The Best Ski and Snowboard Helmet Review
Which ski helmet should you trust to protect your valuable noggin? Through many ski runs in weather ranging from sunny to freezing, we tested six of the best ski helmets on the market evaluating for fit, comfort, weather protection, and style. In this review, we break down design, manufacturing, and certification, as well as the way they interact with heads of different shapes and work for those with different needs. We found a wide range of ski helmet styles and functionality, and have compiled a full review below. Read on to learn more.
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Test Results and Ratings
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Analysis and Award Winners
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Analysis and Test Results
Your choice of a snowboard or ski helmet is a high-stakes proposition that we break down into simple steps to help you navigate. First of all, a helmet is safety equipment. Careful selection, wear, and care of one is crucial in order to reap the protective benefits. Secondly, a helmet is a rigid, intimate, close-fitting piece of equipment. Our heads are sensitive to pressure, fit, heat, and cold. Finally, aesthetics matter. The model you choose must be secure and well-designed, while fitting comfortably and assisting in climate control under a variety of conditions. It must accomplish all this while complementing your outfit(s), style, and color scheme.
Types of Ski and Snowboard Helmets
In our review we lumped together snowboard and ski helmets. Most design criteria, including protection and safety standards, are essentially the same for the two closely related sports. The primary difference is in style and aesthetics. These once distinct categories of accessories, as time goes on, are getting blurrier and blurrier. Even in terminology, we follow convention and refer to all gear to accompany and serve skiers and/or snowboarders as "ski gear." When we refer to "ski helmet," we mean a product designed and marketed for use on gravity powered, mechanized access, mainly resort based, skiing, snowboarding, and other similar sports.
This is the most common design, and all the products we tested fall into this category. Essentially, it covers only the hairy part of one's head. Ears and face are exposed.
Full shell designs are typically reserved for high speed alpine ski racing, and cover the entire head and ears of the wearer.
A full face design, just like it sounds, cover the head, ears, and wrap around the mouth and chin below the wearer's field of view.
Construction and design variations include the overall material composition, number and arrangement of vents, adjustment system, goggle attachment, and fit shape and systems.
Overall construction is one of two different types. Both can meet safety standards and be quite comfortable. They differ in weight, cost, style, and vent configuration.
"In-molded" models are the lightest and most expensive design. They can have more vents and can be made in more contoured shapes. An in-molded model consists of a thin polycarbonate (Polycarbonate is a durable plastic with high impact resistance) shell filled uniformly and thoroughly with an expanded polystyrene (Or EPS. EPS is a rigid and tough foam). In our test, the Smith Variance, Smith Vantage, Giro Seam, and Giro Montane are in-molded products.
In an unfortunate twist of terminology, the other construction method is referred to as "injection molded." Injection molded models are less expensive, slightly heavier, and mainly come in more rounded, monolithic shapes. These products are made with a hard ABS (Acrylonitrile butadiene styrene is another tough and impact-resistant plastic) shell with EPS foam bonded to the inside. The Bern Baker HardHat and the POC Receptor BUG represent the injection molded designs in our testing.
Regardless of which construction method was used, the manufacturer must equip the product with a fit system and retention harness. The fit system can be as simple as soft foam, or as elaborate as pulleyed cable and strap arrangements. These fit systems are used to hold the product in place and still under most conditions. The chin strap retention system will be looser, and should serve to keep it in place only in more violent falls. Read our Buying Advice article for a comprehensive discussion of fitting your snowboard or ski helmet.
Finally, various auxiliary features are nice. Every ski helmet should be readily compatible with the goggles you use. The shape of the forehead and cheek area, and the presence or absence of a clip on the back, dictate goggle compatibility. Many will wear a camera on their helmet. A few models come with a standard mount already in place. Additionally, many products on the market can be equipped with dedicated audio electronics. Speakers and microphones inside can allow for integration with music players and telephones. These audio kits are either included with purchase or available for aftermarket purchase.
Criteria for Evaluation
Fit and Comfort
Comfort is almost purely a function of fit. The first step is to determine your size, and we'll walk you through the basic steps below (refer to our buying advice guide for a more detailed explanation). Sizes are divided on the traditional small, medium, large etc. scale. Each manufacturer offers a sizing chart for their products, relying on the consumer to measure the circumference just above the ears. Next, after the relatively simple task of choosing the right size, by far the most important criteria is head shape and the molding of the product. The circumference of human heads can be lumped into three major head shapes: long oval, intermediate oval, round oval. We all have oval heads, but the degree of "oval-ness" varies from one individual to the next. To accommodate different head shapes, manufacturers make different models on different molds. Certain manufacturers are known for making designs that fit more oval heads, while others are better suited to heads on the rounder end of the continuum. The Giro Seam has a typical long oval fit, while the Smith Variance fits round oval heads best. The Bern Baker HardHat best fits those in the middle of the spectrum. Determine your own head shape by trying on a variety of models or by having a friend look straight down on your bare head. Our buying advice article elaborates even further on head shape.
