How to Choose a Snow Helmet
A Guide to Ski and Snowboard Helmet Size, Fit and Features
Accidents can happen in skiing and snowboarding. There have been several high-profile cases of traumatic brain injury in the snowsports world in recent years, and we’re only starting to understand the long-term effects of repeated concussions. With all that in mind, the health risk from hitting your head is more real than ever, and it’s impossible to ignore the importance that wearing a good snow helmet has in protecting your brain.
It’s absolutely essential to choose a ski or snowboard helmet that’s got the right construction, a strong set of features, and the perfect fit. That’s why we’ve put together this snow helmet buyer’s guide – to help you navigate your way around the range available and choose the best ski or snowboard helmet for you, in the right size.
To help you make the right choice, we’ll look at…
- Size and fit
- Adjustment systems
- Goggle matching
- MIPS (Multi-directional Impact Protection System)
- Easy-to-use chinstrap and clasps
- Adjustable venting
- Goggle clips
- Removable liners
- Removable ear pads
- Audio ear pads
- Helmet care
Size and fit
The key to finding a helmet that fits is to measure your head first. It’s very difficult to know if you'll fit a small, medium or large from one brand to the next – so it’s best to get the tape measure out first and know for sure. Remember that, if you’re going to regularly wear a hat under your helmet, you’ll want to carry our all of the following steps with your hat on.
Measuring your head
Grab a soft tape measure, or if you can’t find one, grab a piece of string or similar (and a regular tape measure or long ruler to measure it against). Starting in the centre of your forehead, measure round the circumference of your head, about 2cm above your eyebrows and ears in a straight line as you go round.
Finding out your helmet size
Once you’ve measured your head, and chosen a model of helmet, you’ll need to check that brand’s specific helmet size information to check which size to buy. Each size of helmet will cater for a different range of head measurements, so a small size will fit head circumferences of 55cm to 56cm, a medium will suit 57cm to 58cm and so on.
Exact ranges vary from brand to brand and model to model – Salomon may be different from Anon, while an adjustable helmet will cater for a wider range of head sizes than a non-adjustable one.
Checking that your helmet fits
Once your helmet arrives, unbox it, then follow these simple steps…
1. Try it on
Stick it on your head. How does it feel? It should fit snugly all the way round but shouldn’t pinch. If it’s squeezing your head in general or there are pinch or pain points, chances are it’s the wrong size. On the other hand, if it’s loose-fitting and not snug enough then it’s probably too large.
2. Check it out
Check yourself out in the mirror. Where your helmet sitting? It should cover the right amount of your head, including most of the back, down to roughly just above your hairline. If it’s sitting too high, on top of your head, it’s too small. If it looks massively overproportioned or it’s slipping down over your eyes then it’s too big.
3. Shake it off
Okay, so maybe you don’t need to go too crazy here, but have a go at trying to shake the thing off your head.
Put your helmet on, without the chin strap fastened and give your head a shake – from side to side and back to front. If your helmet is the right size, it should stay fairly firmly where it is. If it falls off because it was perched on top of your head, it was too small. If it slips off because it just wasn’t gripping your head, chances are it’s too big.
Adjusting the chin strap and clasp
Once you know that the helmet fits your head, you’ll need to adjust the chinstrap and clasp to the right length. You want to get it to a snug fit that doesn’t hang loose below your chin, but doesn’t cut the blood supply off to your brain either.
Each helmet will work slightly differently, but setting the chinstrap length usually involves moving the buckle clasp up and down the strap until you get it where it needs to be.
Fit Adjustment Systems
Most helmets use some kind of fit adjustment system to help you to fine tune the fit. If you’re between sizes, or there’s a little bit of movement of the helmet on your head then you can use the fit adjuster to tighten things up and get the fit you want. Just bear in mind that fit adjustment can only make a helmet tighter. A helmet that’s too small is just too small and you’re going to need to size up.
There are a few different types of fit adjustment on the market and they all have their merits.
Horizontal rotary adjuster, ratchet or slider
There are a few different variations of the rotary adjuster, slider or ratchet on the market, but most work in pretty much the same way. You’ll generally find the adjuster on the back at the bottom of the helmet – a dial, clip or ratchet – which can be used to tighten or loosen the helmet to your desired fit.
These systems are great as they allow you to adjust the fit on the fly, quickly and easily.
