The world's most in-depth and scientific reviews of outdoor gear

How to Choose a Ski or Snowboard Helmet

Thursday December 6, 2018

With so many options and so many variables, where do you even start trying to decide on a ski helmet? Are some helmets more protective than others? Will they all fit your head? Are there specific features that you absolutely MUST have? As the popularity of ski helmets has increased, so to have the offerings from various companies to meet that demand. Every year new helmets emerge, some good, some not so much; some mimicking previously successful technology, others striving to reset the standard for protection and innovation. The models we reviewed are all rated to the top safety standards, and no double-blind study exists to show that one will protect your noggin more than the other. With that in mind, it's important to remember that the best helmet is the one that fits you properly and that you wear the most.

So choosing the helmet that fits the best, is the warmest and most comfortable - and let's be honest, makes you look the coolest - are probably the most important criteria. That being said, every one of us has a different idea of what's comfortable, what's warm (or what's too warm!), and what's hip. All of these are highly subjective things. We're not trying to hide our subjectivity. With our reviews, we aim to frame our subjective experiences in ways that you can understand and relate to. We'll tell you what we liked (and disliked) about a helmet AND why. That way, you can make informed decisions for yourself, knowing what you like and don't like. We've also focused a lot of energy into explaining the technical differences between each helmet in our Best Ski Helmet Review.

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 good reason. Have you seen the X-Games? Advances in ski technology, as well as simple advancement of the sport, have resulted in more people being able to ski, and many of them at greater speeds. In addition, helmets 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 its also hard to argue that a safety-rated helmet won't absorb some of the energy during a blow to the head and increase your chances of a good recovery. Take a look at some helmets after any serious crash, and it's easy to see.

Cruising down the hill in the Smith Vantage.
Cruising down the hill in the Smith Vantage.

Ski and Snowboard Helmet Certifications


There is no US law dictating the manufacturing standards of snowsports helmets. However, two different independent organizations certify helmets, and most products sold in the United States meet one or both of these standards. All of the helmets we tested meet at least one of the standards.

The American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM) is the primary standard to which most brands manufacture their helmets. The European 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, 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. When it is unclear as to Class A or B certification, the helmet probably meets the lower standard. For helmets we did not review, further inquiry with the manufacturer may be required to clarify Class A or B status.

Rotational Impact Protection System Technology


Many of the helmets we tested and even more on the market as a whole are beginning to include MIPS technology in their offerings. 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.

MIPS technology illustrated. The anchor points within the helmet allow the external shell to move independently of the internal mold  which aims to reduce the rotational impact force.
MIPS technology illustrated. The anchor points within the helmet allow the external shell to move independently of the internal mold, which aims to reduce the rotational impact force.

The above photo and additional information is available on the Giro website.

While there are other, similar technologies emerging from companies like POC, Fluid Brain Science, and Leatt, MIPS is showing up in many of the biggest players (Smith, Giro, etc.) in the helmet game. 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. For more detailed information on MIPS technology can be found on their website. If you'd prefer an illustrated video, check this out:



The Types of Helmets Available


In order to narrow the field for most consumers, we've divided the available ski and snowboard helmets into three major categories. Notably, we do not distinguish between helmets for skiing and snowboarding. The major design criteria, mainly fit and protection, are the same for both of these activities. The primary difference in accessories for the two sports is in style. Even then, as fashion evolves and style inevitably crosses over, the aesthetic distinctions are becoming less important and blurrier. The primary difference between the first two categories is in construction. Function is very similar and the market has products equally representing these two categories. Both types of general purpose helmets cover the ears with just fabric for warmth and draft blocking. The third category lumps together specific racing type helmets.

Anytime you're speeding downhill on snow  wearing a helmet makes sense. Choosing the right one for your needs is easier after reading through our guide.
Anytime you're speeding downhill on snow, wearing a helmet makes sense. Choosing the right one for your needs is easier after reading through our guide.

Injection Molded


An injection molded helmet consists of a thin polycarbonate (a durable plastic with high impact resistance) shell filled uniformly and thoroughly with an expanded polystyrene (or EPS, which is a rigid and tough foam). These helmets are more expensive, lighter, and can be molded closer and with more vents than hardshell helmets.

