Whether you’re a newbie or a proficient rider, the possibility of spinal injury when snowboarding has probably crossed your mind. When boarding, there’s always a chance you might catch an edge and slam onto your back on hard snow.
Particularly when riding on crowded groomers, it seems to make good sense to protect not only your head with a helmet, but also your spine, another essential body part prone to injury in crashes with others.
While a lot of attention has been given to preventing the risks of limb and extremity injuries in snowboarding, spinal injury on the snow is rarely the focus, as this study shows.
Is back protection something you should invest in? or will it only give you a false sense of security?
Wearing back protection is a good idea when snowboarding in crowded resorts or when riding cliffs, racing boardercross, or riding park. In other situations, however, it may be overkill. Some soft, spine-only protectors (vest or strap-on) won’t restrict your movements nor heat you up much.
See also: How to get over terrain park fear
Why wear back protection for snowboarding?
There are some very good reasons for wearing back protection when riding, such as:
- On crowded days on the slopes, an out of control skier may slam into you from the back. This might also happen while you’re sitting in the snow taking a break, resulting in broken ribs or worse.
- You board might hook up hard in a carve resulting in you flying in the air and falling flat on your back
- Back protection is a particularly good idea in icy / hardpack conditions – not as much in fluffy powder snow.
- As a new learner, wearing back protection in addition to helmet, knee pads and wrist guards can help make you feel more confident
- Back protection is particularly important in the park and when learning butters, spins, ollies, big jumps, back flips etc – the jumps in a park are made of very compact snow that make for heavy landings.
- Speed racing, boardercross, backcountry cliffs and boosters, or otherwise pushing limits also grants wearing back protection.
That said, snowboarding with a back protector has both pros and cons:
- Wearing a back brace greatly reduces the fatigue from falling down on hardpack or in the terrain park
- Back protection is a small investment that often lasts a long time
- Protective vests help keep the wind off you when riding and keep you warm
- Some models of back protectors are comfortable and not as awkward feeling like crash pants or wrist guards (more on this below)
- Back protectors also provide lower back support which can save you chiropractor sessions
- Back brace may often feel uncomfortable due to wearing an inappropriate size, whereas you may not feel it at all if you have the right size.
- Back protectors provide a nice firm cushion to lean back against on chair lifts
- While these back protectors give you decent protection against direct impact on your spine, they don’t protect much against hyper-extension, compression, and rotational injuries
- Back protection or body armor may be overkill for regular riding on uncrowded groomers if you’re not riding trees, rocks, or rails.
- Some people argue a back brace might make them over confident and they may end up taking more risks and hurting themselves more.
- Some feel money spend for protection gear would be better spent on snowboarding lessons.
- Some back protection vests and armor aren’t washable and quickly become smelly after riding. A workaround is to wear a merino base layer under the body armor, which keeps it from smelling. Some back protector can actually be washed after taking out the inserts.
- Some protectors heat you up a lot and are restrictive when riding. They may reduce your mobility, actually making you more likely to fall.
- Slimmer spine-only protection is less restrictive than full armor, however they still run quite low and can be a bit uncomfortable around the bottom of the spine
Back protector and/or backpack
People often ask if back protectors are compatible with a backpack, or if the two conflict. Some soft back protectors e.g. some Forcefield models will generally fit well under a pack.
Other more rigid models e.g. Dainese vests may be more cumbersome when paired with a backpack due to the vest’s concave profile. They can still be worn with the backpack sitting higher though.
Overall, many riders will wear a backpack with a back protector underneath.
An alternative is to get a backpack with integrated back protection such as an Ortovox freeride rucksack. Aside from the spine protection it provides, some riders appreciate the lumbar support from the waist belt, which you can cinch or loosen for the lift. The removable spine protector in some Ortovox models can also be used separately from the pack.
Some riders wear a rucksack with a shovel in it, which has often proven to be an effective spine protector for some situations. Having a thermos in your backpack without back protection, on the other hand, can be dangerous.
Choosing an back protector
As a snowboarder, you want protection that fits under your garments, breathes well, and provides reliable impact protection. Back protectors come in different shapes and materials. Here are some of the main options to consider:
- Soft or hard plastic
- Straps vs vest
- Spine only vs armor
Soft vs hard plastic back protection
Soft back protectors generally use EVA foam, Polyurethane, and/or D3O. The latter is a patented smart material designed to be soft and flexible under normal conditions but instantly hardens upon impact. D3O back protectors are made with soft plastic materials and provide a high level of impact protection.
