Extreme Winter Sports Safety Tips

David Daniels and Elizabeth Matzkin, MD

While some may despise the dreariness of the harsh winter days, others see a playground of opportunity. For thrill seekers, the winter months offer many extreme sports to satisfy the need for an adrenaline rush: skiing, snowboarding, heliskiing, snowkiting, and snowmobiling to name a few. While the high velocity and living on the edge sense of adventure makes these sports so desirable, we cannot forget the physical risks associated with such activities. Extreme winter sporting can be a fun activity if done with safely; here are some tips to help make the most out of a winter sport adventure. 

The first rule of participation in any high velocity sport will be to always wear a helmet. According to the National Electronic Injury Surveillance System (NEISS), snowboarding and skiing both ranked in the top four of extreme sports with the most head and neck injuries from 2000-2011. Snowboarding and skiing combined for 55% of the reported concussions from seven extreme summer and winter sports. With the potential risk of sustaining a neurologic deficit following a concussion, the importance of head protection cannot be stressed enough, and studies have demonstrated reduced risk of sustaining concussion by properly wearing a helmet when participating in these high velocity sports. In addition to head injuries, a great deal of mechanical stress is placed on the muscles and joints of these athletes. Consequently, it is important to always properly prepare your body for physical activity by:

Hydrating and ensuring proper nutrition with a well balanced diet
Making sure your muscles are appropriately stretched and warmed up prior to participating in sporting activities
Properly wearing all appropriate protective padding and equipment
Knowing your limits and recognizing when your body is near the point of exhaustion 

What makes these sports so “extreme” compared to other common fast pace winter activities, such as ice hockey, is the uncontrollable environment in which the participant is placed. While we can maintain good physical conditioning and wear protective equipment to help avoid physical injury, Mother Nature is a powerful and unpredictable force that must be taken into consideration. With significant exposure to sub-freezing temperatures, altitude, and wind, physiologic conditions such as frostbite and hypothermia become concerning. Even the most experienced athletes can find themselves in trouble if unexpected conditions occur and he or she is unprepared. Once temperatures reach 32℉, frostbite and/or hypothermia can set in from a half an hour to just a few minutes depending on wind and temperature conditions. To best prepare for such uncontrollable factors, be sure to:

Always have complete awareness of weather and environmental conditions to best prepare for the unexpected
Cover skin with appropriate outerwear: gloves, hats, jackets, and facemasks to limit skin exposure to the external environment 
When conditions are expected to be bad, plan accordingly and limit exposure to extreme weather
Never participate in winter sporting activities alone

Extreme winter sporting activities can be fun and exhilarating, but can also prove to be treacherous if proper safety measures are not practiced. Be safe, understand your limitations, and this will all lead to a thrilling adventure!