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Winter Sport Safety

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In a region where winter is guaranteed and snow is accompanied by sub-zero temperatures, you can be certain an entire culture will develop around winter sports. The winter season in Wood Buffalo is known for short days, long nights and an abundance of snow, creating the perfect conditions for everything from cross country skiing on the local trails to skating on backyard rinks.

One of the key facets of winter sports is safety. Just as with summer sports, the right equipment not only makes participation in any winter sport more enjoyable but can also protect the participant from injury. Burton Geikie, owner of Habitual Sports in Fort McMurray, and Store Manager Chris Reitz, know this well, having served the community for years as winter thrill seekers and sport enthusiasts ask their advice on the proper gear for winter sport safety.

Habitual Sports provides equipment for several winter sports such as hockey and skating, including CSA approved helmets which are required safety gear at most arena ice surfaces, as well as equipment for skiing and snowboarding. Helmets are some of the most popular safety equipment items on the market, and an entire technology has developed around them.

“Helmets should be replaced every 5 years, although there is no dating on helmets” says Geikie. “There are helmets available for every age from adults right down to two year olds and designed to fit those variations in age and size.”

Geikie adds: “Ski and snowboard helmets are also available in adult and child sizes. We also have goggles available for these sports which will protect the eyes from freezing in cold temperatures. A good ski goggle should have a double lens so they don’t fog up.”

Many ski hills require helmets for safety, and for snowboarding in particular in parks where apparatus has been installed for snowboarders to hone their skills such as jumps and other technical manoeuvres.

“These parks often look like a skate board park on a ski hill,” says Reitz. “Whenever riders are in these parks, helmets are mandatory.”

In terms of ice sports, hockey helmets can vary widely in price, from $60 to $300, but all helmets regardless of price must meet the same safety standards. The difference is in the design of the helmet and the materials used. Says Reitz: “Entry-level helmets tend to be for the smaller skaters who are unlikely to experience a significant fall or impact. The higher priced helmets are for those athletes who are at greater risk of a more significant impact. More expensive helmets often have a few more comfort factors, too, like being made of lighter materials which becomes an advantage as one enters more competitive aspects of their sport.”

The most important aspect of helmets is securing the right fit. “The aim is that your head hits the ground the same time as your helmet,” says Geikie. “We assist individuals and parents to find the appropriate fit to ensure that the head is not moving around inside the helmet, which can contribute to injury.”

Reitz adds: “The mask is just as important in terms of fit as the helmet. Where the chin guard hits on the chin, how it is fits to the face – this is very important.”

One area of concern is the tendency for children to wear hand-me-down helmets, which may have been the right fit for the original owner of the helmet but may not be the right fit for the next in line to wear it. “Sometimes you see children wearing second-hand helmets where the mask fit is not right,” says Reitz.

Geikie adds that second hand helmets can pose another risk. “You don’t know how much damage has been done to the helmet in the past,” he says. “And everyone’s head is different, so it just may not fit properly. Fit is the most important part of ensuring a helmet is going to work to protect a user from injury, so second-hand helmets are not always the best choice. Even helmets from the same manufacturer can fit differently. That’s why we strongly encourage people to come in and try out the helmets to find the one that fits them properly and will provide the maximum amount of safety.”

Hockey helmets are designed to be multi-impact to take more than one impact, but helmets that are cracked, missing protective padding or showing damage to the cage/mask should be replaced. Bends in the cage actually destroy the structural integrity of the mask and not only fail to protect the user but can cause an injury when the cage fails and bends inwards towards the face.

“Snowboarders also tend to wear wrist guards to protect against hyper-extension of the wrist,” says Geikie of the additional safety equipment often observed on snowboard enthusiasts. “Wrist injuries and concussions are two of the most common snowboarding injuries, so the right helmet and wrist guards protect the snowboarder from these two possible injuries.”

One of the often overlooked areas of winter sport safety relates to apparel when one is enjoying outdoor sports, particularly in extreme temperatures. Significant advances in technology have developed an entire science around sport apparel, and the days of wearing regular winter clothing for sporting experiences have passed.

The science behind staying warm is related to layering of clothing to ensure warmth. The clothing available for winter sports should not be confused with “fashion” apparel, as the items are designed to protect the wearer from cold temperatures and windy climates.

“For instance with skiing,” says Reitz, “You can ski in all kinds of weather. Protection against the wind is very important. Items like ski jackets are designed in a technical way to work with other equipment. The idea of buying one winter jacket that suits all purposes – for daily wear, for sports – isn’t really relevant anymore.”

A good base layer that manages moisture is an essential beginning, combined with a mid-layer with insulation characteristics and a top layer protecting from wind and moisture. This layering allows winter sports enthusiasts to remove or add clothing as necessary to ensure comfort and warmth.

“Items like jackets are carefully designed with features like seam sealing to protect against the wind and moisture outside while breathing from inside,” says Reitz. “Layering allows the wearer some flexibility as weather and temperature changes throughout the day.”

Other apparel items that impact both comfort and safety include footwear and gloves or mittens. In terms of footwear, boots that are too large allow cold air to accumulate around the foot, while boots that are too small restrict circulation. A properly fitted boot is essential to avoiding cold feet and even potential frostbite. Socks should be made of material designed to manage moisture and insulate the foot.

Gloves and mittens should also manage moisture while providing insulation for the hands. “If it’s colder than -15C and you are skiing mittens provide better warmth,” says Reitz. “When fingers are separated they are more susceptible to the cold. And you want a mitten with some loft that provides warmth.”

Manufacturing of items like gloves and mittens makes a big difference, too. According to Geikie: “A cheap glove actually just uses foam for insulation. That foam makes the glove look like it has loft, but provides no actual warmth benefit for the user.” Mittens and gloves of higher quality tend to be more flexible and perform better when participating in sports, as well as provide more protection from the elements.

Much of what is required in terms of apparel is dependent not only on the sports activity, but where one is participating in the sport. Skiing in areas where there is less chance of wet snow requires different clothing than areas where such weather is common, and so sport participants need to consider not only their sport but the weather patterns and climate of the location where they will be enjoying the activity.

Perhaps the one key factor in winter sports safety is taking advantage of the experts in the field, such as those at Habitual Sports. Experienced in everything from the technology behind sports apparel to the fitting of safety gear such as helmets, their expertise is invaluable when one is considering participating in the winter sports we not only enjoy but embrace in the Wood Buffalo region. Chris Reitz and Burton Geikie encourage new and existing winter sport enthusiasts to explore the new options available in terms of winter sport safety gear and sports apparel, ensuring participants are prepared and protected before they hit the ice or the hills this season.


A freelance writer, blogger and professional communicator who is passionate about her child, her work, her pets, her community and the power of words, Theresa Wells believes perfection in life is achieved when she is surrounded by amazing people, fantastic stories, cold gin and really hot shoes.