Sledding and Tubing Injuries

Written by a parks and recreation expert


Sledding down a hill is a fond wintertime memory.  Impacting a fixed object or being propelled airborne while sledding tends to dull the memory.  There are many factors that can contribute to the frequency and severity of sledding injuries.  Location, location, location matters in real estate sales as it does in picking a sledding hill.  Public land, private land, or commercial establishments have different levels of care that must be provided to sledders.

Public land may be a natural hill in a park or a designed/designated sledding hill.  Private land with similar public land topography in some states may be covered by landowner recreational use immunity.  Public land used for sledding, whether a designed hill or just a natural hill, will normally be required to meet the standard of care.  Commercial sledding and tobogganing hills/chutes must meet the standard of care.

The wooden sled with metal runners is the only partially steerable apparatus.  Plastic saucers or disks, sleds and sheets go where gravity and the fall line dictates.  The plastic disks or saucers also rotate so that the heaviest person on the disc (saucer) goes down the hill first (meaning, the heaviest person goes down backward).  Toboggans usually have a fixed chute to travel down the hill with an open outrun.

A sled/toboggan recently purchased should have safety warnings in the packaging or on the sled/toboggan.  Plastic sled/saucer/sheet manufacturers have provided a safety warning about hazardous conditions/actions to avoid when sledding.  Safety warnings should include:

  • Number of persons/total weight on apparatus
  • Location of where to use
  • Device is not steerable

Impacts cause many injuries to sledders.  Impacts with other sledders, with terrain features, with fixed objects on/near hills are most common.  Trees and fence posts are the most commonly impacted fixed objects on sled hills.  Other sledders and other season’s recreation equipment left at the base of a sled hill are impact objects.  If the outrun on a sled/toboggan hill is short, an overloaded (too heavy) sled/toboggan can overshoot the designed outrun and hit whatever.  Sledders falling off sleds before completing the downhill run can be impacted by the next sledder if allowed to begin sledding before previous sledder has completed the run.  Supervision procedures should be in place to ensure sledders do not initiate a run before the chute is clear of prior sledder.  Impacts with the sled hill seem improbable but do happen when soft snow is allowed to be pushed into mounds that create a wave surface.  A wave or bump in the sled hill surface allows the vertical force to be transferred to a horizontal force causing the sled to become airborne resulting in a hard impact with the surface.

Lighting conditions can affect the safe operation of a sled hill.  A cloudy overcast day can cause flat light. Without direct sunlight no shadows are present for the human eye to distinguish changes in elevation or if a six-foot tall ice hardened snowball is at the bottom of the hill.  Artificial lighting should produce 10 lumens per square foot across the entire sledding area for night time sledding.

Sledding hill regulations should be posted at the entrance of the path, at the top of the sled hill, and in a warming house, if provided.  The slope, surface and width of the entrance path should be wide enough to accommodate upward and downward walkers carrying sleds and toboggans.  Handrails should be provided but not impactable by sledders descending the sled hill.  Mechanical means such as rope tows or chair lifts must conform to state regulations and have engineer certification.

Single lane sledding hills are usually associated with commercial sledding hills and as auxiliary activities at ski hills.  The half pipe maintenance machine used for snow boarding chutes is used to make a series of single lane downhill chutes for inner tubes or other non-steerable devices.  Generally, these commercial tubing slopes will have a tow rope to pull the sledders back up the hill.

On a large open slope, the top of the hill should have control gates that spread out the sledding lanes. The control gates will keep some space between the sledders as they proceed down the hill as well as require the next in line to wait and allow space to develop between sledders.

The slope at the top of the hill should be one to one, or two to one,  for the first 20 feet of the down hill run.  The slope should then proceed at four or six to one then gradually to a flat runout to the horizontal plane.  The outrun depends on the amount of weight put on a toboggan or sled.  Four 200 pound adults will travel much further and faster than four 50 pound children.

The Northern Hemisphere orientation of a constructed downhill sledding run should have the top of the hill on the south side with the down hill run going toward the north.  The east to west or west to east slope should be even so that sledders going down the hill on non-steerable devices do not drift into the other sledding lanes, fence or other objects on the side of the sledding hill.

Publications reviewed to form the basis of my opinion include:

  1. Caskey, George B. and David Wright, Coasting and Tobogganing Facilities…A Manual on Construction and Operation, (National Recreation and Park Association, Arlington, Virginia, June 1966).
  2. Gaylord, Earl E. and Charles C. Rombold, (Handbook for Ski Slope Development. (National Recreation and Park Association, Arlington, Virginia, 1985).
  3. Odom, John A., M.D. and Messner, Duane G. and Courtney W. Brown, M.D., Tubing Injuries, (American Medical Association, Monroe, Wisconsin, 1978).

4)  Stoddard, P. Chris, Introduction to Snowtubing Operations, (Mountain Management Services, LLC, 2005).

This article discusses issues of general interest and does not give any specific legal or business advice pertaining to any specific circumstances.  Before acting upon any of its information, you should obtain appropriate advice from a lawyer or other qualified professional.

This article may not be duplicated, altered, distributed, saved, incorporated into another document or website, or otherwise modified without the permission of TASA.


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