If you’re anything like me, before you go on your first ski trip, you are probably wondering, is skiing dangerous?
The short answer is, that skiing can be dangerous, but statistically not more so than cycling or football. For the recreational skier, skiing is pretty safe. The risks increase as you move on to slopestyle, speed events, and off-piste skiing. You can reduce the risks involved significantly by taking lessons. Let’s look into the common risks involved in recreational skiing and what you can do to minimize those risks.
What are the common dangers of recreational skiing?
Skiing has a reputation of being a high-risk sport. But, in fact, recreational skiing is a pretty safe sport. If you ski 1000 days, you may expect an average of two to three injuries. And since most people only get to go on an eight-day trip each season (if they’re lucky – skiing is expensive), the risk of suffering from an injury is low.
Even though recreational skiing is pretty safe, there are dangers to skiing, that you should be aware of.
The most common dangers of recreational skiing are suffering from smaller injuries like sprains and bone fractures. The joint that takes the most hits is, by far, the knees.
According to Dr. Bill Sterett, Head Physician for the U.S. Women’s Alpine Ski Team, knee injuries account for 43 percent of the injuries skiers suffer each season. These injuries stem from all the turning, stopping and falling, you will experience as a skier.
The second most common injury is to the wrist. Snowboarders are more prone to injuring their wrist and thumbs than skiers because snowboarders have a tendency to attempt to catch their fall, with their hands. Wrist injuries account for 18 percent of injuries each season.
Shoulder injuries account for 12-14 percent for skiers and snowboarders.
According to a study from 2014 in the Scandinavia Journal of Surgery, injuries to the head amount to 12-15 percent and for the spinal column 6-9 percent for skiers and snowboarders.
How many die or suffer catastrophic accidents from skiing?
From time to time you hear about skiers and snowboarders who get killed in avalanches or end up in a coma. The fact is though that these tragic events are rare.
According to NSAA, over the past 10 years, there has been an average of 48 catastrophic injuries like paralysis, broken neck and/or back, and life-altering severe head trauma per season. This amount to 0.85 catastrophic injuries per one-million skier visits.
When it comes to fatalities, there has been an average of 40 deaths across the USA in the past 10 years. That is an average fatality rate of 0.71 deaths per one-million skier visits.
To put that in a (not statistically significant) perspective, 47,500 people died from unintentional poisoning, 37,800 from motor vehicle accidents and 33,400 from accidental falls in the US in 2015 alone.
There are approximately 200 million skiers and 70 million snowboarders worldwide! So statistically speaking, deaths and catastrophic injuries are very rare. But when they do happen, they get a lot of attention from the media.
What are the most common causes of skiing accidents?
In most skiing accidents the skiers or riders themselves are at fault.
About 75 percent of the injuries occur either by falling down or losing control during a jump. 3-8 percent is caused by a collision with other skiers or riders.
Often poor judgment of one’s own ability to ski is to blame. Skiing to fast or on slopes, which are above your level, causes a lot of injuries.
Not having the right equipment
Not having the right equipment for the conditions is also a common problem.
Remember, that you’re on a mountain in the wintertime. It is in many ways an extreme environment – even on the groomed slopes.
The sun can hurt your eyes, you might stumble into a blizzard or fog all of a sudden, it can be pretty freezing, etc. Having the right equipment – and equipment in good condition – is essential.
You can read about how to find the best back protection here.
You can read about affordable ski helmets here.
You can read about budget-friendly ski goggles here.
You can read about gloves and mittens here.
You can read about baselayers and shells here.
Not taking skiing lessons
Not taking the proper time to learn how to ski in the first place is ordinary. I have seen so many beginners, who chose to save the money on ski school (and spend’em on beer instead) only to end up with broken bones.
Poor fitness is another sinner. Poor fitness leads to fatigue faster, which then again leads to less control, which can result in accidents.
Drinking too much alcohol
Sadly, alcohol is also to blame. A lot of people start the after-ski party on the mountain in the early afternoon.
The result is, that you have drunk and tired skiers, who think they are Olympic level competitors, who stumble down the mountain at the end of the afternoon, making the slopes a hazardous area for everyone, themselves’ included.
Who’s most likely to get injured?
According to Dr. Sterett, the skier with the highest risk of suffering an injury is “a beginner, on rented equipment, with no lessons, without a helmet or wrist guards, skiing above their ability level on a surface with limited-grooming in flat light with limited rest or hydration.”
You can read more about why you should always take ski lessons here.
When it comes to tragic accidents, most of the fatalities and catastrophic injuries are the result of collisions with trees, objects, people or impact with the snow.
The majority of these accidents happens on groomed, intermediate blue square trails due to high-risk behavior. The male population feature predominantly in these statistics. In fact, on average 85 percent of the fatalities are male.
Dangers from avalanches are mostly due to skiers venturing into an off-piste territory and/or ignoring signs of warning from the authorities. But even off-piste skiing can be a pretty safe as a recreational activity if you follow guidelines by those, who know the area well.
A few (usual beginners) also get injured, when trying to use a cable car or ski lift. It is understandable. The first few times can be quite daunting. Stick to magic carpet the very first times and then progress to the surface lifts like T-bars, J-bars and platters before you move on to the bigger lifts.
With that said, it is my experience that the people, who operate the lifts are extremely attentive to every skier and quick to press the stop button and very helpful.
What can you do to prevent getting injured on your next ski trip?
Before you even head start your next skiing trip, you might want to take a good hard look in the mirror and ask yourself: am I in reasonable shape for this adventure?
Skiing is a sport, and tough on your body – especially the legs – and fatigue leads to injuries.
So if you’ve spent the last twelve months since the recent ski trip in an office chair, as I do, you might want to start running or hitting the gym a month or two before you hit the slopes.
If you prefer to do your exercise from home, you should check out the article Best affordable home-exercise gear for skiing.
Check up on your gear. Do you have everything you need? Is it in good shape?
When you do get onto the slopes, you can follow the seven points of the skier and snowboarder Responsibility Code, which have been developed by the NSAA:
- Always stay in control.
- People ahead of you have the right of way.
- Stop in a safe place for you and others.
- Whenever starting downhill or merging, look uphill and yield.
- Use devises to help prevent runaway equipment.
- Observe signs and warnings, and keep off closed trails.
- Know how to use the lifts safely
Always be aware of your surroundings. Keep those earphones in your pocket instead of your ears. And grab a beer after you’ve made your last run for the day.
Always keep in mind: a mountain is an extreme environment and needs to be respected. And no one can really predict Mother Nature. So use your head and be safe.
If you follow these few guidelines, you can have a blast of a time on your next ski trip.
Do you have any good advice on keeping safe on the slopes, that I haven’t touched upon? Please let me know in the comments.
I live in Denmark, where recreational skiing is a favorite sport for many each winter season.
Since Denmark has no mountains whatsoever most Danes travel to the Alps, Sweden and Norway (and some even to the USA and Canada) each season. And because Denmark is mostly flat, most Danes are not that great skiers: I should know – I’m one of them 🙂
Unfortunately, a lot of beginners think, that they can just learn to ski by themselves. Or that their friends can teach them. Other skiers – mostly male – think they are king of the slopes and immortal beings.
Thus a lot of Danes end up one with broken bones each season. We even have a dedicated plane called “