Ski and snowboard helmets have become more widely accepted in recent years, in part because increasing numbers of scientific studies demonstrate their importance in reducing death and injury, and the unfortunate occurrence of a few tragic (and high-profile) accidents. But even the best helmet won't do any good unless it stays on your head, and users and expert reviewers alike say their favorite lids are so lightweight and comfortable they often forget they're wearing one. So it's no surprise that light weight and comfort are two primary considerations when choosing the best helmet for snow sports.
According to reviews, the Smith Optics Maze (*Est. $100) does everything right by keeping things simple. It's advertised as the world's lightest safety-certified helmet (weighing in at 11.5 ounces or 330 grams) and has a simplistic, well-ventilated design. The editor of SkiGenie.com, a former racer, says some users complain of insufficient insulation on this helmet; while the vents don't slide open and shut, you can plug them shut for extra protection in wet weather. Yet an in-depth review at GearJunkie.com says the Maze's ventilation system offers excellent climate control, staying warm on winter days and cool in the spring, and the 2012 model allows the user to fine-tune internal airflow.
Buzzillions.com collected more than 60 owner reviews for the Maze: Users say they're very confident in the protection it offers, and several even report taking dramatic falls and suffering no ill effects afterward. Powder Magazine also praises this helmet for its minimalist design, light weight and optional integrated audio.
The details seem to be what make this helmet so popular. One user complains that the Maze's ear pads can muffle too much sound, but they're easily removable; if you opt for a built-in audio system, the mute-control switch is easy to use, even with gloves on. The Maze also eliminates the "gaper gap" that develops between goggles and the leading edge of some ski and snowboard helmets, leaving a strip of your forehead exposed. We turned up only a few minor complaints: the SkiGenie.com gripe about insulation, and a couple of Buzzillions.com reviews warning that the goggle clip is a little flimsy and audio quality isn't the best. A couple of Amazon.com users also grumble that the Smith Maze's goggle clip isn't very secure.
Smith Optics dominates the all-around category with the Variant Brim (*Est. $160) and Vantage (*Est. $180) coming in as close runners-up to the Maze. Both offer a short brim to streamline the helmet and keep snow off the top of your goggles; the Variant is also available in a brimless version. Many users like the look of the brim, and a few say it helps provide a good fit between helmet and goggles, but the brims are also the most frequent cause of complaints for these models. Goggles tend to hang up on the brim when sliding them up onto your forehead, and just getting them up can be challenging if they have a short strap.
Both helmets have a Boa ratchet-adjust system -- two tabs you squeeze together in back -- to help wearers fine-tune the fit. It's a hit with most expert and user reviewers, except for one Variant Brim owner. He says on SierraTradingPost.com that the Boa system is more fiddly than Giro's wheel-based adjustment system, and a few Buzzillions.com users agree that the Variant can be difficult to adjust. An anonymous tester for ShredTalks.com who used an older version of the Variant Brim for half a season says it's an excellent helmet with great goggle integration, but the goggle lock can rattle when riding and wearing earbuds with the ear pads is uncomfortable. However, a couple of more recent Amazon.com user reviews say wearing earbuds with the ear pads works just fine.
The Smith Optics Variant Brim and Vantage helmets offer AirEvac ventilation systems designed to keep goggles fog-free. In a video review, a Park2Peak employee calls this one of the best features for the Variant Brim; on the Vantage, you can adjust the front and rear vents independently, giving you even more control over your temperature. In an online review at FeedtheHabit.com, an experienced skier likes how the Vantage's vents close flush against the helmet's outer surface instead of the liner, so there are no openings to fill with snow if you crash. Yet some of the permanently open vents can let too much cold air pass through in windy conditions.
The K2 Rival (*Est. $100) is priced the same as the Smith Optics Maze but offers fewer features. It was selected for the 2011 Outside magazine Winter Buyer's Guide, although the author of the short review warns that "except for a few tiny holes on the brim and back, the Rival has no vents." It does have in-helmet ventilation channels and a dial-adjusted fit system, and if you're willing to pay an extra $20 you can get the K2 Rival Pro (*Est. $120) with a basic audio system built into the liner. The editors of Powder Magazine's 2012 Gear Guide liked the Rival Pro for its audio system and dial-adjust fit. If you remove the liner to wear this helmet with a beanie, however, you extract its audio capabilities, too.
