HCA Virginia Physicians
December 12, 2017

The first cold snap or snow fall may seem like a natural signal to strap on the skis or skates, or to jump on a sled and careen down a hill. You may look forward to days in the frosty snow, but like any activity you need to play safely. Winter activities can lead to the same bumps and bruises as sports associated with other seasons, but with the added concern of exposure to cold temperatures and slippery conditions. According to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, in 2015 there were:

  • 88,000 injuries from snow skiing
  • 61,000 injuries from snowboarding
  • 50,000 injuries from ice skating
  • 47,000 injuries from sledding, tobogganing, and snow tubing

A little cold and snow safety strategy can help you avoid some common winter sport injuries.

General Guidelines

No matter what your winter sport is, it is important to take a few minutes to make sure that you know how to be safe. Suggestions include:

  1. Do not wait until the last minute. Start strength training the muscles you will need to use a month or so ahead of time. This will help you get into proper shape.
  2. Make sure you are in good physical condition for activities in the cold. If you are unsure, check with your doctor.
  3. Warm up with light exercise for 5 minutes before you engage in any sport.
  4. Make sure your equipment and protective gear is in good condition and fits well.
  5. Always wear the appropriate protective gear for your sport.
  6. Dress properly for the cold. Protect yourself from frostbite and hypothermia.
  7. Wear several layers of tops and pants under warm jackets. Wear hats and water-resistant gloves. Face masks may be necessary for very cold weather.
  8. Protect your eyes from snow glare with shatter-proof sunglasses or goggles with UV protection.
  9. Don’t Skip the Sunscreen— since sunlight reflects off of snow and ice, sunburn can happen in the wintertime, too. Use at least SPF 30 and apply it 20 minutes before going outside and reapply it every 2 hours.
  10. Drink plenty of fluids, especially during vigorous activity. Dehydration contributes to hypothermia.
  11. Take lessons to improve your ability. Better skills allow you to adjust to changing conditions.
  12. Many organizations, like the National Ski Areas Association, recommend the use of helmets for downhill winter sports to prevent head injury.

Skiing and Snowboarding

Skiing and snowboarding have their own special equipment. To reduce your risk of injury, the right equipment and the right fit are as important as knowing what you are doing. Here are some other tips to remember:

  • Take lessons from an expert. Evidence supports that beginners are hurt more frequently. The faster you learn to ski or snowboard correctly, the safer you will be on the slopes.
  • Stick with your abilities. Do not attempt to ski a slope that is beyond your skill level. Ski on marked trails and observe trail signs. Rest when you get tired.
  • Be sure that equipment is properly maintained and clean—no dirt or salt between boots, bindings, and the binding mechanism.
  • Properly adjust bindings to reduce the chance of leg injuries. Test your ability to escape bindings by standing in the skis, then twisting to release the toe and heel pieces.
  • Wear the proper gear for snowboarding. This includes snowboarding pants, wrist guards, arm guards, and shin guards.
  • When approaching the lift, be aware of clothing that could become entangled.
  • Wear a helmet specifically designed for snow sports.
  • Always ski or snowboard with a buddy.
  • Know and observe all the rules about crossing a trail, passing, and stopping.
  • Wear sunscreen.
  • Wear bright colors.
  • If you are cross-country skiing for long distances, take snacks, water, extra clothes, and first aid supplies with you. Take a cell phone if you will be in a remote area.

Ice Skating

Ice skating injuries often result from tripping on bumps in the ice, colliding with other skaters, and falling through the ice. Recommendations for skaters include:

  • Skate with a buddy or make sure that there are other people around.
  • Stick to shallow flooded fields and supervised areas.
  • Avoid lakes, ponds, or rivers until a local official has tested the ice.
  • Never skate close to open bodies of water.
  • Supervise all small children.
  • Never build fires on ice.
  • Avoid driving cars on ice.
  • In case of a fall into icy water:
    • Do not climb out right away. Kick into a horizontal position and try to slide onto solid ice.
    • When out of the water, roll away and do not stand until you put several body lengths between you and the broken ice.
  • To rescue others that have fallen through the ice:
    • Call 911 right away and do not walk up to the break.
    • Use a reaching aid, such as a rope. If possible, form a human chain, each person holding onto the heels of the next person.
    • If you have to go onto the ice, distribute weight by lying flat over a wide area. Try to use another reaching aid to close the distance between you and the break in the ice.

