The Endless Ski Helmet Debate

Should you wear a helmet when skiing?

The topic can be a contentious clash between safety and freedom. Like some other arguments I can think of, often nothing is resolved and no one changes their mind.

tree skier with a helmet
The Cirque

Recent discussion reminded me of my own experience. I first started wearing a helmet after the big Valentine’s Day Storm of 2007. The snowpack was especially deep at Gore and I was skiing the trees full time.  It got me thinking.

My wife and I went into the old Mountain and Bordertown in North Creek. (Who remembers?!) We checked out two models, one was $60 the other was $110.  We asked: “what’s the difference between the two helmets?”

The answer: they were both equally safe, built to a standard, that I can’t recall. The difference, we were told, was that the more expensive helmets were lighter.

We tried them on it and found it to be true. The pricier helmet was noticeably lighter, and it seemed like it would matter over time. We bought those fancier helmets, and we still have them today. Zelda still wears hers, more on mine in a minute.

tree skier without a helmet
Inbounds trees at Plattekill

After years of wearing a helmet, my wife and I both like them. The operable vents are great for adjusting to changing temps, from winter cold to spring warmth. Another plus for me, hats seem to come and go, but I’ve never lost a helmet in all these years.

So I’m a helmet guy. But as I thought more about it, there is only one single link between my experience and my thinking. In 62 years of life, I believe I have had two concussions, and my helmet wasn’t a factor in either of them.

First, when I was in second grade, a gym teacher set up a relay race, indoors, in the gym. A clueless kid, I went all out with my head down and the results were not good. I woke an hour later with an stiff neck in the hospital. Obviously I wasn’t wearing a helmet.

powder skiing with a helmet
Plattekill Piste Pow

The other concussion I only diagnosed recently, after the fact. Looking back on it, it probably should have been obvious to me, but I wasn’t really educated on the topic. This time I was wearing a helmet.

I was in the Plattekill sidecountry skiing with Chris and the A-team. Also along for the first time, was Ed, my friend from Brant Lake NY.

There are parts of this terrain where the trees are naturally wide open. You really can ski freely in a few spots; see the shot below of Chris in Oz.  Believe me I wasn’t going crazy, but those trees do lend themselves to bigger swoopy lines. We were skiing in deep snow and I floated into a set of three rollers, three sweeping waves of drifted snow came at me quickly.

skiing in the trees without a helmet
The Land of Oz

The snow’s undulation was more than I could handle and I went down. I fell on my shoulder, there was no impact on my head. It was a soft landing and I didn’t feel physically “hurt” in any way.  It was hard to get up, in part I assumed, because the snow was so deep. When I did get up my vision became over-exposed, if that makes any sense. Everything was white and I was disoriented.

I was now behind the group and lucky that Ed was with me. It was 10 or 15 minutes before I could ski. Ed and I made our way, slowly out of the woods. Not to be too dramatic, but I’m not sure I would have made it back to the car without help. Ed, I’m forever grateful.

When we got back to the road, I fell to my knees in the plow snow by the side of the road. The guys were asking me if I was ok and for some reason I don’t fully understand, I was lying about it, muttering something like “yea just give me a minute.” I thought if they understood what was really going on, they’d be scared too, and that would scare me more.

damaged ski helmet
Click to enlarge

At the time I didn’t consider it might be a concussion. I imagined that it was just blood was rushing to my head. I hadn’t “banged” my skull. Looking back, I can’t really remember much of the rest of the day.

I do know that Ed had saved my shit big time. A few days later I wrote I’m Done Skiing Alone.

In my life, I’ve had two serious head injuries where a helmet didn’t seem to make the difference. Back on topic, what follows is my one more experience where my helmet did pay off. This is one time, in more than a decade.

It was early season at Gore with limited terrain. Guns were lined up along the length of Lower Sunway. I couldn’t resist the softer snow and I actually carried earplugs for situations like this. I thought, I can ski closer those Ratnik guns, if I can protect my ears.

But it’s not smart. That final gun in a long line was blowing gak and it grabbed my skis. I went down in a pile, all tangled up.  I got up and carried on with my day. But later I saw that my twin tip hit the back of my helmet. There was a big dent, but I was unhurt. My helmet paid for itself that day, another reason why I’ll always use a helmet.

That said, if you don’t wear one, it’s ok with me.

I believe kids should be required to wear helmets, until they’re old enough to make their own choices.

