Get to know your most important piece of crash protection gear for snowsports and cycling
By Dave Robinson
In an age when custom skis are approaching $2,000 and mountain bikes can cost over $10,000, it can be easy to forget the value of your helmet. But if you take a moment to think about it, this $50 investment in your kit could save you tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars in medical bills, not to mention your life.
The bottom line is that you can’t enjoy your gear in the great outdoors if you’re broken. To encourage you to protect yourself we have put together this primer to help you find the right helmet for your needs.
If we can move beyond how the color works with our kit for a moment we can discuss the real reason we wear a helmet – to protect our dome. To ensure that the helmet you choose is going to actually protect you the Consumer Product Safety Council (CPSC) has minimum standards that all helmet manufacturers must meet. The big players in the helmet industry all not only conform to the minimum standards but are regularly exceeding the standards in an effort to enhance your safety.
The most basic and understandable of the standards is coverage, which defines how low on your head the helmet was designed to experience impacts. Road and mountain biking helmets cover the top of the head and a bit lower towards your ears, coverage on snow helmets is a bit better, extending lower on your head, while downhill mountain biking helmets provide the most complete coverage.
All certified ski, snowboard, and bike helmets are required to deform and fail at or below 300 g’s of impact.
Snow or Bike
The standards for snow and bike helmets are very similar so the primary difference you’ll notice is ventilation. Bike helmets channel air into the helmet to cool the perspiring rider while snow helmets are more focused on keeping you warm. Some snow helmets feature adjustable ventilation for those warmer spring days. In 2015 the National Ski Area Association reported that 65% of skiers and snowboarders in the US wore helmets. If you’re looking for a helmet manufacturer that is producing a variety of cross-over helmets for both cycling and snowsports check out the Bern range.
As a cyclist, you may be wondering which style helmet you should purchase if you’ve not already made that decision. Despite having to conform to the same CPSC standard you’ll notice road helmets are geared towards lighter weight and good ventilation while half shell helmets for mountain biking are very focused on coverage. This is demonstrated by the “enduro style” helmets which have extended coverage at the back of the head. Freeride legend Richey Schley collaborated with iXS to develop their Trail RS helmet with the goal to provide excellent back of head coverage while remaining lightweight (330 g) and cool (22 vents).
If you are riding chairlifts for the brown pow, you are probably riding a longer travel bike and are travelling at higher speeds which should make you consider the additional protection provided by a full face helmet. The primary visible difference from other helmets is the chin guard that extends below the nose to protect against impacts and abrasions to the face. Helmets marketed as downhill need to meet additional criteria specified by the ASTM for deflection of impacts by the chinbar. Full face use isn’t limited to the bike park, but you may notice reduced visibility, less ventilation, and perhaps even diminished hearing capabilities when wearing full face helmet on the trails. Not a bad trade-off if you’re pushing your limits and want to ride another day. Kids dig ’em too!
The Bell Super 3R is perhaps the most popular helmet with a removable chin bar currently on the market. It offers the protection of a chin bar without the significant weight normally associated with a full face helmet. Though it might not offer the elevated level of protection of true downhill helmet, it will perhaps encourage more riders to climb with their helmet on rather than strapped to their pack or hanging on their bars. Collisions between an unprotected climbing rider and a speeding descender are far more common than you might expect.
This is one of the more important elements of the helmet you choose. Visit your local bike shop and try on a couple of different styles and manufacturers helmets and you’ll notice that some helmets are designed around a rounder head and some a more oval dome. Discover which you are and which helmet fits best because we all want you to love this puppy and wear it all the time.
You’ll also notice there are multiple fitting systems available, these range from basic sliders at the back of the helmet to fancy dials. Choose the one that you prefer but remember it probably won’t require much additional adjustment once fitted to your head.
A quick note on fitting the retention straps of the helmet to your head. Start on the left side and move the slider so it nearly touches the bottom of your ear then adjust the length of the straps emerging from the helmet so they are tensioned equally. Now move to the right side and do the same. Snug the buckle that connects the right and left straps beneath your chin tight enough so the helmet can’t shift on impact.
In an age of acronyms, we’ve got another one for you, Multi-direction Impact Protection System. MIPS was developed as a result of extensive research into brain trauma and the discovery that twisting the brain inside the skull can be really bad (understatement). Essentially, the system is designed to reduce rotational forces caused by angled impacts to your skull. This is done by integrating a slip layer between the shell and liner which will allow the helmet to slide relative to your head on impact. MIPS is a stand-alone company which licenses its patented concept to helmet manufacturers resulting in about a $20-40 premium on most designs. You’ll notice more manufacturers and models are adopting the MIPS design and this has already started bringing the price down.
Most riders appreciate the additional sun protection that a visor provides and you’ll find visors on nearly all designs except dirt jump shells. You may also want to consider the type of eyewear you’re using and check the compatibility before purchasing your next helmet. Most goggle compatible designs have a channel or recessed area wrapping around the back of the helmet to secure the goggle when it is on your face. Some helmets even allow the goggle to be moved off the face and tucked below the visor.
Go-Pro heroes know that video doesn’t look nearly as cool if you don’t have a solid mount on your helmet. Fortunately some of the helmet manufacturers are integrating break-away mounts for your favorite POV cameras and lights.
When to Replace It
Helmet manufacturers recommend that you replace your helmet every three years or after any significant impact. Significant impact can mean different things to different people but consider obvious compression from a crash that is visible on the shell as significant.
High speed video tests have shown minute cracks of the foam liners that demonstrate a compromised helmet even without telltale markings on the exterior shell. Tossing your full face in the back of the truck will give it a bitchin patina but will also make it difficult to discern if that compression mark is from that last tree contact or from getting pinched between the cooler and your handlebar. Give your helmet the love it deserves and it will love you back.
When to Wear It
Always! We want you to live long and prosper in the outdoors and that won’t happen if you bust open your nut. Your head doesn’t know the difference between a tree at speed on your DH bike and a curb when you’re returning from the brewery on your cruiser. If that potentially significant other doesn’t dig your helmet-head hairstyle they probably wouldn’t be bedside for you in the emergency room after you ring your bell. Save your cocktail cash and put it into the right lid!
And What About Neck Braces?
Dr. Chris Leatt started developing neck braces for motorcyclists back in 2001 after witnessing a death the weekend after his son started riding moto. The neck brace dissipates many helmet impacts into the chest and shoulders by design and should be a serious consideration for all aggressive riders and competitors who wear a full face helmet. Some argue that this redistribution may create more injuries but personally if I have the choice between a broken collarbone and a broken neck I’ll take the collarbone, thank you much.
Make sure that the neck brace works well in conjunction with the helmet you’ve chosen, they will restrict movement by design but it shouldn’t be so restrictive as to prevent you from wearing the two together. Aussie mountain biker Sam Hill won the 2010 downhill world championshionships wearing a Leatt DBX ushering in the application in mountain biking. Currently there are at least a half dozen manufacturers producing mountain bike specific neck braces.
Dave Robinson works for The Ride Guides, a local mountain bike guiding and coaching service based in Santa Cruz. He is a staunch advocate for the environment and is passionate about developing inspired stewards via outdoor recreation.