It’s a cold, sunny day and you’re hitting the slopes for the first time this season. You breathe in a crisp mouthful of winter air, excitement building in your chest. Skiing has always been your happy place.
As you start down the slope, you go faster and faster, your blood pumping. Then, you fall. Hard. You lay there for a second, catching your breath, panic rushing through you. Ordinarily, this kind of fall would end the ski day, if not the whole season. If you’d happened to hit a rock, you might be dealing with something life-changing.
Why are you okay? You’re wearing a ski back protector.
A ski back protector is pretty much what it sounds like. It’s a piece of safety equipment designed to protect your back. That includes your backbone, spinal column, and vertebral column. All back protectors protect the upper and lower back, though some go further and protect your tailbone and neck, as well. We say the more protection the better.
Ski back protectors also aren’t just for skiing! They’re important for snowboarding, too. Snowboarding and skiing have a few key differences, but you’ll be dealing with the same safety concerns as skiing. Back protection is essential for both sports. Whether it’s trees, rocks, other people, or just plain ol’ losing your balance, there are lots of opportunities for injuries.
Before we get into the different styles of ski back protectors and how to choose the right one, why are they so important? You may have experienced a scenario like what we described in the intro, but you weren’t wearing a ski back protector and you were just fine. You may be wondering if a back protector is truly that necessary, especially when you’re already wearing a helmet.
While head protection is obviously crucial, it shouldn't be the only kind of protection you think about. The fact is that hurting your back can be just as bad as hurting your head.
We won’t get too technical, but there have been studies on injuries in snow sports. A 2012 study of an emergency department observed 45 cases of vertebral injury over four years. The researchers also observed an association between severe spine injuries and factors like high confidence and older age.
In a different six-year review of a trauma center in Switzerland, the majority of people who suffered from severe spinal injuries were injured while skiing. Stats vary across different studies, but the fact remains that both skiers and snowboarders are at a risk for back injuries. These studies highlight the need for back protection.
While some spine injuries are painful and annoying, they’re not too serious in the long run. Bruising your tailbone is a good example. In this situation, you can heal in four weeks with minor adjustments until the pain is gone.
Other injuries have consequences that last the rest of your life. There are five sections in your spinal cord: cervical, thoracic, lumbar, sacral, and tailbone. These areas protect the nerves that control the rest of your body. The location of your injury determines what parts of your body are affected.
The cervical spinal cord is at the top of your spine. It affects nerves in your neck and brain. If you injure this part, everything below your neck and shoulders suffers. You could end up completely paralyzed. Cervical injuries can also be fatal.
The thoracic spinal cord, which is in the upper and middle part of your back, helps keep your body upright. If you damage this area, pain often flows into your arms, legs, and around your rib cage. Depending on how bad the injury was, you might need to use a wheelchair, drive a modified car, or walk with braces. The exact location of the injury matters since this area controls your hands, fingers, chest muscles, and abdominal muscles.
The lumbar spinal cord is the lowest major part of the spinal cord. It’s responsible for carrying the most weight. If you injure this area, your upper body stays the same, but you can lose abilities in your hips and legs. Severe lumbar injuries might require the use of a wheelchair or braces.
The last part of your spine, the sacral spinal cord, affects your hips, pelvis, butt, and back of the thighs. Even if you severely injure this area, you’ll probably still be able to walk, but most people lose some function in their legs and hips.
Your tailbone is just below the sacral spinal cord. Most tailbone injuries aren’t too serious, but they’re pretty painful and make life awkward for a while. You can bruise or fracture your tailbone. Until you’ve healed up, sitting, bowel movements, and sex can be painful.
Professional skiers and beginners alike can all suffer from back injuries. Even if you’re being careful and only trying out the easiest ski routes, one wrong move and you could be hitting a tree or a rock at a certain angle, and bam! Serious spinal injury or even death.
We know this sounds terrifying, especially if you are brand new to snow sports, but we don’t say this to scare you away from skiing. Bad spinal injuries seem to be less common than head injuries, knee injuries, or wrist/arm injuries. The worst back pain you’re likely to feel is soreness or strain from a long day of fun. However, when back injuries are serious, they’re really serious. A back protector is a simple way to keep you safe. Like a ski helmet, a back protector is an essential piece of safety gear anyone should wear no matter how skilled they are.
