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Should I wear a helmet when skiing?

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Through the years, I’ve heard arguments for and against wearing a helmet while skiing. So I decided to do some research in order to see if I could come up with a definite answer. So should you wear a helmet when skiing?

Yes! You should definitely wear a helmet when skiing. Wearing a helmet will help protect you from small cuts and bruises e.g. from tree branches, but will also reduce the incidence and severity of head injuries like severe concussions, fracture of the skull and even death. You can still get badly injured though, even while wearing a helmet, and most ski resorts don’t require a helmet to be worn for recreational skiing.

Here are five recommended and affordable helmets for skiing: Top 5 affordable ski helmets 2019

Why should I wear a helmet when skiing?

The short answer to, why you should always wear a helmet while skiing, is: for safety reasons!

Even though skiing is pretty safe, there are numerous ways you could get hurt if you’re unlucky. Wearing a helmet could help protect you from some of those injuries.

Luckily, head injuries are rare, but according to an article in The Guardian (Dillner 2014), head injuries do account for 60 percent of deaths in snow sports.

What are the common ways you can hurt your head while skiing?

Common ways skiers hurt their head include (but are not limited to)…

Falling on flat terrain

Falling – even on flat terrain – or while waiting in line for the chairlift is a common way, skiers tend to hurt themselves.

The flat terrain at bottom of the slopes can often be icy because the snow has been roughed up. And the bottom of many slopes is at low altitudes and thus more prone to melting and freezing over again.

Collisions with trees, rocks or people

Most serious head injuries occur when a skier or snowboarder hits a tree, a rock or has a collision with another person. Most often such collisions happen at high speeds and a ski helmet can’t protect from such serious impacts.

Getting run over by another skier or snowboarder

Technically this is also a collision, but I’ve seen my fair share of skiers getting knocked down or run over by another skier or snowboarder, who was skiing too fast and/or couldn’t or didn’t know how to stop. So even though, you might be skiing responsible, unfortunately, it doesn’t mean that everyone else does too.

Common injuries to the head are facial lacerations, head lacerations, a fractured skull, mild to severe concussions, coma, and death.

What are common arguments for or against helmet use on the slopes?

Trying to put on a stoic look, because this is close to where the the Roman general Hannibal Barca famously led his war elephants across the Alps during the 2nd Punic War in 218 BC. 

When I first started skiing in the early 1990s, helmets were a rare sight. I didn’t wear one either.

Since the early 2000s helmets, the number of skiers who wear a helmet has increased a great deal.

An article from 2013 in the New York Times (McMillan 2013) states, that 70 percent of all skiers and snowboarders in the United States are wearing helmets in 2013. That is nearly triple the number compared to 2003.

The article also states, that in the same period of time, there has been no reduction in the number of fatalities or brain injuries related to snow-sports according to the National Ski Areas Association (NSAA).

Critics have used this as a way to say, that when wearing a ski helmet apparently makes no difference at all, why should you wear one in the first place?

You should wear one because such logic is false.

Arguments for and against wearing a skiing helmet

First of all, just because more people wear helmets, doesn’t mean that the number of people who fall or have a collision with other skiers or snowboards has dropped.

Second, a ski helmet is no guarantee for not getting a concussion or suffer severe head trauma or even death, just like the airbag in your car is not a guarantee, that you won’t get a concussion or end up dead in a car crash.

After all, if you drive into a tree or have a collision with another car, you might get seriously hurt. Likewise, if you ski headfirst into a tree or have a collision with another person, you’re gonna take some damage. And a ski helmet is not designed to withstand such forces.

Reduced severity of injuries

What is important here is, that the increase in ski helmet use, has reduced the severity of a lot of injuries.

A recent study from 2017 from Children’s Hospital Colorado found, that children who wear a helmet while skiing or snowboarding “sustain less severe head injuries and lower overall injury severity, compared to children who do not wear a helmet.” (Milan et al. 2017):

This reflects the results of a meta-study from 2012 (Haider et al. 2012) which concludes that “the use of safety helmets decreases the risk and severity of head injuries as compared to non-helmeted participants in skiing and snowboarding.”

Does wearing a helmet lead to higher risk-taking?

Critics have stated that wearing a helmet might lead to higher risk-taking, because of a sense of false security.

However, this is not reflected in the study, which states, that the use of safety helmets “does not appear to increase the risk of compensation behavior as compared to non-helmeted participants in skiing and snowboarding.”

Another point, I’ve often seen brought up by critics is, that wearing a helmet should put your neck at risk.

This is also not found to be the case, according to the study, which states, that the “beneficial effects of helmets are not negated by unintended risks as their use does not appear to increase the risk of neck or cervical spine injury as compared to non-helmeted participants in skiing and snowboarding.”

How does a ski helmet protect you?

The traditional ski helmet is designed to protect you by absorbing and spreading out the shock wave, which is caused by the impact with the snow, a tree, a rock or another skier.

Ski helmets are tested at an impact speed of approximately 23 km/h (14 mph). Critics have pointed out, that the average maximum speed of most snowboarders and skiers is double that speed. And some go at speeds much faster.

If you are unlucky and hit a fixed object at such speeds, the impact is likely to be fatal regardless of helmet use.

Traditionally, ski helmets are only tested for direct impacts at specific angles.

However, a lot of head impacts include a rotational element, which is not accounted for. Another problem is, that the tests don’t take into consideration, the effect of your head coming to a sudden stop, during a collision or fall.

Traumatic brain injuries like concussions often include a rotational element after the head has had a sudden change in speed.

In other words, the brain is given a good shake and also rotates inside the skull.

New technology might increase the effect of ski helmets

A recent article from the British newspaper The Telegraph (Weakley 2018) references a study led by Dr. Nicolas Bailly from l’Hôpital de Sacré-Coeur de Montréal, Canada, which states, that helmets are in fact not very effective against concussions.

