The thrills of skiing and snowboarding in Utah’s sublime snow and terrain can be awfully distracting. So much so, that visitors and locals alike may often forget a few crucial safety tips in their anticipation of hitting the snow. The environments where ski resorts thrive tend to be quite extreme at times, and it’s important to take a few simple, yet vital steps to keep safe on the snow.
What you may not realize is that Utah is perfectly positioned to create a trifecta of factors that enhance and increase the risks of sun damage. The high elevation at ski areas, the sparkling snow, and the southerly latitude exacerbate the effects of overexposure to the sun. Snow can reflect up to 90% of sunlight and UV rays, increasing your exposure to damage. This is even true of cloudy days because sunlight can still filter through the cloud layers.
Lasting sun damage is a poignant risk for skiers and snowboarders, especially ski area employees or those who head to the mountain on a regular basis. Sunburn is initially painful and uncomfortable, but long term sun exposure at altitude can result in wrinkling, blotchiness, premature aging, and skin cancer.
Dr. Christopher Hull with the Dermatology Services at the University of Utah Health had many sobering facts to share about the incidence of skin cancer in local ski area employees. Thanks to the Huntsman Cancer Institute and a pilot program called Sun Safe on the Slopes, free skin care screenings were offered to resort employees at Snowbird, Deer Valley Resort, and Park City Mountain. Dr. Hull reported that the incidence of skin cancer in this population was far higher than average and their findings spurred the quest to educate more employees and ski area guests about the importance of sun safety in Utah and at high altitudes.
Dr. Hull confessed, “You don’t often think about sun exposure while skiing because your body is covered up and the temperature is cold.” He recommends, “Any exposed skin needs sunscreen of SPF 40 or higher”. For every 1,000 feet that you recreate above sea level, the UV exposure can increase by up to 6-10%. This means that at 11,000 feet, at the top of the tram at Snowbird, your UV exposure could be up to 50% greater than what you’d experience when sunning yourself at the beach! According to Dr. Hull, “The biggest and most important thing to remember is to reapply your sunscreen throughout the day.” He recommends a zinc-based sunscreen because it reflects the sunlight and provides the best protection.
Recall that up to 90% of the sun’s ultraviolet rays can bounce off the brilliant white snow surface back into your eyes. This means skiers and snowboarders are at a greater risk for snow blindness, corneal sunburn, eye cancers and macular degeneration. Long-term overexposure to UV radiation has also been linked to an increase in the incidence of developing cataracts. UV rays can prematurely wrinkle and damage the delicate skin around the eyes. Prolonged exposure to snow reflection can cause lasting and permanent damage to your eyes, which is why it is critical to always wear sunglasses or goggles when skiing or snowboarding or hanging out at the mountain.
The arid climate you’ll encounter at ski areas can also cause dryness and discomfort for your eyes. Dr. Hull recommends using preservative-free eye drops to maintain comfort.
The combination of high altitude and Utah’s notorious lack of humidity work hard to dehydrate skiers and snowboarders. Remember, Utah is basically a desert basin and that total lack of moisture is what makes the powder snow so legendary and light. If you’re working up a sweat, moisture loss can be exacerbated. Prolonged exposure to wind can also accelerate dehydration. All these factors point to the importance of keeping hydrated while skiing or boarding. This is especially true if you are visiting from a lower elevation.
“You wouldn’t play football without wearing a helmet – same rule applies for skiing. Plus, helmets are way warmer than hats.” — Lindsey Vonn
The number of skiers and snowboarders sporting helmets these days has skyrocketed. The benefits of putting a lid on your dome are numerous and it shouldn’t even be a question when it comes to outfitting children with a properly fitting helmet. For more information, please see Lids on Kids.
The most common head injuries in snow sports occur from falling and hitting snow or ice. For beginning skiers or snowboarders, this is a particularly common injury. A collision with another object such as a tree or signpost or another snow slider is the biggest risk factor. It is quite common for skiers or snowboarders to reach 25-40 mph on trails rated for intermediates. At these speeds, it is simply unwise to skip the helmet. While helmets cannot provide total protection, they can lessen the degree or severity of trauma to the head or brain. Be smart!
Skiing and snowboarding provide a sensation of freedom and a respite from the daily grind of life. Escaping to the mountains is a wonderful way to unplug and recharge. These few safety precautions can help you better enjoy your time on the snow. With a little effort and thought you can stay safer on the slopes.