New To Ski

Do You Need a Back Protector? Buying Guide for Skiers & Snowboarders

by Kenny Jarvis | Updated: October 27th, 2022
skidded turns and carving

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Neither skiing nor snowboarding are without risks, and even if you take care on the slopes, there is always the other guy, so, it makes sense to keep your back protected.

In alpine skiing and snowboarding, back injuries make up a sizeable 10.2% of skiing-related injuries and 18.3% of snowboarding-related injuries. The risk of back injuries can be reduced by wearing a back protector when you go skiing or snowboarding.

Medical Disclaimer: The information and other content provided in this article, or in any linked materials, are not intended and should not be construed as medical advice, nor is the information a substitute for professional medical expertise or treatment.

Have you considered a back protector but you’re not sure where to start? Then this article will help you better understand what back protectors are and how they work.

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Do I Need Back a Back Protector?

skis-on-backpack

Key Takeaway: Back protectors can offer genuine improvement in your safety when skiing or snowboarding. However, they are not as widely adopted as helmets and the cushioning of layers.

Lack of awareness of back protectors means few skiers and snowboarders use them, even today. This includes beginners, who are most vulnerable to back injuries from skiing and snowboarding.

Why Do I Need Back Protectors?

Skiing in the backcountry, falling into soft deep snow will usually not injure you, and fresh snow serves as a great cushion should you lose your balance and control. However, uneven surfaces, ice & rocks, and even tree stumps can be lurking beneath the top layer of snow.

Colliding with one of these concealed hazards can result in severe injury, such as lacerations, fractures, concussion, broken bones, dislocated joints, and spinal damage. All these injuries can cause severe permanent damage.

Skier fall

Unfortunately, just because you ski responsibly does not necessarily mean everyone else will. Consequently, collisions among skiers are more common among casual and novice skiers. At high enough speeds, these accidental collisions can also cause serious injury.

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Key Takeaway: A back protector is designed to absorb the force of a collision, protecting your spine from the direct impact. The back protector also helps to maintain the spine at the optimum angle to provide stability.

Do Back Protectors Work?

With so few people using back protectors on the slopes it would be easy to assume that they’re not really necessary. There is even some research which debates whether back protectors offer any sort of protection against against strong twisting forces.

Strong twisting forces on your spine are created during powerful collisions and these are dangerous because they are not well absorbed by back protectors. That said, it’s better to have limited protection against collisions rather than none at all. A back protector doesn’t offer full protection but it does minimize the risk of fatal or permanent injuries. 

Back Protector Systems

back protector systems

There are three types of back protector systems. Some models protect only the spine, and other back protectors protect the entire back. There are even ones that come with an airbag.

1. Hard Shell Spine Protector

These protectors are generally made of hard plastic such as polypropylene or polycarbonate. A series of plastic panels are linked together to form an outer protective layer.

If you fall on it, a hard shell spine protector will protect you from protruding rocks and other obstacles. In addition to the hard outer casing, soft foam is sandwiched between the plates that absorb and distribute the impact to protect you. The foam in hard-shell protectors is usually made of EVA (ethylene-vinyl acetate) foam.

Hard shell protectors are slightly less comfortable than other back protectors, and most hard spine protectors are heavier to wear. Nevertheless, they do provide better back and spine protection from impacts. Hard shell spine protectors will provide you with the highest impact protection, and because of their hardened construction, they will also keep you safe from sharp-edged hazards.

2. Softshell Spine Protector

Compared to hard shell spine protectors, softshell spine protectors are lighter and more comfortable to wear. They are made from a hybrid, generally of soft foams, such as EVA, D30, or VPD (visco-elastic polymer dough).

These materials are lightweight, smooth, and very flexible. This is why softshell protectors are so much more comfortable to wear.

downhill skier

As a result of their lightness and comfort they have quickly gained popularity among skiers and snowboarders. Softshell spine protectors have some advantages over hard shell spine protectors, despite offering less protection.

Many skiers and snowboarders prefer their lightweight design over the heavy hard shell. Skiing and snowboarding are tiring sports with plenty of physical demands, so, no skier wants to carry more weight than necessary.

As well as the weight advantage, softshell protectors can be heated, so they will soften and mold to your body’s contours. The fit can become so snug you hardly know you’re wearing a protector.

See Also:  How To Pick The Correct Ski Length?

Being comfortable while wearing protective gear is a big win for everyone. Some manufacturers also incorporate Kevlar-reinforced softshell spine protectors for even better protection from impacts. 

