“Sir, excuse me sir, we need your name and social security number?” A slow and mumbled response came from my mouth. “I’m.... uh….. Jonathon….”  “What’s your last name?” The nurse at the hospital asked me.  Luckily I was there with a close friend, and he was able to answer for me. The event leading up to this emergency room visit was pretty simple: I was skiing without a helmet.

It was the winter of 2009, my second season as a heli-ski guide. At the time, most heli-ski guides were not wearing helmets.  So, wanting to fit the image of the young, tough heli-ski guide I was trying to be, I wasn’t wearing one either. Why would I need to wear a helmet? I’m a guide, and guides don’t fall. Well, to the contrary, guides do fall. This time I fell hard, smacking my head into shallow buried rocks. The guests skiing with me helped me up after my fall and got on the radio to the other guides. The next thing I remember is waking up in the hospital. 

Open slopes below and endless turns in the Great Basin, photo courtesy of Ruby Mountain Heli-Ski.

Head injuries are a major topic today, not just in the snow sports world. This topic spans from rock climbing to football. Doctors are learning more and more about the causes of head injuries and the general public is becoming increasingly aware of the risks and consequence associated with head injuries.  There are many studies on the relationship between helmets and head injuries in the skiing and snowboarding industry.   Wearing a helmet while skiing and snowboarding is on the rise and now almost 70 percent of all users wear a helmet, yet the rate of head injuries has not decreased.  ome experts feel this is because more head injuries are being reported since there is increased awareness. Others feel this is because these sports are growing at such a rapid rate. But one thing all experts agree on is this: The trend in the snow sports industry is to push things harder, faster and bigger, driving the limits of the sports further and further.

So what good is a helmet if it doesn’t prevent all head injuries? According to the NSAA (National Ski Area Association), the use of wearing a helmet can reduce the severity of a head injury by 30 to 50 percent. For example, when I hit my head and was admitted to the hospital, I was diagnosed with a Grade 3 concussion. Wearing a helmet might have reduced it to a Grade 1 or Grade 2 concussion, or if I was lucky, just a good ringing of my bell. Instead, the Grade 3 concussion resulted in me spending most of the day in the hospital along with follow-up visits to a neurologist. There was also the “no physical activity for a week” lecture from the doctor. Since my experience with a severe concussion, I always wear a helmet when I’m skiing.

Here are a few tips for buying a ski or snowboard helmet. I like to think of the three F's: Fit, Function and Fashion. These key factors have helped me pick out the perfect helmet for my clients and myself.

  • Fit. It has to be the right fit. Remember, not everybody’s head is shaped the same. Try on many different manufactures, models and sizes before picking one out. When trying on a helmet, check to make sure the pads sit comfortably against your head and there is no gap between the helmet and your head. You will want to look for uniform snugness in the helmet, but make sure it is not to tight or you will have a headache all day while you're out trying to have fun.Do a “roll test” by trying to roll the helmet off the front of your head with the neck strap buckled.  The helmet should stay in place and should not shift. Since this is a possible life-saving device, get sized correctly at an outdoor store by a professional sales associate. 

    Not a very good helmet-goggle fit.
  • Function. The second most important factor is to match the right type of helmet with your specific sport activity. If you're ski racing at a resort you might want a different helmet than an individual using it mainly for backcountry skiing. If you run warm you might want a helmet with more vents. There are so many models and different functions to ski helmets today. Look for one that matches your needs, but don’t let function override proper fit. 
  • Fashion. Let’s admit it, if it doesn’t look good you probably won’t wear it. So I recommend when trying on a helmet, bring your goggles to make sure you have a clean connection between your goggles and helmet.  Nobody wants to have the big gaper gap—the large gap between goggles and helmet—when they're out there shredding powder. Plus, this gap leads back to our number-one thing when buying a helmet: fit. In terms of colors, that's your opportunity to show your style, but I personally like bright colors since they're easy to spot from a distance and stand out in photos.

A helmet can help reduce the severity of a head injury, but what's really important is to making safe decisions and skiing and riding in control. Mostly importantly, have a safe and fun winter season!

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