Should I wear a helmet for skiing and snowboarding?
In the past decade, helmet usage has soared to over 80% in most resorts – but we are still regularly asked ‘do I need a helmet to ski’.
What the experts say
In 2011 the NHS reported on the benefits of wearing ski and snowboard helmets.
“After reviewing several studies that claim wearing a helmet can reduce head injuries by 35% in adults and 59% in children, the NHS maintains that this research has several shortcomings. Firstly, many reports lack a sampling of control groups and an unclear definition of what actually constitutes a head injury.”
A later study carried out in 2015 by ASTM international reported that over a 17 season period (1996 – 2012), the number of people opting to wear a helmet went up from 8% to 84%, and, correspondingly, head injuries went down from 8.4% to 6.8%. The ASTM study also reported that head injuries that could be deemed ‘potentially serious’ had decreased from 4.2% to 3%. These small percentage decreases vary wildly from the high figures reported by the NHS just 4 years earlier.
In 2018, Nicolas Bailly, PhD of l’Hôpital de Sacré-Coeur de Montréal in Canada, published findings that stated whilst helmets protect against head injuries such as bruises and gashes quite significantly, the same cannot be said for brain injuries like concussion.
So, should we wear a ski and snowboard helmet and what do we gain?
In 2011, the NHS concluded the actual risk of head injury for skiers and snowboarders is relatively low. Despite reporting great results in reducing head injuries from skiers/snowboarders wearing helmets. They stated that only 1 in 11,000 ski or snowboard outings result in a head injury, and severe head injuries causing fatalities are extremely rare. Considering this information alongside the more recent research that the injuries most commonly prevented are superficial scrapes and bruises can raise the question ‘why do we bother.’
Agreement amongst most experts is that helmets are most effective when collisions happen at speeds < 15mph. Unfortunately, as we all know, most intermediate and advanced skiers/snowboarders travel at much faster speeds. This, therefore, increases the risk of head injury even if wearing a helmet.
The benefits of wearing a helmet
As this article discusses the medical benefits of wearing a helmet, we will talk about the aesthetics here.
Most regular helmet wearers describe higher levels of comfort. Helmets, unlike woolly hats, don’t itch. They don’t soak up moisture and are warm when cold and cool when it’s hot (thanks to vents).
New styles and designs of helmets have also made helmets much more fashionable than their predecessors, and there is a massive market for original and bespoke designs.
Disadvantages of wearing a helmet
It has been argued that helmets may impair vision and hearing and encourage people to take greater risks. The so-called ‘Risk Compensation theory’ means the wearer of a helmet feels a greater sense of protection and enters into more dangerous activities.
While some theoretical arguments prove this, there is no published evidence to support risk compensation as a stable argument against ski and snowboard helmets.
There is a slight financial disadvantage. Helmets come in many shapes, sizes and prices, but all are more expensive than a bobble hat. Therefore, one should ask, ‘how much is my head worth?’ before deciding to wear – or not wear – a helmet based on cost.
When are helmets mandatory?
Most snow schools have now made helmets compulsory for instructors when teaching. Almost 100% of children on the slopes wear helmets, and instructors must lead by example. Sports schools have made helmets mandatory for participants who wish to shadow lessons and their instructors.
Snowboarders have to be aware that CASI (who certifies and test those wishing to become a qualified, internationally recognised instructor) have made helmets mandatory for their Level 1, 2, 3 and 4-course exams.
If you want to teach in the park, helmets are mandatory for skiers and snowboarders.
Helmets have become the norm on the slopes. Despite a lack of evidence proving they provide additional protection, skiers and snowboarders perceive helmets to be safer. In addition, incidences such as Michael Schumacher’s fall in France and the death of Natasha Richardson in Canada, have raised the profile of the importance of wearing a helmet.
The recent studies we’ve looked at do not show substantial statistical benefits to wearing a helmet. However, the correlations, even though marginal, do show a reduction in injury since most skiers and snowboarders have started wearing helmets. It is broadly agreed that a helmet won’t make a huge difference when someone is faced with blunt trauma to the head. However, there is no evidence that a helmet would make a concussion or blunt trauma worse.
Here at Winter Sports, all our staff choose to wear helmets. The general consensus is ‘what have I got to lose?’ – nothing, not even street cred – helmets are the new ‘cool’.