Vertical height adjustment
Sometimes the shape of your head will mean that all the horizontal tightening or loosening in the world won’t make a helmet comfortable or sit flush in line with the top of your goggles out in front. In these cases, a helmet with vertical height adjustment can really make the difference.
With vertical height adjustment, the rear horizontal adjuster can be removed from the helmet and repositioned up or down the inside of the shell so that it’ll generally push the helmet forward or back on your head to get the perfect fit.
Some helmets, that might seem to effectively have no adjustment, will actually offer interchangeable foam pads. This is probably the most basic form of adjustment as it doesn’t allow for any on-the-fly tweaks or very much range, but it can be useful if you prefer to wear a hat under your helmet and find that other rear-mounted adjustment systems get in the way.
Pads are usually fitted in place with Velcro or some sort of similar fastening. Thicker or thinner pads will come separately and are usually replaced as a full set, in order to get the desired fit.
Air fit systems
While they’re pretty rare, it’s also possible to pick up helmets that use an air fit system. They work by including a low profile air cushion in the back of the helmet, which can be inflated or deflated to fine tune the fit without the pinch points that you can get from a rotary or ratchet adjustment system.
In recent years both goggle and helmet manufacturers have made strides to standardise their products and make them more cross-compatible, but when you're picking a new helmet, a new pair of goggles, or both, it’s important to think how well they will fit together.
A goggle gap, sometimes scathingly referred to as a “gaper gap”, is a large gap between the front rim of your helmet and the top edge of your goggles. It’s sometimes caused by an ill-fitting helmet and can be addressed by improving fit or using vertical adjustment to tilt the helmet forwards. Otherwise, it’ll be caused by the goggles and helmet having an incompatible shape.
Besides looking at bit daft, the gap will end up giving you a very cold head as lots of cold air pours in between helmet and goggle as you ride, so it’s best to try and avoid it.
Goggles and lenses from the same manufacturer will generally be designed to fit snugly together and eliminate goggle gap, but you can find sets from different manufacturers that will work well. Take a look at the top edge of your goggle and the lower front edge of your helmet before you buy, to try and judge if the two will fit together nicely.
Modern helmets are mostly constructed in one of three different ways, and each has their own pros and cons.
In mould helmets use a hard outer plastic shell, with an inner polystyrene padding layer. With in-mould helmets, the two layers are moulded together, which allows the finished helmet to be lighter and have more venting than a regular hard shell helmet.
On the down-side, in-mould helmets tend to be more expensive than regular hard shells, and their use of EPS (Expanded Polystyrene) foam, means that they’re only good for one hard impact before they need to be replaced.
The other limitation of EPS is that it doesn’t give any protection against smaller impacts – if you don’t hit your head hard enough to crush the EPS then you take the full brunt of the impact on the inner foam padding, which can hurt.
Hard shell helmets use very similar construction materials to in-mould helmets – a harder protective outer shell and an impact-absorbing internal EPS foam layer. The difference here is that a hard shell helmet is moulded in separate parts before being glued together.
This construction approach allows manufacturers to keep costs down, so the finished helmet is cheaper and provides a good level of protection, while also being a little heavier and not as easy to ventilate.
As with In-mould helmets, the use of polystyrene foam means that hard shell helmets are only good for one heavy impact before the foam is crushed and loses all its protective qualities. And likewise, you’ll feel every impact that isn’t hard enough to crush the foam transferred right through to your head.
Soft shell helmets are a slightly newer innovation in skiing and snowboarding and there aren’t many of them about. Steering clear of single-impact EPS foam in favour of more flexible and robust construction materials that can absorb multiple impacts, they rebound to provide protection again each time.
The benefit of these new materials is that they can still provide a good level of protection against large-scale heavy impacts (having received all the safety certifications they need to prove it), while also being able to absorb and protect your head against smaller impacts. They’ll generally mould to the shape of your head better too.
Venting is an important element of helmet design, particularly if you’re going to be doing quite high intensity riding or touring.
Wrapping your head up in a big bit of impermeable polystyrene is going to get awfully wet awfully quickly unless you’ve got some venting to allow a bit of fresh air to circulate and let some of that sweaty water vapour to escape.