Currently helmets are required in New York. Legislation sponsored by Senator Betty Little in 2018, requires skiers and riders under 14 years of age, to wear helmets while riding ski areas in the state.

If you start kids skiing at 3, with a helmet rule, they’ll probably continue as adults. I’m ok with that too.

29 comments on “The Endless Ski Helmet Debate

  1. Thanks for writing this post, Harvey. I dislike how this conversation always becomes a soapbox for the self-righteous to tell people they are idiots if they’re not wearing a helmet. Except at the few ski areas where you must wear them, whether to wear a helmet or not is a choice and I’ll respect anyone’s choice to gear up with one or not.

    When I started skiing in the ’90s, no one wore a helmet – or at least, it was very rare to see one. I only picked one up when I was taking a guided tour in 2016 and they were required. What I discovered is that I really like wearing one when I ski because they are really warm. If it’s a T-shirt skiing spring day, I don’t bother wearing it. I still don’t wear one riding my bike (I probably would if I was mountain biking).

    Fun pics BTW.

  2. The way I look at it is Sonny Bono had a lot more money than me, but if he had a 90 dollar helmet on, he would be alive today. It’s not me it’s whose crashing in to me, and you are much warmer with helmet on

    FM Bobcat Pres

  3. The way I see it, there’s really just no downside or drawback to wearing a helmet. You might not look “as cool”, but that’s really insignificant when you’re comparing it to a possible head/neck injury.

  4. I too find helmets more comfortable, adjustable and less likely to get lost than hats. I wear one for road and mountain biking and wore one for motocross racing long ago. In one sport or another I get a good rap about once a year, but the thing I really like is the benefit of not having one of those bleeding scalp wounds. Those scare me for some reason more than the real dangers.
    I now wear one in the backcountry too, even though I used to get looks from the others. My reasoning goes: This is where the surprises lie under the snow and around every turn, and the trees are much closer while ski patrol is much farther.
    Thanks for letting me ramble.

  5. Helmet saved my life once at Mt Snow. A boarder was coming down the light side on the old summit triple chair. His board hit dry wood and he struggled to unload the chair. He held on to it tight, as it continued to wind around the bull wheel. Eventually he let go and the chair came swinging around rapidly at a wide angle, and the metal bar of the seat slammed into the back of my head (I was 9 or 10 at the time, and quite short!). I went flying into a snowbank beyond the load zone. If the narrow steel bar, loaded with all that momentum, had hit the back of my head directly, I shudder to think what would have happened to my skull. But the very narrow impact was instead distributed, via the helmet, across much of my head, and I merely got pushed forward.

    I could imagine a similar issue with any narrow surface-area impact to the head … a pointed rock or tree limb … the helmet re-distributes the force: better a concussion than a cracked skull.

  6. I started skiing before helmets were ubiquitous, and I’ve always had a pretty uncommonly large head, leading to me not to want to look like the great gazoo while skiing. My family had always given me crap for not wearing a helmet, and one trip my mom (who doesn’t ski) asked my sister’s boyfriend to see if he could convince me. After a day on the mountain, I stubbornly didn’t wear a helmet, but my sister’s boyfriend saw that my skiing style was borderline overly conservative and cautious and realized it wasn’t the most urgent intervention. As I’ve gotten more into skiing as a deep hobby and trying harder to push myself, I now wear a helmet both for safety and confidence. I’d rather wear it and not need it than need it and not be wearing it.

  7. Hey Harvey, I was with you that day at Platty in the side country. You came out of the woods looking dazed and confused. I was glad to see you in one piece. We got you into Chris’s outback and back to the lodge.

  8. Hi Harvey,
    thanks for the write-up and I look forward to seeing y’all real soon. Hopefully, winter can stick around this year after its typical early appearance these last seven or eight years.

    The only reason that I have foolishly and selfishly chosen to keep wearing my wool hats in place of the more ubiquitous ski helmet is because I think that they look nicer. Although I am glad that both of my grown kids wear helmets, I would prefer that ski hats came back into style and everyone, including my kids, ditched their helmets and put colorful hats back on. I think that skiers and riders look nicer and more relaxed while wearing hats.
    If I was ski racing or skiing at a crowded place, I would probably reconsider or, actually, not go there at all. …there’s my two cents. have fun!

