To you, the first snow fall is a signal to strap on the skis and skates, or even jump on a sled. You may look forward to days in the frosty snow, but like any activity you need to play safely. Winter activities can lead to the same bumps and bruises of every sport with added concerns of exposure to cold temperatures. A little snow safety strategy can help you avoid some of the most common winter sport injuries.
Some basic winter tips will keep you safe no matter what the sport. These include:
- Slowly ease back into your winter sports. Give your body time to get used to these activities again. Include strengthening exercises that can help you perform at your best.
- Make sure you are in good physical condition for activities in the cold. If you are unsure, check with your doctor.
- Warm up before all sports.
- Make sure your equipment and protective gear is in good condition and fits well.
- Always wear the appropriate protective gear for your sport.
- Dress properly for the cold. Protect yourself from frostbite and hypothermia.
- Wear several layers of tops and pants under warm jackets. Wear hats and water-resistant gloves. Face masks may be necessary for very cold weather.
- Protect your eyes from snow glare with shatter-proof sunglasses or goggles with UV protection.
- Take lessons to improve your ability. Better skills will allow you to adjust to changing conditions.
- Many organizations, like the National Ski Areas Association recommend the use of helmets for winter sports to prevent head injury.
Skiing and snowboarding have their own special equipment. The right equipment and the right fit are as important as knowing what you are doing. This will reduce your risk of injury. Here are some other things you need to know:
- Take lessons from an expert. Evidence supports that beginners are hurt more frequently. The quicker you improve, the safer you will be on the slopes.
- Stick with your abilities. Do not attempt to ski a slope that is beyond your personal abilities. Ski marked trails and observe trail signs. Rest when you get tired.
- Be sure that equipment is properly maintained and clean—no dirt or salt between boots, bindings, and the binding mechanism.
- Properly adjust bindings to reduce the chance of leg injuries. Test your ability to escape bindings by standing in the skis, then twisting to release the toe and heel pieces
- Wear the proper gear for snowboarding. This includes snowboarding pants, wrist guards, arm guards, and shin guards.
- When approaching the lift, be aware pieces of clothing that could become entangled.
- Wear a helmet specifically designed for snow sports.
- Always ski or board with a buddy.
- Know and observe all the rules about crossing a trail, passing, and stopping.
- Wear sunscreen.
- Wear bright colors.
- If you are cross-country skiing for long distances, take snacks, water, and first aid supplies with you.
Skating injuries often result from tripping on bumps in the ice, colliding with other skaters, and falling through the ice. Recommendations to skaters include:
- Skate with a buddy or at least make sure there are other people around.
- Stick to shallow flooded fields and supervised areas.
- Avoid lakes, ponds, or rivers until the ice has been tested by a local official.
- Never skate close to open bodies of water.
- Supervise all small children.
- Never build fires on ice.
- Avoid driving cars on ice.
In case of a fall into icy water, the National Drowning Prevention Alliance suggests:
- Do not climb out right away. Kick into a horizontal position and try to slide onto solid ice.
- When out of the water, roll away and do not stand until you put several body lengths between you and the broken ice.
- To rescue others that have fallen through the ice:
- Call 911 right away and do not walk up to the break.
- Use a reaching aid, such as a rope. If possible, form a human chain, each person holding onto the heels of the next person.
- If you have to go onto the ice, distribute weight by lying flat over a wide area. Try to use another reaching aid to close the distance between you and the break in the ice.
Hockey-related injuries can occur on the ice, street, field, or in the gym. Recommendations for hockey players include:
- Always wear protective equipment. This includes helmets, pads, hockey pants, gloves, athletic supporter or cup, and neck protector.
- Make sure everything fits you properly and that it is in good condition.
- Show good sportsmanship. Do not hit other players and bystanders who happen to get in the way.
- Do not engage in fighting.
Sledding is fun at all ages, as long as you are safe. Follow these tips:
- Make sure your sled is in good condition. Repair any broken parts, split wood, or sharp edges. If you cannot get your sled repaired, get a new one. Sleds that steer are a safer option.
- Never sled on the street or on hills that lead directly into the street.
- Never hook rides on the bumpers of cars.
- Make sure that slopes do not have bumps, big rocks, trees, or tree stumps.
- Avoid steep hills where you could gain too much speed and may not be able to stop.
- Do not go sledding on frozen lakes or ponds unless the ice has been tested by a local official and declared safe.
- Keep hands, arms, and legs inside to avoid limb injuries.
Snowmobiles are high-speed vehicles and should be treated as such. Most deaths and accidents involve collisions with fixed or moving objects like:
- Fence posts
- Cars, moving and stationary
- Barbed wire—can cause death by decapitation
Alcohol is the leading cause of snowmobiling deaths. It contributes to impaired judgment involving speed, and driving in the dark or in bad weather. It also may make you feel like you can drive better than you really can. Do not drink before or during any snowmobiling activity.
Know your environment, snowmobile fatalities have occurred when people tried to ride over thin ice. Ride with other people. If you are going out alone make sure someone knows where you are going and when you should be back. You can get into trouble if your vehicle breaks down and you are stranded in cold temperature.
Make sure you are wearing proper gear before you head out including:
- A helmet with a face guard or goggles. Helmets should be designed for high-speed motor sports.
- Layers of clothing for warmth. Be sure that your clothing does not have any parts that could get caught in the snowmobile.
Know your machine:
- Become familiar with the particular model of snowmobile before driving. Even if you are an experienced driver, accidents can happen if you are unfamiliar with the model.
- Inspect the entire machine—brakes, throttle control, lights, and emergency shut-off switch before departing. Be sure you have a full tank of gas.
- Take extra spark plugs, tools, a first aid kit, and other repair and survival supplies, such as flares and matches.
Follow local regulations and operation instructions. While on the trail:
- Know the terrain. Know where fences, gullies, branches, fallen logs, barbed wire, and rocks may be hidden. Beware of open bodies of water and thin ice.
- Travel on marked trails.
- Avoid driving at night and in bad weather. A single strand of barbed wire is hard to see.
- Remember that the loud noise generated by the snowmobile may prevent hearing approaching trains, cars, and other snowmobiles. Be alert.
- Travel in groups. In case of emergencies, someone can go for help.
Keep in mind children under 6 should not be riding on a snowmobile. Any children under the age of 16 should not drive.
American Council of Snowmobile Associations.
Snowmobile safety. American Council of Snowmobile Associations. Available at: . Accessed November 13, 2012.
Chaze B. Head injuries in winter sports: downhill skiing, snowboarding, sledding, snowmobiling, ice skating and ice hockey. Phys Med Rehabil Clin N Am. 2009;20(1):287-293.
Ducharme MB. Winter activities and sports. American College of Sports Medicine website. Available at:
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Extreme Winter Sports Can Lead to Extreme Injuries. National Safety Council website. Available at . Accessed November 14, 2012.
National Ski Area Association. Helmets: questions and answers. National Ski Area Association website. Available at: . Accessed November 13, 2012.
Safety Tips. Teens Health website. Available at Updated February 2010. Accessed November 14, 2012.
Winter Sports Safety. Safe Kids website. Available at Accessed November 13, 2012.
Last reviewed November 2012 by Brian Randall, MD
Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.
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