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How to choose the best back protection for skiing

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Back protectors have long been a staple among elite race skiers, ski cross athletes, off-piste enthusiasts, and snow park trick skiers. Spinal protectors are also still more common among snowboarders than among skiers.

Back protection (or spine protection, whichever you prefer) for skiers is slowly gaining popularity among recreational skiers. 

However, there’s still a long way to go, before spinal protectors are just as common as helmets, among recreational skiers which is too bad because a spine protector might just be what saves you from a displaced vertebra or worse. 

To be able to choose the best spine protector, we need first to look at different types of protection systems, what they’re made of, and how they work.

At the end of this article, hopefully, you’ll be able to make a judgment on your own, as to which spine protector will best suit your needs.

What is a back protector?

A back protector is a type of ski body armor which protects your spine also known as the backbone, vertebral column, and spinal column from forces caused by impacts from falls and collisions with trees, rocks, and other skiers or riders.

All back protectors protect the thoracic vertebrae (the upper back) and the lumbar vertebrae (the lower back). Some back protectors include additional protection for the cervical vertebra (the neck) and the coccyx (the tailbone) as well.

Back protectors are part of a bigger ski body armor system, which also includes helmets, protection for the shoulders, ribs, thighs, knees, elbows and the ankles (the boots). A number of these can be included in a single vest, which to some extend mirrors the body armor systems found for other extreme sports such as body armors for mountainbiking or motorcycle body armor.

Why should you use a spine protector?

Damage to your spine can lead to severe trauma and paralysis. A back protector might be what makes the difference between having to take a break from skiing and spending the rest of your life in a wheelchair.

A study about the functionality of back protectors in snow sports concerning safety requirements states, that “back protectors belong to the most important pieces of protection [sic] equipment in snow sports.” (Michel et al 2010).

In 2014, Charlotte ‘Charlie’ Guest, a Scottish top slaloms skier, suffered from a fractured vertebra after landing on a boulder during a training day in Sweden.

Even though Guest had to spend eight hours on a spinal board on the journey to the hospital, and had to spend a year of rehabilitation, she considers herself very lucky.

In an interview with the British newspaper Express (Wilkie 2014), Guest expresses her gratitude to her coach Stefan Moser for insisting, that she wore a back protector, which she did for only the third time, at the day of the accident.

“[…] I realise [sic] how extremely lucky I am that my injuries are not more severe […] I owe my coach Stefan the biggest thankyou [sic] of my life for his insistence that I wear my back protector […]This was a massive reality check for me. […] I won’t be skiing again without wearing the correct safety gear.”

Her coach Stefan Moser agree, that Guest was very lucky: “Safety should come first, ahead of anything else, and I began to insist that Charlie wore her back protector, no excuses.”

Guest entered the Top 100 rankings for women’s alpine slalom in 2016, and competed in the 2018 Olympics in PyeongChang, where placed 33 in the slalom and reached the quarterfinals of the inaugural mixed team event.

Ski back protectors are just as important for leisure skiers as they are for pro racers 

Even though you don’t ski at the speeds of an Olympic slalom skier, you are still prone to falls and collisions with rocks, trees, hard-packed ice, and other recreational skiers and snowboarders.

And though you may ski responsible doesn’t mean, that everyone else does too, unfortunately. I’ve seen my fair share of skiers being run down by other skiers and snowboarders, who didn’t know how to stop or simply went to fast.

You don’t need to be an elite off-piste skier to accidently ski into a tree. There are a lot of tree-lined groomers. And a lot of rocks at the edges of many pistes.

Consider also, that most severe accidents happen on blue ski runs. The nice gradient of blue ski runs brings up the speed demon in many skiers. A speed demon speeding down a blue funnel slope with a lot of beginners at the end of the afternoon when everyone is tired is just an accident waiting to happen. 

How do ski back protectors work?

Ski back protectors work by absorbing and distributing the energy from the impact in case of a collision or fall. They also to some extent protect you from protruding rocks and branches.

There are two major types of spine protection systems available on the market today: the hard shell and the softshell.

Hard shell spine protectors for skiing

Hard shell spine protectors are made from a hard plastic such as Polypropylene or Polycarbonate. They usually consist of a series of hard fixed panels, which act as the protective outer shell. The panels connect in a way that offers flexibility and airflow.

Between the plates and your back is a soft foam (e.g. Ethylene-vinyl acetate (EVA) foam), which acts as a cushion for comfort and protection in case of an impact.

