Safety Tips: Skiing
Flying effortlessly down a snow-covered slope, feeling the wind in your face and soaking up the beautiful mountain scenery — there's a lot to love about skiing. It's a sport that kids can learn at a young age and continue doing for the rest of their lives, and it can take them to some of the most spectacular places on Earth.
But skiing can also present some very real dangers, from frostbite and sunburn to blown knees and head injuries. Make sure your kids follow these safety tips to learn how to stay safe on the slopes.
Why Skiing Safety Is Important
Skiing involves moving at very high speeds down steep hills past other skiers and natural and man-made obstacles. Falls, some of the spectacular variety, are going to happen, regardless of how good a skier someone may be, and collisions are relatively common. Also, since skiing 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 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, 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 skiing.
Before kids venture out to the slopes, it's essential for them to have the right gear and know how to use it. In addition to skis, boots, and poles, they will also need warm clothing, protective eyewear and helmets intended specifically for skiing or snowboarding.
Here's a list of what kids should bring each time they head up the mountain:
- Skis — As a general rule, the larger a ski is, the faster it goes and the harder it is to control. Be sure to buy or rent skis that are appropriate for your child's skiing ability, and have them fitted and tuned by a trained professional at a ski shop.
- Bindings — These should also only be adjusted by a trained professional at a ski shop. It's very important for bindings to be able to release in the event of a fall to prevent leg injuries, but bindings that release too easily can cause falls of their own.
- Boots — As the connecting point to the skis, boots are a vital piece of equipment. Make sure to get kids boots that fit correctly to keep their feet comfortable and warm, and to provide the best control over their skis. Boots should always be buckled up snugly to give feet and ankles the support they need.
- Poles — These should always be the right length and have looped straps that go around the wrists. To check if poles are the right length, turn one upside down and have your child hold it by the tip, with a hand resting on the basket. The child's elbow should be at a right angle with the handle of the pole touching the ground.
- 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 skiing. Get them a helmet that fits properly, and make sure they keep the chin strap fastened to keep it securely in place. Also, make sure to get your child a real ski helmet (not a football or bike helmet) that allows space for 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 kids 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 — Ski gloves should allow kids' fingers to move freely to grip their poles, but the gloves' most important job is to keep fingers warm. With that in mind, many gloves include pockets for hand warmers. 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.
Dress for Excess
As anyone who has skied 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 dress kids in layers that they can shed or put on depending on the temperature.
Here's a rundown on what sort of clothes your kids should wear when skiing to avoid hypothermia and frostbite:
- Thermal underwear — As with all ski 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 kids' 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 kids' feet uncomfortable and cold. Choose socks that are the right thickness for your kids' boots and reach up their legs to just below the knees.
- 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.
- Ski pants — These should be the right size while allowing kids' legs to move freely. 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 ski pants, all ski jackets should be waterproof or water-resistant.
- Neck gaiter — On really cold days, you'll want your 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.
In addition to the gear and clothing previously mentioned, other items your kids might want to bring with them when they ski include:
- Hand warmers — These inexpensive packets are available at almost every ski 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 shops.
- Walkie-talkies — These are great for keeping in touch with your kids if they head off to ski 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 skiing. Always rub sunscreen on exposed skin if your 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, skiing 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 skiing is to make sure your kids are in good shape before they ski. Stronger muscles will not only help them maintain control, they'll also make skiing 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 remind your kids to always stretch before they start skiing.
When you get to the ski resort, if your kids have never skied before — or even if they have — sign them up for ski lessons. Even the best athletes in the world can't ski 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 your kids the most one-on-one time with an instructor, but less-expensive ski school lessons work very well too and are an opportunity to make some new friends.
Be Smart on the Slopes
So, your kids have gotten themselves in shape, they've got all the right equipment and clothing, and they've taken a few lessons. They're finally ready to go skiing on their own.
There are still a few important things for them to remember to keep themselves safe, though:
- Always ski with a friend — No matter how good they are, it's possible for kids to have a bad fall and be unable to continue skiing. Having a friend to look out for them and, if necessary, summon the ski patrol is much safer than skiing alone.
- Know your limits — Make sure your kids are aware of and honest about their skiing ability. If they're beginners, have them 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. Skiing 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 ski 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. If a sign says, "Cliff," they'll want to go another way or stop before they go over the edge.
- Practice skier etiquette — Kids need to remember that skiers 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 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