Over the past 30 years Michael Pettifer, MD of ski insurance specialists MPI Brokers, has encountered more than his fair share of head injuries. So what’s his advice on the optimal way to protect yourself when skiing?
Yes I do have a helmet, but I have to admit I was a bit late in the process. I started wearing one four years ago.
There is no question that speeds on the slopes have increased since I started skiing in 1960. In those days, pistes were in their infancy and today’s speeds were just not possible.
I think it is unlikely that we will be forced by law to wear them – too many countries are involved. But I object to the creeping compulsion of some ski policies placing a condition that insured people must wear a helmet. If they do this, what next?
So Should You Wear a Ski Helmet?
Fortunately, at least if you’re an adult, to wear or not to wear is still a matter of personal choice everywhere in the world… unless you happen to find yourself in Ben Eoin, Cape Smokey, Martock, or Ski Wentworth.
These obscure resorts are all in Novia Scotia, the only ski region where – as far as I know – hard hats on the hill for grown-ups are compulsory by law.
But, in my opinion, it must make sense to protect your head, not least because if you collide with another skier and you are one not wearing a helmet your head will be in greater danger.
If I fall and bang my head on the piste, it protects me, and the helmet wearer has a great day-to-day advantage over others – you brush off the unwelcome bang from the bar on chair-lifts, caused by over-enthusiastic companions.
I’m not alone: around 60% of adults and 80% of children in Europe are in my camp. In North America a head count at any lift station will show you that the figure is considerably higher. Yes, I agree that the available data is confusing and that there’s little tangible medical evidence to support the Yes lobby.
Despite a three-fold increase over the past 15 years in the number of wearers, some research shows that the total of head injuries and deaths hasn’t fallen, while others suggest that helmets do limit injuries and do not encourage risk taking.
The Michael Schumacher tragedy doesn’t support the case for either the ayes or the noes, although his doctors have stated that with without one he would most likely have died on the snow.
In the Yes Corner
Alan Griffiths, Val d’Isere’s British doctor for 17 years and a leading expert on snowsport injuries, is an adamant supporter: “I’m absolutely behind helmets and haven’t seen anything that would persuade me to think to the contrary.
“If you spent a month or even a day in my surgery, you’d realise that there isn’t any argument.
“Even with people wearing helmets there isn’t 100% protection, such as if you hit a tree at 30mph. However, most injuries take place at slower speeds when helmets can certainly reduce the severity of injuries and save lives.”
In the No Corner
Konrad Bartelski, still Britain’s best downhiller, is vociferously a beanie wearer: “I wear a helmet to race but if I’m skiing for pleasure I want the wind in my hair. If I was forced by law to wear a helmet, I’d give up skiing.”
James Blunt, an avid and expert skier, who raced for the British Army: “When skiing for pleasure, I choose not to. I’m fully aware of the risk I take and the risk is to myself. It’s about being aware of my surroundings and I probably go a little bit slower than I would if I were wearing a helmet.”
Whether you’re already a helmet wearer or are considering buying one, here are the answers to a few of the most common questions people ask…
Is a Helmet More or Less Comfortable Than a Beanie?
A helmet doesn’t tickle, stays put in a strong wind, is waterproof and adjustable for temperature. If it’s cold I close the vent, if it’s warm I open it, and if its hot in late spring you can always remove the ear pads.
It doesn’t encourage me to ski faster or recklessly. It doesn’t restrict my peripheral vision. Most people say their hearing is no more affected than if they were to wear a woolly hat, but personally I choose never wear the ear pads due to my own hearing restrictions.
Where Do I Have to Wear a Helmet?
Legally, nowhere (except Novia Scotia, see above) if you are 18 or over. California has legislation in place but successive governors have vetoed it, so at the moment the ‘law’ is unenforceable. Snowparks in some resorts insist on headgear, but there’s no legal requirement. In the 10 resorts owned by Vail Resorts, all instructors and resort staff are required to wear helmets.
For children, it’s altogether a different matter. An increasing number of ski schools and lift companies won’t accept children who are not wearing one – even if the instructor is not wearing one. I think this is a bit like a driving instructor saying ‘personally, I don’t bother with a seat belt, so why are you?’
France and Switzerland have no rules, although the ski schools strongly encourage it. In Italy it’s compulsory up to the age of 14.
In Austria, it depends on where you are skiing: most families from other countries visit resorts in either the Tirol or the Vorarlberg, where there are no rules – or they go to Salzburgerland, where children under 16 must wear helmets. Kids also have to wear hard hats in Upper Austria, Styria, Lower Austria, Burgenland, Carinthia and Vienna.
The helmet regulation also exists for children under 13 in Slovenia. There’s no law in Andorra, Slovakia, Spain or Sweden – although in Sweden children up to seven ski for free if they’re wearing one.
Norway encourages helmet wear but doesn’t enforce it; most children skiing there wear helmets, and now most adults do too. There is no law in Bulgaria but helmet wearing is highly recommended. The rules are not clearly defined in Romania.
