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Solid Info Regarding Helmet Choices

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    Between a Rock and a Soft Place
    Choosing the safest helmet
    Tom Price

    When his son Lucas died kayaking the North Fork of the Payette in July 1998, Gil Turner wanted to know why. Luke was a world-class boater (his younger brother Nick paddles for TGR), and knew what he was doing. When Gil learned that it was Luke’s helmet that failed, not his skills, he launched what has become his life’s mission: exposing the little secret of the paddling industry, namely that there are no U.S. safety standards for kayak helmets. He founded the Whitewater Safety and Research Institute to push adoption of a new set of standards by the American Society of Testing Materials (ASTM), which are now being developed.

    What should you look for if you want to be safe on the river? We suggest putting aside your preconceptions, and reading the following unbiased look at what’s out there. It may make the difference between a paddle on the river, and a ride in an ambulance.

    First, some basic information. A day on a river is likely to include some inverted time. Your helmet is a product with as many designs as there are rivers, with no two models alike. Generally, helmets fall into three categories: lightweight models, designed first and foremost to be comfortable; a middle group, that absorbs the impact of small to large bumps; and the beefy models that will let you feel most knocks, but will save you from a blow that could knock you out.

    While there is a European standard, called CE, that most companies adhere to, almost all agree it’s inadequate. There’s a warning label on most helmets saying that the helmet is designed "so the energy of an impact is absorbed through partial destruction, which may not be visible to the naked eye." Most of these labels also include the advice that, after a helmet experiences this "partial destruction," it should then be destroyed or returned—though the labels don’t say how you are supposed to identify this invisible destruction. Obviously, a whitewater helmet is likely to get hundreds of impacts. But without a uniform U.S. standard, who knows what to look for?

    If anyone, it’s Prof. David Halstead of the University of Tennessee, Director of the Sports Biomechanics Impact Laboratory and a research scientist for the school’s Institute for Injury and Trauma Prevention. "The typical performance of helmets you can buy is poor when it comes to protecting your head," he says, adding that there are exceptions. While many manufacturers emphasize comfort, Halstead believes comfort should be sacrificed on the altar of impact management. "A helmet should stay securely in place, and disperse the impact of a blow throughout the helmet," he maintains. He looks at three helmet characteristics: outer shell, liner, and fitting system.

    Shells: There are two basic kinds of shells—plastic and composite. Plastic comes in three common forms: polyethylene, "which is not as resistant to impact and penetration;" polycarbonate, "which can have impressive properties," or polyurethane, which comes in so many forms "it’s like calling it dirt. Is it loam, clay, topsoil or sand?" Without getting too technical, Halstead believes plastic shells require even greater attention to the liner. "If you pick up a helmet and the plastic looks like a kids toy, and it’s relatively flexible and has an interior component foam you can squish down to the shell, that’s not going to protect you." Plastic does have one benefit, it allows for drain holes, which prevent "bucketing," helping to keep the helmet in place. Conversely, holes reduce protection, so a closer fitting full helmet would seem to offer more overall protection.

    Halstead prefers composite shells for their ability to spread impacts, but notes that without standards "one strand of carbon fiber and Kevlar is enough to say it’s a composite helmet." He also doesn’t think much of the trend toward fixed brims, saying, "that’s not a bumper, it’s a rudder," noting the brim could scoop water and force the helmet backwards, exposing your forehead. For sun protection, he advocates a snap on, breakaway bill.

    Liner: There are three main types of insulation. Expanded Poly-Propylene (EPP) is the most common. It’s very stiff, not affected by moisture, and will take multiple impacts, according to Halstead. Expanded Poly-Styrene is "the very best" energy attenuating substance. It’s what’s used in bike helmets, but generally is only expected to be hit once, and with one exception noted below isn’t used in whitewater helmets. Finally, there are closed-cell foams. The best of these are otherwise known as Vinyl Nitrile, which is a PVC synthetic rubber, heavier in a safe density than EPS/EPP, and will absorb water, but it is usually much softer. A closed-cell foam will also absorb sweat along with water, which can make for a ‘funky’ brain bucket. A fourth insulation, Ethyl Vinyl Acetate or EVA, "isn’t a functional energy attenuator because it’s so springy," says Halstead.

    Halstead says stiffer is better. "When you look at the stuff that will actually protect your head, it ought to be so stiff that you think, ‘my God, this is going to hurt.’ But you need that much stiffness to spread the impact. If you pick up a helmet with soft foam inside, the chance of it protecting you is slim." Of course, not everyone agrees with Halstead. Jay Norfleet from Grateful Heads thinks EPP is not a multiple-impact foam because it compresses. And Doug Poe of Pro-Tec believes EVA gives the same protection as closed-cell foam.

    Fitting System: "If you take a helmet that has a rigid shell, and a rigid foam, how are you going to make it fit?" asks Halstead. The answer is via the straps and the sizing of the helmet. This is where Lucas Turner’s helmet failed. Once ejected from his kayak, the force of the river caught his helmet long enough to force it back on his forehead, long enough for the fatal blow.

    The good news here is that almost all helmets now have two straps on either side, meeting at a single point under the chin (exceptions are noted below). Beyond the straps, look for how many sizes the helmet comes in—the more the better.

    Whatever combination of protection you choose, you should follow the "forewarned is forearmed" strategy. It’s worth repeating that until the new standard is released sometime next year, your decision will be dictated by the kind of boater you are, so let your boating conditions determine what helmet you choose.

    Found this on Paddler Mags web site. You can go there and reference the article to see which helmets they referenced!


    Shell size.
    Yes people choose helmets for comfort but the worst problem is choosing helmets for aesthetics over protection.
    Large shells that get good coverage and also allow for sufficient padding to absorb shock tend to look geeky compared to the sleek new school baseball cap helmets.
    there is a well made and designed one out there and a lookalike that appears to be just plain dangerous (aside from the inferior materials it lacks the component to prevent it from sliding back on your head and exposing your forehead), but neither has sufficient coverage and padding to be more than a hard hat.
    I have one for playing on bright days, but it stays home when I go creekin’

    This lesson was learned the hard way.
    Knocked out cold in a cool looking low profile helmet and floating along upside down when my friends rescued me.
    1 cm of foam was not enough to absorb the shock sufficiently, no matter what kind.

    Go big for protection.

    John Mason


    I’ve got a decent FNA with good forehead, ear and neck coverage, about the most you can get out of the common composites out there, so I’m fine with the day to day stuff.

    I’m interested in getting something with total coverage but still avoiding the bulky, and perhaps dangerous oversize built in chin gaurd.

    So far the best option appears to be the Cascade with Airfit and a metal face cage.

    To bad this type of design isn’t availible in a composite lay-up.


    1- built to withstand multiple impacts
    2- good overall coverage
    3- face-mask friendly

    Hockey helmet?

    Aside from looking silly, wouldn’t it work?

    I am not familiar with the specs, just occurred to me…



    You know how your helmate smells after a year of hockey, well that is just your sweat, not all the biology in the river. I think it would just disintigrate eventually. I have an FnA and it works well, although no ear coverage. My dad wore a lightweight helicopter-like helmate for a while, and it worked well, but it stank bad.


    paddling specific helmets became available and many stayed with them for safety and savings.
    Thing is that the first commercially available paddling helmets in north America were Aces. A minimalist hat meant to satisfy ICF regs and protect you from a swinging slalom gate.
    a huge step backwards but again for many an aesthetic or minimalist canoe macho choice.
    By the way Hipnazi my first kayaking/hockey helmet had an air bladder.
    There really was’t anything wrong with Cooper hockey helemts except that they wern’t kayaking helmets, but the liners back then were not apsorbtive and there was really very little effective difference from the foam liners of today.
    I haven’t checked out hockey helmets lately but sweat management isn’t really much different from water management if you are not trying to absorb it.

    Hockey or lacrosse helmets are definitely worth a look.

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