But no one ever forgets their first time falling on the slopes, either. We love skiing, and hope you have great memories to last you a lifetime. But you want to remember your ski trips for the right reasons. The sport comes with a certain amount of risk, and the truth is injuries can happen to even the best skiers in the world. But you can minimize that risk. Whether you’re preparing for your first time on the mountain or you’ve been skiing since you could walk, here are some of the most common injuries and what you can do to stay safe this ski season.
Injuries from Falling
Skiers tend to hurt their knees most often, but your shoulders and even thumbs can easily be damaged in a tumble. Falls will happen. But here are our top ways to avoid them:
- Respect your limits: A green circle means beginner, a blue square means intermediate, and a black diamond means advanced. Take a lesson your first time out, and master the level you’re at before taking on the next one. Jumping up before you’re ready is risky business for both you and the other skiers. “I think staying in control is a huge part of avoiding injury,” says skier Chris Francom, “When people go outside of their ability or lose control they hurt themselves and others”
- Respect the conditions: When the slope gets icy, it’s harder to make your edges hold. Your body also tenses up, so you lose that natural fluidity. If conditions are poor, it’s best to stay on the next piste grade down. And if you happen to find yourself flying over a patch of ice, try to find your edge and avoid turning until you make it back to powdered snow.
- Listen to your body: When you get tired, your body begins to lose its ability to respond the way it needs to, and your mind starts slowing down just enough to make a bad decision. Bring water and snacks with you to keep your energy up, and take a few breaks back at the lodge. When it starts to get dark, wrap things up. There’s a reason the last hour the slope’s open is often called “insurance hour.”
Collisions with Other Skiers
Running into your friend at a local coffee shop is a charming surprise. Literally running into your friend on the slope could mean serious injuries for both of you. Just like driving, skiing has its own set of legally binding rules set by the International Ski Federation (FIS). The number one thing to remember is that skiers in front of you have the right of way. They can’t see you, so it’s your responsibility to keep far enough away. If you’re passing them, you should call out like you would on a bike, “On your right!” or “On your left!” You have the right of way when people are behind you, but that doesn’t mean you can just stop when you feel like it. In fact, you should never stop where someone behind might not be able to see you. And if you’re starting your way back down after safely stopping, always look uphill and wait until the coast is clear to continue on the slope. Keep your eyes and ears open. In the words of Dave Bramhall, former instructor at Deer Valley Ski Resort in Utah, “Ski defensively… just like driving on the highway. Always assume others are out of control!”
Ski lifts generally have to follow strict standards of operation, so the danger usually isn’t so much from malfunction as it is from skiers who don’t know how to use them the right way. Over 90% of ski lift incidents happen when getting in or getting out. If you’ve never used a ski lift before or feel a bit uneasy about them, don’t worry—it’s a simple process that most people get comfortable with quickly. Brush up with this how-to video from Expert Village:
Once you’ve reached the top, take a second. Jason is a snow sports enthusiast from Toronto. His best habit? “I double check my helmet and bindings after every chairlift ride up,” he says. Check that your pockets are zipped and everything is buckled correctly before you start on your way back down.
The wrong gear can mean the difference between a heart-pounding, fist-bumping day of skiing and a less-than-spectacular day nursing a swollen ankle back at the lodge (or worse). Here’s how to make sure you’ve got the right stuff for the job:
- Skis and bindings: Don’t pick out the cheapest skis you can find on Craigslist; leave determining your right pair to the pros. The length of your ski depends on a delicate combination of your height, weight, boot length, and more. A trained professional at a ski shop will be able to determine the right ski length for your body and experience level. Bindings also need to be carefully fitted so that they release properly when you take a tumble.
- Boots: Boots should be nice and snug with good support. Be sure to try them on with the socks you plan on wearing. If they’re too tight, you might lose blood flow in your toes!
- Poles: To find the right length, turn the pole upside-down and touch the handle to the ground. Rest your hand just below the basket. Your elbow should be at a right angle.
- Helmet: Helmets aren’t just for the rookies. Even if you’re not going fast, the skiers around you may easily be reaching 30 mph or higher. And those ice patches can be as hard as asphalt.
- Ski goggles: That snow gets bright, even on cloudy days. Goggles will protect your eyes from UV rays and keep your eyes from getting blurry when the snow starts to fall.
“I once sat on a broken-down chair-lift for an hour in high winds and sub-zero temperatures on the Tignes glacier in early December,” says Felice Hardy at WeLove2Ski, “After a while, all feeling went from my feet and when I got back to the hotel and gingerly took off my ski boots, I discovered the early stages of frostbite.” Frostbite isn’t just a danger for alpine explorers. If you’re skiing in low temperatures or on a day with a bad wind chill, you have to pay attention. Your chances of frostbite get much worse if your skin is exposed or wet. If you’re skiing with friends, ask everyone to keep an eye on everyone else for signs of frostbite, which will looks like patches of white or red on the face. To avoid it, make sure you’re taking frequent breaks. Head to the ski lodge every hour or so and check your fingers and toes for pain. Save alcohol breaks for when you’re done skiing for the day—you won’t notice when your body temperature is too low. Of course, the number one way to avoid frostbite is to stay dry and warm in the first place. Dress in layers. Here’s what we suggest:
- Base layers: Your base layers on both your upper and lower body should be made of moisture-wicking fabric.
- Ski pants: Wear pants specifically designed for skiing, which will keep the snow off your skin. Those jeans just won’t cut it.
- Upper body thermal layer: Find a mid-layer made from fleece or wool to keep you warm. In fact, bring an extra. When layering, you want options, especially if there’s a chance a layer might get wet.
- Upper body outer layer: You’ll want a jacket that’s waterproof to keep the snow off, but also breathable so your sweat can escape. We love the Free Thinker Jacket by The North Face (available in men’s and women’s sizes).
- Hat: Wear it to keep your head warm when you’re not wearing your helmet.
- Gloves: When the snow goes flying, you want to make sure it doesn’t settle inside your gloves. Look for waterproof ones with generous wrist coverage, like the Dakine Titan Glove.
- Face mask: It doesn’t have to be freezing to justify a face mask. Keep your face warm and protected!
If you do get frostbite, get inside as soon as you can. At most resorts, there will be trained professionals to help. According to WebMD, it’s a bad idea to use a heating pad or rub the skin, as this can damage it more. (Disclaimer: We’re adventurers, not doctors. Always ask your physician how to care for your injury!) We have ski-specific gear to help you forget the snow and focus on the fun. Check out our outerwear and accessories! Image: Flickr/hmerinomx, used under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0, cropped