Nothing ruins a skiing or snowboarding weekend like having to hitchhike down the hill in a ski patroller's sled — or in an ambulance. Fortunately, the overall rate of skiing injuries has declined by 50% since the 1970s, according to the National Ski Areas Assn., a trade organization. (Snowboarding injuries are a different story: They've nearly doubled in the last decade — partly because the sport itself is relatively new.)
"We see fewer injuries among skiers because of significant improvements in the equipment," says James Gladstone, an orthopedic surgeon and co-chief of sports medicine at Mt. Sinai School of Medicine in New York City. Skis are shorter and hourglass shaped, he explains, making them more responsive and easier to turn. And, more important, ski bindings release more easily than those of a generation ago, reducing the risk of fractures in the lower legs.
A study published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine in 2009 found that skiers who are injured have a few things in common: They are male and have a "high readiness for risk." In this study, that meant they were eager to try jumps and moguls. But no matter what your age, gender or proclivity for thrill-seeking, skiing and snowboarding are inherently dangerous.
So what can you do to reduce the risk of injury?
"First, start thinking about conditioning long before ski season arrives," says Gladstone, who was a collegiate ski racer at Dartmouth College and has worked as a ski instructor. Skiing and snowboarding both demand a lot from the muscles in the quads and lower back, and from the knees. "I make my kids start climbing the 10 flights of stairs to our apartment well before winter starts," he says.
It may be too late for preseason conditioning, but these tips will also help keep you and your family safe on the hill:
• Make sure your — and your kids' — equipment fits. Borrowing equipment from well-meaning friends is never a good idea. "Using equipment that is right for your size and skiing or snowboarding ability is essential," says John Monson, a spokesman for Sugar Bowl Resort in Norden, Calif., near Lake Tahoe. Wearing gear that is too big is especially dangerous; if your feet "slop" around in ski or snowboarding boots, you have less control. And skis or a snowboard that are too long are difficult to maneuver.
• Make sure your equipment functions. If you own your ski gear, have the bindings examined by a ski shop technician at the beginning of each season. "The technician will make sure the bindings release properly, based on your boot size, weight and height and skiing ability," says Monson. A binding that releases too easily, or doesn't release when it should, can lead to injury. Skiers and snowboarders should also have their boards tuned, which typically includes waxing the bottom surface and having the edges sharpened.
• Don't go out cold. Before you slide onto the chairlift, do some dynamic movement exercises to warm up your muscles. "Do windmills with your arms, swing your legs back and forth and do abdominal twists so you're not so stiff when you start," says Gladstone.
• Stay forward. "Your instinct, when you get going too fast, is to lean back," says Gladstone. "This only makes you go faster. Really work on keeping your weight forward on your skis and your snowboard."
• When you start to fall, just go with it. The more rigid you are, the more likely you'll be hurt when you fall, Gladstone says.
• Wear a helmet. Helmets do not decrease the risk of skiing- or snowboarding-related head injuries, but they do reduce the severity, according to the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons.
Finally, take lessons. At Sugar Bowl, two-hour group lessons for skiers and riders of all levels — from never-evers to advanced — are included in the price of a lift ticket. "No one is ever too good for instruction," Monson says.