There are a few different designs for ski back protectors, so you have some choice about what’s most comfortable for you. Back protectors fall into one of two categories: hard shells or softshells.
Hard shells are made from solid plastic-like polycarbonate or polypropylene. They usually consist of a row of connecting hard panels. These panels are great at protecting you from rocks and branches. Between the panels you’ll find soft foam (like EVA), giving you breathability, flexibility, and cushion in case you fall.
Softshells skip on the hard panels. Instead, they're made from soft foam, so they’re lighter than hard shells. While you don’t get protection from sharp objects, many companies have been adding materials like Kevlar into the products. This reinforces the protector, especially around your spine, giving you better back protection. They’re also more comfortable because of how they conform to your body. If you’re concerned about how well EVA foam works, look for VPD foam. This material is designed for superior impact absorption and remains effective in wet, cold conditions.
Within the hard or soft shell categories, there are different design styles. These determine how the back protector actually fits on your body. There are four kinds:
The buckling style has a spine protector, a waist belt, and shoulder straps. The belt keeps the protector aligned with your spine. This type is usually lightweight since there isn’t as much material. The coverage is only for your back; you don’t get protection for your torso.
The vest-style ski back protector is worn like a vest, so it’s very easy to wear under your ski jacket. The fabric material is stretchable, breathable, and anti-bacterial. You’ll usually find a zipper at the front and an adjustable waist, so you can give the vest a nice snug fit. A vest is a good choice if you don’t want to mess with a lot of buckles or straps.
These protectors are worn like a jacket, so you get padding for your shoulders, lower arms, elbows, and ribcage as well as your back. You can find these listed as full torso body armors, so if you want maximum coverage that doesn’t only protect your back, a jacket is a good choice. Bear in mind that these are still primarily for your spine, so you may not get the exact same protection for your arms, torso, etc.
Speaking of jackets, do you need a new one for the season? Check out our list of the best 15 ski jackets for 2021.
This is a good choice if you want something only on your back, not your torso. Backpacks also offer storage for accessories and snacks, along with back protection from impact and obstacles. Weight-wise, backpacks are heavier than the other styles, but they’re not too bad. As an example, the POC Spine VPD Air Backpack 8 weighs six pounds total.
Besides material (hard vs. softshell) and style (vest, buckling, jacket, or backpack), there are a handful of features you should take a close look at when shopping:
Like helmets, back protectors use a safety rating system. EN1621-1 tests armor that’s meant to protect the shoulders, elbow, forearm, hip, and tailbone. EN1621-2 tests the back and spine. Because this area is so important, this certification is stricter. Both are European standards. To test the protector, researchers let a 6kg flat impactor strike the armor going about 4 ½ meters per second. They’ll check the sensors to see how much force went through the armor; the peak force in kilonewtons; and how long it took for the force to be transmitted. Lower kN means better protection.
There are two levels of back protection. Back protectors with Level 1 protection transmit less than 18kN through the armor. To meet Level 2 qualifications, a back protector has to transmit less than 9 kN.
The size of your back protector is very important. If you get a size that's too small or too big, it won’t do its job. When sizing your protector, first find your knobby vertebrae at the top of your spine. That’s called the C7 vertebrae. You want a protector that starts covering that area and then goes all the way down to your tailbone. Use a measuring tape to get your specific measurements if you can’t try on the back protector before buying.
Fit is related to size, but it’s not quite the same. With fit, you want to be able to adjust the snugness of the back protector. It will use a zipper system, buckle, and/or waist belt. You want the protector to be adjustable so you can get the best comfort and fit. Make sure that when you squat down, the back protector doesn’t push your helmet forward. It should also be comfortable to wear with your jacket and ski pants, which you wear over the protector, not under.
Like all your gear, you want good breathability on your ski back protector. If it traps your body heat too much, you’ll get warm and uncomfortable quickly. Also, when you sweat, you want the moisture to be able to evaporate off your body. Good back protectors are made from breathable materials and often have vents for added climate control.
Backpack-style ski back protectors aren’t the only ones that can come with storage options. Vests and jackets might include pockets for accessories like ski goggles or your cell phone. The buckling protector, which is a very basic design, is the only style that won’t come with storage.
Because a spine protector is so important, you don’t want to get something too cheap. Good-quality brands start at around $60 or so and can get up to $200. Factor this price range into your ski safety gear budget, so you’re able to get good gear for every area of your body. You don’t want to get a really expensive back protector and then a cheap helmet. It’s about balance and making sure every body part is protected.