  9. I had a slow motion, low speed crash on roller skis a few years ago. Section of my helmet the size of my thumbnail was all scuffed up and I was bleeding from abrasions around one eye socket. The photo that I posted in the forum here elicited a lot of the sort of discussion that Stuart above dislikes. If I hadn’t had the helmet, I would have been all messded up.

  10. Good one Harv….
    I got so many dam bell ringers (hockey ref) back in the 80s with that 1 and only Burton Air… falling downhill and cracking my head hard!!! A lot!
    Fast forward… I had a small tree lodged in the front of my old helmet.. that was a puncture right into the plastic!!!
    I never go without one!! I would be scalped in the trees!
    And Never on a bike without one!!!
    Be safe yall!!
    now.. how to get the N95 mask attached to the helmet..! ha

  11. There are those who think helmets are not needed whether riding a motorcycle, bicycle, or rock climbing. I guess that’s a choice, but the consequences can affect many others if severe injuries result. Is it freedom or selfishness??? Hmmmm…… I sometimes ask folks in the gondi why they are not wearing a helmet and their reasons are frequently lame.

    My biggest peeve about helmets is seeing Ski Patrol, Ski School or other mountain staff not wearing a helmet, for whatever reason. Very poor role modeling in my estimation….. and yes, I should wear a helmet in the back country.

  12. I was walking out of Mad River Glen towards the end of 2006 when my dad asked if we could stop in the store. This was about when helmets were picking up steam, because he must have noticed them on a lot of heads that day and he asked me if I would consider wearing one if he bought it for me. I had never considered wearing a helmet on a ski hill and thought he was joking. He said, “You have a lot of years of school in that brain, might as well protect it. Plus I hear they’re warm.”

    I left with a blue boeri that I came to wear the next season full time, and never looked back. The helmet was warm, and I loved the way you could ski the woods and the branches would just flick off the thing. It never got in the way of my vision and eventually I just stopped noticing it altogether.

    One day while taking it out of my bag and I noticed that it had a gigantic crack in it. I’ll never know what happened to it, but if I was wearing it at the time, I am sure glad it didn’t happen to my skull instead.

    There was a time in the beginning when I still thought like Chris does, that hats look cooler or more relaxed. Now it just looks old-timey to me; like if I got on the lift with someone wearing a pair of 215cm kastle’s, 5 buckle orange langes, and stretch pants. They might look cool, but I bet you could have more fun in equipment from this century.

    Even on Superstar days, I go back and forth between the baseball hat and the helmet because it just does seem to be a little smarter wearing the helmet. For me it depends on the crowd size whether I can wear a cap. It’s sort of like riding a motorcycle, sometimes it pays to remember that everyone else is trying to kill you.

    Going back to skiing without one would be impossible for me now. Thankfully, with ski pros doing the right thing and setting an example that everyone else follows, it’s tough to envision everyone else taking that step back now either.

    Glad to still have you around, Harv

  13. Your presumption that the helmet didn’t help at Plattekill is false. Your head injury would likely been much more severe. A helmet doesn’t stop all injury but can reduce the severity. but it can’t stop everything.
    remember natasha kinski

  14. Helmets saved my life twice now, I’m pretty convinced, and serious damage a few other times.

  15. I’ve been wearing a helmet for 45 or so years. I started because I raced a bit as a kid. We wore them only during practice and on racing days. At Skaneateles Ski Club. It seemed kind of silly. One day I crashed while wearing one. I fell on my head, bounced and slid for a long ways, and all I remember was that my glasses smashed. I cracked the helmet’s exterior. Did I say it was below zero? So that’s when I started wearing one all the time. I’d sometimes look around and see only one or two others wearing them, and they were usually racers or early snowboarders.

  16. Around 2002 friends all started wearing them. On a BC trip, Fernie, we had some snow days. I bought one there I think. It was so much better on a dumping snow day, light weight and no fogging lenses. Clear vision and warm ears, comfort go figure. Always used to fog up with those head scratchy ski hats. Giro had the lightest one with vents instead of those no vent ones. I love em. Hood not needed hardly ever and safety of course.

  17. Nice subject Harv, good for you not judging others by their approach, some who have grown up on skis and are not a hazard to themselves should not have to listen to the “motherly” type who feel a need to pass their judgement they should stick to telling their family what to do

    some may race border cross, pschocross, whatever and use a helmet yet when they are just free skiing they don’t feel the need for one

  18. I forgot to mention that at Greek Peak where I work all ski instructors, students, racers and adaptive participants are required to wear helmets. All lift operators do. Not sure about other all outside hill staff, but I see that the folks who work snowmaking, ride snowmobiles and ATVs wear them. Ski Patrol does too. Not sure about groomer operators.

