How to Buy a Helmet
Whether you’re buying your first helmet, or haven’t bought one in a while you have to protect your head! Contrary to popular belief, helmet technology hasn’t really changed all that much. Helmets DO NOT prevent concussions. They may help mitigate concussion risks but they can not be prevented. Hockey helmets are designed to be lightweight, and protect from soft impacts like sticks, and small taps on the glass, as well as hard impacts like falls, collisions with the boards and pucks. It’s very hard to make a safer helmet than what’s already on the market.
Your brain floats in a liquid inside your skull. A concussion is when your brain makes contact with your skull and causes damage. Since you can’t stop your brain from moving, you can’t prevent concussions. You don’t even need to hit your head to get a concussion, a quick twist (whiplash), hard check, or hard fall can cause one. So you might ask, then why even bother with a helmet? The impact protection lowers your risk of other serious injuries, and like I said earlier, can help make concussions less severe by cushioning some of the impact.
Helmets are comprised of a few different layers. The outer layer is made of plastic, which provides structure to the helmet. The rest of the layers are made up of different foams. No matter which helmet, the plastic shells are mostly the same. They are designed to take the brunt of the impact and crack or break so your head doesn’t. The next layer is usually an EPP or single density foam. Its usually black and hard, like a dense sponge. Its the same material used in bicycle helmets. Its used for your high impacts to absorb force. The next two layers are your comfort layers. Some helmets use VN or a Dual density foam. Its usually white and may be quite firm. Some of your basic helmet may have a black or grey foam instead. Helmets like these are very popular in the NHL, especially the Bauer 4500 which we will learn about more later. The foam, once broken in, gives you a tight and almost customized feel and can be very comfortable. These helmets are generally cheaper because its just 2 simple foams. Another similar example is the D30 foam CCM recently added their to their helmets which is a foam that is liquid but becomes solid when it hits an impact. Its used in place of the dual density foam. The last layer is gel packs or comfort packs. Instead of a thick foam it uses strategically placed gel filled pads. The pads touch less of your head allowing for more air flow, and they are much much lighter than the foam. These helmets also “feel” lighter because you don’t feel the helmet at much. Your helmet will have some combination of these elements.
Fit is the absolute most important thing in a helmet. Don’t try to squeeze into one just because it’s cheaper. The best thing to do is to go to your local shop and try on as many models as you can. The helmet should gently touch all sides of your head, snugly but comfortably, and the brim should be about an inch above your eyebrows. Heads come in many shapes and sizes so its hard for helmet manufacturers to make a “one-size-fits-all” model. Once you have the helmet on give it a good twist and see if the helmet moves side to side. You want just a tiny bit of moment but not enough to actually shift the helmet. Also shake your head and see if it moves.
Helmets come in different shapes and sizes but also can be adjusted for a perfect fit. Some can even be adjusted almost a full size so you get a really snug fit. Some only move front and back and some move in all directions. Older and lower end helmets may have a screw you need to remove to be able to adjust. The most popular is a quick release hinge. CCM helmets have either a clip on the back or slider on the side which you disengage to adjust. Bauer helmets usually have a flip up piece on either side or on the back in the middle. Warrior has a system with a BOA strap for tightening. It’s the same system you find on ski boots, where you spin a dial and it pulls the helmet tight in 360 degrees. Some helmets use a combination to give you a perfect fit.
Which one is best for me?
Helmets range in price from about $50 to over $300. So which should you go with? Other than which one fits the best, choose whichever you think has the best features for you. Because helmets do not prevent concussions, you are essentially paying for comfort. The higher end helmets are generally more comfortable, they have softer foams or gel pads to feel like you’re barely wearing a helmet. Disclaimer: There is no reason to buy your kid a $300 helmet because its not any better than a $100 one.
When to get a new helmet
Unfortunately helmets don’t last forever. As arguably, the most important piece of protection, you want to make sure it will perform when you need it. Experts say to replace the helmet after the first impact. So if you take a massive hit with a puck or wall etc, you should replace the helmet. In my opinion its a marketing ploy but it should be taken with a grain of salt. If you block a slapshot with your head that dents the plastic or damages any part of the helmet you should definitely replace it. I think a couple minor ones should be fine. The next to check for is the foams. If your foams are cracked or falling out, you’re overdue for a replacement. Your foams need to be able to absorb the impact so any damage to them and they will need replacing. The same goes for your gel pack or soft padded helmets. If any of the packs fall out you can super glue them back in but try to get a new helmet sooner rather than later. Some helmets have options to replace the pads so as long as the other parts are fine, you can still use the helmet. The last and most important reason is the certification. Over the time, the foams break down due to age. It may not show it, but your foams will not be as effective. Theres a little stickers on the back of the helmet that tells you when the “expiration date” is for the helmet. USA Hockey sanctioned leagues and tournaments require a valid helmet certification. In my experience, the refs rarely actually check but its always better to be safe.
As stated in the What to Buy New vs Used I would advise against buying a used helmet. You can’t ensure the safety of it. It may have a valid certificate but may have taken a ton of impacts or kept in a harsh environment which would diminish the protection.
If you watch the NHL you may notice many of the players using a Bauer 4500 helmet, which is the cheapest helmet on the market. It would make sense that they would use the most expensive right? Well the Bauer 4500 features a VN foam which, when broken in feels almost custom fit to your head. It offers decent protection and comfort for around $60. Something to consider.
Check in next week for an article on face protection.