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How to Choose a Ski or Snowboard Helmet

A group of ski and snowboard helmets we purchased, ready for a day of ...
Photo: Jenna Ammerman
Tuesday December 8, 2020
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We understand if you feel overwhelmed looking at the ski and snowboard helmet selection at your local shop. With so many options and marketing slogans, selecting the best snow helmet for you can seem like a daunting task. We are here to help. We will break down the key attributes such as ventilation and adjustment systems to consider when purchasing a new brain bucket. At its core, a helmet should be comfortable, warm yet ventilated, and up to the industry impact standards. We all know accidents happen. Helmets are designed to keep you on the slopes and minimize your chance of brain injury. The goal of this guide is to help you identify the most desirable design characteristics and fit. Continue reading for more information to help you purchase the helmet you'll actually wear every time.

If it fits your head, it's more likely to fit your budget than...
If it fits your head, it's more likely to fit your budget than several other models out there, while still performing admirably. A great product.
Photo: Jenna Ammerman

Should You Wear a Helmet?


The short answer is yes. If you're careening, bombing, schussing, barreling, sliding, or in any other way allowing gravity to pull you down a snowy, icy hill at any speed, you should be wearing a helmet. Period. Helmet usage has increased massively in the past few decades, and for a good reason. The sport continues to progress at the professional and recreational levels due to advances in equipment and slope maintenance technology. This has resulted in people skiing faster and jumping higher in increasingly challenging terrain. Helmet manufacturers have met the market to suit the needs. Their product offerings have become increasingly comfortable, warm, versatile, and stylish.

It's hard for manufacturers or the industry to prove that wearing a helmet, in fact, improves your chances of surviving a serious traumatic brain injury, but it's also hard to argue that a safety-rated helmet won't absorb some of the energy during a blow to the head.

Modern helmets continue to get smaller, better, and more affordable...
Modern helmets continue to get smaller, better, and more affordable. There are fewer and fewer excuses to not wear a helmet.
Photo: laredo

Ski and Snowboard Helmet Certifications


There is no US law to mandate any protective standards of snowsports helmets. Fortunately, two independent organizations certify snow helmets to a safety standard. Most retailers in the US only sell products that meet either one or both of these standards.

American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM)


The American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM) is the American Standard for brands producing helmets for US Sale.

The ASTM F2040 is the certification given to snow helmets that have fully passed the ASTM testing requirements. This certification focuses on dynamic strength retention and positional stability.

If you're unsure if your current helmet meets either of these...
If you're unsure if your current helmet meets either of these standards, look for a sticker on the inside.
Photo: laredo

European Committee for Standardization (CEN)


TheEuropean Committee for Standardization (CEN) also certifies helmets and further divides helmets into Class A and Class B. Class A helmets are the most protective and require that the helmet is made in "full shell" or "full face" style. Class B helmets are a little less protective based on service area but allow the user's ears to be exposed for better communication. All of the certified helmets we tested meet the CEN Class B standard.

The EN 1077A/B is the certification title provided by the CEN and focuses primarily on impact testing.

Takeaway


Both certifications provide a strict safety threshold that a product needs to meet or exceed. Each certification requires amble testing to ensure the product meets that standard. We recommend purchasing a helmet certified by one or both of these agencies. If you are shopping in person, then look inside the helmet for a sticker stating its certification. If you are shopping online, then be sure to double-check the product description. Every helmet in our review meets one or both of these standards.

Types of Helmets


Helmets are categorized based on the construction methods used. Most helmets fall into two main categories: in-mold or hardshell / injection mold. A small percentage of helmets are considered specialty helmets. The main helmet categories are functionally suitable for either skiing or snowboarding.

A visual of the two main types of helmets. The left helmet is an...
A visual of the two main types of helmets. The left helmet is an in-mold helmet (made in a single process). The right is an injection molded helmet (shell and foam are made separately then glued together.)
Photo: laredo

In-Mold


An in-mold helmet consists of a thin polycarbonate (a durable plastic with high impact resistance) shell filled uniformly and thoroughly with expanded polystyrene (or EPS, which is a rigid and tough foam) in a single process.

