Safety Tips: Snowboarding
Like surfing down a frozen white wave, snowboarding is a great way for kids to have fun and get exercise during those cold winter months. It's relatively easy to learn, and it can take them to some of the most spectacular places on Earth.
But snowboarding can also present some very real dangers, from frostbite and sunburn to blown knees and head injuries. Have your kids follow these safety tips to learn how to stay safe on the slopes.
Why Snowboarding Safety Is Important
Snowboarding involves moving at very high speeds down steep hills past other skiers and boarders, as well as natural and man-made obstacles. Falls, some of the spectacular variety, are going to happen, regardless of how good a boarder your child may be, and collisions are relatively common. Also, since snowboarding takes place at high altitudes in the winter, the weather can range from sunny and bright to bitterly cold, with conditions changing rapidly from one slope to the next and from one hour to the next.
The skier and snowboarder safety code, which is printed on virtually every lift ticket and posted in numerous places around every ski area, lists some of the "inherent dangers and risks of skiing [and snowboarding], including: changing weather conditions; existing and changing snow conditions; bare spots; rocks; stumps; trees; collisions with natural objects, man-made objects, or other skiers; variations in terrain; and the failure of skiers to ski within their own abilities." That's a pretty fair assessment of some of the dangers kids will encounter while snowboarding.
Before your kids venture out to the slopes, it's very important for them to have the right gear and know how to use it. In addition to a snowboard and boots, they will also need warm clothing, protective eyewear and helmets intended specifically for snowboarding or skiing.
Here's a list of what kids should bring each time they head up the mountain:
- Snowboard — In general, an all-mountain snowboard is the best bet for beginners, rather than a specialty board, which is harder to turn and balance on. Also, the longer a board is, the more difficult it will be to control. Choose a board that is the right length for your child's size and snowboarding ability.
- Boots — As the connecting point to the snowboard, boots are a vital piece of equipment. Make sure to get your kids real snowboard boots (not moonboots or hiking boots) that fit correctly to keep their feet comfortable and warm. For most beginner snowboarders, soft snowboard boots are easier to control than hard boots. Make sure kids keep their boots laced up tight to give their feet and ankles the support they need.
- Bindings — Most snowboard bindings are of the strap-on variety, which are compatible with the greatest number of boots. Kids should always keep their straps securely fastened to give them the most control over their snowboards. Some bindings, though, are step-in types. Make sure to get the right bindings for your kids' boots, and have a trained professional at a snowboard shop adjust the angle of the bindings to put their feet in the right positions.
- Helmet — As is the case with many sports, a helmet is the most important piece of equipment when it comes to preventing life-threatening injuries. Kids should wear one any time they go boarding. Get them a helmet that fits properly, and make sure they know to keep the chin strap fastened to keep it securely in place. Also, make sure to get a real snowboard helmet (not a football or bike helmet) that allows space for their goggles and ventilation on warm days.
- Goggles and sunglasses — The sun's rays are considerably stronger at high altitudes than they are at sea level, and when they bounce off the gleaming white snow, they can be a serious threat to the eyes. Sunglasses are the best way to protect eyes from the sun's rays, but they should also always bring a pair of goggles that are the right size in case it gets cold or begins to snow. Goggles are also better at protecting eyes from tree branches and other hazards.
- Gloves or mittens — Many snowboard gloves include pockets for hand warmers to keep fingers nice and toasty. If you're still worried about your child's hands getting cold, however, it's a good idea to get mittens, which are generally warmer than gloves.
- Wrist guards — When kids first learn how to snowboard, they'll spend a lot of time falling forward and breaking their falls with their hands. This can lead to broken wrists and forearms, which are very common snowboarding injuries. Be sure your kids wear rigid wrist guards designed for snowboarding or in-line skating to protect themselves when they fall.
Dress for Excess
As anyone who has snowboarded on a cold day can tell you, it's no fun if you don't have enough warm clothing. Likewise, on hot days having too many clothes can make kids sweat, which will lead to them getting cold when the sun dips behind a cloud or the mountains. The best way to tackle this situation is to have kids dress in layers that they can shed or put on depending on the temperature.
Here's a rundown on what sort of clothes they should wear when they snowboard to avoid hypothermia and frostbite:
- Thermal underwear — As with all snowboard clothing, long underwear should be made of wool or a synthetic fabric such as polypropylene rather than cotton, which will stay wet and cold if it gets wet. The best long johns will fit snugly against the skin to form a warm base layer that their outer layers can fit over easily.
- Thermal socks — Thicker is not necessarily better when it comes to socks. A sock that is too thick will make boots too tight, which will make feet uncomfortable and cold. Choose socks that are the right thickness for your kids' boots and reach up their legs to just below the knee.
- Intermediate layers — Fleeces made from wool or synthetic fabrics work best. Try to find ones that aren't too bulky to fit under your child's jacket.