The hardshell panels offer good protection from protruding objects such as rocks and branches.

Because of the plastic materials, hard shell protectors are heavier than softshells.

Softshell spine protectors for skiing

Softshell protectors are made from soft foam hybrid materials such as 
Ethylene-vinyl acetate (EVA), D30 or Visco-Elastic Polymer Dough (VPD).

Softshell protectors have quietly become the most popular type of spine protectors in recent years, and it’s easy to understand why. The high-tech foam materials used to make softshells offer some unique qualities and advantages over hard shells.

Most softshells don’t offer the same protection from penetration, like hard shells. But some manufacturers like POC, have begun to incorporate Kevlar into the shells as well. E.g., the POC Spine VPD System Comp Back vest has Kevlar reinforced barriers around the spine for extra protection. 

First of all, soft shell ski spine protectors are lighter than hard shell.

Second, soft shell back protectors mold to the shape of the body when heated. So after a couple of runs, you probably won’t notice, that you’re wearing a back protector.

When you fall, the foam will compress and harden thus absorbing and dissipating the energy from the impact.

Not all softshells are created equally

Some softshell ski back protectors use foam, which might absorb the forces from one impact, while the energy from a second or third impact will be transferred to you at a much higher level.

Researchers, who’ve studied the effects of back protectors have also raised concerns about the effectiveness of EVA-foam when it comes to the shock absorbing abilities at low temperatures because the foam tends to become harder and stiffer (Michel, F. I. et al 2010).

Good softshell spine protectors offer protection from multiple impacts, which can easily happen when you fall and starts to tumble down the mountainside.

High-quality softshells, which uses foam like VPD, is designed to take the forces from multiple impacts. VPD foam is also developed to keep its shock-absorbing abilities in low temperatures and wet conditions.

Back protectors with airbags

The latest developments in body armor systems for skiing, like the POC Spine VPD 2.0 Airbag, includes an airbag in addition to the normal spine protector. The vest can be worn under your regular ski clothes like an ordinary back protector and is comfortable to wear.

The airbag system consists of a box in the back of the vest with integrated sensors and precise algorithms, which can distinguish between a crash or fall from the normal forces associated with skiing.

The box keeps track of the rider’s movement by performing a thousand analyses per second. In case of a fall, the airbag inflates in less than 100 ms in order to protect your abdomen, spine, hips, chest, and neck from the impact. 

The system is approved by the International Ski Federation (FIS) and has already been adopted by a number of ski cross teams.

After the vest has been inflated, you have to replace the cartridge.

A similar system is developed by Dainese, which are known for making protective gear for motorcyclists. Their D-air Ski system has already been put to the test during the 2018 Olympics and is worn by downhill skiers like Lindsey Vonn and Matthias Mayer.

The system from Dainese is – at the time of writing – not yet available to the public.

Ski spine protection systems and protective standards

Before you buy a back guard for skiing, you should make sure, that it adhere to the European Standard EN 1621-2. This is the same standard, which is used for testing motorcycle back protectors.

The back protector is tested by letting a 5 kg flat impactor hit the armor at a speed of 4.47 m/s. Sensors then measure how much force is transmitted through the armor, the peak force in kilonewtons (kN), and time it took for the force to be transmitted. The lower the kN, the better protection.

There are two standards for the EN 1621-2: protection level 1 (EN 1621-2 Level 1) and protection level 2 (EN 1621-2 Level 2).

For a back protector to be qualified for an EN 1621-2 Level 1 certifikation, it has to transmit less than 18kN through the armor.

For a back protector to be qualified for an EN 1621-2 Level 2 certifikation, it has to transmit less than 9 kN through the armor.

The standard also includes factors such as temperature stability and coverage area.

Keep in mind that back protector doesn’t make you invincible, and the can’t protect you from all kinds of impacts to the back or spine.

As Michel et al. points out in the aforementioned study, “[…] back protectors hardly protect the spinal column or the back in general when an axial force to the spine is applied (e.g. as happens in a head-on impact) […] Furthermore the influence of back protectors with respect to torsional movements of the trunk is limited […]”.

Four types of ski back protectors: buckling, vests, backpacks, and jackets

There are several kind of protective body armor systems, which includes a spine protector. All of these can be either hard shell or soft shell or a mix of both.

The buckling type ski back protector

The buckling type of back guards consists essentially of the spine protector, shoulder straps, and a waist belt. The waist belt is very important, as it is what keeps the shell aligned correctly down your spine, and also keeps it in place in case of a fall.

