Just like running shoes differ from hiking boots, snow helmets are different from bike or skateboard helmets. They are made to handle the toughest obstacles you'll find on the mountain: trees, hard ice, gravity and the elements. They have specific features such as ear coverage, moisture-wicking liners and temperature-sensitive materials.
The shell, or outer layer of the helmet, is a rigid surface (typically ABS high-impact plastic) that protects the head against sharp objects, knocks and abrasions. It also helps spread impact energy over a larger portion of the helmet during a fall.
The inner liner is typically made from EPS (expanded polystyrene) foam, the material that looks like Styrofoam®. It's designed to absorb impact and help reduce brain injuries.
In a hard fall, the liner foam can get compressed, a condition that you may or may not be able to discern. A helmet should always be destroyed and replaced after a serious fall.
In-mold helmets are made by attaching the shell and shock-absorbing foam in a single molding process. They are sleek and much lighter than injection-molded helmets.
Injection-molded helmets use an EPS foam bonded to a separate shell, usually made of high-impact ABS plastic. These helmets offer more durability against everyday knocks and falls, while providing similar impact protection.
Some helmets have detachable ear pads and liners for adjustable warmth.
If possible, try on helmets at your local REI store to find one that is most comfortable. Your goals are to make sure it fits comfortably and sits on your head correctly for best protection.
Tip: Bring your goggles with you to the store and try them on with the helmet.
You can do so by measuring your head or, if at your REI store, just by trying on sizes. If using a tape measure, position it just above the ears and about 1" above your eyebrows. Measure around the largest part of your head (keeping the tape level) to determine the circumference of your head. Look at the chart on the helmet packaging to find your best size.
A good helmet should feel snug but not tight. If the helmet can rock back and forth, the fit is too loose. Shake your head from side-to-side. If the helmet shifts, try a smaller size, adjust the sizing mechanism or use thicker sizing pads. Push up the front and back edges. If they move, tighten the straps.
There should be no gap between the top of your goggles and the helmet. Make sure the helmet fits snugly to the top of the goggles, but not so low that it hinders vision or pushes down the goggles.
The helmet should be positioned low enough in the front to protect your forehead. It should sit level with its front edge no more than 1" above the eyebrows. Finally, check to make sure there are no gaps between your head and the helmet lining.
Note: A few models use sizing pads to fine-tune the helmet's fit.
The chinstrap needs to fit back against the throat so it will not come off when it is impacted. The strap should fit snugly but loose enough for you to be able to chew food without feeling choked or pinched. Always fasten the strap before riding.
Vents bring cool air in and warm, sweaty air out. Some helmets have removable plugs, which means you need to take your helmet off to adjust the airflow. More desirable are helmets with adjustable vents. With the push of a lever you can instantly fine-tune your airflow level and not interrupt your ride.
ASTM F2040 is the most common snow helmet certification. This U.S.-based standard covers nonmotorized recreational snow sports including skiing and snowboarding. All snow helmets sold at REI meet this certification. Look for the ASTM sticker on the inside of the helmet to ensure its certification.
CE EN1077 is a European certification for alpine skiing and snowboarding helmets. Some helmets are certified to both ASTM and CE EN standards, though one could conceivably meet the CE EN standard but not the ASTM standard. Currently, a few snow helmets sold at REI have both endorsements.
The Snell safety standard is rarely pursued these days by snow-helmet manufacturers and is no longer a factor in this category.
Important note: Helmets are valuable but not invincible. Per the ASTM website: "Although a helmet that meets this specification will help reduce the risk of some types of injuries to the head at slower speeds, the protection is limited."
Helmet use has become widespread. A survey by the National Ski Areas Association in 2011-2012 showed that 67% of all skiers and snowboarders voluntarily wear a helmet. That's up from 24% in 2002-2003. Many ski resorts require helmet use for minors taking a ski/snowboard lesson or renting gear. One state, New Jersey, requires helmet use by skiing or snowboarding minors.
Most of the increase, however, is due to education and outreach efforts. The bottom line is that helmets, while not perfect, offer an added measure of safety and adjustable warmth that makes sense for any pursuer of downhill thrills.
By Steve Tischler
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Last updated: 10/10/2013
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