It’s a question I hear fairly regularly: “Is skiing (or snowboarding) really safe?”

Invariably, the answer is yes. In fact, the activities are safer than you might think, and there are several steps you can take to help make your next trip to the slopes as safe as possible.

Wear a helmet

The National Ski Patrol and the Professional Ski Instructors of America encourage wearing a helmet, and for good reason. Studies show that the use of a helmet reduces the incidence of head injury by 30 to 50 percent.

I have to admit, I was hesitant to get into the helmet habit, but since beginning to wear one a few years ago, I have discovered a bonus benefit – ski helmets are warm! Warmer than most ski hats, and in many cases, a helmet can be worn over a ski hat to double the advantage. The most important safety tip I would offer to anyone ready to take to the slopes – and especially to the parents of young skiers and snowboarders – is to wear a helmet.

Know the code

All ski areas in Maine, along with the National Ski Areas Association, promote the use of ‘Your Responsibility Code,’ a guide for safe skiing and riding. Think of the code as a sort of defensive driving course for skiers and snowboarders:

  • Always stay in control.
  • People ahead of you have the right of way.
  • Stop in a safe place for you and others.
  • Whenever starting downhill or merging, look uphill and yield.
  • Use devices to prevent runaway skis and other equipment.
  • Observe signs and warnings and stay off closed trails.
  • Know how to use the lifts safely.

At most ski areas, you will find “Your Responsibility Code” prominently displayed in several locations throughout the facility, but don’t take that for granted – ask any ski area personnel for more information on the subject. If they are unable to answer your question, they will gladly refer you to someone who can.

Weather the weather

We all know that the weather in Maine can be unpredictable. Layer your clothing and wear a helmet liner, a hat, and gloves or mittens, and bring an extra pair in case the first pair gets wet or lost. Wear ski goggles that fit properly – especially if you use a helmet or eyeglasses. Some folks may want to consider the use of prescription goggles.

Get schooled

Ski areas love new customers, and often offer affordable packages for beginners that include a lesson, lift ticket, and rental equipment. If you were a skier in your younger days, and are getting back into the sport, a lesson will help bring you up to speed on advancements in equipment and technique. Even experienced skiers can polish up their skills with a lesson every now and then.

Buddy up

It’s always better to ski or ride with a friend or family member. Not only is it more fun to share your experience on the slopes with someone you know, you can watch out for each other and get help more quickly when needed. Be sure to set a predetermined meeting place with your buddy, in case you get separated. Lots of folks – especially families – use walkie-talkies or mobile phones to stay in touch.

Ask, Tell

Finally, don’t hesitate to share any questions or concerns with ski area staff. Slope safety is the number one priority for ski areas big and small; ask about the types of safety measures being utilized, and the operational procedures for things like lifts, grooming, and snowmaking. If you see something that looks unsafe, tell someone. As previously mentioned, if the first person you encounter is unable to help, I am sure they can direct you to someone who can answer your question or address your concern.

Mark Shea is the SnowSchool manager at Bigrock Ski Area in Mars Hill.