Helmets for Backcountry Skiing

Post by WildSnow.com blogger | September 13, 2006      

Casque, sturzhelm, whatever you call it, whether or not to use a backcountry skiing helmet is an open question. Vociferous helmet advocates remind one of evangelicals when they push for helmet use, while other voices look at the numbers and question the efficacy of hard hats. What to do?

One of my favorite observations about helmets is somewhat philosophical. The fact is that most ski injuries are not head whacks, but rather torn up knees, broken bones and other unpleasantness such as twisted backs. Preventing many of those injuries is tough, if not impossible. Along comes a helmet. “Aha,” we think, ” I might spend a year rehabing a knee, but at least I won’t get a head injury.” In an unpredictable world, a helmet offers a bit of certainty about not getting at least one type of crippling injury. Or does it?

My favorite article about helmets was written by gear expert Clyde Soles, published in 2005 in Gear Trends (2015 defunct link removed). Clyde makes the believable point that “Embracing the fickle nuances of fashion as much as the logical needs of safety…wearing a helmet of any kind seems to make intuitive sense when flying down a snow slope at 25 miles per hour… [but a] helmet that does not meet stringent, though voluntary, testing standards offers little more protection than a cardboard box.”

So the first step with picking a helmet is know what testing standard it goes with. Next, it’s necessary to know what that standard actually offers in protection — usually very little though they do have a protective effect in a head impact (as many empirical tales can relate).

Consider the latest Giro ski helmet with an ASTM F2040 standard. According to Clyde testing to that standard requires three drop tests that prove the helmet will protect a skier from major head injury at 14 miles per hour with a flat surface, and gives some protection against more concentrated impacts or penetration. While such performance will no doubt reduce the severity of injury at higher speed, in my opinion it’s a rather minimalist standard and some cause for concern.

Expert skiers routinely ski faster than 14 mph, and dropping cliffs (even small ones) involves significant speed. In the backcountry you might want protection from trauma during an avalanche. How fast? Try around 90 mph for a soft slab. All with rocks and trees at the ready for concentrated impacts.

My take: Our family uses helmets, but we don’t make a god out of them. From research I’ve come to know they’re important for bicycle safety, but appear to be less important for skiing. Conversely, a knee injury might threaten your athletic career but doesn’t involve being fed by a tube for the rest of your life. With that in mind, it’s disappointing that ski helmets offer so little protection. Why no outcry? Answer: According to Clyde, serious head injuries comprise only 2.6 percent of ski hurts, and skiing in general is a fairly safe sport (more people are killed by lightning than by ski accident.) Since we’re not seeing a parade of ambulances hauling head injured skiers, helmet advocates get an easy pass on apparently being more concerned with the name of the device than actual function. It appears that so long as it’s called and sold as a helmet Casque, or sturzhelm, people are happy. Even if it’s little better than wearing a thick cardboard box.

(For more WildSnow blogging about helmets, enter the word “helmets” in the blog search box to the right.)


23 Responses to “Helmets for Backcountry Skiing”

  1. Chet Roe September 13th, 2006 11:03 am

    EVERY neurologist that I know (in Denver) wears a helmet while skiing…..what does that mean? just an observation….Chet Roe

  2. Pierce September 13th, 2006 12:26 pm

    I am more than a little dismayed to see the Snell rating dropped by all helmet manufacturers and to hear about the pathetic standards ski helmets are made to these days. Sometimes I think about wearing my autocross helmet out skiing, since it is built to withstand some real trauma. I’ve noticed people like Seth Morrison wearing what appears to be a motorcycle helmet in some of his older videos. I bought full-face Pro-Tec last season and would agree that it’s not good for much more than keeping branches and knees out of your face, not getting snagged on trees, and keeping the powder out of your mouth. Hopefully we’ll see this trend reverse.

  3. Lou September 13th, 2006 11:30 am

    Do they appear to have any concern about what brand/standard the helmet is? Or will they just wear anything if it looks like a helmet? Also, one wonders if they wear a helmet for driving, as that’s probably the most dangerous and head injury prone activity most people do.

    Chet, I take it you’re a helmet advocate. Do you wear one while driving? If it’s logical to wear one while skiing, would it be logical to wear one while in automobile, based on statistics?

  4. Ricky September 13th, 2006 1:51 pm

    I considered wearing my dirt-bike (full face) helmet skiing, knowing that it has probably surpassed most of the ski helmet standards. While it probably would have helped if I fell off a cliff the added weight (3-4 lbs. at least) on my head probably would have had negative outcome on my neck in an avalanche situation. It’s really a give in take situation with helmets. Are you going to ski more reckless with a helmet than you normally would, if so that make the helmet more dangerous. I think a better answer is to just keep your head away from rocks.