Weight and Bulk
To some degree, greater weight and bulk mean greater protection. However, extra weight also normally equates to less comfortable and less fashionable. Between the two different construction methods, in-molding makes for lower profile products, while injection molded products are bulkier and at least slightly heavier. Our tested products vary slightly in weight, but for the most part they all weigh right around one pound.
If you have not worn a helmet yet while skiing, you will be impressed by how warm it will keep you. All that foam, fully cradling the head, is warmer than virtually any common hat and hood combination. Joined with a pair of well-fitting goggles, a helmeted skier can feel virtually invincible under their lid. In order to keep that warm air in, the fit must be airtight. To be airtight, there must be no holes in the shell, or it must have plugs or blocks for the vents. Of the products in our test, the Giro Seam is the only one that leaks air through the vents. The "half shell" modelss we tested all leave the ears free of rigid coverage. However, all of them also have soft ear covers for warmth. The integrity of these ear covers has by far the greatest impact on relative insulation value. Loose, floppy ear covers are virtually useless, while thick, slightly tensioned ones enhance the full insulation value. Warmer ear covers are more difficult to hear through. This is an inherent, inescapable tradeoff. The Smith Variance has by far the best ear covers. They are gently sprung in, wrapping the user's ears in warm, muffling comfort. We found this product to be the winner in the warmth category with the Smith Vantage coming in a close second.
Ventilation is the opposite of warmth. Ventilation value is a function of holes in the shell, as well as the modular nature of the ear pieces. The Bern Baker HardHat for instance, offers no holes in the shell, but the ear pieces can be removed. In many ways, this makes for a greater differential in ventilation comfort than holes in the main construction. In other words, removable ear pieces are far more effective at venting than any number of holes in the shell, though a wearer is more likely to open the vents on the top than remove ear pieces between runs. In our test, the Bern, POC, Smith Vantage, and Giro Montane all have removable ear covers, while all the in-molded models, plus the POC, have vents that can be opened or closed as needed. We found the Smith Vantage to provide the best and easiest to use ventilation of all the ski helmets we tested.
Goggle compatibility is critical. A poorly linked combination will allow sun, wind, and cold snow to hit the vulnerable forehead. Little is more uncomfortable than the "ice cream headache" from cold air hitting this "gaper gap." We scored these models based on the ease of finding an acceptable goggle combination through a test of the top goggles on the market. The easiest to match a pair of goggles to is the Editors' Choice Smith Vantage, plus the Giro Seam.
Style is personal, but crucial. If you don't look good, you won't wear it and if you don't wear it, you won't be protected. Injection-molded models bring a more traditional, skater-style look while the in-molded models look more racer or even like bicycle designs. Helmets, like ski pants, are being made in a whole host of bright and exciting colors. Just like ski pants, you will likely own one ski helmet and multiple jackets. If seeking out a color other than black or white, consider that you may have to work with multiple jackets. For some reason, we think visors look cool. They also complicate goggle usage, so consider compatibility while you lust over the motocross look of a visored model.
Ask An Expert: Sam Piper
Sam Piper has made his career in emergency services. His resume includes four years on the Yosemite Search and Rescue team, three years as a ski patroller at The Canyons Ski Resort in Park City, Utah, and three years as a paramedic in the Reno/Lake Tahoe area. He has also completed two rescue patrols on Denali (and summited) as part of the Denali Rescue Volunteers program. He's been skiing since he could walk, and is an accomplished climber and outdoor pro. If you are ever injured on a mountain in a remote location, this is the guy you want to have coming to help you.
When did you start wearing a helmet?
I started wearing one when I was in the 6th grade. I joined the junior race program at my local ski ski area in Vermont, and you had to wear one for training and racing. They weren't really mainstream back in the mid 90's for recreational skiers, but as soon as I started ski racing I wore one all the time, even if I wasn't racing.
What do you like best about them?
I like how warm they are. I'm guilty of occasionally wearing a beanie and sunglasses on a spring day because it feels good, but I couldn't imaging wearing just a beanie when it's storming out or temps are in the low 20s. So that's what I've gotten most used to – how warm it is to wear.
What features do you look for?
I've owned about four or five in my life and the last couple have had vents that I could open and close which is crucial to me. It keeps me from taking it off and just wearing a beanie on a hot spring day, because I can slide the vents open and feel air flow through. Having a sweaty head is not fun, especially in the West where at a lot of ski areas you are side stepping or boot packing in some capacity to get to terrain and exerting yourself a lot. Being sweaty is not fun. Another important feature is having a good fit between the helmet and goggles. It seems like a lot of companies are making both that incorporate with each other really well, so there is no gap on your forehead and cold wind isn't blasting through and giving you a headache. I think it's crucial to buy the same brand helmet and goggles so that you get that good fit. But really, you should look for whatever features are important to you that are going to get you to wear it all the time. If you own one that you are not psyched on, you are less likely to wear it. If you buy a cheap one because it is cheap and it doesn't fit you well, or is cold in the winter or hot in the spring, then you are not going wear it. And what's the point of owning one if you are not going wear it?
Do you prefer a warmer model or one with more ventilation?
I've owned a Smith Variance for a couple of years now and I think you can have it both ways – it's warm and vents really well in the spring.
What are some useful auxiliary features? Camera mount, speakers, etc.?
