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Ski helmet safety standards and ratings

More and more skiers and snowboarders are warming up to the idea that helmets, once considered passe, can reduce injuries and deaths on the slopes. Besides providing safety, the best ski and snowboarding helmets keep your head warm in cold weather and reasonably cool in warm weather, and even eliminate goggle fogging. Modern ski helmets are light and comfortable enough that you can literally forget you're wearing one at all. Many are sound-system and Bluetooth compatible so you can talk on your cell phone or listen to music, although this often requires purchasing an add-on audio kit.

ConsumerReports.org hasn't published ratings for ski helmets since December 2003, although their experts do recommend wearing a helmet for skiing and snowboarding (and sledding, too). The most successful helmets are updated every model year with tweaks to fine details such as ventilation and adjustability, so reviews from 2003 are quite out of date. However, the criteria ConsumerReports.org used for testing the helmets -- including stability, warmth and ventilation -- are still practical when considering a helmet purchase.

A key factor to look for is an ASTM or CE certification, which will be listed on the manufacturer's or retailer's website, packaging and sales material. These certifications ensure that ski and snowboard helmets meet a minimum set of safety standards; most helmets from major manufacturers are certified under both. Ski and snowboarding helmet recalls are rare, but they do happen; in July 2011, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission recalled the Uvex Funride helmet for not providing enough shock absorption or protection against penetration.

Backcountry.com conducts the only comparative and somewhat standardized tests we could find for ski and snowboard helmets. The testing procedure includes stuffing a cantaloupe into each helmet, then dropping it onto concrete from a height of 12 feet. Testers also freeze the helmets, then stomp on them and strike them with a hammer.

Other authoritative sources are the yearly editors' picks and buyer's guides from enthusiast magazines such as Powder, Skiing, Freeskier, Outside, TransWorld Snowboarding and even Backpacker. Interestingly, most of these publications don't go into detail when reviewing helmets; they simply list a few favorite features for each model and make no direct comparisons between them. Negative features are rarely discussed, if ever, and only passing mention is made of hands-on testing. Despite increasing awareness about the role helmets play in preventing head injuries, they typically receive just a one- or two-page mention (and sometimes none at all) in guides that dedicate dozens of pages of coverage to skis and snowboards.

A few expert reviewers are more forthcoming. Women's Adventure Magazine publishes a comprehensive report, although it addresses only women's ski and snowboarding helmets. Several anonymous testers evaluate various models and give them star ratings, along with short tags designating the riding style for which they're best suited. We can't determine how many testers are involved or what methods they use, and each helmet gets a short review that tends to highlight only positive aspects. However, testers occasionally mention features they dislike, such as the hook-and-loop fit adjustments on the POC Frontal (*Est. $150).

Mountain Weekly News offers mostly in-depth reviews of individual helmets by individual testers, although a couple of them receive just a cursory evaluation of features. SkiGenie.com, a so-called "ski search engine" run by a former ski racer, identifies top picks in unisex, women's and kids' categories, although it isn't clear if hands-on testing was conducted.

We can often depend on user reviews to highlight problems with helmet construction and features that don't perform as advertised, but user-review coverage in this category is highly variable. Sometimes we found hundreds of owner comments, as for the Smith Optics Variant Brim (*Est. $160). Other times we were lucky to find even a single user review, as for the Salomon Venom (*Est. $70), which is nonetheless our Best Reviewed women's helmet thanks to strong expert recommendations. Review aggregators like Buzzillions.com collect user reviews from multiple retail sites. While these are worthwhile to get an overall view of the average user's opinion for each helmet, it's also easy to reread the same reviews. Whenever possible, we went directly to individual retail sites for owner feedback.

Most ski and snowboard helmets cluster in two major price breaks, with relatively simple models priced at about $80 to $130, including our Best Reviewed overall helmet, the Smith Optics Maze (*Est. $100). Helmets in the $150 and up price range offer basically the same protection, but more adjustability and customizability. The priciest model is the POC Receptor Backcountry (*Est. $250), which gets a nod from both Outside and Skiing magazines, and is even mentioned on ESPN's website. If you're a serious backcountry skier, the built-in avalanche reflector, multiple-impact protection and penetration shield may be worth the high price tag; the helmet even has a double overlapping shell that rotates, reducing rotational forces on the brain in case of impact.

Can't afford a $250 helmet? You can still find excellent protection in the $100 to $200 price range. A few perfectly effective helmets retail for less than $100 and are sometimes on sale for $50 or less, so cost is no excuse for going without one.

Opinions about which ski helmet is best vary widely; for example, the Leedom Prophet (*Est. $140) receives the best score in Backcountry.com's "goat test," but isn't mentioned in any other reviews. Our Best Reviewed choices are those that reflect the highest degree of consensus between both expert and user reviews.

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Smith Optics Maze Junior Helmets
Buy from Amazon.com
from Amazon.com
New: $100.00   
Average Customer Review:  
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Smith Optics Variant Brim Snow Helmets
Buy from Amazon.com
from Amazon.com
New: $160.00   
Average Customer Review:  

Ski Helmets Runners Up:

Smith Variant Brim *Est. $160

4 picks including: Amazon.com, YouTube.com…

Smith Vantage *Est. $180

4 picks including: Backpacker.com, Outside Magazine…

Giro G10 *Est. $130

3 picks including: Backcountry.com, REI.com…

Red Hi-Fi *Est. $100

3 picks including: Backcountry.com, Women's Adventure magazine…

Pro-Tec B2 Snow *Est. $75

2 picks including: Outside Magazine, YouTube.com…

K2 Rival *Est. $100

2 picks including: Outside Magazine, Powder Magazine…

Lucky Bums Winter Sports Youth Helmet *Est. $50

1 pick including: SkiMag.com, LuckyBums.com…

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Smith Optics Variant Brim Snow Helmets
Buy from Amazon.com
from Amazon.com
New: $160.00   
Average Customer Review:  
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Smith Optics Unisex Adult Vantage Snow Sports Helmet
Buy from Amazon.com
from Amazon.com
New: $180.00   
Average Customer Review:  

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