3. Back Protectors with Airbags

Skiing and Snowboarding

One of the newest back protection systems is the back protector with an integral airbag. It can be worn like a vest underneath your regular ski clothes. Airbag back protectors come with software with sensors inside that detects when you have a crash.

The sensors have a fine-tuned algorithm that enables them to differentiate between a fall and the regular forces of skiing.

The sensors constantly monitor the motion and forces on your body and if it detects any dangerous activity such as a crash or a fall, it inflates the airbag with compressed gas within 100ms to protect your abdomen, neck, back, spine, and hips. After the airbag has deployed, you have to replace the gas cartridge to prime the airbag again.

These airbag back protectors are approved by many professional skiing teams and a similar design is now used by the company, Dainese, to create protective gear for motorcyclists.

Types of Back Protector Equipment

There are four main types of back protector equipment, each one with its own advantages and disadvantages. Some are made to focus on comfort, while others are made to maximize safety at the cost of comfort.

Tignes Piste
Photo by gbsngrhm under CC BY-SA 2.0

1. Buckling Back Protectors

Buckling back protectors have a spine protector, a waist belt, and shoulder straps. A buckling type protector is sure way of aligning the spine protector correctly with the spine. The waist belt is the most important part of this protector, since it can be adjusted to align the back protector correctly.

Buckling back protectors are ideal for those who want a lightweight protector with a slim profile. Their design makes them comfortable, and with their low-profile, you will soon forget that you were wearing it. Buckling back protectors offer excellent protection for the spine, while also being affordable.

2. Back Protector Vests

Most people prefer back protector vests because you can wear them like a vest. They are made with a zipper and a waist belt to adjust and align the spine guard with your back. They are usually made of stretchable material, making them very comfortable to wear. A back protector vest is usually made of anti-bacterial material that is also breathable for maximum comfort.

A well fitting protective vest is nearly invisible when you’re skiing or snowboarding. The only drawback of vest protectors is that they trade protection for flexibility and comfort. A vest with also good protection will be more expensive.

3. Back Protector Backpacks

Back protector backpacks are made from VPD and have spine protector systems embedded into them. They can be used as regular backpacks and they have enough padding to prevent any damage to your back and spine. The one downside is that they are very clunky and uncomfortable to wear. Additionally, if you place any hard objects inside the backpack, that object can become a hazard for your spine. 

If you do not like the idea of wearing protection for skiing and snowboarding, a back protector backpack can be a good compromise. They are lightweight and if you carry some clothes in them, they add another layer of cushioning for you.

4. Protective Jackets

snowboarding in park

Protective jacket systems come with padding, not only for your back and spine but also for your arms, shoulders, elbows, and ribs. Jacket-type protectors are often stylish and also very comfortable to wear. As long as the jacket protector you buy offers the protective standards it claims, it is well worth getting.

The jacket might not provide as much protection for the rest of the body parts as it would for the spine. Still, having extra protection for arms, shoulders, and ribcage is a plus.

Back Protector Features

But protectors come with all manner of features, some associated with safety and others more associated with comfort and style.

1. Protection Standards

Spine protector equipment should adhere to European Standard EN 1621-2 to guarantee proper protection. If the protector does not have EN 1621-2 certification, it may not provide adequate protection and put you at risk. Moreover, there are two levels of EN 1621-2 certified products.

EN 1621-2 Level 1 equipment is the entry point for back and spine protection, EN 1621-2 Level 2 equipment can be considered premium quality protection and provides very reliable protection. Do keep in mind that even with these certifications, the back protector will not make you invincible but instead just reduce the risk of you getting a permanent or fatal injury.

If you’re a fan of softshell protectors, you should always try to go for high-quality VPD foam softshells. Low-quality softshells might dampen the first impact but will be much less effective on subsequent impacts.

2. Breathability

The design of your back protector needs to be breathable and easy to wear. This is important because a breathable design increases the comfort level of your back protector considerably. In addition, a breathable design allows heat to escape, preventing the spine protector foam from becoming too soft.

night skier

3. Fitting

Choose a back protector that fits you well. A back protector that does not fit can often break during a collision or impact and increase the risk of injury. If the back protector is adjustable, ensure it fits you well within the adjustable range and is neither too loose nor too tight. Fit is especially important for the vest, jacket, and buckling back protectors.

See Also:  What To Look For When Buying Ski Poles? (New Skier Guide)

4. Coverage

While the primary purpose of your back protector should be to prevent injuries to the spine, it makes sense to get something that offers extra features. Apart from the spine, hip, neck, and shoulder injuries are common among skiers and snowboarders. Getting a slightly larger back protector that covers these parts is highly recommended.