Pros: Lighter and lower profile than hardshell helmets, increases ventilation options, i.e., more vents, and strategic venting opportunity.

Cons: Generally more expensive

Hardshell / Injection Mold


This is your "skateboard" style helmet. These helmets use a hard ABS (acrylonitrile butadiene styrene) - another tough and impact-resistant plastic that is bonded to the EPS foam.

Pros: Value and durability

Cons: Larger profile, heavier, can have less venting opportunity

Specialized Helmets


In the current state of the market, this category collects helmets that may be constructed in either of the above methods but cover the ears and maybe the user's face with rigid protection. For most recreational skiers and snowboarders, these helmets and their decreased comfort and increased expense will not justify their additional protection.

Rotational Impact Protection System Technology


Nearly every modern brand offers a helmet that incorporates a rotational impact protection systems. This is a research-driven innovation that has shown promise in reducing the severity and likelihood of brain injuries. Traditional helmets are great at absorbing liner impacts. However, the majority of helmet impacts are multi-directional.

MIPS stands for Multi-directional Impact Protection System and is the most commonly employed rotational impact protection system in ski helmets available in the United States. MIPS is what is called "slip-plane" technology. To simplify, MIPS allows the inner mold and liner of your helmet and the hard outer shell to stretch and slide on impact. This reduces the rotational forces that occur on impact.

Additional information and research regarding MIPS can be found on the MIPS website.

Many companies, like POC, Shred, and Leatt, have created in house technologies to reduce rotational forces. Other big players such as Smith and Giro use the third-party MIPS system.

POC SPIN is the brand's proprietary rotational impact system.
POC SPIN is the brand's proprietary rotational impact system.
Photo: laredo

Most helmet companies are either including MIPS across the board in their helmets or offering a MIPS version for a few dollars more (typically $20). Since a helmet's main function is to reduce the magnitude of head trauma during impact, we're on board for anything that works to improve this function. The tech makes intuitive sense. To that end, any new helmets we've tested that offer MIPS as an optional upgrade, we've taken that upgrade. We think the extra protection potential of a MIPS-integrated helmet is worth the extra cost.

Koroyd


Many helmets on the market are starting to incorporate an energy dispersion material called Koroyd. Koroyd is a welded tube structure that aims to absorb energy through crumpling of the thin polymer-based tubes. Koroyd states that less force is transferred to the head because the energy is absorbed in a consistent and controlled manner. Imagine the same types of collapse that occurs when you step on a soda can. In contrast, EPS foam compresses on impact, which increases its density and can channel more energy to the head.

The military and action sports have been incorporating this tech into their protective gear increasingly. We have observed this material to supplement EPS Foam in key areas of premium helmets. The material aims to provide a more breathable and protective helmet than EPS foam. It is beyond the scope of our testing to validate this claim. Conceptually, it makes sense, and the quick adoption by many diverse industries supports the material's efficacy.

Koroyd may not be a make or break feature of a helmet, but it works to provide peace of mind and added protection. It generally increases the cost of the helmet and is found on higher-end models.

Koroyd is an energy-absorbing welded tube structure designed to...
Koroyd is an energy-absorbing welded tube structure designed to reduce forces to your brain. This is an insert on the side of the Smith Mission.
Photo: laredo

How to Choose a Snow Sports Helmet


Fit


Similar to apparel, the fit of your ski helmet is crucial and personal. A helmet needs to be comfortable enough to wear all day, and the best fit will have no headache-inducing pressure points. Additionally, a ski helmet offers additional protection from the cold and wind. The fit directly affects comfort and the efficacy of elemental protection.

Helmet sizing follows the traditional Small, Medium, Large, etc. scale. Each manufacturer offers a sizing chart, in centimeters, based on head circumference just above the ears. After the relatively simple task of choosing your size, by far the most important criteria is the head shape and the molding of the product. It seems that heads can be lumped into three general shapes: long oval, intermediate oval, and round oval. Most people have a roughly oval shape, but the degree of oval-ness varies. With regards to helmet fit, what is important is the shape of the circumference of your head. We are talking about the shape of a line drawn around just above the ears, connecting the forehead and back of the head at about that level. To be clear, this is the line covered by the band of a golfing style visor.

