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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Speeds Associated With Skiing and Snowboarding

Traumatic brain injury (TBI) is a serious event that usually follows a direct blow to the head. It is a dreaded situation that is of concern to skiers, snowboarders, climbers, mountain bikers, and others in outdoor sports situations. There are numerous injury prevention strategies, but none more important than minimizing the situation of risk and wearing a helmet.

Ski season is upon us. In Volume 18, Number 2 (2007) of the journal Wilderness & Environmental Medicine appeared an article entitled "Speeds Associated With Skiing and Snowboarding," authored by Robert Williams, MD and coauthors. In the article, the authors note that current helmet use among skiers and snowboarders remains low, particularly among adults. While it is currently accepted that the benefits of wearing a helmet include increased warmth and protection from face and scalp bruising, scrapes and cuts due to collisions with skis, boards, skiers, boarders, and other objects (e.g., dwellings, trees, and lift poles), there is some controversy about how useful are helmets during high speed collisions. It is felt that as the velocity of impact increases, the utility of a helmet diminishes, which makes sense. In terms of a number, 15 miles per hour has been mentioned as the speed above which a person cannot expect much benefit from wearing a helmet.

However, as the authors note, skiers and snowboarders have many reasons to be moving more slowly - while negotiating turns, choppy terrain, terrain parks, traveling through the woods or in backcountry areas, etc. Therefore, a helmet might be expected to be useful in these situations. With this thought in mind, they looked at determinations of skiers' and snowboarders' speeds using radar guns. Because of limitations involving the use of the radar guns, any speed less than 11 miles per hour (mph) was recorded as zero, and any speed of 11 mph or greater was recorded accurately. Their findings were that in the majority of instances, both skiers and snowboarders traversed "nontraditional terrain" (e.g., turns, out of bounds, in the trees, etc.) at relatively slow velocities. In 87.6% of observations, the measured speed was below 15 mph. So, one would expect a helmet to be of benefit for these skiers and snowboarders should they suffer a fall or collision.

The authors further noted that a helmet might provide protection to a skier or snowboarder in the backcountry caught in an avalanche. Although most deaths in an avalanche situation are due to asphyxiation, there are associated head injuries that might be lessened or prevented.

There doesn't seem to be any significant safety argument against wearing a helmet while skiing or snowboarding. That is, there is no evidence that wearing a helmet encourages risky behavior or increases the incidence of an associated neck injury. The authors comment that the medical community has been slow to endorse the use of helmets for skiing. Not this doctor! As an emergency physician, wilderness medicine expert, and member of the national medical committee for the National Ski Patrol System, I strongly encourage all skiers and snowboarders, including NSPS and volunteer patrollers, to wear helmets when they are skiing and boarding.

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About the Author

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