Hardshell


This is your "skateboard" style helmet. Hardshell helmets are less expensive, slightly heavier, and mainly come in more rounded, monolithic shapes. These helmets are made with a hard ABS (acrylonitrile butadiene styrene - another tough and impact-resistant plastic) shell with EPS foam bonded to the inside.
Two different ski helmet construction methods. On the left is a model with in-molded technology  while the model on the right utilizes a classic injection-molded style.
Two different ski helmet construction methods. On the left is a model with in-molded technology, while the model on the right utilizes a classic injection-molded style.

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 face of the user with rigid protection. For most recreational skiers and snowboarders, these helmets and their decreased comfort and increased expense will not justify their additional protection.

How to Choose a Snow Sports Helmet


Fit


Just like with all apparel, and perhaps even more so, the fit of your ski helmet is crucial and personal. Considering fit is your first step. Ski helmets are inherently rigid, and your noggin is inherently sensitive to pressure, cold, and wind. Fit influences tactile comfort, as well as vulnerability to the elements. We will expand more on the weather protection below. Sizes are divided on a 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 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. Each person has 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 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 also tends to fit people with rounder heads.
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 also tends to fit people with rounder heads.

This profile is different for each person. More extreme oval shapes we describe as long ovals. In the middle is "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 helmets of any sort, and note where you feel pressure. Investigate other people's 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.

In selecting the proper fit, your best bet is to try on a few different makes and models. 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. You should feel no great pressure in any one or two points, but a uniform snugness around the entire circumference. In terms of overall tension, you are looking for a helmet fit that sits securely on your head. With thicker hair, you may need to press it down onto your head. Once in place, the helmet should "grab" your head in such a way that rocking it around with your hands moves the skin on your forehead. 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 all 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 compare against the manufacturer's chart. Consult the instructions with the chart for 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 helmet choice.
A good fit will dramatically increase your happiness with your helmet choice.

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 and 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. The things you'll want to keep an eye on in purchasing a new helmet are the individual metrics. Skiing in the backcountry typically means earning your turns by skinning uphill. This, for the uninitiated, can be quite the sweaty endeavor. As such, ventilation in a helmet can be paramount. While most folks forego wearing a helmet

Several large  gaping vents provide tons of ventilation on this lightweight helmet from Salomon.
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, how much weight do you want to carry uphill? A few ounces may not seem like much, but when you can do 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.

Obviously, 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 of late, 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 switch, 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.

Helmets should keep you warm on even the coldest  stormiest days.
Helmets should keep you warm on even the coldest, stormiest days.

Only one helmet, the Bern Team Baker, had no vents at all. So, when considering which helmet to buy you should be thinking about whether or not you're generally hot on the hill and need a lot of ventilation or if you run cold and need a warm helmet with closable vents and snug fitting ear pieces. Thinking this through 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. The other issue our reviewers found a problem with was the distance from the bridge of the nose to the brim of the helmet, if the goggle is too big for that space it can feel like the goggles are being pushed down onto your face.

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

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, and audio packages. In our test, only the Giro Zone comes with a POV camera mount; the rest are designed to accept a stick-on mount, as sold with many cameras. Similarly, 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.

While some helmets come with a POV camera mount  you can always buy one after-market.
While some helmets come with a POV camera mount, you can always buy one after-market.

Many of the helmets we reviewed are compatible with audio systems. We feel it would be doing the reader a disservice at this point if we didn't make a quick point about audio while skiing - keeping in mind that it is only the opinion of most of our testers and experts. You might think twice before listening to loud music while skiing. It's obvious that doing so removes one from their surroundings, makes it harder to hear skiers and riders around you or snowmobiles or snow-cats on trails. Accidents on the ski hill happen every day and can be life-altering. Getting hit by a fellow skier or worse, a snowmobile, because you couldn't hear it coming would be a tragic thing.

Style


Although not as important as fit, comfort, or protection, style can play a big role in our choice of helmet. There is a myriad of people out there who are reticent to wear a helmet because they think it makes them look strange. With all the options on the market today, this is no longer an acceptable excuse. 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.

Our testers know a thing or two about style. Or  at least  they think they do.
Our testers know a thing or two about style. Or, at least, they think they do.


  • Share this article: