With a very small number of exceptions, wearing a snowboarding helmet is optional. The video above is a ski crash tet but of course the same principles apply. It’s up to you to wear a helmet on the slopes; it’s a personal choice. But it’s obvious, right? Wearing a helmet is safer than not wearing one. Let’s say you fall and bang your head on the icy piste, or worse, maybe a rail in the snowboard park or a rock at the edge of the piste. It seems straight forward that wearing a helmet in one of those situations would be beneficial. So why doesn’t every snowboarder wear one?
Reasons not to wear a helmet
There are reasons that snowboarders don’t wear helmets. You might consider some of them to be more valid than others, maybe not:
- Belief that a helmet isn’t needed: “I’ll be ok”
- Belief that a helmet isn’t needed: “they don’t make a difference”
Comfort. Helmets don’t always fit that well. Perhaps you find wearing a beanie more comfortable, or warmer. No further justification is needed if you find a hat more pleasant that a helmet.
Style. Some people will be happy to admit it, others not, but the truth is, a lot of people choose not to wear a helmet because they don’t like the way it looks. Beanies look better, man!
Cost. Helmets are more expensive that their woolly counterparts, there’s no getting around that. Whilst you might question a snowboarder’s priorities, it’s naive to expect everyone to be able to afford a helmet. Cost is a factor.
“I’ll be ok”. You might agree that on balance, wearing a helmet is a safer option than wearing a hat. But at the same time, you believe that you’ll be ok; you don’t need one. This confidence may be based on experience – you’ve been shredding for 7 years now and never had a head injury. However, it may just be wishful thinking.
”They don’t make a difference”. There’s an argument that helmets don’t count once you’re going a certain speed…
This article isn’t a written judgement of people who don’t wear helmets. It really is personal choice. Myself, I wear a helmet if I’m riding off-piste or riding the park. If I’m predominantly charging around the piste I may well wear a beanie: I like the change, I like the look, and judge some situations to be more risky to my head than others.
More on the safety element
There safety debate surrounding the helmet is fairly deep. I’m not an expert in this area, not close to it, but I’ve read a bunch of reports ranging from the late 90’s up until 2009. The items that I’ve picked up as being important are:
- Does a helmet help with low speed/low force impacts?
- Does a helmet help with serious head injuries?
- Can a helmet make the situation worse?
- Should the use of helmets be enforced?
One thing is for sure, helmet adoption is on the rise. It’s been increasing in the region of 5% per year, and around 2008/2009 an NSAA study put the use of helmets by skiers and snowboarders at around 50%. That’s a lot. People obviously see the helmet as a sensible choice.
So what about the number of head injuries? I’ve read different reports stating that they account for somewhere between 2.5% and 14% of all ski and snowboard injuries. There’s a lot of variation there, but the upper limit is pretty high.
When it comes to safety benefits, it seems that the helmet is most useful in preventing less serious injuries. Concussions, cuts and scrapes; injuries occurring at speeds of 15mph or less. This would seem to reinforce the speed-argument, that: “helmets don’t really help – if you’re travelling fast enough they no longer make a difference”.
Whilst it’s true that most snowboarders travel faster than 15 mph, say, 20mph+, I’m not sure how that relates to a fall in the park? What if you catch your edge on a rail, or fall spinning a 360 off a kicker? Does a helmet still help then?
For more serious injuries, skull fractures, concussions greater than Grade II, and fatalities, the reports suggest that helmets are less useful. Given that fatalities on the hill often involve multiple injuries, research shows that the uptake in helmet use hasn’t caused a reduction in the number of deaths.
As for the enforcement of helmet use by all snow sport users, so far, there isn’t enough evidence suggesting that it’s a good idea.
Can helmets make a situation worse? Well, there’s an argument that the use of a helmet can increase the chance of a neck injury. But again, there isn’t enough evidence to support this claim.
So, whilst a helmet may not be effective at high speeds, and may not play a role in reducing fatalities on the mountain, if it doesn’t make your situation worse, is it fair to conclude that your overall safety on the hill is still increased? I’d say “yes”.
More on the style element
Style. Fashion. They’re big elements of the snowboarding scene, the snowboarding industry. Not for everyone, but they’re there. As a broad statement, many people prefer the look of a beanie.
And how about the pro scene? In the past, certainly, you didn’t see pro snowboarders wearing helmets. You didn’t see many regular snowboarders wearing helmets, but pros? Pretty much never.
The next statement isn’t qualified at all, but there were rumours, whisperings, that film producers didn’t want the riders in their videos wearing helmets. I’ll leave that to people closer to the scene to either validate or correct, but whatever the reason, there weren’t many pros wearing helmets.
But that has changed, to some degree. Sure, the video parts from this, and recent seasons aren’t filled with helmet-clad pros, but you do see them. And competition riders wear them too. Just look at the likes of Shaun White and Kevin Pearce. You don’t get much bigger than that and they both wear lids. Yet, whilst there are more pros wearing helmets these days, I don’t think the rate of up-take is in-line with recreational snowboarders.
