How does one go about choosing the best helmet for snow sports? Which are the safest? Are there features that are an absolute must to have? With the exponential increase in helmet users and the subsequent rise in the number of helmets to pick from, the choice of which helmet to buy has become harder with each passing year. The helmets 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 safest helmet is the one you wear the most.
So choosing the helmet that fits the best, is the warmest and most comfortable - and lets be honest, makes you look the coolest - are probably the most important criteria. With that being said, the process of reviewing and rating helmets is inherently subjective. Each users' experience is going to be different; we have different head shapes, different preferences, and everyone gets hot or cold under different conditions. With this review we've tried to express our subjective experiences in ways that will make it easier for the reader/buyer to take what parts they see as valuable and leave the rest behind. We've also put a lot of energy into explaining the technical differences between each helmet in our Best Ski Helmet Review.
Should You Wear a Helmet?
If you're sliding down hill on snow you should be wearing a helmet. Period. Helmet usage has exploded over the past few decades, and for good reason. Helmets have become increasingly comfortable, warm, versatile and stylish; not to mention safer. 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 its easy to see.
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 States meet one or both of these standards. All of the helmets we tested, aside from the Bern, meet both 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 users 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.
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.
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. Examples of this style are the Smith Variance, Smith Vantage, Giro Zone, and Smith Maze.
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. Tested examples include the Bern Team Baker and the Anon Raider.
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
Just like with all apparel, and perhaps even more so, the fit of your ski helmet is crucial. 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. As for the skull fit of the helmets, first determine your head shape. 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.
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. 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, all manufacturers provide a sizing chart. Generally, this sizing chart is calibrated in 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.
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 well 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 ear pieces 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. 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 hemet with closable vents and snug fitting ear pieces. Thinking this through before buying a helmet will benefit you once you're on the hill.
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.
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 ear pieces, 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. Many of the helmets we reviewed are compatible with audio systems. I feel it would be doing the reader a disservice at this point if I didn't make a quick point about audio while skiing - keeping in mind that it is only the opinion of this reviewer, 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 everyday 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.
Although not as important as fit, comfort, or safety, style can play a big role in our choice of helmet. 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 the 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.