  5. Damian September 13th, 2006 1:02 pm

    I don’t expect a helmet to save me from a nasty head injury. I simply want it to protect my fragile scalp from all the knocks, nicks and thumps that it gets when I am being aggressive in and around ice, rocks, trees and branches whilst wearing a full backpack with an ice axe, poles and snowshoes attached to the back. I don’t like having a bleeding scalp in the back country, simple as that. The helmet has stopped more than a few bleeding wounds that would have ruined my day touring. If I could find a more streamlined helmet offering minimal protection then I would just wear that. Just enough to keep tufts of hair on my head.

  6. Derek September 13th, 2006 5:55 pm

    A friend of mine fell while ski touring. He hit his helmeted head on a stump and cracked the helmet but did not lose consciousness. A month later, at the OR show, he still had headaches, dizziness, and nausea. I work in an ER, and suggested this was abnormal and that he should get a CT scan. He had an MRI, and the next day was in neurosurgery getting a huge subdural hematoma evacuated. The neuro doc was suprised he was alive, or had not had a seizure.

    Whatever your stance on helmets is, his story was amazing. He’s doing great now.

  7. Cody September 13th, 2006 7:41 pm

    Thanks Lou

  8. Piotr September 14th, 2006 1:52 am

    I think it all depends on what kind of skiing one does. Where I live extreme guys often wear climbing helmets, but they do skiing which involves using crampons, ice axes and belaying devices every now and then, so I guess they’re more concerned about falling rocks etc, than typical ski falls.

    I think Ricky has a valid point with the helmet being an additional swing weight which can be dangerous for your neck – not only in an avalanche situation.

    I personally chose a light ‘snowboard’ helmet much like bike ones – no thick plastic, mostly styrofoam, so it is supposed to withstand just one major blow and fall to pieces afterwards. Real light (350g? I can’t recall), so the swing problem is greatly reduced. It also has soft detachable earflaps and ventilation good enough to wear it all the time. Got it real cheap, which was nice. 😉
    Just my 2 (euro)cents.

  9. Cory September 14th, 2006 8:10 am

    Being against helmets is like being against vegetables. Sure, I like my steak, but some leafy greens keep the colon clean. Be smart, research your helmet. Look for ANSI and Snell ratings. Know what those ratings mean. I wonder why the round anvil and pointed anvil tests were avoided in this article? It’s just like politics today. Step 1) Take a position. Step 2) Find research and articles that support your position. Step 3) Ignore or dismiss info that could weaken your position.

  10. Scott September 14th, 2006 3:30 pm

    No doubt helmets could be better. I don’t think a good argument can be made that they have a negative safety impact, as Clyde seems to be making. I read his article and thought that some of his conclusions were dubious at best. It didn’t seem to me that he had a solid grasp of statistics or physics. Mitches article seemed more thoughtful. Neither makes concrete, provable conclusions.

    Regardless of whether they really protect you in major collisions, they are very useful for eliminating small bumps, scrapes, and lacerations. Major collisions are rare, small bumps are very common.

    I don’t tend to wear one in the backcountry, though. Instead I prefer to use my climbing helmet since I believe it is better at protecting my head from rockfall. If there are no trees or couloirs (to funnel rocks) on my route, I usually forgoe the weight altogether.

  11. Mountain_Monkey September 14th, 2006 8:17 pm

    As a freeheeler, the most important protection a helmet can provide is from your own skis. Even Rando/Alpine people don’t know where there ski edges will end up when they fall and boards release… I have had my boards snap back at my head hard more than once..

  12. Matt Kinney September 15th, 2006 8:32 am

    I wear a helmet religiously. I can help someone with a broken bone, but a broken skull is a tough one. Wear a helmet cause we all like to ski hard and fast, no matter your ski skill level.

    Though not mentioned since Coomb’s accident, I did note in the last descent pic of Coombs in the Powder Mag, that he did not have a helmet on while decending an extremely dangerous line. Coombs never wore a helmet as far as I can tell. I have seen hundreds of pics of him in steep terrain with no helmet. This is not to harm Coombs reputation in anyway, just a “safety” observation.