I'm a bit of a traditionalist and don't listen to music when I ski. I find that it screws with my equilibrium and I want to hear what is going on around me. If someone is skiing up behind me then I want to hear it. If I am in the backcountry I want to be able to hear a whoomf under my feet and pay attention to my surroundings. It's actually kind of a pet peeve of mine that people are removing themselves as much as possible from the environment that they are in, and I think it causes more accidents.
Any tips on sizing?
You want to size it so that it doesn't move around on your head at all. A lot of them have a really good harness system that catches the back of your occipital bone and it allows you to dial in the fit. A poorly fitting and loose model is not going to do you any good. Patrollers see this all the time – you ski up on somebody who hit their head really hard and their helmet is lying 30 feet away, and nothing good ever comes of that. You should be able to shake your head pretty vigorously without it moving around at all. I almost feel like it should fit securely even without the chin strap. I did have a helmet in the past that wasn't very warm and I ended up wearing a super thin beanie underneath it on really cold days. I think you can size one so that it fits with a bare head and with a beanie as well, as long as it's micro thin.
Have you ever broken one?
I've never cracked a helmet. I did hit my head when I was in high school on ice back in Vermont and it didn't crack or seem like it was compromised in any way, but that is the one experience I've had where I feel like if I hadn't been wearing a helmet I would have been in trouble. I probably had a mild concussion from that fall, but I'm sure it would have been much more significant without one.
Recent studies show that at least 70% of all skiers and snowboarders are wearing helmets now. Have you personally seen that on the slopes?
I believe that – looking around a super crowded lift line at Squaw on a busy holiday weekend, at least three quarters of the people are wearing them for sure.
Other studies show that while a helmet may protect against minor head injuries, the overall rates of serious injuries and death have not gone down (read this New York Times article and this head injury study for more information). Why do you think that might be?
That kind of statistic is classic in medicine, and I don't think it fully takes into account all the variables of a brain injury and recovery. If you get T-boned by a semi at 80 miles an hour, it's not going to matter whether you were wearing your seatbelt or not. So a study might conclude that "seatbelts are useless since 100% of people who get T-boned by a semi at 80 miles an hour die even if they were wearing one." But it's those mid-range accidents where someone rolls their car at 50 miles an hour wearing their seatbelt, and the airbags deployed and they walked away from the incident, that the seatbelt saved their life.
So, I would argue that when a serious accident happens on the ski hill, you are going to be hurt whether you were wearing one or not – but the difference a helmet makes is that you might have a traumatic brain injury but then come back from it. You'll learn how to walk and speak again, and end up resuming a normal life because you were wearing one. If you weren't wearing that helmet and had a very serious accident, maybe you are ventilator dependent for the rest of your life, or your personality changes, or you never learn how to speak again.
These kinds of statistics are just very tricky, because people are going to have serious accidents whether they are wearing helmets or not, and it's those mid-range accidents where whatever protective equipment you are using shows the most effects.
Can you describe what a traumatic brain injury (TBI) is?
A TBI occurs when the brain collides with the inside of the skull, resulting in swelling and potential bleeding in the brain. That increases the intracranial pressure and is what damages the brain either temporarily, or permanently. This is what causes people to lose consciousness, and have long-term deficits sometimes. Other times people bounce back from these injuries. A TBI will vary in the degree of seriousness, and a "concussion" is a mild form of a TBI.
If someone was on the fence about wearing a helmet while skiing or snowboarding, what would you say to them?
The morbid paramedic side of me would show them a patient that's had a personality change, or can't speak, or is a vegetable because of a major TBI that they had. I would also say that it is something that takes a little getting used to, but as soon as you wear one for half a season you couldn't imagine not wearing one. It's warmer and they are super comfortable. I think that a lot of people's hesitance to getting into helmets might have come from two decades ago when they were heavy and uncomfortable and not "cool." Now there has been a change in people's values, and the product technology is just amazing. They are warm and comfortable and they vent well. Basically, there is no reason not to wear one.
Any good helmet-saved-the-day stories?
We had a teenage kid that wrecked really hard in the park in The Canyons and he was unresponsive for a couple of minutes. The helmet was definitely cracked and when he came around he was vomiting and very confused, and asking the same questions over and over, all signs of a serious TBI. He was flown off the mountain and I believe he made a full recovery from that injury.
This is a great example of a mid-range accident. You can only speculate on how bad it would have been if he had not been wearing one, and I think this is why the data on them is really difficult to interpret. All you can do is compare Group A people who hit their head while wearing a helmet with Group B people that weren't, but you will never know what the outcome of the Group A folks would have been if they had not been wearing one.
Do you think people are taking more risks because they are wearing helmets?
I don't know. I personally never feel like I am skiing faster or going bigger or taking more air because I have one on. You can hurt yourself in so many different ways skiing – hitting your head is a big deal, but you can also die of internal injuries or break your leg. I've never thought "I'm going to do this because I have a helmet on." I actually feel vulnerable when I am not wearing it so maybe it works in the opposite way for me.
Any last thoughts?
Wear 'em because they are cool to wear these days, and being a vegetable is definitely not cool.
— Jediah Porter
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