should always ski with at least one partner, and keep those partners within sight. Strict adherence to trail and terrain closures can also reduce the risk of avalanches.
14. Know the signs of high altitude sickness
Some visitors to mountain resorts may experience symptoms associated with high altitude sickness. Altitude sickness occurs when you can’t get enough oxygen from the air at high altitudes — and it can be dangerous. It happens most often when people who are not used to high altitudes go quickly from lower altitudes to 8,000 feet, or higher.
Mild altitude sickness is common. Experts don’t know who will get it and who will not. Neither your fitness level nor being male or female plays a role in whether you get altitude sickness.
According to WebMD, the symptoms of altitude sickness include:
- A headache, which is usually throbbing. It gets worse during the night and when you wake up.
- Not feeling like eating.
- Feeling sick to your stomach. You may vomit.
- Feeling weak and tired. In severe cases, you do not have the energy to eat, dress yourself or do anything.
- Waking up during the night and not sleeping well.
- Feeling dizzy.
Your symptoms may be mild to severe. They may not start until a day after you have been at a high altitude. If symptoms persist or if you have a concern about your health, seek medical attention.
15. Never ski or snowboard alone
Skiers and snowboarders, no matter how experienced, should never ski alone. It's possible to have a bad fall and be unable to continue skiing. Having a friend to look out for you and, if necessary, summon the ski patrol is much safer than skiing alone.
At all times, carry ID and a phone number to call in case of emergency.
Skis and snowboards on racks at Vail Resort in Colorado. (Photo: Thinkstock)
16. Prevent theft of your equipment
There aren’t too many things that can ruin an otherwise awesome ski vacation like walking out the door to discover your gear has been stolen. Diana Gerstacker from The Active Times, recommends these ways to protect skis and snowboards from theft:
- Lock your skis or board at the racks. Use a bike lock, or the Ski Key, a locking system that is available at resorts nationwide.
- Always stash gear out of sight when possible. If you’re using a ski rack, ensure it’s secured to the car. There’s nothing worse than locking your skis to the vehicle rack only to discover both the skis and rack gone when you return.
- Mark your skis and board with stickers, your initials and other means to make it unique. This will help you keep track of your board and identify it if it’s stolen.
- Take pictures of your gear and write down the brand, model and any serial numbers you can find. It’s always easier to find stolen gear when you have the information and when it is found there will be no question that it’s yours.
- If your gear is stolen, report it right away. The sooner the search begins, the more likely it is that you’ll get your board back.
- Consider a high tech protective device. There are devices (such as the Alpine Hawk) that can monitor your gear remotely and set off an alarm when a thief tries to make off with your skis or board.