Primary Care in Rochester and Kasson

Outdoor winter sports: How to keep kids safe

1/4/2021 by Luke Radel, M.D.


Winter is here, and for many, that means it's time for fun in the snow. 

The winter season offers many activities that are fun for the entire family to enjoy, and they often involve the snow and ice. These cold-weather activities can be dangerous, but you can reduce your risk of injury if you and your family take the proper safety precautions. 

Here are some tips: 

Wear protection

Wear well-fitted protective gear that's in good condition. For examples, include these items: 

  • Helmets
  • Goggles
  • Mouth guards
  • Shin guards
  • Knee and elbow pads

Apply sunscreen, lip balm, and wear sunglasses or goggles, to keep your skin, lips and eyes safe from the sun and wind. Even in the winter, your skin and eyes can be damaged by the sun, especially with the sun reflecting off the snow. 

Appropriately sized helmets are strongly encouraged during winter sports, especially in sledding, skiing, snowboarding, ice skating and snowmobiling. 

Know your terrain

When participating in outdoor activities, be on the lookout for trees, people and other obstacles. Do not sled on hills near roads, parking lots, ponds or other obstacles on the sledding route. Find a sledding hill with a clear finish area without trees or other obstacles in the way. 

If you like to ice skate, you should do so in rinks, if possible, rather than ponds or other bodies of water. If you ice skate over a body of water, make sure the ice is thick enough to skate on. 

If you like to ski, pick a skiing hill that is appropriate for your skill level. Stay on designated skiing trails and courses. 

Buddy up

Your child should never do any winter activities alone. Young children should always be supervised by an adult while doing outdoor winter activities. Older kids and teens should always have someone with them in case of injury, especially in the harsh, cold elements. It is best if they have access to a phone nearby to call for help if needed. 

Learn from the pros

Lessons are strongly encouraged for beginner skiers and snowboarders. Be sure your child follows the instructions of his or her guide, instructor or coach to safely participate in outdoor winter activities. 

If you live in Minnesota, snowmobilers are required by law to take a snowmobile safety training course before operating a snowmobile. If you life elsewhere, you should familiarize yourself with your state's snowmobile regulations before your child rides on or operates a snowmobile. 

Stay warm

To say warm, wear layers, including: 

  • Base layer: This layer should be a breathable, moisture-wicking base. 
  • Insulating layer: You should have at least one insulating layer between your base and top layers. 
  • Top layer: Your top layer should be waterproof and windproof. 

Try to cover up as much of your child's exposed skin as possible to prevent cold injury, such as frostbite. Make sure clothing is replaced if it gets too wet and cold for the child. Wet gear causes a rapid loss of body heat and can lead to frostbite and hypothermia. Also, take frequent breaks to go inside to warm up, if needed. 

Don't forget to drink water before, during and after outdoor winter activities. It is easy to forget to drink fluids during winter sports, but it is just as important to stay hydrated during the winter as it is during hot weather. Staying well-hydrated will help maintain good circulation, and help your child stay warm and active. 

Recognize hypothermia and frostbite

Hypothermia is a life-threatening condition that happens when someone's core body temperature gets too low. Due to a variety of reasons, children are more prone than adults to hypothermia. 

Suspect hypothermia if you notice:

  • Slurred or unusual speech
  • Uncontrollable shivering
  • Confusion or excessive fatigue
  • Difficulties with walking or clumsiness

Seek emergency care immediately if you suspect hypothermia. 

Frostbite is a cold injury to the skin, most commonly on extremities and exposed areas of skin, such as ears, nose, chin, hands and feet. Monitor your children for signs of frostbite. 

Skin numbness or stinging, or a tingling sensation, can be early signs of frostbite. If frostbite is suspected, warm skin up slowly in warm — not hot — water. If skin numbness doesn't go away — or if skin appears hard, waxy, white or grayish-yellow in appearance, with a lack of sensation — seek emergency care for frostbite. 

Watch closely for signs of hypothermia and frostbite in children who cannot communicate easily, such as young children or children with communication disabilities. 

COVID-19 considerations

To reduce the spread of COVID-19, it's recommended that you wear a mask, even while exercising outdoors. As a side benefit, your face stays nice and warm under the mask. 

It is ideal to take part in these outdoor winter activities with only members of your own household, rather than people from multiple other households. If you participate in winter activities with other families, try to limit such participating to no more than two other families, and be sure to mask and stay appropriately distanced. Avoid sharing equipment with others. 

If you see another person on the trails or hill, mind your distance from them and try to safely move out of the way. Also, wash your hands frequently. 

Seek care when concerned

It is particularly important for your child to stay healthy and active this winter season. Exposure to outdoor winter activities is a fun way for the whole family to stay active. 

Despite your best efforts to keep your kids safe this winter, they still may end up with an injury or ailment. If so, contact your health care provider promptly to ensure your child gets an appropriate evaluation and any treatment that he or she may need. 

Stay warm, stay safe, and have fun this winter. 

Dr. Luke Radel practices in Mayo Clinic Primary Care's Division of Community Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine. He is board-certified in pediatrics and sports medicine. Dr. Radel is the volunteer team physician for the football team at John Marshall High School in Rochester, Minnesota. He has also worked with the Rochester Grizzlies and Austin Bruins hockey teams. He has experience treating youth, collegiate and professional athletes.