5. Cost

When buying a back protector, you should not compromise on the quality, even if you are on a budget. A cheaper back protector might be more affordable because of cheaper materials. However, this can be false economy with the reduced performance associated with it.

Even if you’re only planning on skiing or snowboarding recreationally, it’s worth investing in the best back protector you can afford.

Best Back Protectors for Skiing & Snowboarding

Confused about what to buy? Try some of our back protector recommendations.

1. Alpinestars Nucleon KR-Celli Motorcycle Back Protector

Alpinestars Nucleon KR-Celli is one of the best back protectors on the market. Fitting is a common problem among skiing back protectors and it is very rare for there to be one that fits everyone. The KR-Celli is just that, Alpinestars made the KR-Celli using a unique 3-dimensional design that covers the shoulders, back, and waist.

Apart from its outstanding coverage for your back, it is very light and easily fits into any bag. The only drawback for the Nucleon KR-Celli is that it might not be built for everyday activities. Some people have reported it absorbing heat and becoming too hot but this is not a common issue.

Features

  • 12.8 ounces lightweight
  • Ergonomic contour ensures a perfect fit
  • Made of a high-performance polymeric material blend
  • Covers the shoulder, waist, and back

Pros

  • Very budget-friendly
  • Excellent coverage
  • Adheres to the body like a glove
  • Excellent weight balance
  • Ergonomics allows a good range of motion

Cons

  • Can get a little hot

Where to Buy:

2. POC VPD System Vest

POC VPD System Belt is an expensive but effective back protector for anyone wanting a vest that offers full protection without making you feel bulky or slow. Its unisex design makes it an excellent choice for all athletes and it has additional protection for the elbows as well.

The vest also comes with different adjustable parts such as a dual-sided waistband that prevents the back from slipping. It has an attractive sleek design made with high-quality breathable material. If you’re willing to spend some extra money, the POC VPD System Belt is one of the best. The only drawback of this excellent protective gear is that it does not fit everyone, so always try it on before you buy.

Features

  • EN 1621-2 Level 2 standard
  • Flexible and adjustable to any size
  • Sleek design with a premium finish
  • Lightweight full body protection

Pros

  • Very breathable mesh
  • Comfortable fitting
  • Adjustable size to fit you
  • Outstanding protection for back, shoulders, and elbows

Cons

  • Might be a loose fit for some people

Where to Buy:

3. Ridbiker Motorcycle Bicycle Back & Spine Protector

The Ridbiker spine protector is an all-in-one spinal protector for many sports. It is an extremely versatile piece of protective gear with good ergonomics. It also has excellent durability and a porous honeycomb structure that make it very breathable.

It also comes with adjustable straps that make fitting it to your size easy and precise. The nylon belt and shoulder straps do not snag the skin and are very comfortable to wear. Its outer shell is made of premium quality PP material that is resistant to wear, fall damage, and high impact.

Overall, it is an excellent and versatile back protector that will protect you well for skiing, snowboarding, and extreme sports. The only drawback with this one would be that it might be a bit too long for shorter people to comfortably use.

Features

  • Versatile design made for many extreme sports
  • Adjustable shoulder straps and waist belt for good fitting
  • High-quality PP material for durability
  • Porous honeycomb structure for breathability
  • Triple-layered protection for the spine

Pros

  • Very suitable for taller people
  • Multipurpose protector for many outdoor activities
  • Does not restrict any freedom of movement
  • Good protection for the spine
  • Very breathable and comfortable

Cons

  • Not suitable for short people

Where to Buy:

snowboarding girl

Final Thoughts                                                                             

Key Takeaway: A back protector is an important piece of protective gear for all skiers and snowboarders but especially those who tackle challenging terrain, where there may be hidden obstacles. Back injuries are surprisingly common in skiing and snowboarding, so it is well worth investing in some protection.

A back protector could save you from a potentially disabling injury. Safety in sports is paramount and while the use of back protectors isn’t nearly as common as helmets, it’s worth reflecting on your safety and using a back protector before you start on your next mountain adventure.

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NewToSki.com is where over 1 million people a year come to learn more about skiing. I share everything I wish someone had told me when I was learning to ski. My name is Simon & I've been skiing since 2005. This winter, our family is taking a 3-month camper ski trip across the Alps. If you enjoy our articles, please join the free email club. We'd love to have you.
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