The Giro G10 (*Est. $130) is another popular helmet; in fact, it receives about 180 user reviews on Buzzillions.com that rave about its comfort, ventilation -- some of its vents can be closed -- and adjustable fit. The Telegraph's ski correspondent praises the G10 for its excellent ventilation, and about 10 REI.com user reviews give it an average 4.5-star ranking (out of 5). The helmet also performs admirably in Backcountry.com's "goat tests," suffering only superficial damage when stomped on while frozen and getting 4 out of 5 "goats" possible on the melon drop, a 12-foot drop onto concrete with a cantaloupe stuffed inside. We found a smattering of user complaints about fit-adjustment problems and an uncomfortable chinstrap. The biggest gripe is that the G10 causes some goggles to pinch across the nose.
One of the least expensive ski helmets we found is the Pro-Tec B2 Snow (*Est. $75), which is recommended by Outside magazine and gets a nod from The Telegraph's ski correspondent. The B2 Snow is a rare find in this price range because its foam layer within the shell can reconstitute after impact, offering multiple impact protection.
For about $25 more, the ultralight, ultra-comfortable Red Hi-Fi (*Est. $100) is even more well-liked by experts and user reviewers. The helmet is earbud compatible -- no need to purchase an extra audio kit, just zip your headphones into the earpieces and go -- and TruSnow.com users are enthusiastic about its sound system. The Hi-Fi also receives a 5-stars-out-of-5 rating in Backcountry.com's frozen performance tests, which include stomping on the helmet and striking it with a hammer. Reviewers said the Hi-Fi took the melon drop test "like a champ," but it scored only 3 out of 5 because the cantaloupe it contained did sustain some damage.
The Red Hi-Fi costs the same as the Smith Optics Maze, so if you're looking for a straightforward, low-profile helmet to avoid what one TruSnow.com reviewer calls the Red Hi-Fi's "mushroom head" effect, the all-around Best Reviewed Maze is an excellent budget choice.
Finally, the Giro Surface S (*Est. $80) offers a simple, low-profile fit with six mesh-covered vents. At 18 ounces for the average men's size, it's a few ounces heavier than some helmets. Although it closely resembles the Giro Surface bike helmet, the Surface S isn't intended for year-round use. Outside magazine calls the Surface S a great budget deal, but warns that its cheaply padded chin buckle can end up in awkward positions. Both Outside and TransWorld Snowboarding like the Surface S for its adjustability, but the helmet must be taken off and pads added or removed to fine-tune the fit.
There's no reason women can't wear men's ski and snowboard helmets as long as the sizing is right, but for women who have smaller heads or lots of hair, female-specific designs may be worth a look.
The Salomon Venom (*Est. $70) can be worn by either gender but is designed specifically to fit a woman's head, allowing extra space for tucking long hair underneath or gathering hair into a low ponytail. The editor of SkiGenie.com selects the Venom as one of the best women's helmets for 2011 and Freeskier.com names it one of just four Editors' Picks for 2012. Although the plush, faux-fur ear pads may be marketed as a style point, they keep ears very warm. We found only one user review for the Venom -- on the Salomon website -- that simply states, "love it." We saw no negative comments about the Venom at all, although it received much less attention overall than ski helmets offered in either unisex or both men's and women's models.
If you're willing to spend a bit more, the Giro Grove (*Est. $130), a women's version of the Giro G10, ranked highest in a test conducted by Women's Adventure Magazine. Smith Optics offers a women's version of the Variant Brim (*Est. $160). The Red Hi-Fi (*Est. $100) scores very well in the Women's Adventure review; it's a little more expensive than the Venom but comes with screened vents, a rotating outer shell and built-in earbud capability. Testers particularly like the Hi-Fi's ultralight feel and the air chamber across the back that allows its fit to be fine-tuned.
While helmets designed specifically for kids don't get much scrutiny from reviewers, they get plenty of attention from resorts, many of which mandate that children wear helmets while skiing or snowboarding. A brief review of kids' ski helmets at SkimbacoLifestyle.com says kids are more likely to keep a helmet on if it fits both their head and their style; the author singles out the Smith Optics Upstart Junior (*Est. $70) as one of the better models thanks to its soft lining, fog-free goggle system and complimentary stickers for customization. SkiMag.com picks the Lucky Bums Winter Sports Youth Helmet (*Est. $50) as one of the best new helmets for 2011, but it's available only in toddler sizes.
For a wider sizing range and better adjustability, which allows the helmet to grow with your child for at least a little while, try the Giro G9 Junior (*Est. $80). SkiGenie.com's ex-ski-racer editor recommends the G9 Junior for good durability and consistent performance, and a handful of user reviews on Buzzillions.com indicate that parents purchase this helmet for 1-year-olds and up. Both parents and kids like the G9 Junior; kids think the bright graphics options are cool, and they make your child easier to spot on the slopes. The adult version of this helmet receives positive user reviews on TruSnow.com and Buzzillions.com. Smith Optics offers a kids' version of the all-around Best Reviewed Maze (*Est. $100), but we found no reviews specific to it.