While soft back protectors are generally not as bulletproof as hard ones, they’re comfortable for riding and you can even wear them for driving. They’re also easily hidden under clothing.
Hard shell back protectors use ABS, polycarbonate, or TPU. Hard protectors offer strong protection but can easily tear holes in your jacket if you rub against something like the lift chair, or if you crash.
Straps vs vest back protector
Riders often debate between vest vs strap-on back protectors. Vests are usually more comfortable and are also a more secure fit than strap-ons (even when tightened well). Straps can dig in and create discomfort hot spots, even more so under a backpack.
Vests also generally provide additional protection for the chest and rib areas in addition to the back, whereas strap-ons only protect the back.
On the other hand, vests are bulkier and can be more restrictive than strap-ons. Unlike a vest, you can put a strap-on over any layer, and it gives you more freedom of movement. Strap-ons are also generally a bit cheaper.
All in all, most snowboarders tend to prefer the comfort and secure fit of vests.
Spine only vs armor
Both spine-only protectors and armor-style protectors have their pros and cons. Full-arm, hard-shell body armor jackets offer more comprehensive protection for the back, shoulder, and elbows.
However they are bulkier and less flexible, limiting movement and feeling less comfortable. They are mostly suitable for high-risk, high-impact snowboarding styles such as racing and boardercross.
Spine-only protectors are less bulky and restrictive for the slopes. They are also less expensive. Many riders feel a full upper body with shoulder pads etc is overkill and unpleasant to wear, while slimmer spine-only protection is generally not too bad.
Somewhere in the middle are compression shirts such as Icon’s Field Armor which includes a poly stretch chassis as well as Kevlar and D3O inserts. These are not as restrictive as full hard shell armors, yet cover more than just your spine. They are easy to move around in and don’t add much bulk.
Examples of well-rated back protectors
Dainese, POC, and Forcefield make solid back protectors snowboarders often choose. Visco-polymer products are pricey but lightweight and effective. POC primarily come in vest form.
Dainese back protector vests e.g. Active Vest EVO are particular popular among riders – some have been using them for decades. They are often considered as the best on the market.
Again, the vest options are generally favored for their comfort. The Active Vest is hardly felt and has good ventilation due to its hole structure.
The Forcefield body armor (back and optionally chest) is also a soft protector that hardens on impact. While more comfy than a hard shell, it’s still relatively heavy and hot when riding hard.
Another popular product is the Shred NoShock strap-on back protector. While some riders may find it a bit long at the tailbone, it becomes more flexible over time the more you wear it. It has Level 2 impact energy absorption performance, which is the highest.
The Demon United Shield vest is another long-standing popular choice among snowboarders. It has soft padding, isn’t bulky and fits well under a jacket. It has an excellent spine protector as well as front and back rib protection. Some riders replace the rigid back protector with a D3O one from a bike shop. You can also choose a D3O chest plate when ordering.
Something like the Oneal Underdog body armor is a more comprehensive and rigid option for protection in really hard landings on the back. Some riders remove the elbow pads for a bit more freedom of movement.
Some riders will choose a hard shell vest (e.g. Dainese) and also use them for mountain biking.
What other protection do you need?
A helmet is an obvious one even though there’s still a lot of debate around when to wear one. See my in-depth post about wearing a helmet snowboarding.
Many newer riders wear wrist guards. In a group of snowboarders, it’s not uncommon for about half to end up with broken bones in a season, primarily wrist injuries (and sometimes ankles).
Impact shorts also cushion you on falls and keep you warm when sitting down and lot. Snowboard-specific butt and hip pads are generally slim and form fitting, fit comfortably under snow pants, and don’t restrict your mobility much.
A few riders also use knee and/or elbow pads. While not required, knee guards can be very useful as you spend a lot of time kneeling.
The main reason some riders wear a back protector at all times is that some mountains are prone to newbie skiers getting on slopes without getting the proper training or experience for control.
Staying aware, keeping up with the flow of traffic, doing uphill checks when slowing down or changing direction, choosing terrain appropriately… These are all within our control and hugely help to reduce the chance of getting slammed into and getting our back (and other body parts) injured.