A Calculated Risk | Why Don’t Pro Snowboarders Wear Helmets?

You see it all the time, watching a video of your favourite pro snowboarder sending it off some huge kicker into an insane corked spin, or maybe it’s the latest Monday Mallet from Transworld where some poor rider has bailed on a rail only to slam head first into the huge set of concrete stairs beneath him. The one thought that consistently crosses my mind when I see these athletes putting their bodies (and lives) at risk for our entertainment is always “Why Aren’t They Wearing A F#@king Helmet!?”

TWSNOW.COM Jeremy Cloutier Montreal by Ben Birk
Jeremy Cloutier hits a huge kinked rail helmet free – photo: Ben Birk via Transworld SNOWboarding

We have all heard the pros and cons of wearing a helmet. Don’t worry, I’m not here to preach to you about the benefits. All you really need to know about me for context to this article is that yes I always wear a helmet now, and I have been there when people (myself included) who weren’t wearing helmets hit their heads. There seems to be plenty of professional athletes who don’t think the benefits outweigh the costs when it comes to wearing a helmet. Personally, I think this has more to do with image than comfort, but as we dissect the matter we will see for sure that there is more to it than that.

There seems to be plenty of professional athletes who don’t think the benefits outweigh the costs when it comes to wearing a helmet

For the sake of an exhaustive analysis of this topic, below I have listed all the potential reasons a pro would have for not wearing a helmet, I then broke them up into a few categories:

IMAGE/STYLE

  • They look bad
  • They make me look like I don’t know what I’m doing or that I’m not confident
  • Media won’t use my photos/video
  • I can’t wear the hat/goggles I like

COMFORT

  • They feel heavy
  • They don’t fit with my goggles/headwear
  • Head gets sweaty
  • They aren’t warm enough

SAFETY (the irony section)

  • The neck strap could choke me
  • I don’t believe there is enough evidence to support that they work
  • I feel safer without one

OTHER

  • My sponsors won’t let me
  • It conflicts with my training
  • They are too expensive

Again, this list is not based on arguments for or against, but rather these are the reasons snowboarders may give for not wearing helmets.

Scotty Lago dropping in on a big line in Iceland with a helmet on. Photo: Will Mayo
Scotty Lago dropping in on a big line in Iceland with a helmet on – Photo: Will Mayo

I asked Scotty Lago “As someone who wears a helmet only sometimes, what is your decision-making process?”

Scotty:
“I wear a helmet when I’m riding something I’m not comfortable with. Example: a line with exposed rocks or an east coast jump with an ice landing. Anytime it’s soft I don’t wear one. I actually don’t believe helmets help at all with soft conditions but hitting your head on anything hard it’s always good to have your dome piece on.”

Casey WIllax. Helmet Clad. Photo Mike Dawson
Casey Willax, Helmet Clad – Photo: Mike Dawson

I asked Casey Willax and Tim Humphreys the same question:

Casey:
“I wear a helmet 95% of the time, the only time I don’t is when I am sure I will not be progressively snowboarding at all. Like when I am filming someone else, coaching, or if I am just doing some chill turns. If I start hitting jumps bigger than 15ft and hitting any rails at all I am rocking a helmet for sure. The only other reason I wouldn’t wear a helmet is heat. When it’s 80 degrees at Hood in the summer and I’m hiking, sometimes I just can’t have it on. I wear one because it makes me feel 100% confident to ride at my best, and I have grown accustomed to it. When I don’t have one on I feel sketched out. Also from seeing other rider’s head injuries, I have no issues protecting all my accumulated knowledge and amazing memories. Just a personal choice.”

Tim:
“My view on helmets is that it’s totally a personal choice. I do both because I’m the product of a time where magazines wouldn’t run anything if the rider was wearing a helmet, but there are lots of occasions where I feel like wearing a helmet is the smart decision. There are lots of variables and unknowns out there to get you so if there is even the slightest concern, I feel much more comfortable if I put one on.”

Timmy Sans-Helmet-Selfie in LAAX.
Tim Humphreys Sans-Helmet-Selfie in LAAX

Most pros have competed in snowboarding events which require the use of helmets. It’s very common for athletes who never wear helmets at all to don a dome protector just for the day of competition. So in the category of competitive pro snowboarders, it would be very hard to find someone who has never worn a helmet.

