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Outdoor Winter Safety: Staying Safe During Winter Activities

Mother and daughter enjoying the winter season  

Temperature and w​eather 

Children should not play outdoors if the temperature or the wind chill factor falls below -25°C (-13°F). When it is this cold outside, exposed skin can freeze in a few minutes. 

Always check the weather forecast before children go out in the cold. Just because it is mild in the morning does not mean it will remain so in the afternoon. Even mild temperatures have their own danger: your child may get wet because of melting ice and snow, and ice surfaces may break more easily. 

Clothin​g 

All winter activities require layers of warm, dry cold-weather clothing

Dress in three layers: 

  1. Thin moisture-wicking materials such as polyester should be next to the skin. 
  2. Next is a middle insulating layer of wool or fleece. 
  3. An outer water- and wind-proof layer made of nylon or Gore-Tex. 

An outer layer should be removed just before starting strenuous activity to avoid overheating, which will make your child wet from sweat. Layers should go back on during rest to stay warm. Include a hat, mitts, a tube scarf and waterproof boots. 

Stay hydrated, take breaks and use sunscree​​n 

Always make sure children drink plenty of warm fluids to help the body maintain its temperature. If hot drinks are not available, drink plenty of plain water. It is easy to get dehydrated​ in the cold, often without noticing. 

Take frequent breaks from the cold to let the body warm up. 

Use sunscreen, even on cloudy days. 

Ice thickness over wa​ter 

If you are not sure how thick the ice is then do not go on it. To be safe, ice on frozen ponds, rivers, lakes or canals should be at least 15 cm (6 in.) thick before you walk on it. For groups, the ice should be 20 cm (8 in.) thick. You should test the ice thickness in all areas of activity because the ice may be thinner in different areas. 

Always have a plan in pl​acein case the ice breaks, and be able to call for help. 

Beware of quick thaws or blankets of surface snow, which can weaken the ice surface. Keep children away from the banks of ponds, lakes, streams and rivers during the spring thaw. Be aware of downstream conditions — a dam opening below your area of activity may result in weaker ice in your area. 

The colour of ice may be an indication of its strength: 

  • Clear blue ice is strongest. 
  • White opaque or snow ice is half as strong as blue ice. 
  • Grey ice is unsafe. 

A heavy blanket of snow on top of the ice can form an insulating layer, warming the surface and making the ice weaker. 

Skatin​g 

Skates should give good ankle support and fit snugly. For children whose feet are growing, softer boots are better than hard and stiff ones. Skate blades should not be dull or rusted. 

All skaters should wear safety-approved hockey helmets. In Canada, a helmet should have “CSA” stamped on it. Helmets should be replaced every five years. 

Children should never skate alone and should always skate in safe areas, away from traffic and free of obstacles. Make sure the ice is thick enough for skating (at least 15 cm (6 in.) for individuals and 20 cm (8 in.) for groups). Beware of quick thaws which can weaken the ice surface. Look for uneven or cracked outdoor ice surfaces as they can lead to trips and falls. 

Sledding and tobogganing 

Before your child toboggans or sleds down a hill, make sure that it is safe. The hill should be free of trees, rocks, bumps, fences and bare spots. Also check to make sure there are no patches of ice on the hill. Make sure there is lots of room to stop at the bottom of the hill. Also make sure that there are not so many sledders on the hill as to make the activity unsafe. 

Inspect the toboggan or sled to make sure it is in good condition. Some sliding equipment can be more difficult to control. 

  • Inner tubes and plastic discs are not recommended for children because they are hard to steer and stop. 
  • Sleds that are raised on runners or with “steering wheels” go faster and are also more difficult to control, less stable and may be more likely to be associated with injury. 

Young children should always be supervised by an adult. They should never toboggan alone and should not toboggan at night. 

The safest position to be in while tobogganing is kneeling. Sliding on your stomach, headfirst, offers the least protection for your head. Head injuries while sledding can be serious. A ski helmet is recommended, because they are designed for use in cold weather and for similar falls and speeds. Laying flat on your back is also not recommended as this increases the risk of injuring the spine or spinal cord. 

Finally look out for other people on the hill. After finishing a run move quickly to the side and walk away from the sliding path. 

Many tobogganing injuries are cold-related, such as frostbite and hypothermia. Heat loss is particularly significant in children under age three because their heads account for a larger proportion of their overall body size. Children should be dressed warmly in layers. 

After tobogganing, children should get out of wet clothes and boots quickly to prevent frostbite. 

Snowmobil​es 

Snowmobiling is fun, but it can also be dangerous, especially for children. Many children are seriously injured each year in snowmobile accidents. 

Snowmobiles are powerful and heavy machines that can reach speeds of more than 100 kilometres per hour (60 mph). The size and power of snowmobiles make them inappropriate for a child's smaller body size. 

Manufacturers now make 'kid-sized' snowmobiles, but paediatric injury experts warn against using these machines. Regardless of the size of a child, their motor skills, perception, field of vision and judgment are not equal to those of an adult. 

To keep children safe, Parachute (formerly Safe Kids Canada) recommends the following: 

  • Every rider should use a snowmobile helmet on every trip. 
  • Children under the age of 16 should not drive a snowmobile. 
  • Children under age six should not ride as passengers on snowmobiles. 
  • Snowmobile drivers should receive instruction in the safe operation of their machine by an instructor. Contact your local snowmobile association. 
  • Ride on trails that enforce rules and promote safe driving. Road, rail, or other traffic crossings and railway lines may appear suddenly or be poorly marked and can be very hazardous. 
  • Never tow a person behind a snowmobile — this is a high-risk activity. 

Skiing and snowboarding 

Beginners should take lessons from a certified instructor. Snowboarding is not recommended for children under seven years old. 

To prevent head injury children should wear a helmet that meets current safety standards. 

 Children should follow the buddy system. Never ski or snowboard alone. 

Always check your child's equipment to make sure it is in good condition and fits properly. Bindings should be checked at least once a year by a qualified technician. Bindings and boots which do not fit properly or are not properly adjusted are a risk factor for injury. Snowboarders should only use boards with full-length steel edges and stiff secure bindings. The board leash should be securely attached. Children should use short boards no more than chest high. 

Do warm-up exercises and stretches before each day's skiing or snowboarding. 

Stay on marked trails and follow the rules of the slopes and ski lifts. Most ski hills post a skier’s or snowboarder’s code of conduct. All skiers and snowboarders should be aware of potential hazards on the hill including uphill skiers that may be coming towards them.

Be especially careful on the first and last few runs of the day, when injuries are most common. Skiers and boarders should quit before getting tired and before it gets dark. Fatigue, poor visibility taking drugs or drinking alcohol are factors that can lead to injuries. Choose runs or trails that best suit ability. Before starting out, children should understand the signs that show the level of difficulty. If they find themselves in an area beyond their ability, it is best to remove the skis or snowboard and to “walk out” along the edge of the hill or trail, to an area that they can handle comfortably. 

Skiers should stay alert to hazards such as rocks, trees, ice patches and changes in weather and visibility. 

Key points 

  • Check the weather forecast before going out for a day's activity. 
  • Dress appropriately for the temperature and the activity you will be doing. 
  • Use well-maintained, well-fitting equipment, including the appropriate safety helmet for your activity.
  • Keep activities suited to children's age and abilities and stay alert for hazards.

​Reviewed by:
Elly Berger, BA, MD, FRCPC, FAAP, MHPE​
11/6/2013
Safe Kids Canada (now Parachute). Retrieved October 25, 2013, from http://www.parachutecanada.org/​




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