While nothing can fully protect pro or amateur athletes from harm, today's winter sports safety gear is tougher than ever, thanks mostly to combinations of various lightweight, high-performance plastics. Over the years, innovations in safety gear have led to advances in strength, durability and cushioning - and those innovations keep on coming.
Head and neck safety
Protecting the head and neck of athletes is usually sports safety job No. 1. Helmet design differs by sport, but most have an outer shell made with a tough, impact-resistant plastic to help prevent it from breaking, coupled with softer plastic foam padding to cushion a blow or fall. Ongoing advances in sturdy, lightweight plastics are helping make helmets even lighter than in years past, providing protection without weighing down the athlete.
Modern advances: plastics reinforced with carbon fiber are now being used to make the outer shell even tougher. For even more protection, some athletes in high-contact sports use a collar guard designed to reduce neck injuries caused by collisions with other players, stationary objects or the ground. This safety device essentially envelops the athlete's neck in plastic foam cushioning while still allowing significant range of motion.
From shin guards to elbow pads, a wide range of body padding helps guard against bruises and breaks, whether snowboarding down the mountain or racing across the hockey rink. Modern pads typically are lined with various foam plastics that mold to the shape of body parts to provide shock absorption and comfort. Like helmets, pads typically have an outer shell for impact resistance made of a plastic such as ABS (commonly used to make auto bumpers).
Modern advances: Hockey players today are using specially designed padded insoles for their skates that are made with various cushioning foam and rigid plastics - manufacturers say these help reduce knee pain and foot cramps while providing more power and control during game time. And for many snow sports, manufacturers are moving to all-in-one protective clothing with built-in impact 'armor' - typically comprising lightweight plastic fabrics and shock-absorbing padding.
Outdoor winter athletes often encounter snow, wind and debris, so protective goggles are essential to help protect against eye injuries. Modern lightweight goggles typically use lenses made with transparent yet tough polycarbonate plastic (the material used in 'bulletproof glass') to shield eyes while providing a clear view. Various stretchy plastics coupled with foam padding help secure the goggles without causing painful pressure around the face, ears and head.
Modern advances: Many manufacturers have moved to dual lens goggles with clever air vents, coupled with high-tech coatings, to prevent fogging in cold weather, which can be a serious safety hazard. To improve visibility even more, athletes now can choose goggles that come with two lens systems with different tints that can be easily switched on the go in response to weather conditions.