Not sure where to start? Here are three of our favorite spine protectors:
This lightweight back protector uses a buckling style, so you have shoulder straps and a waist belt. It’s best for people with a body size of 163-169 cm, with a 40-42.6 cm shoulder-waist distance. The Velcro chest and waist adjustment let you fit the protector comfortably to your body. The protector is also very breathable thanks to the mesh material and Thermo Control system. You can feel confident in the protector’s shock absorption because of the Flexcell technology, as well as the EN1621-2 rating. The protector foam is removable, so you can wash the protector in the washing machine when it gets sweaty.
Designed with young people in mind, this 3-layer POC spine protector is worn like a vest. Thanks to its patented VPD technology, it adapts with the body heat of the wearer in order to fit like a glove. There are three size options (small, medium, and large) with regular or slim fit. The protector is flexible and comfortable enough to wear all day. You can expect excellent back protection thanks to the EN1621-2 Level 1 certification.
While marketed as back protection for mountain biking, the VPD Air 8 also works for skiing and snowboarding. It’s lightweight with great ventilation, so it’s a great choice if you feel like the other protector styles are too restrictive and warm. It’s designed with dirt and water-resistant fabric and comes with a twin-strap closure system for a great fit. For your safety, it’s certified to EN1621-2 Level 1 standards. Have stuff to carry? This POC spine backpack has various side pockets and lets you carry up to 3 liters of water. It also has a designated phone pocket.
You should take good care of all your ski equipment so it lasts as long as possible. Your ski back protector is no exception. If you have a serious fall while you’re wearing the protector, you’ll need to replace it. Once the product is damaged in any way, it no longer offers you much safety. Check for any cracks, dents, or tears. If the fall wasn’t bad and the protector looks fine, you can probably keep wearing it. Even if you don’t ever fall, you should replace the protector within 5-7 years. The fabric wears down and the foam starts to lose its effectiveness.
To ensure the protector lasts a long time, avoid washing it with any harsh chemicals or laundry detergents. If there’s a removable insert, you’ll want to take this out before washing the mesh/fabric part in the washing machine. Most protectors will give you instructions on water temperature, so always follow what the manual says about maintenance. When you’re not wearing your back protector, keep it in a dry, dark spot.
Back protectors are important, but they don't give you permission to be reckless. They make you less vulnerable to severe injury, but you want to avoid any crashes if at all possible. Here are some tips:
In cold temperatures, your muscles get tighter. This makes it easier to hurt yourself. Before you go on your first run, do some warm-up exercises to get your blood flowing and your muscles more flexible. Snow sports use your whole body. Arm swings and leg lifts are a good warm-up, as are torso rotations. Simply walking in place is good, too. You don’t need to go too hard with your warm-ups to activate your body and mind.
Wanting to get in better shape for skiing season? Check out these nine effective exercises for your legs, core, and upper body.
If you’re new to skiing, don’t try advanced techniques/tricks or go on trails meant for more experienced skiers. You might be a very good beginner, but you should always play it safe. Take lessons from certified instructors who can teach you the best techniques and how to fall safely. If you’ve skied before but it’s been a while, it’s always a good idea to take a tune-up course.
Our last tip is to stay alert and aware of what’s around you. That includes rocks, trees, bumps, and other people. Some people like listening to music while they ski, but if you want to be sure you can hear someone skiing behind or calling to you, keep the music low or leave the headphones at home. Being aware helps you avoid obstacles and keeps you on your feet, not on your back. For more advice on staying safe, check out our article on skiing safety.
When people think about skiing safety gear, helmets are usually the first thing they think about. This makes sense considering how many traumatic brain injuries occur in snow sports. Back protection is arguably equally important, however. A severe spine injury can be fatal or cause life-changing injuries like paralysis. Why risk it? A ski back protector is a simple way to stay safe during the skiing season. A protector can come in a variety of styles, like a vest, a buckling design, a jacket, or even a backpack.
Always make sure the protector meets the necessary safety standards (EN1621-2) and has the proper fit, so your whole back - from your knobby vertebrae just under your neck down to your tailbone - is protected. For your comfort, a back protector should also be breathable and fit well with your ski jacket. If you don’t currently own a ski back protector, go get one before you hit the slopes this skiing season!