What You Need to Know Before You Hit the Slopes

Winter is here, and it’s time to break out your skis and snowboards! Before you’re ready to hit the slopes, brush up on ski hill safety with U.S. Ski and Snowboard team physician and West Michigan Orthopedics partner, Dr. Carl Wierks, and Cannonsburg Ski patroller and Mary Free Bed physical therapist, Chris Wise.

With the proper clothing, equipment, and warm-up exercises, you can have fun and remain safe and injury-free all winter long.

Optimal Outerwear

During extreme winter temperatures, remember to dress like an onion. Avoid cotton and layer moisture wicking clothing against your skin as your base. The middle layer traps in body heat, and the outer layer protects from elements such as wind, rain, and snow. Dressing in layers allows you to regulate your body temperature for a day full of outdoor winter activities.

Mittens keep hands warmer than gloves. Wearing double gloves keeps hands from being exposed. Be mindful of any numbness or changes in skin color. If you experience any of these symptoms, take a break and seek treatment, it could be frostbite. The best way to warm up cold fingers is to remove wet items, dry them off, and place your hands in room temperature water or under your armpits. Avoid hot water or flames as the sudden change in temperature can be painful and cause further damage.

Tips for sizing skis and snowboards

When sizing your skis, measure them between the chin and your head; for snowboards, measure from your chin to your nose. If you’re in Michigan, consider using snowboards that are a bit shorter and more flexible for jumps or rail slides, depending on your level of experience.

Don’t feel overwhelmed by the large selection of boots available. Know your boot size, as it is different than your regular shoe size. Soft flex boots work better for beginners; as you get more advanced, stiffer boots are better as they transfer power into your skis. Hard boots are more responsive to the skis. Soft boots will be a little less reactive and easier to control.

Basics for checking your bindings

Bindings determine how much force is required to release the boot from the skis to minimize injury. There are different bindings for different types of skiing. Know your height, weight, and experience level when selecting your binding and be careful not to max them out. Feet should be comfortably shoulder-width apart, knees bent, gravity centered, and toes shouldn’t hang off the board. In terms of tilt, most right-handed people ride with their left foot forward (riding “goofy” is when a right-handed person ride with their right foot forward). When in powder snow, shift your stance toward the back of the board. Ultimately, it is most important to do what is most comfortable for you.

Helmet Safety

Wearing a helmet is mandatory and is the most essential piece of equipment. Head injuries are too common among skiers and snowboarders. Younger heads and brains are even more susceptible to injury. When selecting a helmet, look for a hard shell with a shock absorbing interior – foam liners are common. Avoid purchasing used helmets because you don’t know how much trauma the helmet has been through. After adjusting the helmet to your head, do the head shake test. It shouldn’t sit too high on the head but should be secure. Find one that’s comfortable to wear for hours at a time.


Muscles perform at optimal levels after they’re properly warmed up. Go for an easy run to start and do some stretches while in your skis or board. Hamstring and quad muscles work the hardest while on the hill. Basic runner stretches will help focus your warm-up on your legs and core, which essential parts of your body for skiing and snowboarding.

Situational Awareness

Be aware of your surroundings at all times. Before you go down run, make a plan to avoid obstacles and other people. Remember, respect gets respect. Give people plenty of space, and if another skier or snowboarder cuts you off, let them go ahead and don’t react. Know your own limits when incorporating style into your runs and switch to a more accessible hill if needed. If you need to stop during a run, don’t stop in the middle of the hill. Look for a stationary pole or sign where people will see you or go to the edge of the run.

Be safe when it comes to winter activities, and know what you can and can’t do. If you’re questioning it, save it for another day; a trip to the medical tent can put a damper on the day.

For any more questions or concerns regarding safety on the slopes, reach out to our offices and set up an appointment.