For you first-time skiers or those of you planning a ski trip for the whole family, you are probably excited about taking the family. It is normal to be a little nervous too. You might be concerned about the risks for you and your children (and by extension—everyone else on the slopes). Calm those jitters and rest assured that the number of ski injuries is lower than you would expect, thanks to increased helmet use, better equipment technology and safety campaigns. Here’s what you need to know in terms of family ski safety to keep yourself and your family members safe and hoppy.
Our Guide to Family Ski Safety
About 75 percent of injuries for both skiers and snowboarders occur from falling down or loss of control during a jump whereas only 3 to 8 percent of injuries are due to collisions with others. Skiers experience more injuries to their knees and lower leg, ankle or foot. Snowboarders tend to injure their upper limbs, wrists and ankles. The best way to prevent injury is to ski responsibly.
Learn the Skier and Snowboard Responsibility Code, and teach it to your children to prevent accidents. Worried that you will forget the rules? It is usually printed on lift tickets, trail maps, on signs at the resort and often in the bathrooms. You might find it printed on the backs of stall doors, where the ski resorts know they have your undivided attention and kindly provide bathroom reading material that can also keep you safe. Captive audience indeed.
Follow the Code
Safety comes from knowing the rules and how to behave. You want to teach your children to be courteous skiers, which helps everyone stay safe. Here is the Skier and Snowboard Responsibility Code:
- Always stay in control.
- People ahead of you and below you have the right of way (they can’t see you behind and above them so it is up to you to avoid them).
- Stop in a safe place for you and others (don’t stop where they can’t see you or you might get hit).
- Whenever starting downhill or merging, look uphill and yield to others.
- Use devices to help prevent runaway equipment.
- Observe signs and warnings, and keep off closed trails.
- Know how to use the lifts safely.
California has an additional rule. If you are involved in a collision with another person or are a witness, do not leave the scene until you have talked to ski patrol.
Once you know the rules, there are other things you can do to keep family ski safety a priority, such as wearing the right safety equipment and making sure that all equipment is the correct size for the skier or snowboarder. Skis that are too long are harder to control. If the bindings are not set for the person’s correct weight and skiing ability, the skis might not release in a fall, leading to injury. Incorrectly set bindings might also release too easily, causing a fall or injury. The most important piece of equipment is the ski helmet, which can reduce head injuries by 30-50 percent and reduce the severity of any head injuries.
Put lids on your kids and on your own noggin, but only use helmets that are specifically designed for skiing and snowboarding. Wearing another type of helmet, like a bicycle helmet, may not afford you adequate protection and warmth. A ski and snowboard helmet provides better coverage and protection. Ski helmets are so common these days that more people wear them than don’t. You can rent or buy ski helmets. Look for one that meets ASTM (American Society of Testing Materials) standards. Ensure that your child’s helmet is properly fitted and the chinstrap fastened. If you buy a ski helmet, there are many ways to make it cool and personalized (stickers, ears, Mohawks, etc.) for your tadpole. And in many cases, husband.
Even though ski helmets may mean the difference between a major and minor injury, they do have their limitations, so it is important to stay in control. Don’t go all-out thinking your helmet will protect you. They do not protect your spine. Ski helmets are most effective at protecting from a direct blow to the head at speeds less than 14 mph. A helmet may not protect you from a serious ski injury if you lose control and hit an object or another skier at moderate or high speed.
Snowboarders have more optional safety equipment to consider. Skiers have poles, but snowboarders use their hands and arms on the ground a lot. Plus they are often doing more stunts and are subject to more falls. That means some special protective equipment can be helpful. Wrist fractures are one of the most common injuries, so wrist guards are a must. They usually fit under gloves, but you can also purchase gloves with built-in wrist guards. Those hands spend a lot of time in the snow, so the gloves should be long enough to cover the wrist area to keep snow from getting in.
Beginner snowboarders fall down—a lot—and spend a lot of time on their rump! So padded shorts and hip pads worn under clothes are helpful and prevent bruising. Snowboarders who are into tricks and the terrain parks can benefit from kneepads, elbow pads or even body armor. All these things can make learning way more comfortable too. You want your tadpoles to be hoppy snowboarders and skiers, so protecting their bodies will go a long way to keeping things positive. You can find more tips to make kids happy skiers here.
Leashes are also important safety items in case of unexpectedly popping out of bindings. A runaway board is a danger to everyone. So leash up and protect your equipment from getting away from you.