A diagram of the three types of head shape. When fitting a helmet...
A diagram of the three types of head shape. When fitting a helmet look for brands tailored to your head shape. Giro uses a long oval design for most of their helmets and Smith fits round oval heads best. Troy Lee (for bikers) also tends to fit people with rounder heads.
Photo: OutdoorGearLab

This profile is different for each person. More extreme oval shapes we describe as long ovals. In the middle is the "intermediate oval" shape, with profiles approaching round described as "round oval." To ascertain your head shape, have a friend check out your head from above. Otherwise, your best bet is to try on a few different brands' helmets and note where you feel the pressure. Investigate other peoples' impressions of the same helmets to deduce your head shape. In an average helmet, those with long oval heads will feel more pressure at the forehead, while those with round oval heads will feel more pressure above their temples. To calibrate your fit impressions, as well as select a helmet that fits your head well, note that some manufacturers are known for making helmets in certain shapes. It's similar to the way certain shoe manufacturers are known for making wider or narrower shoes. Giro makes helmets for long oval heads, while Smith makes headgear tailored more to round oval folks. POC and Bern seem to fit more in the middle, targeted at intermediate oval heads.

Your best bet is to try on a few different makes and models to select the proper fit. Whether this is in a proper store or through an online retailer's generous return policy, you are looking for a fit that first matches the shape of your head.

A properly fitting helmet will be uniformly snug across the entire circumference of your head and have no significant pressure points. It should have a secure fit on your head that prevents movement. The lining of the helmet should "grab" your forehead. You can test the fit by moving the helmet up and down with your hands; the skin of your forehead should move with the helmet. In other words, it should hold onto your scalp, even before securing the chin strap. The chin strap should secure with a little slack to allow for breathing and talking. Note that this secure fit may only come in a given helmet after adjusting the foam padding or the circumferential tension via wheels and internal straps.

If you cannot try on a helmet, most manufacturers provide a sizing chart. Generally, this sizing chart is calibrated in the measured distance around the greatest circumference of the head, just above the ears, across the forehead, and around the bulge in the back of the skull. Measure this with a tape or string and it to the manufacturer's chart. Consult the instructions with the chart for a more nuanced, company-specific direction. If you are between sizes, but cannot try on both the larger and smaller sizes, size down if you have short or thin hair and size up if you have more hair.

A good fit will dramatically increase your happiness with your...
A good fit will dramatically increase your happiness with your helmet choice.
Photo: Jenna Ammerman

Backcountry Skiing vs. Resort Skiing


Backcountry skiing seems to be increasing in popularity every year. We know this because our favorite backcountry spots seem to be getting more crowded, especially on weekends. While we have the moment, we'd be remiss not to mention that if you're traveling in the backcountry in any fashion, you really should have a full backcountry setup. That means an avalanche beacon, probe, and shovel. We also recommend considering an avalanche airbag backpack).

As far as helmets go, outside of the Salomon MTN Lab, which is aimed almost exclusively at backcountry skiing, most helmets will suffice just fine at the resort or out in the woods. Skiing in the backcountry can hold some exciting technical ascents like booting up a steep couloir in a spring corn cycle. Helmets are very encouraged for this type of terrain to help manage the rockfall hazard. This can often be a very sweaty endeavor, and ventilation becomes paramount.

Several large, gaping vents provide tons of ventilation on this...
Several large, gaping vents provide tons of ventilation on this lightweight helmet from Salomon.

Weight is another key metric for backcountry skiers. You're already going uphill for a solid chunk of your day; reducing weight is desirable. A few ounces may not seem like much, but when you can save that in multiple areas of your full setup, those ounces begin to add up. As for resort skiing, unless you're particularly petite, letting gravity do its thing isn't going to have a massive impact on the weight of your helmet.

Any helmet we've tested here will provide protection in the front-, side-, or backcountry, and many people will be perfectly happy with whatever helmet they decide on wherever they choose to ride on a given day. With the rise of backcountry skiing, we feel it is important to point out the differences and how they should affect your helmet purchasing decisions.

