How to Choose a Snow Helmet
Fit, Features & Warmth
Fortunately over the decade, a lot of people have gotten the message that helmets are important in snow sports, 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.
Size & Fit
Above all, a helmet needs to fit right. We 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 a very goofy look to say the least. The helmet should fit fairly low on your forehead, about two fingers’ width above your eyebrows.
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.
Getting the Size Right
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 then measure with a straight ruler or metal tape measure.
Checking The Fit
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.
Nearly all ski (and bike) helmets are meant to sustain only one impact. Single-impact 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 to your head while wearing a helmet, make sure to replace it as the helmet has lost its integrity. Even if the helmet doesn’t look visibly damaged, it’s better to be safe than very sorry. If you continue using the helmet after a major collision, you will be highly susceptible to injury should you hit the same spot a second time.
Multi-impact 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 withstand as big of an impact. The typical drop distance in lab testing for multi-impact helmets is one meter. For single-use EPS helmets, the typical drop is two meters. This means that multi-impact helmets don’t need to be discarded but aren’t held to 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.
Many helmets in the last five years utilize MIPS (Multi-Directional Impact Protection System) technolody, 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 dissipate rotational impact. This small bit of movement reduces the impact’s force on your brain which reduces the likelihood of a concussion or other brain injury. More and more vendors are utilizing this technology in their helmets.
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 help you keep from overheating. With ventilation, adjustability is key: one type features removable plugs that you can use or leave at home depending on the weather. The more common option 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. Our 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–and while keeping your gloves on.
Adjustable Fit Systems
Most adult 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 adjustability 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 we 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. This keeps goggles nice and fog-free, so you can stay focused on the snow.
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!