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 you can learn at a young age and continue doing for the rest of your life, and it can take you 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. Follow these safety tips to learn how to stay safe on the slopes.
Why Is Skiing Safety 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 you are, 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 you'll encounter while skiing.
Before you venture out to the slopes, it's very important to have the right gear and know how to use it. In addition to skis, boots, and poles, you will also need warm clothing, protective eyewear, and a helmet intended specifically for skiing or snowboarding.
Here's a list of what you should bring each time you 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 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 your skis, boots are a vital piece of equipment. Make sure to get boots that fit correctly to keep your feet comfortable and warm, and to provide the best control over your skis. Boots should always be buckled up snugly to give your feet and ankles the support they need.
- Poles — These should always be the right length and have looped straps that go around your wrists. To check if poles are the right length, turn them upside down and hold them by the tip, with your hand resting on the basket. Your 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. You should wear one any time you go skiing. Get a helmet that fits properly and keep the chin strap fastened to keep it securely in place. Also, make sure to get a real ski helmet (not a football or bike helmet) that allows space for your 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 your eyes. Sunglasses are the best way to protect your eyes from the sun's rays, but you 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 your eyes from tree branches and other hazards.
- Gloves or mittens — Ski gloves should allow your fingers to move freely to grip your poles, but their most important job is to keep your fingers warm. With that in mind, many gloves include pockets for hand warmers. If you're still worried about your hands getting cold, however, it's a good idea to wear 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 you sweat, which will lead to you getting cold when the sun dips behind a cloud or the mountains. The best way to tackle this situation is to dress in layers that you can shed or put on depending on the temperature.
Here's a rundown on what sort of clothes you should wear when you ski 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 your skin to form a warm base layer that your 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 your boots too tight, which will make your feet uncomfortable and cold. Choose socks that are the right thickness for your boots and reach up your leg to just below your 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 jacket.
- Ski pants — These should be the right size while allowing your legs to move freely. Be sure to get a pair of pants that are waterproof or water-resistant.
- Jacket — The best jackets will have plenty of pockets to store your gear. Many people like to use 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 to have a gaiter that covers your neck and can be pulled up to cover your face. The best ones will also have a hood to go under your helmet. Remember, you lose a lot of heat through the top of your head, so keeping your head warm is the first step to keeping the rest of your body warm.
In addition to the gear and clothing previously mentioned, other items you might want to bring with you when you ski include:
- Hand warmers — These inexpensive packets are available at almost every ski shop and will help keep your fingers warm for hours.
- Boot warmers — Battery-operated and great for keeping your toes warm, boot warmers can be installed quickly at most ski shops.
- Walkie-talkies — These are great for keeping in touch with your family and friends if you head off to ski different trails, and if you get lost, a walkie-talkie will make it much easier for people to locate you.
- Sunscreen — Even on cloudy days it's possible to get a bad sunburn while skiing. Always rub sunscreen on exposed skin if you 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 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. You can get fatigued and dehydrated easily, particularly at higher altitudes, so it's always a good idea to bring water with you, and a quick snack will help you get some energy back if you find your muscles getting tired.
Before You Make Your First Turns
One of the most effective ways to prevent injuries while skiing is to make sure you're in good shape before you ski. Stronger muscles will not only help you maintain control, they'll also make skiing more fun. If you know you'll be hitting the slopes in the winter, make a point of getting regular exercise in the summer and fall. You'll be glad you did. And always remember to stretch before you start skiing.
When you get to the ski resort, if you've never skied before — or even if you have — sign 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 you 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, you've gotten yourself in shape, you've got all the right equipment and clothing, and you've taken a few lessons. Congratulations, you're finally ready to go skiing on your own. There are still a few important things to remember to keep yourself safe, though:
- Always ski with a friend — No matter how good a skier you are, 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.
- Know your limits — Be honest with yourself when it comes to your skiing ability. If you're a beginner, stick to the beginner slopes until you 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 your ability is not only no fun, it's also a good way to hurt yourself.
- Follow the rules — 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 you don't want to deal with. Also, pay attention to any warning signs you might see. If a sign says, "Slow skiing area," you'll want to go slow to avoid other skiers. If a sign says, "Cliff," you'll want to go another way or stop before you go over the edge.
- Practice skier etiquette — Remember that skiers in front of you or below you on the trail have the right of way. You can see them, but they probably can't see you, so it's up to you to avoid them. Never stop in the middle of a trail or anywhere where you can't be seen from above, such as below a dropoff. Look uphill to make sure no one is coming toward you before you start down a trail or merge onto a new trail. If you're passing another skier on a catwalk or narrow trail, call out "On your right" or "On your left" to let them know you're coming up behind them.
- Have a great time — Skiing is fun. Lots of fun. And while there are risks involved, this shouldn't keep you from having a blast on the slopes. So grab a friend and get out there!
Reviewed by: Kathleen B. O'Brien, MD
Date reviewed: February 2010