(Please use our site search for quite a few more helmet posts. We have a “Ski Helmets” subject category as well.)
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 less fanatical individuals 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 (*see note at end of this post). Preventing many of those injuries is tough, if not impossible. Along comes a helmet. “Aha,” we think, “I might spend a year rehabbing 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 damage (known as traumatic brain injury, TBI). Or does it?
My favorite article about helmets was written some time ago (2005) by gear expert Clyde Soles (defunct link removed). Clyde made the still valid in 2018 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). Beyond that, as Clyde suggests, you need a helmet that voluntarily exceeds the industry standards and goes to a more “stringent” level of protection (the MIPS feature being a good example).
Consider the latest helmets certified to the EN-1077/ASTM-F2040-11 standard for snowsports. While such performance will no doubt reduce the severity of injury at higher speed, in my opinion it’s a rather minimalist standard (created in 1996!) and cause for concern. Put bluntly: Even under current standards, is it really a “helmet” or just a plastic covered hat?
Expert skiers routinely ski faster than ever, and dropping cliffs (even small ones) involves significant speed. Moreover, in the backcountry you might want protection from trauma during an avalanche. How fast? Try 60 to 90 mph for a soft slab — with rocks and trees at the ready for concentrated impacts. No consumer grade snowsports helmet in existence offers even close to that sort of protection, and as Lindsey Vonn can testify (concussion clearly contributed to the decline of her storied career), even the race helmets could be better.
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, I’m fully aware that a knee injury might threaten your athletic career but doesn’t involve being fed by a tube for the rest of your life. Again begging the question, is the helmet good enough to prevent the latter occurrence?
It is disappointing that ski helmets offer so little protection. Why no outcry? Answer: Serious head injuries comprise only a small percentage of ski hurts, and skiing is a fairly safe sport in terms of life altering or fatal injuries (more people are killed by lightning than by ski accident.) More, helmets have indeed (and logically) been shown to reduce head injuries of initially lesser severity, so they do have their use. Helmet advocates thus get an easy pass, but current studies are showing that the rate of severe (traumatic brain injury “TBI”) head injuries in skiing has not shrunk in any statistically meaningful way — despite now extensive helmet use. Reality, for years now it’s seemed that so long as it’s called and sold as a “helmet,” “casque,” or “sturzhelm,” shoppers are happy. Even if it’s little better than wearing a thick cardboard box. But that may be changing.
While archaic industry helmet standards appear to be going nowhere in terms of becoming more stringent. The NFL’s problem with concussions has increased interest in helmets that do more. For example, Virginia Tech has developed their own testing and rating system, and of course Consumer Reports is always involved.
At this time Virginia Tech has only tested one snowsports rated helmet — it did not do well. In the case of bicycle helmets, Virginia suggests combining their rating with that of Consumer Reports (and of course limiting your choices to options that conform to industry standards). Sadly, there is a dearth of such information about snowsports helmets, but efforts are made such as this testing by Transworld. I expect to see more of that, and wouldn’t be surprised if Virginia Tech goes after it.
(For more WildSnow blogging about helmets, enter the word “helmets” in our search box. Backcountry.com is a good place for helmet shopping. Unless you need something exceptionally light and trim, perhaps for skimo racing, look for something with MIPS enhanced protection and good coverage at the back of your head.)
*(Oddly enough, some snowsports helmet studies coming out these days show that helmet users actually do incur fewer injuries to parts of their bodies other than their head, than non-helmet skiers! We theorize that’s because helmet users are self selecting as a user group more concerned about personal safety. At the least, it perhaps proves that helmet use doesn’t encourage more risk taking, one of the arguments against helmet use. Anecdotally, I can say that whenever I use a helmet it is definitly out of an increased overall sense of caution, though doing so might indeed be because I’m in a more risky situation, such as steep terrain.)
WildSnow.com publisher emeritus and founder Lou (Louis Dawson) has a 50+ years career in climbing, backcountry skiing and ski mountaineering. He was the first person in history to ski down all 54 Colorado 14,000-foot peaks, has authored numerous books about about backcountry skiing, and has skied from the summit of Denali in Alaska, North America’s highest mountain.