However, the same article also mentions new technologies are being tested, which might be able to mitigate the effects of the sudden change of speed and rotational forces during a fall or collision.

The first technology utilizes the same pliable materials as are used in back protectors. Materials, like D30 mold, to the body and are comfortable to wear. On impact, the material hardens rapidly to absorb and disperse the shock wave.

Ski helmets with MIPS technology

Another technology is called MIPS, which is an abbreviation for Multi-directional Impact Protection System.

MIPS utilizes a low-friction layer inside the helmet over which the outer shell moves after the impact. The effect is a reduction and redirection of the energy caused by the impact.

The MIPS technology is also found in bike-helmets. When I bought a bike-helmet for my son, I went with one with MIPS implemented, because it scored good test results for bike accidents.

The article mentions a third technology as well. The EPS 4D is a technology, which is implemented in the liner of the helmet. It divides the liner into different sections, which on impact changes the shape and compression individually. Because of this it is able to better protect the head, as it moulds itself after how the helmet is hit.

It is yet to early to make any conclusions about whether these new developments within helmet safety technology, will help reduce the number of severe concussions and even deaths sustained from collisions and falls while skiing or snowboarding.

How tight should a ski helmet be?

When you buy a ski helmet, be sure to get one, which fits snugly but isn’t too tight at the same time. The helmet should not be able to move around, so you don’t want any excess space between the helmet and your head.

The helmet should also not leave any space between the helmet and your goggles. Your forehead should at all times be protected from impacts and frost. But the helmet should not press down on your goggles either. If it does, either the helmet or the goggle is probably too big.

The chin strap should fit comfortably against your chin and throat but should be tight enough, to keep the helmet in place, when you fall.

As with all ski equipment, the color is the last thing, you should decide upon.

What other benefits are there to wearing a ski helmet?

Ski helmets are nice to wear when it gets cold. And they’re a good place to store your goggles, so they’re always within arms reach when it suddenly starts to snow.

Besides reducing the severy of a range of injuries, you could sustain from skiing, there are actually some other nice benefits to wearing a helmet.

The first benefit to strapping a ski helmet on your noggin is, that it will keep you nice and warm.

While it isn’t true, that you lose 40-50 percent of your body heat through the head (the right number is somewhere between 7-10 percent), wearing a helmet is still an excellent way to keep your head nice and warm.

Ski helmets don’t get wet and take a long time to dry as some hats do.

I’ve also found, that a lot of knitted hats or hats made from fleece don’t do a very good job at protecting you against the wind. So while they might keep you warm, when you stand still, as soon as you start skiing downhill, the wind will go through the fabric and your ears and forehead starts to freeze.

Just make sure your helmet has some ear guards, to keep your ears warm, and make sure those ear guards have holes in them, so you can still hear whats going on around you (like other skiers or riders coming up from behind you).

Ski helmets are excellent at keeping your ski goggles on nice and tight. And when you suddenly find yourself in the middle of a blizzard, the helmet and goggles do a good job at closing the gap between your eyes and top of the head, thus keeping your forehead warm.

The front of the helmet is a good place to put your goggles when you’re not using them.

A ski helmet is also an excellent place to put your GoPro camera.

Are helmets necessary when skiing? The conclusion.

Helmets aren’t necessary when skiing. You could ski naked, if you wanted to, as long as you have a pair of boots and skis.

Helmets aren’t compulsory at most ski resorts for adults either, making it a personal choice for each adult skier, if they want to wear a helmet or not. But at the same time, most ski resorts strongly encourage helmet use.

However, the use of ski helmets is mandatory on a lot of ski resorts for children. This is often attributed to children being more top-heavy, due to the head being relatively larger to the rest of the body when compared to the bodily proportions of an adult.

Here are five recommended and affordable helmets for skiing: Top 5 affordable ski helmets 2019

And skiers competing in races are using helmets too, which makes you think, right?

By now several individual studies have proved, that wearing a ski helmet reduces the severity of a range of head injuries like cuts to the scalp, lacerations and skull fractures.

Wearing a ski helmet is not a carte blanche to start skiing recklessly. And wearing a ski helmet can’t prevent you from getting a severe concussion or ending up in a coma or even ending up dead if you have e.g. a collision with another skier or tree or if you fall and hit your head on a rock.

I prefer to wear a ski helmet these days. Granted, I’ve gotten older and more careful, since I first started out, but I like to believe, that I’ve also gotten wiser.

Was is your opinion on ski helmets? Do you prefer to wear one? And if you don’t, please share your view on the subject. Let me know in the comment section below.

Ski responsible, and be safe.


Sources:

Haider, A., Saleem, T., Bilaniuk, J., and Barraco, R.(2012): An evidence-based review: Efficacy of safety helmets in the reduction of head injuries in recreational skiers and snowboarders. Journal of Trauma and Acute Care Surgery. 73(5):1340–1347, NOV 2012

Dillner, L. (2014): Should I wear a helmet on the ski slopes? In http://theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2014/jan/06/should-i-wear-a-helmet-ski-slopes

Milan, M., Jhajj, S., Stewart, C., Pyle, L., Moulton, S., (2017): Helmet use and injury severity among pediatric skiers and snowboarders in Colorado. Journal of Pediatric Surgery, 2017; 52 (2): 349

McMillan, K. (2013): Ski Helmet Use Isn’t Reducing Brain Injuries. In http://nytimes.com/2014/01/01/sports/on-slopes-rise-in-helmet-use-but-no-decline-in-brain-injuries.html

Weakley, Cat (2018): Research shows ski helmets do not prevent concussion. In  http://telegraph.co.uk/travel/ski/news/research-shows-ski-helmets-do-not-prevent-concussion