The higher intensity the exercise you’re doing is, the more you’re going to sweat and the more vents you’ll want. If you’re in really cold or windy conditions then you might want to consider fewer vents, but stop short of having none at all. You can always add a thin wicking balaclava or hat to give extra insulation in really cold conditions. If you don’t let that moisture out with venting, things will get cold quickly, so don’t skip the vents.
Ski and snowboard helmets can look quite wildly different from one model to the next, but they tend to fall into three main categories – half shell, full shell and full face.
Half shell helmets are most common, providing least coverage and therefore least protection, but still plenty for most ski and snowboard activities. While they might give you least protection, they’re also most open, comfortable and flexible for different conditions.
With an open face, and usually only optional soft ear protection, they protect the forehead, top and back of your head from impact.
Calling this style “full shell” is probably a bit misleading. Really, they just give you “a bit more shell” than a half shell – mainly around the ears. They give extra coverage over the side of your head, face and jaw, while remaining open at the front.
This style is popular for ski racing – where they’re often paired with a chin guard to protect against slalom poles – or for younger kids, where you might want to provide a little more protection than a standard half shell.
Full face helmets have a rather controversial history in the world of skiing and snowboarding. While they do arguably provide the most protection, ideal for the more extreme ends of the activity spectrum, they can also restrict vision, and have been blamed for increasing the likelihood of neck injuries.
The jury’s still out on full face at the moment, so while they have been gaining popularity again recently, they still represent a fairly small proportion of helmets sold. That said, if you’re concerned about facial or jaw injuries, a full face helmet could be for you.
Besides the basics, most helmets will have some extra added features to separate them from the crowd. Here are a few you might want to consider.
MIPS, or the Multi-directional Impact Protection System, is designed to protect your head against glancing blows or impacts that don't come directly at the head. This type of impact can be even more dangerous than a direct impact if the rotational force of the impact is transferred to the head and neck. In a MIPS helmet, there's a slip-plane, or layer that allows the outer layers of the helmet to slide relative to your head, reducing the rotational or indirect forces that are transferred through to your head.
Hardly any falls or impacts involve a direct, straight-on impact into your helmet so MIPS can be a really effective feature.
Easy-to-use Chinstrap and Clasp
Every helmet will have a chin strap and clasp, but some are easier to set and use than others. Make sure that the helmet you buy has a clasp that’s easy to use, especially when wearing gloves.
If you’d like the option to vary the amount of venting depending on your activity level and the weather conditions then you could choose a helmet with adjustable venting. Different manufacturers have different systems, but each will have the same aim.
Unless you’re a follower of skiing and snowboarding’s most fickle trends then chances are you wear your goggles round your helmet, rather than under it. To help with this, many helmets feature a clip or clips at the back to hold your goggle strap in place. This is great for stopping the strap slipping up or down, and should keep your goggles attached to your helmet if you have a heavy crash.
Look for liners that are made of a technical wicking fabric to help transport sweat away from your head. It’s even better if you can remove the liner altogether, to dry it quickly between rides or wash it. Helmets can get smelly pretty fast if you sweat a lot, so the more that you can do to keep them fresh the better.
Removable Ear Pads
Most half shell helmets come with pads to give your ears a bit of extra protection from the cold and any knocks they might get. If the weather’s warm, however, they could make you too hot – so it’s best if they’re removable to give you the flexibility to use your helmet in all conditions.
Audio Ear Pads
Some helmets come with headphone speakers in the ear pads to let you listen to your favourite tunes while shredding. Others will be convertible, so you can open them up, remove a bit of padding, and replace with your own earphone cup for the same effect.
Helmets are really important bits of kit, and the majority of them are only really good for one hard impact. That means you need to take care of them! Be careful, don’t drop them or throw them around and try to be honest if they do take a big hit.
If you’ve got an Expanded Polystyrene Foam-lined helmet (Hard Shell or In-Mould) then you should replace your helmet if…
- You take one hard crash
- You drop it from more than two feet
- It’s more than three to five years’ old
If you’ve got a Soft Shell helmet, replace your helmet every three to five years.
And regardless of whether you drop it – keep the thing as clean and dry as possible, because jeez, those things can stink if you’re not careful!
We hope that this has helped you get an idea of what to look for in a ski and snowboard helmet, how to check it fits and care for it. If you have any questions, don’t hesitate to get in touch – one of our friendly and knowledgeable team will be happy to help you out.
There are heaps of other useful guides over on our gear guides page – so go check them out!