Manufacturers, magazines and media have changed too. There are adverts for helmets. They’re portrayed as being part of the style. A safety element made to look cool. Manufacturers have big ranges of lids, lots to choose from, audio options, liners, peaks. Did they jump on the band wagon as helmet adoption started to increase, or was it a shift in the marketing that lead to increased adoption?
And the same can be asked of the pro scene, even though together, they’re all part of the same industry. How much has the pro scene affected the wearing of helmets? Does the fact that we now have some uber pros donning head protection make the rest of us more accepting? Or did it happen the other way around?
Consider the example of the UK indoor snowdomes
The UK’s indoor snow slopes are one of the few places where the use of a helmet is enforced (for freestyle sessions). This has led to a culture in which wearing a helmet is second nature. Everyone does it. They have to. No big deal. It’s normal.
So how does that feel? As a UK shredder, it bears little consequence on our use of the indoor fridges. It certainly isn’t a constant niggle that riders are complaining about. We just get on with the jibbing.
Unfortunately I haven’t found any figures in this area. Are the indoor parks safer than those in resort, where helmets are optional? Unknown. Are the UK dome-riders more likely to wear a helmet on the mountain? Probably. Does that make them safer? Unknown.
Is this an indication that enforcing snowboarders to wear a helmet on a wider scale is a good idea? I don’t think so. Just because a rule is tolerated, lived with, and has faded into the background, it doesn’t mean the rule is a good one. As above, there isn’t enough evidence here yet.
Secondary benefits of wearing a helmet
Putting the safety benefits to one side, there are other, positive side effects that come from wearing a helmet. Consider:
Protection for your goggles. Wearing a helmet is good for your goggles, too. First of all, a fall on your face is less likely to damage your goggles and therefore, perhaps, your eyes/nose. What’s more, when a snowboarder falls it’s quite common for their goggles to come off. Again, there’s the potential to damage or loose them. A helmet helps to keep your goggles on, tucked safely under the rim.
Securing good visibility. I can’t emphasise this point enough. When the inside of your goggles come into contact with the snow, bad things can happen. Depending on the conditions, that moisture can turn to steam, which is horrible for visibility. Worse, if it’s very cold, moisture on the inside lens can freeze. You can’t see through that and it’s hard to get them to thaw out. It happens.
With a hat, snow can gather on the top of goggles, or bind to the woolly material around your forehead. This can result in partial/full blocking of your goggle vents. That’s not good for keeping the air flow through the inside of your goggles.
The helmet and goggle combination work well to keep your goggles clean, unobstructed, and your visibility clear.
Music. If you like snowboarding with music playing, a helmet can be a good option, as there are plenty of built-in audio options. One of the benefits of a built-in audio feature is the ability to quickly lower the volume. Often the control is easy enough to operate with your gloves still on – handy for talking to your friends when you stop.
Popular brands, styles and what to look out for
Pro-tec have a good range of helmets, with audio models to choose from too, if that’s what you’re after. Bern helmets are definitely popular, as are Burton’s Red helmets, the Giro range (I don’t know much about them), and Smith lids. Smith make a deal of how well their helmets integrate with their goggles, which is important.
If you’re getting a helmet, you probably think it’s the safer option. That doesn’t mean that you want to look like a dork! If you can’t find the style you want in a shop, sometimes you’ve got to go online…
But beware, you want it to fit well! If it’s your first lid, it’s definitely advisable to go to a shop and try some on. Even if you don’t end up buying one in-store, they’ve all got sizes and trying a few will help you discover the size that’s likely to fit. But you’re not going to know until you put it on.
Think about your goggles too – if possible, check the fit. Although you’re unlikely to find a completely incompatible match of helmet and goggles, there’s no denying that some pairings work a lot better than others (and in doing so, it’s fair to say they look better too).
Be aware of thick ear pads/liners that aren’t removable. Sometimes they can make it quite difficult to hear your friends talking, and if you can’t take them out, you’re stuck with being unable to hear your buddies!
At the end of the day, snowboarding can be an injury-prone sport. People fall, people slam; sometimes you get straight back up, other times it hurts a little. It’s difficult to deny that. Given that the head is one of the body parts that comes under fire from a snowboarder’s bails – it stands to reason that a helmet makes sense from a safety/protection point of view. It’s difficult to argue with that, too. In some situations, helmets make sense.
Are helmets a catch-all? No, the research suggests that serious injuries and death are mostly unaffected by the use of a helmet. Nonetheless, there are definitely situations in which a helmet helps. If I fall on a rail or box, I want my lid on. If I hit a rock, I want my lid on.
It’s your call. So share it. What do you think? Do you put a lid on your head, or a tea cosy? Should helmets be mandatory, or is that stepping over an individual’s right to choose for themselves? And what about the safety stats? The pro scene? As always, add your view with a comment.