- Snowboard pants — These should be the right size while allowing kids' legs to move freely. It can also be helpful, especially when they're learning to snowboard and falling on their rear ends a lot, to get pants with a little extra padding in the seat. Be sure to get them pants that are waterproof or water-resistant.
- Jacket — The best jackets will have plenty of pockets to store gear. Many people like down jackets, which tend to be the warmest kind, but thin shells with extra intermediate layers can work just as well. As with snowboard pants, all snowboard jackets should be waterproof or water-resistant.
- Neck gaiter — On really cold days, you'll want kids to have a gaiter that covers their neck and can be pulled up to cover their face. The best ones will also have a hood to go under their helmet. Remember, people lose a lot of heat through the top of their heads, so keeping your child's head warm is the first step to keeping the rest of the body warm.
While kids should always have the gear and clothing mentioned above, here are a number of other items they might want to consider bringing with them when they snowboard.
- Hand warmers — These inexpensive packets are available at almost every ski or snowboard shop and will help keep fingers warm for hours.
- Boot warmers — Battery-operated and great for keeping toes warm, boot warmers can be installed quickly at most ski or snowboard shops.
- Walkie-talkies — These are great for keeping in touch with your kids if they head off to board on different trails, and if they get lost, a walkie-talkie will make it much easier to find them.
- Sunscreen — Even on cloudy days it's possible to get a bad sunburn while snowboarding. Always rub sunscreen on exposed skin if kids plan to be outside for any length of time.
- Lip balm — While this may not be necessary at Eastern ski areas, the climate in the West is very dry, and your child's lips will get chapped without protection.
- Water and food — While it may look like gravity is doing all the work, snowboarding is actually a very strenuous activity. Kids can get fatigued and dehydrated easily, particularly at higher altitudes, so it's always a good idea for them to carry water, and a quick snack will help them get some energy back if they find their muscles getting tired.
Before They Make Their First Turns
One of the most effective ways to prevent injuries while snowboarding is to make sure your kids are in good shape before they go. Stronger muscles will not only help them maintain control, they'll also make boarding more fun. If you know your kids will be hitting the slopes in the winter, make sure they get regular exercise in the summer and fall. They'll be glad they did. And make sure they stretch before they start snowboarding.
When you get to the ski resort, if your kids have never boarded before — or even if they have — sign them up for snowboard lessons. Even the best athletes in the world can't board on their own the first time out. The best way to learn is from a trained instructor certified by the Professional Ski Instructors of America (PSIA). Private lessons will give kids the most one-on-one time with an instructor, but less-expensive group lessons work very well too and are an opportunity to make some new friends.
A Note on the Snowboarder's Blind Spot
One major difference between snowboarding and skiing is that kids will be facing sideways when they board. This creates a blind spot behind them. Let them know that they should always be aware of who or what is around them at all times, and they should be certain there are no other boarders, skiers, or obstacles in their blind spot before they make a heel-edge turn.
This is particularly important for beginner snowboarders. It can be hard for them to take their focus off the slope ahead to make sure it's safe to turn, but it is vital that they make the effort each and every time they do. Collisions are not just painful, they can also lead to costly lawsuits.
Be Smart on the Slopes
So, your kids are in shape, they've got all the right equipment and clothing, and they've taken a few lessons. They're finally ready to go boarding on their own.
There are still a few important things for them to remember to keep themselves safe, though:
- Always board with a friend — No matter how good a snowboarder your child is, it's possible to have a bad fall and be unable to continue boarding. Having a friend to look out for them and, if necessary, summon the ski patrol is much safer than boarding alone.
- Know your limits — Make sure your kids are aware of and honest about their snowboarding ability. If they're beginners, they should stick to the beginner slopes until they feel comfortable enough to move up to something steeper. Most ski trails are clearly marked as green circles (beginner terrain), blue squares (intermediate terrain), or black diamonds (advanced terrain). If a trail says it's for experts only, it means just that. Boarding terrain that is beyond their ability is not only no fun, it's also a good way for them to hurt themselves.
- Follow the rules — Insist that your kids know to never venture past the ski area boundary or board into a closed area. These areas are off-limits for a reason. They're not patrolled by the ski patrol, and they usually contain hazards that your kids won't want to deal with. Also, make sure they pay attention to any warning signs they might see. If a sign says, "Slow skiing area," they'll want to go slow to avoid other skiers and boarders. If a sign says, "Cliff," they'll want to go another way or stop before they go over the edge.
- Practice snowboarder etiquette — Kids need to remember that skiers and boarders in front of them or below them on the trail have the right of way. Tell them to never stop in the middle of a trail or anywhere where they can't be seen from above, such as below a dropoff. They should also look uphill to make sure no one is coming toward them before they start down a trail or merge onto a new trail. If they're passing another skier or boarder on a catwalk or narrow trail, have them call out "On your right" or "On your left" to let people know they're approaching.
Reviewed by: Kathleen B. O'Brien, MD
Date reviewed: February 2010