Layer Up for the Elements
One of the most important family ski safety tips—and really this goes for everyone—is to protect yourself from the weather and sun. Frostbite, sunburn, snow blindness and chapped lips are real threats. Wear ski goggles on eyes, and sunscreen on faces and lips. But weather is unpredictable. That’s why you should dress in layers. If it warms up more than expected, you can always peel a layer or two off. Wear a thin, wool base layer to help regulate your body temperature and wick moisture away and keep you dry. A breathable mid-layer (like down or fleece) will keep you warm without overheating. On the outside wear a waterproof breathable shell. On a warm spring skiing day, you can lose the mid-layer. Face shields and neck gators can protect the face from the elements: cold, winds, wet snow and even sun.
Stay Hydrated on the Slopes
Skiing is a strenuous activity. It is easy to become fatigued and dehydrated, especially at altitude. Either carry water or make frequent water breaks.
Take Our Up-lifting Advice
Let’s face it, chair lifts are kind of scary and very high. You have to get on, stay on and get off. And when you exit, there is another chair unloading right behind you, so you have that pressure of getting where you need to go and getting out of their way. Only 3 percent of ski injuries occur on ski lifts. Sitting on a chairlift is not dangerous in itself, but horsing around on one is.
It is important to discuss safety rules and lift behavior ahead of time with the tadpoles. Have them stand to the side and watch the process, so they understand what is expected. Teach them to speak up to lift attendants if they need help. Detachable lifts slow down for loading and unloading, but older chairs do not. If you have beginners or small children, signal to the operator to slow down the lift.
Before riding, read the lift instructions. Snowboarders should release their back foot. Skiers need to remove wrist straps from poles and hold them in one hand. Hold backpacks. Line small children up on the outside (so they have armrest to hold on to) with an adult next to them in the middle. Wait at the WAIT HERE marker until a chair passes. Then follow the chair to the LOAD HERE marker and keep skis or board pointing forward. Watch over your shoulder for the next chair. As it approaches, grasp it and sit down. Assist very small children by lifting them onto the seat. Lower the restraining bar if there is one.
Sit all the way back in the seat. Do not lean forward. Sit still. Hold onto poles. Resist the urge to remove gloves or check your phone. If you drop any items you may not see them again. If the lift stops, just stay seated. Never jump off a lift, even if it is close to the ground.
To unload, gently raise restraining bar, hold all items securely, keep ski tips pointing up. At the UNLOAD HERE marker, stand up and slide down the ramp. Keep going to make way for the people on the chair behind you. If you have beginners or small children, signal to the operator to slow down the lift.
Before you get on any lift, find out what type of terrain it accesses. If you are a beginner skier, you do not want to ride a lift that accesses only advanced terrain. The lifts are usually marked. If you are not sure, ask.
Beginner and young skiers usually do not have poles, which makes moving in line a little more challenging. You can put them between your legs and push them along, or have them grasp an end of your pole and pull them along.
Grab a Map and Know How to Read Signs
Before heading up the mountain, look at a trail map. Look for runs that are to your skiing ability and see what lifts access those runs. Know the universal signs:
Green Circle: Easier
Blue Square: More Difficult
Black Diamond: Most Difficult
Double-Black Diamond: Most Difficult, use extra caution
Orange Oval: Freestyle Terrain
Keep in mind that no ski resort is created equally. One resort’s blue might be another resort’s black or green, but in general you’ll know that green runs will be the easiest and blue runs will be more difficult.
Make a Plan for Meeting Up
It can be nerve-wracking if you get separated from your family. One of our sanity-saving tips for a family ski trip is to make a plan with your other family members in case you get separated. Decide which lift to meet at next and have an overall backup plan for, say, lunch or end of the day. "If we get separated, meet at Main Lodge for lunch at 11:30 a.m." That way if you take a wrong turn and miss the meeting spot, you can easily find each other again later. Walkie Talkies make communicating easier. Cellphones can work, but sometimes reception is not predictable or the cold, gloves, etc., interfere with their use. Have small children ski in front of you so you can keep an eye on them. They will love being in the lead. Lily would have it no other way.
Learn from the Pros
For the safest introduction to skiing and snowboarding, learn from the professionals. Take a lesson from a ski school, not a friend or family member. And don’t push people past their skills level and ability. Not only will it frustrate them, but they might get hurt.
Skiing and snowboarding are a lot of fun. Even though there are risks involved, you can keep your family safe by following the rules, keeping speed in check, making sure you have the properly fitted equipment, being prepared for the weather and being smart. Make sure you are in good physical shape before the trip to avoid injury. And always be courteous to other skiers. Give beginners and slower skiers plenty of room. If you are passing another skier on a narrow trail or catwalk call out, "on your left" or "on your right," to avoid a collision (or worse). Good skiing etiquette goes a long way toward staying safe.
Now that you know the guidelines for family ski safety, it’s time to hit the slopes! Have a family ski safety tip we didn't mention? Share it in comments below. Need help picking the perfect ski resort, including the breakdown of beginner to advanced ski terrain? See which ski resort is right for you and more planning tips.