However, there is the matter of pros who don’t compete at all which in my experience is probably the group of snowboarders with the lowest helmet count per capita. These guys are well known for following trends in skateboarding and surf culture (neither of which are very keen on helmets) as well as setting trends of their own. There are a few riders in this group who wear the safety cap but the vast majority do not. This choice could certainly be attributed to image since how they look on video is a large part of what they are getting paid for.

Danny Toumarkine surfing pow with his helmet on in Chamonix, France Photo: Conor Toumarkine
Danny Toumarkine</a surfing pow with his helmet on in Chamonix, France – Photo: Conor Toumarkine

I also reached out to Danny Toumarkine, a pro snowboarder who survived a traumatic brain injury while we were snowboarding together in Montana. Danny sustained this injury while not wearing a helmet and here’s what he had to say on the matter.

Danny:
“I completely understand why people don’t wear helmets because I never wore one before my TBI (traumatic brain injury). You can make up any excuse you want to about why you don’t wear one but the truth is, everyone should be wearing one. For me, I never really thought it was super important to wear a helmet because I had never hit my head, not once. Whether you’re just cruising around and not ‘getting after it’ or having a really progressive day, I believe that it’s super important to wear one.”

“You can’t predict when you’re going to hit your head or not. My accident happened by simply catching my heel edge. 33 days in the hospital and four brain surgeries later, I for sure wish I was wearing a helmet that day. Everyone looks up to professional athletes and until they start setting a good example for everyone, that is when you will see a massive shift with riders wearing helmets because then it will seem more acceptable and normal.”

Danny Toumarkine recovering hospital in 2011 after a TBI. Photo from Danny Toumarkine
Danny recovering hospital in 2011 after TBI – Photo: Danny Toumarkine

33 days in the hospital and four brain surgeries later, I for sure wish I was wearing a helmet that day-DANNY TOUMARKINE-

F1 RACER, MICHAEL SCHUMACHER:

Just because you wear a helmet it still doesn’t guarantee your safety.

The other end of the scale is the injuries sustained by formula one racer Michael Schumacher. In this article (HERE) from ABC NEWS it was alleged that Schumacher’s GoPro camera mount on his helmet may have caused his tragic head injuries. ABC NEWS stated that “French Grand Prix commentator Jean-Louis Moncet told a European radio station it was not the accident, but the camera attached, that left Schumacher in a coma.” Tests have been run to see if this was possible and if this was indeed the cause but results have never been made available. It has now been four years since the F1 legend came out of his coma and he is still receiving treatment in his home and has not been seen. Since this time some newer helmets have claimed to protect your head from your action camera.

This is what GoPro replied within 2014 when asked if attaching a GoPro or other camera to a helmet would reduce safety benefits:

“I am glad that you reached out to us regarding your helmet. We do not have any testing resources available regarding the effects of mounting a camera on your helmet and the impact on the helmet’s safety as a result.”

“Our mounts are not designed to withstand significant impact, in the event that you do significantly impact your helmet the mounting parts and adhesive would likely not stay or adversely affect the performance of the helmet.”

“We have not done widespread testing of different helmet brands, in most instances, a camera will more likely dismount than damage the helmet. Our policy is that it is up to the customer to ensure their camera is mounted safely and securely, we can not accept any liability regarding the way that a mounted camera may impact the user’s safety in the event of a crash.” – Source: Velonews

GoPro Mounted Helmet - image from Business Insider
GoPro Mounted Helmet – image from Business Insider

IN THE END:

Everyone is going to have their own logic about it. The big factors seem to be comfort, image and safety, and probably in that order. Only in very few cases would I guess that contractual obligations, cost or “feelings” come into play. Most people are very logical about this because let’s face it, it could be one of the biggest decisions of your life. The route I personally take, and the route that I believe appeals to the majority, is to do whatever makes you happy and comfortable… Isn’t that what snowboarding is all about anyway?

Be sure to check out Will’s website HERE and you can also follow him on Insta HERE.

SCOTTY LAGO – follow Scotty at @scottylago
DANNY TOUMARKINE – follow Danny at @dannytoumarkine
TIM HUMPHREYS – follow Tim at @timhumphreys
CASEY WILLAX – follow Casey at @casey_willax

 

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