  13. Geoff September 15th, 2006 8:15 pm

    I started wearing a helmet coz I expect my young kids to wear one. Then as I was dropping a narrow steep tree line one day, it occured to me that I would never mountain bike without a helmet. I’ve split a bike helmet crashing in the woods and seen several friends do so. And I thought to myself: same trees, same speed, same head. How can I not wear a ski helmet if I insist on wearing a MTB helmet? Think about it that way.

    Plus, when the trees get really tight, a helmeted head makes a good battering ram to clear a path through the low branches. Oh, did I say that out loud 😉

  14. TreeHead September 16th, 2006 8:06 am

    I agree with Geoff – in the Right Coast at least, backcountry skiing frequently involves tree skiing. A helmet is almost a must to keep the shwack from digging little gouges into one’s head.

  15. Lou September 16th, 2006 9:07 am

    I agree with you guys that a “helmet” can be useful for more than accidents. I like mine for that reason as well. But how do you define “helmet?” Are you defining it as something that can keep twigs out of your hair, or something that can do effective head injury prevention in major impacts? My main point is that we seem to go on faith that if something is called “helmet” and you can rap it with your knuckles and hear a nice sound, it qualifies for effective protection. I’m wondering if we’re being sold a bill of goods.

    Also, if you’re asking a helmet to bash through brush and tree branches, that would disqualify helmets with ventilation holes that could allow the entry of a punji. Otherwise if you’re butting heads with branches it’s only a matter of time before one goes through a vent hole and causes major damage to your scalp!

    Indeed, I’m wondering how many of the styrofoam hats now sold could stand up to multiple bashes from tree branches before they disombobulated?

  16. Damian September 16th, 2006 2:30 pm

    Lou, Giro makes a helmet called the Fuse. It has heaps of vents and also a very effective sliding vent closure system which is activated with the flick of a switch on your head. A great feature, but, it is a painfully expensive helmet.

  17. Derek September 16th, 2006 10:50 pm

    In reply to Matt Kinney on Coombs:

    I have a bunch of footage of him while guiding the first guided descent of the Grand. He always had a helmet on there.

    Just an observation.


  18. Lou September 17th, 2006 5:14 am

    Come to think of it, the photo of Coombs in my Wild Snow history book shows him wearing a helmet, and a beefy looking one at that. Ski helmets are stylish now, but when Coombs was doing his media skiing they weren’t as common. He was smart and media savvy and along with doing what he was comfortable with, I don’t doubt he was doing what was best for his career and “look” when in front of a camera and not wearing a helmet. Now days it would look funny to see one of the hard core skiers skiing without a helmet in a movie or display ad, though I’m sure it’s done.

  19. snowdrifter November 11th, 2006 7:28 am

    wanted to bring the idea of a climbing helmet for skiing back out. I ve used mine in the spring time on steeper terrain with rocks above etc, but i wonder if they are effective enough for impact with ground etc. I really liked skiing with the climbing helmet on, super light and very good air flow , especially with no toque on . I guess my point here is that if they are somewhat effective for impact then i would consider this a good option, although the more fashionable types might not like it, in the backcountry utility rules over style.

  20. Frank moory April 12th, 2012 5:19 am

    Very nice blog on this website. The post is actually the freshest on this laudable subject. I harmonize with your conclusions and will thirstily look forward to see your approaching updates.I will eagerly look forward to your upcoming updates.

  21. alpin February 15th, 2013 5:28 pm

    Hi guys,

    What would you say about Mammut El Cap as a backcountry skiing helmet?
    I couldn’t find one in stores in Vancouver…

    Cheers –

  22. VTPyzon October 24th, 2013 11:57 am

    I’ve noticed that many sponsored riders seem to be taking *off* their helmets.

    Coming from a motorcycling background I find the arguments about peripheral vision and “swing weight” amusing, as these ridiculous arguments are also used in motorcycling as a reason to not to wear a helmet. They’ve been proven wrong there already, so why would they be true with the lighter weight, less confining ski helmet? They aren’t.

    I think the focus is on the wrong issue: it’s not just death we’re trying to avoid. Concussions and other “less serious” injuries head injuries are good things to avoid.

    While a helmet won’t guarantee safety (nothing will), it doesn’t hurt to wear one — unless you’re just super fashion conscious, which is the only reason *not* to wear one.

  23. TallHall November 1st, 2016 6:58 pm

    1/Googles fog less on a helmet than sitting on a toque.
    2/Not every impact is with a tree while skiing fast. Catching an edge and simply smacking your head on hard snow can be pretty damaging. Most helmets should absorb enough of this impact to warrant wearing one.

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