Warmth and Venting


Ski and snowboard helmets have come a long way in the past couple of decades - if you're not already privy, you'll be blown away by how modern helmets can be so warm and vent so well all at once. The most versatile helmets are the ones with vents in the shell that can be opened or closed with an easy-to-use toggle, generally on top of the helmet. This, in conjunction with removable earpieces, make for the coolest, best-vented helmets on the market. Others have vents that are open all the time, allowing air to flow through the helmet whether or not you want it. Our testers found that helmets of this nature were best used with a thin beanie or buff underneath the helmet.

Adjustable vents provide enhanced temperature regulation.
Adjustable vents provide enhanced temperature regulation.
Photo: laredo

When considering which helmet to buy, consider your temperature thresholds. If you get hot and cold, then consider a warm helmet with closable vents and snug-fitting earpieces. If you run hot and want maximum ventilation, then consider a helmet with more than ten vents.

Also, consider the climate where you do most of your riding. Warmer climates with maritime snowpacks (most parts of the Cascades and Sierras) allow skiers to get away with less warm helmets. Colder climates with continental snowpacks (Rocky Mountains, Brooks Range) will find a warm helmet a more necessary bit of protection.

Considering these factors before buying a helmet will benefit you once you're on the hill.

Goggle Compatibility


Aside from a good fit, a helmet's compatibility with the goggles you'll be using is of utmost importance. The difference between a nice snug interface and a big gap can be excruciatingly obvious on a cold day. The dreaded "gaper gap" between the top of the goggles and the helmet can leave you with brain freeze on a cold day and finger-pointing in lift lines.

Buying both your helmet and goggles from the same company will generally mitigate this issue, but if that's not an option, then bringing your goggles with you when you try on helmets is a good idea. Our reviewers encountered an issue when the goggles were too big for the space from the bridge of the nose to the helmet's brim. This can feel like the goggles are being pushed down onto your face.

You can manage the "gaper gap" and the aforementioned spatial issue by sizing the helmet so that the brim should be about 1-1.5 inches above the line of your eyebrows.

Not the best (but not the worst) compatibility on display here...
Not the best (but not the worst) compatibility on display here between a Smith Variance helmet (previously tested) and Dragon NFX2 goggles. If not for this rider's hair, there would be a pretty chilly forehead.
Photo: Jenna Ammerman

We rated each helmet in this review for its goggle compatibility, both with goggles from the same company and others. Keeping in mind that what works for one person's face might not work for someone else's, making a hands-on test pretty crucial for the selection of your helmet/goggle combo.

Features and Accessories


Finding the right helmet and the right goggle to match is paramount to having a good experience while skiing. After you've done that, you can consider any other accessories you might be interested in. Many of these helmets have options for POV helmet mounts, removable earpieces, magnetic buckles, and audio packages. The Salomon MTN Lab, as a backcountry-specific helmet, has a headlamp retainer that works to keep the strap of your headlamp securely around your helmet for early morning ascents. Features can create a product experience that is geared toward your personal needs. If you like to jam to your favorite tunes while riding, then select a helmet with audio-compatible earpieces.

This buckle slides to lock into place with magnets for convenience.
This buckle slides to lock into place with magnets for convenience.
Photo: Laura Casner

Many of the helmets we reviewed are compatible with audio systems. For those that are not audio compatible, it is easily supplemented with headphones. Be aware the loud music can alter your situational awareness of riders near and around you. The last thing you want is to collide with a fellow skier due to your lack of awareness.

Style


Although not as important as fit, comfort, or protection, style can play a big role in our helmet choice. Many people out there are reticent about wearing a helmet because they think it makes them look strange. We think this mentality is outdated. Nowadays, there is a helmet to fit every head and every sense of style. As we've mentioned previously, the injection-molded helmets tend to be a bit bulkier, while the in-molded helmets are sleeker and usually have more features. Most of these helmets come in a variety of colors, from earth tones to bright two-toned colors. Find a style that works for you and your outfit and go with it; your friends will learn to spot you in the lift line regardless.

Style is unique to you. If you like it, rock it.
Style is unique to you. If you like it, rock it.
Photo: Laura Casner

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