Good buckling type back protectors offer excellent protection with a very low profile and weight. Some 

A good example of a high-quality buckling type back protector is the SlyTech No Shock Back Protector. It is a flexible softshell spine protector due to the honeycomb cone structure, which adapts to different energies and speeds of impact. The shell lives up to the EN 1621-2 Level 2 standard.

The protective vest

My favorite type of spine protectors is the protection vest system. You wear a protective vest just like a piece of clothing, e.g., like a… vest!

The fabric in a good protective vest is made from some kind of stretchable material, which is anti-bacterial and breathable. They usually come with a zipper in the front and an adjustable waist belt. I like the snug fit a vest gives me.

A good example of a high-quality protective ski vest is the POC Spine VPD 2.0 Vest which is also a soft shell. It adheres to the EN 1621-2 Level 2 standard, has a highly breathable mesh, and a flexible (and removable) waistband. You can remove the back protector when you need to wash the vest.

The backpack with integrated spine protector

If you prefer not to wear a shell directly on your torso, you can get backpacks with back protection built into them, e.g., like the POC Spine VPD Air Backpack 8. I don’t have any direct experience with these kinds of back guards, so I can’t really comment further on them.

The jacket type spine protector

There are more systems, where the spine protector is included, like full torso body armors, which include padding for the ribcage, elbows, lower arms, shoulders, etc. These are worn more like a jacket and can look similar to protective jackets for people who ride motorcycles and mountain bikes.

When buying a protective jacket, it is good to know, that the EN 1621-2 standard only adheres to the back and spine. Other areas usually aren’t protected as much. E.g., I’ve seen jackets with EVA foam as padding as the only protection for other areas. So don’t expect the same level of protection for the rest of your upper body, as for your spine.

How to size a ski back protector

For a spine protector to give you the necessary protection, it needs to fit your body properly.

A spine protector should extend from the base of your neck to the tailbone.

What that means is, that the top of the spine protector should cover the fourth cervical vertebrae, which is the nobby protruding vertebrae, you can feel at the base of your neck when you tilt your head forward.

The bottom of the back protector should cover your tailbone (or the L5 bone of the lumbar vertebrae).

You can have your friend or spouse use a measuring tape to measure the proper length for you.

The back protector should not interfere with your helmet when you’re squatting. It also shouldn’t be pushed upward, when you’re sitting down or in the egg-shaped ski tuck position.

There should also be room in your pants for the back protector, and it should be able to sit in your pants without any discomfort. Some systems come with additional coccyx protectors, which is usually velcroed to the main spine protector. 

Except for the backpack protective systems, spine protectors are designed to be worn directly over the ski underwear.

Some manufacturers make some models with a different cut for women, e.g., like the POC Spine VPD Wo Skiing Back Protector Air Vest.

Most manufacturers also make junior-sized versions for kids.

Should my back protector be replaced after a fall or collision?

If you’ve suffered from a serious fall or collision, and the back protector has become damaged in any way, it should be replaced.

You should replace your back protector every five to seven years since the foams used tend to lose their shock-absorbing abilities over time, and the fabric will be worn down.

Remember also to take good care of your spine protector. Most can be hand-washed at low temperatures with a sponge. Don’t use any detergents or chemicals. Remember to remove the back protector, when washing the mesh fabric in a vest in the washing machine. Store your back protector in a safe dry space away from direct sunlight. Care instructions may differ from model to model. Always refer to the instructions, when sizing, storing, and washing your back protection system.


I hope this article can act as a bit of advice and help you make a qualified decision on your next back protector. I’ve used a back protector since around 2008.

Spine protectors aren’t as common as helmets yet, but I hope that in a few years time, we’ll see spinal protectors being just as common on skiers as crash helmets are today.

If you’ve got any comments, suggestions or good or bad experiences with different types of back protectors, please let me know in the comments.

Happy skiing, and be safe!


Literature:

Wilkie, S. (2014): “Stricken skier is saved by her back protector”. Link: https://www.express.co.uk/news/uk/543747/Charlie-Guest-broken-back-skier-saved-by-her-back-protector (Accessed December 7., 2018).

Michel, F. I., Schmitt, K.-U., Liechti, B. Stämpfli, R., Brühwiler, P. (2010): “Functionality of back protectors in snow sports concerning safety requirements”, in Procedia Engineering, Volume 2, Issue 2, June 2010, p. 2869-2874. Link: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1877705810003346 (Accessed December 7., 2018).