Wilderness First Aid Q&A

How to sled safely



sled-300x222Sledding has long been a popular recreational pastime in cold weather climates.  While providing fun and excitement, it also harbors its share of dangers. Over 20,000 children and teenagers are brought to emergency rooms each year due to injuries sustained while sledding. Injuries include cuts and bruises, fractures of the arms, legs, and neck, and traumatic brain injuries.

Sleds were first utilized by several North American Indian tribes for transporting goods and belongings. The Cree, Anishinabe, Innu and Chippewa tribes constructed them from thin hardwood boards; one end was heated, bent and stabilized with crossbars to produce the curved front and a rope was attached to the front. The sleds could be pulled by people or teams of dogs and were extremely helpful for moving heavy loads over longer distances.

While initially used as a utilitarian tool, modern sleds come in several different forms and are used primarily for recreation. Snow sleds, or carioles, are used to transport people and consist of a mostly enclosed cabin with a partial roof. They feature long thin runners that reduce surface friction and thereby allow for the transport of heavier loads. Olympic sleds, or bobsleds, were invented by the Swiss and boast a steering mechanism and protective chassis. The sleds used by children and adults alike to coast down snowy slopes come in many shapes and sizes; while fundamentally similar to the initial toboggans used by the North American Indians, they are now often comprised of laminated plastic bodies for speed and affordability.

So what can you do to minimize your risk of getting hurt while still enjoying the new snowfall? First, understand your equipment. Sleds that can rotate, such as disks and snow tubes, should be avoided due to their unpredictability and lack of control. Preferably, use a sled with runners and a steering mechanism. Never sled headfirst! Doing so makes it more likely that your head will absorb the brunt of any impact; sledders should sit facing forward with their feet extended in front of them. Helmets should be worn to protect from serious head trauma in case of a crash or fall, and wearing multiple layers of clothing can provide padding and shield you from the cold.

It is also critically important to be aware of your environment. Never sled in the dark, as poor visibility increases your chances of crashing into an unseen object. Only sled in designated areas that are free of trees, signposts, fences and rocks. Also, make sure that your sledding run does not end in a street, parking lot or pond; a study by the Department of Pediatrics at the Seattle Children’s Hospital showed a significant increase in risk of injury when sledding in the streets as opposed to in parks. As a final word, it is never a good idea to sled while being pulled by a motorized vehicle, such as a car, snowmobile, or ATV. By following these recommendations, you can be safe on the slopes!

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  • Dr. Andrew C. Krakowski is the host of the boonDOCS Wilderness & Travel Medicine show on Outdoor Channel. He is the founder of the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine's wilderness medicine program and currently works in the field of pediatric dermatology at the Rady Children's Hospital in San Diego.

    Dr. K loves the outdoors and believes that knowledge, adaptability, and experience are essential for being prepared in the wilderness.

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