  19. A helmet is also the perfect place to put stickers from your favorite mountains, beers, teams etc… How else will everybody in the lift line know you skied Jackson Hole last year?

  20. I ski exclusively in the bush. I have an expensive kevlar multi-sport helmet that I bought at a shop in British Columbia. I constantly get comments from the Outdoor Retailers and gear nerds about wearing a whitewater helmet while skiing, or the fact that I wear a light toque underneath. If you know Outdoor Retailers, you know they don’t get out much, their job is to sell more gear. Some of the people I ride with wear helmets in the trees, some don’t, it’s your choice.

  21. Rethinking it, I’m not sure you can say definitively that my helmet mattered one way or the other in that fall. I’m pretty convinced that my injury was from the sudden (negative) acceleration of my brain inside my skull. If so, that could be an argument for the lighter helmet… Regardless, I’m wearing a helmet when riding lifts, so my analysis of that incident doesn’t have to be definitive.

    Like some others, I don’t wear a helmet in the BC. Downhill is a small percentage of a BC day, my downhill speed is significantly slower and the helmet is far less convenient in the woods. None of that makes it the right decision. It’s just where I fall on it, to a skeptic it’s just another rationalization.

    Thanks for the response and well wishes. This was kind of personal, been thinking about it for a long time, but was never sure I would put it out there.

    One thing, between the first pic (2007) and the third pic (2014), it looks like I learned how to keep my weight back.

  22. Is there going to be a clash action suit that skiing causes CTE? I first started wearing one many moons ago when I bought one for my wife and it was too big for her but fit me. I can remember two times I think it helped…One time we were just ripping anything on a deep day at Gore and went over the rockwall on lower Steilhang. I hit saw stars and thought “man, thank God I had a helmet”. The other time was out at Alta and I went off a ledge while it was puking and was expecting a soft landing…not a cat track…I crumpled and hit hard. Thanks God I had a helmet. But it is nice to have skiing the trees because you don’t get as many twig whips. I don’t wear it when the weather gets really warm. It may save a life here or there. I don’t judge and it is up to the skier. I also think it may give some a false sense of security. To each his/her own

  23. One reason I wear a helmet is so the High Peaks Chair safety bar does not hurt too much when it whacks me in the head when I load. I guess that issue has gone away:-) But as my wife likes to say you are your head.

  24. I wear a helmet 100% for as long as I recall–for all the reasons stated by other believers. Was never an issue for me and have never thought twice about it.

    It falls into a lot of other “safety-related” gear category that I use and wear. If my loved ones feel more comfortable me having it while I’m out doing riskier stuff, that’s the only reason I need… helmet, ski helmet, mouthguard playing basketball, GarminIn reach while hiking, roadID bracelet, skiing sidecountry with a group, written trip plans….whatever.

  25. Wow. This is a pretty extensive comment section! Who knew there was so much to say about helmets. Honestly I find that at a lot of ski areas it’s rare to see anyone without a helmet.

  26. Agree with ml242 – when I see a dude on the lift line with a snow-caked hat it just makes me think he took out some 30-year-old equipment for his first day on the slopes in decades and probably can’t handle a blue. And don’t get me started on those ridiculous yarn balls sticking out the top.

    Apart from being warmer and safer, helmets eliminate goggle tug – back when I wore a hat last century I remember the google straps would never stay in one place and were always either choking the blood vessels in my head or sliding the whole hat up. Not something I miss.

    Lastly – Back in 2006 helmets were all equally safe but that’s not necessarily true today. Helmets that sport a MIPS (multidirectional impact protection) logo provide additional protection in any kind of indirect, twisting impact. Google it – it’s worth the extra dough.

  27. Excellent description of the feelings of fear we experience right after a good concussion. It’s scary man. Glad you’re alright!

  28. zBird – I have a buddy who is a research scientist at a lab in the field of safety devices. He was the first person I knew with a very expensive MIPS bike helmet. A few years after that he was in a horrendous accident where a car sent him flying onto his noggin and pavement. He fully credits the device with saving his cognitive abilities. Most people in crashes like that I’ve talked to don’t even remember getting hit. Anyway, it’s a small sample size but when I get around to upgrading, I’ll give the MIPS a strong look, especially for cycling.

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