I grew up snowboarding at Nashoba Valley, a tiny resort 20 minutes north of Boston. That ‘mountain’ is small and takes about six turns top to bottom, which seemed to lead people to think that they didn’t really need a helmet. But throughout my time there as a snowboard instructor, freeride competitor, and manager of the terrain park, I saw firsthand what happens if you test your luck without one, regardless of your skill or experience.
Fortunately, a lot of people have gotten this message, and you’ll see many, if not most, people out there on the slopes sporting some style of brain bucket. Turns out helmets aren’t that much of a bother and actually have some positives that aside from just safety: they keep your head warm, provide a place to mount a POV camera, make it easy for you to listen to tunes while you’re out on the hill, all while being surprisingly comfortable to wear. Many modern high-end helmets are so lightweight you’ll hardly notice they’re there. Like with most outdoor equipment, the key is to find a model that is suited to you.
Above all, a helmet needs to fit right. I cannot emphasize this enough. If the helmet is too big and bobbling around on your head, it won’t protect you adequately in a crash. And if it’s too small and sitting high on the back of your head, you’re exposing your forehead to impact, cold, and sun, and yourself to ridicule (face it, it does look pretty goofy). The helmet should fit fairly low on your forehead, about an inch from the tops of the eyebrows. Ideally, it fits right up against the top of your goggles, without any gaps.
Most helmets have a method of adjustment to customize the fit, making the helmet useful for a range of head sizes. This is a big deal because it guarantees the closest fit, but it’s important to note that you still need to measure your noggin in order to get the correct sized helmet. If there is big gap between the adjustable band on your head and the outer shell, the helmet is too big and isn’t going to protect your brain as effectively.
Like the old saying goes, measure twice and, in this case, buy once. We use accurate sizing charts provided by helmet manufacturers to make it easy to choose the right helmet size. Instead of just guessing and hoping for the best, take a few minutes to measure. Use a soft tape measure and wrap it around your head just above your eyebrows and ears, roughly in the middle of your forehead. If you don’t have a soft measuring tape, you can use a string and measure with a straight ruler or metal tape measure.
As I mentioned before, a helmet needs to be snug. The helmet shouldn’t move when you shake your head side to side, but shouldn’t be so tight that it squeezes your head. You should also make sure the chin strap fits right under the chin. An easy way to dial in your fit is to open your mouth wide and adjust the chin strap to fit snugly. This should ensure a proper, comfortable fit with regular use.
The outside surface of the helmet, called the shell, is your first line of defense, particularly against fractures. This outer layer is usually made from ABS plastic that protects against bumps, scrapes, and collisions with hard objects. It works to spread impact over a larger area of the helmet.
Single-use helmets usually feature EPS foam, which has been tested to be one of the best materials to absorb impact with very little rebound. It also is light, inexpensive, and easy to make. If you sustain an impact using a helmet that dents, compresses, or cracks the foam, make sure to toss it away as the helmet has lost it’s integrity. If you continue using the helmet after a major collision, you will be highly susceptible to injury if you happen to hit on the same spot a second time.
Multi-use helmets are typically made with a butyl nitrate foam: a flexible yet dense foam that’s good for many impacts. It is heavier than EPS and cannot manage as much impact energy for a given thickness (meaning it won’t protect against harder hits). Hockey and football helmets are usually made this way, as are whitewater helmets and old-school skateboard helmets. The plus is that you don’t have to get a new helmet after every fall but the tradeoff is that it can’t take as big of an impact. The typical drop distance in lab testing for multi-use helmets is one meter. For single-use EPS helmets, the typical drop is two meters. This means that multi use helmets don’t need to be discarded but aren’t held the same safety standard as EPS foam. This kind of helmet is more popular with park riders who tend to fall often at slower speeds.
A newer style of helmet that is becoming increasingly popular is the MIPS (Multi-Directional Impact Protection System) helmet, which is designed to deflect some of the force of impact. The key here is an inner rotating layer that moves independently of the outer shell. In a crash, the outer shell absorbs linear impact, while the inner layer rotates slightly to absorb rotational impact. This small bit of movement reduces the impact’s force on your brain which reduces the likelihood of concussion and other brain injury. More and more vendors are offering MIPS models and while they tend to cost more than conventional helmets, you may decide it’s worth the expense for your activity. I personally believe in an unpredictable sport such as skiing or snowboarding, a head impact isn’t a question of “if” but rather “when,” so I spend the extra money.
All helmets are lined to some degree, some with pretty minimal lining and others with super plush, comfortable styles. Some feature detachable ear pads, which are a great option, especially for spring conditions. Some liners (particularly in helmets from Bern) can be removed completely so you can wash the liner or wear the helmet with a beanie instead.
Helmets usually come with some kind of ventilation options; on a warm day, or when you’re working hard, allowing warm air to escape will add considerably to your comfort. With ventilation, adjustability is key: one type features removable plugs that you can use or leave at home depending on the weather. The more expensive, and more desirable, style is adjustable vents that you can open or close anytime. If you spend a lot of time on the mountain the second option is highly recommended.
If you like to rock out to some jams on the mountain and are currently using ear buds, you don’t have to! The days of earbuds falling out are over. Helmets are often “audio compatible,” which means that they have ear pads with pockets that you can slip special aftermarket speakers into, as well as helmets with speakers already included. If you are unsure about compatibility feel free to reach out to a Gearhead who can help you find the right helmet. My favorite feature on these is a mute feature, usually on the ear flap, that makes it easy to talk to your friends on the lift ride up and listen your music on the way down, all at the push of a button (with your gloves on!).
As I mentioned earlier, most helmets now have the capability to fine-tune your fit by adjusting the snugness of the inner band in the helmet. Where helmets will differ is on the amount of adjustabilty and the type of adjuster. In more or less ascending order of cost and complexity, these are a slider, a geared dial, or a Boa system.
One rule of thumb I like to stick to, especially shopping online, is to try to get your helmet and your goggles from the same manufacturer. There are manufacturers like Anon and Smith that do an exceptional job at making both, and design them to line up perfectly with no gap. This isn’t just about looks, though; that alignment means air can come up through the bottom of the goggles, flow up through the holes in the top of the goggles and into ventilation holes in the brim of the helmet, and then be exhausted out the back or top of the helmet. This keeps goggles nice and fog-free.
ASTM F2040 is the most common snow helmet certification. This US-based standard covers nonmotorized recreational snow sports including skiing and snowboarding. All backcountry snow helmets meet this certification. You may also see CE EN1077, which is a European certification for alpine skiing and snowboarding helmets.
Now you have the information needed to make a decision on the proper helmet. If you have any questions still or need some advice, please reach out to our knowledgeable Gearhead staff, who can help ensure you’re outfitted with the right helmet for the season. Think snow!