Medicine for the Outdoors
Medicine for the Outdoors

Dr. Paul Auerbach is the world's leading outdoor health expert. His blog offers tips on outdoor safety and advice on how to handle wilderness emergencies.

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Winter Sports & Sledding Safety

Young boy sledding in the snow.
There are many possibilities for injuries to occur during participation in winter sports (e.g., skiing, snowboarding, snowmobiling, sledding, ice skating and outdoor hockey, backcountry winter camping, ice climbing, mountaineering, ice fishing, etc.). Considering how many of these winter sports activities that occur in the natural outdoors, it is no surprise that the injuries include immersion into cold water, burial or injury during a snow avalanche, frostbite, hypothermia, head injury, sprains and strains, and so forth. Injury prevention strategies include adequate preparation for the activity, knowing proper sheltering techniques, wearing layered adequate clothing, avoiding carbon monoxide exposure, wearing a safety helmet, staying “in bounds” when skiing or snowboarding, avoiding avalanche terrain, staying off thin ice, etc.

My first exposure to winter sports as a young child was similar to that of millions of children each year. There were snowy, icy hills everywhere where I grew up, and we played with our sleds in the snow. How many times did we take our sleds and head out the door into the frosty cold, oblivious to concepts like steering, turning, avoiding obstacles or limiting our speed?  So, we careened down the hills and slammed into bushes and brambles, catapulted as fearless fliers into whatever landing pad happened to be in front of us. Brakes? Not usually. Collisions? Always!

A Loyola University Health System-affiliated orthopedic surgeon recently issued a public service announcement that sledding is the most common cause of injury for winter sports participants. The intent of this warning is noble—that is, to hopefully increase awareness and decrease the number of sled-related injuries, which prominently include head injuries caused by collisions.

Before moving on to sledding specifics, it is useful to note the additional observation made by Dr. Daryl O’Connor that other significantly injurious activities are “skitching” (hanging or tying onto the rear bumper of a car and being pulled along an icy street), hockey (cuts and shoulder/neck/knee injuries), ice skating (wrist/head/neck injuries due to falls), snowboarding (wrist/elbow injuries due to falls), and skiing (knee injuries).

Back to sledding. Here are the best ways to stay safe and still have fun:

  1. Use proper equipment. Select a properly-constructed and stable sled that is easy to steer and has brakes. Remember that conveyances that cannot be steered can quickly become uncontrolled projectiles. Tubing may be fun, but it can be quite risky.
  2. Do not ride a sled being pulled by a mechanized vehicle. Sleigh rides with pulling horses are not included in this recommendation.
  3. Appropriately supervise children. If the child cannot easily control the sled, it is best to sit with the child on the sled during the ride. In all cases, it is best to have an adult present.
  4. Do not sled down overly steep hills. Never send an unmanned sled down the hill if there is anyone below or possibly below (but not seen) the take-off point.
  5. Sled down hills that are free of obstructions and that have a lengthy run-out area.
  6. Only have one sled going down a hill at a time. This will help to avoid collisions. Have the glide path and runout zone clear before launching the next sled.
  7. Do not end the ride in a street or parking lot, or with a drop-off.
  8. Do not take or end the ride on top of an icy pond that might not support the weight of the sled and riders.
  9. Sledders should wear safety helmets. These can be ski helmets. If ski helmets are not available bike helmets should be worn.
  10. Try not to sled on sheer ice. Snow is more forgiving when someone falls off a sled.
  11. Sit facing forward on the sled during the run. Never sled head-first, backwards, or standing on a sled. Keep arms and legs within the sled during the ride.
  12. Do not sled in the dark.
  13. Do not ride a sled off a jump.
  14. When walking to the top of a sledding hill, stay to the side and avoid the glide path of downhill sledders. Don’t interfere with an active sledder.
  15. Watch out for sharp edges, such as metal runners. Wear gloves or mittens when sledding.
  16. Teach riders that if they are out of control, to roll off the sled. When someone rolls or falls off a sled, they should distance themselves from the sled as soon as possible.
  17. Wear proper clothing for weather conditions.
  18. Do not wear dangling clothing that can become caught in the sled during a ride.
  19. Never ride a sled if under the influence of drugs or alcohol.
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Tags: Hot & Cold , Just for Kids , Staying Safe

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About the Author

Dr. Paul S. Auerbach is the world’s leading authority on wilderness medicine.