In the USA and Canada (Novia Scotia excepted), there’s no legal requirement, but there is cultural pressure – children would look a bit odd without one. In Western Canada, for example, 99.5% of children under 14 years and 81% of all other skiers and boarders wear them. Rules differ among ski schools, for example Lake Louise requires children under 12 years in ski school to wear a helmet.
How Do I Choose a Helmet?
With difficulty, if you try to buy it in a resort shop in the second half of the season. Most of the models on display seem to be size S with a scattering of size M, leading me to the conclusion that most skiers and snowboarders have large heads.
Watch the video above for advice on how to choose your helmet size. It needs to fit snugly and feel comfortable, even when shaking your head. When you align the front of the helmet above the eyebrows, the helmet shouldn’t feel wobbly. Some brands will fit you better than others.
Helmet size is the circumference of your head just above your eyebrows. Don’t buy one that feels too heavy or uncomfortably tight.
Don’t forget to bring along your goggles when you try on a helmet to make sure they fit your face over the helmet. Things to look out for are decent air vents, an efficient goggle retainer clip at the rear. A new type of helmet, such as those from Kask, have integral goggles with interchangeable lenses.
The helmet standards to look for are the European (CE) Standard EN1077 or the American standards ASTM 2040 or Snell RS-98. The European EN1077 standard comes in two categories: A and B. Category A helmets are aimed primarily at ski racers, and are built to withstand impacts at slightly higher speeds, as well as protecting more of the head (notably, the area around the ears).
Increasingly, these helmets also conform to the International Ski Federation’s more exacting 2013 regulations (FIS RH 2013). Most helmets sold to holidaymakers are category B helmets.
Keep an eye for the MIPs system, too, which is incorporated into an increasing number of category B helmets. This allows the helmet lining to rotate inside the shell on impact, absorbing some of the force of the blow.
To help in your research visit Skihelmets.org, which is a US website that will give you an idea of just how vast the choices are when buying a helmet.
How Often Should I Replace My Ski Helmet?
The normal recommendation is every three to five years because the inner foam hardens and becomes brittle, which means there will be less shock absorption in an impact. You’ll need to replace your helmet sooner if you’ve had a crash or if there is damage (such as cracks or dents) to the shell.
Make sure the chin strap is buckled – it’s not going to be much use to you if it falls off in an accident before impact!
Can I Wear a Hat Under a Helmet?
No, the helmet should fit snuggly, and it won’t do so if you’ve jammed a woolly hat underneath. Ski helmets these days are so warm that you won’t normally need to wear anything any extra.
However, on a really cold day you could wear a balaclava specifically designed for helmets or a thin silky liner.
What About Recycled Helmets?
The Hubber Helmet from Picture Organic Clothing is the first eco-friendly ski and snowboard helmet on the market, made entirely out of recycled materials. In other words, 100% of the liner is made out of recycled EPS (Expandable Polystyrene) collected from Japanese car companies. The outer shell is made from PLA (polylactic acid), a polymer derived from corn, which is a renewable resource. And finally, the ear pads are made of recycled polyester. You certainly can’t complain about that!
Can I Wear My Ski Helmet On the Plane?
A bit like wearing ski boots – it’s a bad idea! Packed at the bottom of a bag, your helmet can be filled up with goggles, ski gloves and socks. But if you really can’t fit it inside your luggage, then strap it onto the outside of a rucksack and you shouldn’t have a problem going through security at the airport.
Can I Wear a Bike or Motorcycle Helmet for Skiing?
No, bike helmets are too light for the speeds at which you may travel downhill and motorbike helmets are too heavy for the job. There’s a ski helmet to suit everyone and an adult one will set you back from £25 to £300, depending on the materials used.
Are There Any Benefits to a Full-Face Helmet or Chin Guard?
Avoid them. Slalom racers wear helmets with a chin guard to protect them when they hit gates, which can spring back into their faces.
The video above shows Lyndsey Jacobellis, who wore a full-face helmet when she competed in boarder cross at the 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin.
However, for holiday skiers and boarders these have been linked with a higher risk in neck fractures, as they can dig into the snow when you fall over.
Can I Buy a Helmet For My Child to Grow Into?
No, children’s heads are much more vulnerable than adults’ and, unlike adult heads, they don’t remain the same size. It is therefore really important that the helmet fits properly for all ages.
Children are also more likely than adults to jump – either on piste, or at the edge of the piste – and teenagers often find it hard to tear themselves away from the jump parks! For these situations, consider getting other types of body armour as well.
Can I Rent a Helmet in the Resort?
Yes, most resort hire shops have a rental stock for adults and children. If you don’t own one yourself, a rental helmet should be better than no helmet at all. However, the shape may be wrong and do you really want to use a helmet that’s been on lots of other sweaty heads?
So, if you’re thinking of buying a helmet for the first time, bear in mind Dr Alan Griffiths’ advice: “Wear a helmet, but ski like you haven’t got one on”.
What Do You Think?
Follow the advice above, and you’ll have a much better idea of why you should or should not wear a ski helmet, and how to buy the right one.
Do you and your family wear ski helmets? Should there be a law to make sure we all do? Let me know what you think in the comments below.