Ice Hockey

Hockey-related injuries can be common, whether from falls, collisions, or hits from a stick or puck. Follow these tips to stay safe on the ice:

  • Always wear protective equipment. This includes helmets, mouth guards, pads, hockey pants, gloves, athletic supporter or cup, and neck protector.
  • Make sure everything fits you properly and that it is in good condition.
  • Show good sportsmanship. Do not hit other players and bystanders who happen to get in the way.
  • Do not engage in fighting.


Sledding is fun at all ages, as long as you are safe. Follow these tips:

  • Make sure that your sled is in good condition. Repair any broken parts, split wood, or sharp edges. If you cannot get your sled repaired, get a new one. Sleds that steer are a safer option.
  • Make sure that slopes do not have bumps, big rocks, trees, or tree stumps.
  • Avoid steep hills where you could gain too much speed and may not be able to stop.
  • Do not go sledding on frozen lakes or ponds unless the ice has been tested by a local official and declared safe.
  • Keep hands, arms, and legs inside to avoid limb injuries. Never sled on the street or on hills that lead directly into the street.
  • Never hook rides on the bumpers of cars.


Snowmobiles are high-speed vehicles and should be treated as such. Most deaths and accidents involve collisions with fixed or moving objects, such as:

  • Fence posts
  • Trees
  • Other snowmobiles
  • Cars, both moving and stationary
  • Barbed wire—can cause death by decapitation

Alcohol is the leading cause of snowmobiling deaths. It contributes to impaired judgment involving speed, and driving in the dark or in bad weather. It also may make you feel like you can drive better than you really can. Do not drink before or during any snowmobiling activity.

Know your environment. Many snowmobile fatalities occur when people try to ride over thin ice. Ride with other people. If you go out alone, make sure that someone knows where you are going and when you should be back. You can get into trouble if your vehicle breaks down and you are stranded in cold temperatures.

Make sure you wear proper gear before you head out, including:

  • A helmet designed for high-speed motor sports with a face guard or goggles.
  • Layers of clothing for warmth. Be sure that your clothing does not have any pieces that can get caught in the snowmobile.

Know your machine:

  • Become familiar with the particular model of snowmobile before driving. Even if you are an experienced driver, accidents are more likely to happen if you are unfamiliar with the model.
  • Inspect the entire machine—brakes, throttle control, lights, and emergency shut-off switch before departing. Be sure you have a full tank of gas.
  • Take extra spark plugs, tools, a first aid kit, and other repair and survival supplies, such as flares and matches.

Follow local regulations and operation instructions. While on the trail:

  • Know the terrain. Fences, gullies, branches, fallen logs, barbed wire, and rocks may be hidden. Beware of open bodies of water and thin ice.
  • Travel only on marked trails.
  • Avoid driving at night and in bad weather. A single strand of barbed wire is hard to see.
  • Remember that the loud noise generated by the snowmobile may prevent hearing approaching trains, cars, and other snowmobiles. Always be alert.
  • Travel in groups. In case of emergencies, someone can go for help.

Check with your state, or the state you are visiting, about minimum ages for riding on or driving snowmobiles.

Playing Sports in Cold Weather

When playing sports in cold weather, always be on the lookout for signs of hypothermia and frostbite. At the first sign of frostnip (skin that is red, numb, and tingly), it is time to head inside. Soak skin in warm water until the symptoms go away. If symptoms do not improve, call your doctor.

If skin becomes white, hard, and swollen, you may have frostbite. The skin also may burn, tingle, or become numb. Do not rub the skin, as that can cause more damage. If you think you have frostbite, go inside and put on dry clothes. Call for medical help right away.

Freezing temperatures and wind are risk factors for hypothermia and frostbite. Avoid playing winter sports in severe cold. Keep an eye on weather forecasts and plan outdoor activities for warmer days without snow or rain. By following just a few simple rules, you and your family can stay safe and have fun this winter season.


U.S. Consumer Products Safety Commission

American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons