Paddling Helmets

Do you wear a helmet when paddling? Usually I do, and it’s a longstanding tradition with me. I’ve been ridiculed more than once for wearing a helmet by someone who doesn’t think it’s needed.

Few people wear helmets except on ‘whitewater’ in the midwest; nor on motorcycles, but there is a high percentage of folks who wear helmets while bicycling. Let’s discuss when to wear a helmet and what kind of helmet to wear.

Generally I wear a helmet when it seems likely something might hit my head. That’s common sense of course, but when is something likely to hit my head?

  1. Entrapment: I’m in the water after flipping. I can be slow getting out, the boat can hit me, I can hit the bottom, a boulder, or a rescuer can hit me with their boat or paddle. I consider entrapment possible anytime I’m on moving water and I can’t see my ankles while paddling. Moving water includes whitewater of course, but also quickwater and surf.

  2. Trees and bridges: Going under trees and bridges, a helmet gives you an extra measure of safety. Duck your head to avoid taking a tree branch in your face, and going under bridges which may be dark or have bolts exposed. There may present opportunities to paddle with fences and cows from which you might want additional protection.

  3. Other paddlers: During instruction I often am alongside another paddler to move their hands, wrists, and paddle while teaching strokes, in particular draw strokes. The other blade on a kayak paddle has hit me more than once. During a rescue you may be similarly exposed.

  4. The bottom: Surfing on Lake Superior to playing, surfing, eddy turns, and peel outs on moving water.

What kinds of helmets are available? Paddling helmets are made for paddling of course but there are lots of folks who paddle with a helmet made for another use. That implies though that it has not been designed nor tested for paddling, and a manufacturer’s user manual will often warn you to use the helmet only for its designated purpose. Some helmets come with facemasks similar to football helmets too.

Here are a few references regarding helmets:

Reusing helmets from NRS

ICF wildwater helmet rules, search for helmet.

I have these 3 paddling helmets:

Ace: this is the old standby from the 70’s for me. It doesn’t offer much protection, but it does keep my hat on. It is protection from casual bumps and thwacks but useless and may even come off in a collision or in turbulent water. It's a great pool session helmet.

Sweet Protection: this is my insurance policy. This fits me well and makes my cranium feel sweetly protected. It’s expensive and it can be warm. Shown on the left with the black markings.

ShredReady: this is my ‘loaner’ helmet. It doesn’t quite fit the shape of my head despite lots of finagling with the pads that came in the box. If you get a good fit, it solves some of the issues with the Ace but it can be warm.

Fit is critical, and may change with the seasons and the time between haircuts. In cold weather or water, I’ll wear a mystery hood or a balaclava underneath, and in the summer a ballcap with a bill. Some helmets fit rounder heads better, and I recommend you get that sort of information from and get fitted by a representative from the helmet manufacturer. What fits me may not fit you, and the demo helmet that fits you in the store may not fit the same as the new one in the box you take home. Fit the helmet you buy before you buy it.

Color is a personal preference. As you can see from my choices I prefer white. In my opinion white is more visible, and it’s cooler. I like the storm trooper look better than Darth Vader.

Helmet shape is a preference as well as a functional choice. To me, the shapes that provide sun visors aren’t enough sun protection. I like to be able to hear too so I’d rather my ears not be covered. A full face visor is overkill for the paddling I do, but not for some.

Clockwise from left: inside view of newer Ace, Sweet Protection Rocker, Shredready Standard.

There are other kinds of helmets which aren’t tested in paddling conditions which folks press into service. Be aware that turbulent, wet and slippery situations in paddling may mean your ad hoc helmet won’t be on your head when you need it. Realize too that a paddling helmet needs to be able to withstand multiple blows. Discussions of Snell safety standards are out of scope for these thoughts. NRS makes a strong case for NOT reusing helmets from other disciplines.

  1. Hockey helmets have a long tradition with whitewater paddlers, and, unsurprisingly, hockey players. They have closed cell foam that doesn’t absorb water and a hard shell.

  2. Climbing helmets used to be more common, especially with whitewater paddlers who also climb and use climbing techniques to access rivers.

  3. Bicycle helmets are usually readily available. I discourage bicycle helmets because they are designed for a single incident, and because they tend to sit high and would readily be yanked off. Some mountain biking helmets though come with a harder shell, and are lower profile and would be better than a streamlined helmet for the Tour de France. In my opinion, traditional bicycle helmets are worse than no helmet at all.

  4. Snowboarding helmets have much in common with paddling helmets. Their padding may absorb water, they may not drain well, and the warmth they provide can be positive or negative.

You need a new helmet when the old one doesn’t protect you. With age and UV exposure, the foam protection and the suspension deteriorates. A crack in the outer shell is an obvious indicator as is that concussion you got instead of having your skull split open. Generally though, it's hard for you to tell a helmet needs replacing. A manufacturer’s representative will know other user's histories with the helmet and may offer an opinion. Of course your paddling friends’ opinions are worth at least what you pay them. Beware ulterior motives though as they may covet your boat or paddle ;-)

One final reason to consider wearing a helmet? If no one wears one, there’s no discussion about the situations where it’s appropriate to wear a helmet. Get one, wear one, buckle up, and start a discussion in your group of paddlers!