Sledding Accidents: Tips for Safety

It's the holiday season, and snow is blanketing most of the ground in the United States. In addition, there are nearby mountains within a short drive or quick flight for those without snow on the ground. Many of us want to grab the snow sled and ride in the snow, but be careful!

Key takeaways:
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    If you love dashing through the snow, a sled can offer great fun on the hills. You can ride a traditional sled, toboggan, plastic sled or snow tube.
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    Various injuries can result from snow sled injuries, including head trauma, knee sprains, and lower extremity fractures.
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    To protect yourself from snow sled injuries, make sure you have adequate lighting, avoid motorized vehicles, and consider using a helmet.
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    The safest snow sleds are ones that enable the user to steer, while the most dangerous are inner tubes and circular discs.
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    When sledding, avoid obstacles like trees, branches, buildings, and bodies of water.

There are risks to injury of various types; however, there are some precautions you can take. The risk of injury depends on the kind of sled you are using, the hill you choose, and other factors that will be discussed in this article.

What are the different types of snow sleds?

If you're wondering, the term sled originates from the Dutch and Western Germanic word “slēde," meaning sliding or slider (across the snow or ice). A traditional sled has two metal runners underneath the wood frame that function similarly to skis. In the old days, the runners were made of wood, but nowadays, they are mostly made of metal.

A toboggan is a sled made of lightweight wood with the front part curved up and backward. Unlike a sled with two runners underneath, the toboggans are flat-bottomed with the wood directly on the snow.

Today, we use the words "snow sled" to refer to many devices that allow us to ride on the snow. Most snow sleds are made mainly from plastic and do not have two runners underneath. Some have brakes and will enable the user to steer. Some of the snow sleds are made from thick foam, while there are also inflatable types, usually circular and called snow tubes. Lastly, circular-shaped plastic types are called saucers or discs.

Are there published studies on sledding injuries?

One study published in the Journal of Trauma Management and Outcomes evaluated sledding injuries in the winter resort town of South Tyrol, Italy, which was chosen since it is advertised and designed for snow sledding tourists. There are several reasons this is such a popular snow sledding area:

  • The mountain roads leading to cattle huts are transformed into sledding tracks.
  • Ski lifts are available.
  • Some tracks have lights for nighttime sledding.
  • From December to April, weather conditions are suitable for sledding.

The sledding accidents from 2002 to 2005 in South Tyrol requiring emergency room visits were reviewed. The most common snow sledding injury was head trauma (14.5%), followed by knee sprains (13%), ankle sprains (11.5%), and lower extremity fractures (9%). In addition, some patients required overnight hospitalization, mainly due to head trauma or lower extremity fractures (breaks in the bone).

In the study, three fatalities resulted from “moonlight sledding." Two sledders collided with a snowmobile, while one person accidentally went off the trail and then collided with a ski lift pole at high speed. This study demonstrates the need for adequate lighting, avoidance of motorized vehicles, and wearing a helmet (because of the high percentage of head trauma).

In addition, given the fact that the most common injury was head trauma, a helmet is recommended during sledding.

Another study was published in the Journal of Academic Emergency Medicine in July 2001, evaluating sledding injuries reported to an emergency department in a Canadian urban area. Unlike the Journal of Trauma Management and Outcomes study, head injuries were not the most common injury in this study. Instead, the injured areas were as follows: the lower extremity (32%), upper extremity (31%), and head trauma (13%).

What kinds of snow sleds are the safest and the most dangerous?

A study published in the Clinical Journal of Sports Medicine found that tube and disc riders are more likely to sustain concussions (a type of head injury) compared to sled and toboggan riders.

One theory is that inner tube sledders and discs move faster than plastic or hard foam sledders. One study published in the Journal of Trauma found that sleds go an average of 19 miles per hour, with the inner tubes going the fastest.

Sleds that can steer are safer than others since they can help you avoid hitting an object in your path and allows you to stay on a defined route.

With the fastest speed and complete inability to steer, the snow tubes and discs are the most dangerous snow sleds. Furthermore, with these devices, your body can turn, and your head can be the first body part to reach impact.

What can I do to be at my safest when sledding?

There are many ways to limit the chance of getting injured. Most are common sense, but we will list them below:

  • Have a sledding path free of trees, branches, bushes, fire hydrants, or buildings.
  • Have a clear and flat landing area.
  • Do not sled on areas that end on streets, parking lots, or lakes (ponds).
  • Make sure other sledders are not walking your path before descending the slope.
  • Avoid sledding at night or other times when there is poor visibility.
  • Always sled with your feet first, not your head.
  • Use a sled designed for snow sledding purposes (do not use a makeshift sled from a food tray, plastic sheet, or garbage can lid).
  • Pick an area that is not too crowded and free of pedestrians.
  • Do not have more people on the sled than recommended, i.e., do not have three people on a sled designed for two.
  • Wear a helmet, especially if using a snow tube or disc.
  • Wear warm, protective clothing designed for the cold weather.

Tips for parents

If your child is going sledding, here are some additional tips for parents:

Ensure your child is not wearing a scarf since these could get stuck, leading to choking and other complications.

  • Make sure your child knows how to roll off a sled, especially if it is heading toward a hazard.
  • If a child is five years old or younger, do not let them be on the sled alone: have an adult on the sled with them.
  • Check the whole sledding area, including the run-out (flat area on the bottom that allows the sledder to stop), for obstructions like rocks, trees, water, or excessive ice.
  • Please bring your child in when it gets dark, or there is poor visibility.
  • When the temperature is near zero degrees Fahrenheit (-17.8 degrees Celsius), it is too cold for a child to go sledding.
  • Have your child wear ski googles to protect the eyes from debris and other particles.
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