When I visit my in-laws around the holidays, I’m always interested in hearing childhood stories about my husband, Jake. This year, everyone laughed as they recalled sledding as children and, specifically, an incident where a scared Jake abandoned his dad mid-hill on a speeding toboggan. As the sled picked up speed, his fight-or-flight response took over – and he chose flight. He leapt from the moving sled, leaving his dad to fend for himself the rest of way down the hill.
Luckily, this story has a happy ending: His father coasted safely to a halt, and Jake incurred only a mouthful of snow – and a funny story to tell as an adult. But there are risks to all winter activities and, surprisingly, sledders are more likely to be injured in collisions than skiers and snowboarders.
A study done at Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus estimated that 20,000 children are treated in emergency rooms every year for sledding injuries. Most injuries consist of cuts, bruises and fractures. About a third of the ER visits involve head injuries, and most of these are the result of collisions. Sledding is a great way to spend time outdoors and be active in the winter months, so it’s important to highlight the safest ways to enjoy this fun sport.
Before leaving home or during the car ride, it’s a good idea to discuss safety. Adults should always supervise sledding activities, no matter the age of the child. It is recommended that children younger than 5 sled with an adult, and everyone should know where the observing adult is in case of an emergency. You should sled during the day when visibility is best. If possible, pick a hill with a warming house and pack snacks and water for periodic breaks.
Any time you’re planning to spend a prolonged amount of time outdoors, there is a risk for frostbite or hypothermia. It’s a good idea to wear waterproof hats, gloves or mittens, snow pants, a winter coat and boots. And pack extra – you’ll want to change if your gear gets wet. Avoid wearing a scarf or loose clothing that may get caught on something, as it can cause strangulation. A helmet provides warmth and protects your brain – it’s strongly recommended. Every sporting goods store now carries a wide variety of helmets designed for winter sports, but a helmet used for inline skating, biking or skateboarding works, too.
The best sleds are those that can be steered by the rider and/or have brakes to slow them down. Disks and tubes are difficult to control. Random objects such as lunch trays or cookie sheets should never be used for sledding.
The safest slope
Never pull a sled behind any type of motorized vehicle. Snowmobiles, cars, trucks, tractors, motorcycles, all-terrain vehicles, and lawnmowers can cause serious injury. Many parks have recreational sledding areas, though these can be crowded. A hill far from trees, open water, fences, streets and traffic is the only safe place to sled. Pick a hill that has a long, flat area at the bottom so that a rider can slide to a stop.
Hit the hill
Collisions caused 51 percent of the sledding injuries that resulted in ER visit. To avoid this, riders should take turns going down the hill with only one person per sled (unless a small child is riding with an adult). Keep your hands and feet inside the sled and always face forward. Never slide down backwards, face first or in a standing position, as these are more likely to lead to a serious injury. Don’t build jumps or other obstacles on sledding hills. When you’ve come to a complete stop, walk up one side of the hill, leaving the center clear for the next person.
Sledding is a great pastime for those of us who live in the northern states and way to stay active and get outside in the winter. By following the above recommendations, you should be able to avoid a trip to see us at Children’s Hospitals and Clinics of Minnesota.
Be safe, stay warm and have fun!
Erin Happ is a certified nurse practitioner at Children’s Hospitals and Clinics of Minnesota.