Words: Tom Copsey. Photo: Peter Lundström.
The use of impact protection has significantly increased of late, both by pro riders and day-to-day shredders, but opinion often seems divided on the issue. We decided to take a deeper look.
Although it was tempting to defer to a perceived moral obligation and state YOU MUST WEAR IMPACT PROTECTION, the fact that of the editorial staff only one of us routinely rides with a helmet would make us hypocritical at best. Plus, we’re all for freedom of choice: if you really don’t want to do something, who are we to tell you that you should? There is, however, a strong case for reducing risk whenever possible – certainly when it comes to kids – and so what we decided to do is show you facts, and the opinions of other snowboarders, for you to make an informed decision. It’s also worth noting that if you’re fit and flexible, you are less likely to get injured. Get down the gym and remember to stretch!
As several studies on ski and snowboarding accidents concluded, the actual incidence of major injury when on the mountain is comparatively low overall (for example, 2.4 head injuries per 1,000 days according to one survey) with the most serious occurring when the rider is out of control. So we don’t want to get hysterical about it. The chances of you nailing yourself are pretty small, while at the same time even if you’re covered head to toe in armour you can still get properly screwed.
However, it must be said that doing any kind of progressive riding will no doubt up the ante in injury’s favour. For the more moribund members of the editorial team, the days of progressive riding lie in the past. Yours, hopefully, are right there in front of you. There’s also the scenario that you’re just taking it easy and some careless prick comes ploughing into you. Whilst, again, this is rare, it has happened to at least one of the Onboard crew, fortunately without any serious injury.
Concrete numbers on the worldwide amount of injuries are hard to come by as, by and large, it is regional bodies that undertake research, but a Swiss study recently found that each year around 25,000 snowboarders injure themselves badly enough to require medical treatment. Of that, 53% are under 17 – we guess that’s a fair few of you guys. The main type of injury is to the wrist, but head injuries are also relatively frequent and, clearly, have the potential to have more serious consequences.
Whilst there are a few critics who argue that wearing protection increases the chance of injury due to perceived invincibility, research has largely disproved this. That’s like thinking that because you drive a Volvo you’re completely safe to roll your car off a mountain pass. The bottom line is if you’re only considering doing something because you’re suited up, then you really shouldn’t.
Several riders we spoke to who rarely wear any kind of protection mentioned they refrained because they didn’t feel comfortable wearing it, and thought it affected their focus and made them more likely to take a slam (though almost all did admit to wearing helmets in sketchy conditions). And really, that’s the only reason we can see for not wearing: because you feel uncomfortable doing so, that and being happy taking your chances. Having said that, impact protection has become more comfortable and less obtrusive of late.
Other pros were fully backing it. Claudia Fliri routinely rides with a helmet, back protector and, occasionally, impact shorts. “Being safe makes me feel comfortable," she says. Another is Jody Koenders. At the 2006 Arctic Challenge, Jody took a horrific beating on the quarterpipe but thankfully, after much rehab, he’s now back on his board. “Even during my big slam I wore a shoulder, arm and back protection by Dainese and knee pads by RED. I also wore impact shorts by Pro Tec." If you’ve seen how he hits the coping in that slam, it might have been even worse he not been wearing the back support. “What do I wear now? During my first shoot in March after my slam: impact shorts, back protector, and knee pads by Pro Tec. And yes I do wear a helmet nowadays riding park and pipe!"
What we will say is that if you’re a half-decent rider you should be in a position to judge yourself the degree of risk that you’re taking and decide whether you should be wearing any impact protection. If you’re just starting out it’s not a bad idea to suit up so you don’t prematurely curtail your life of shredding. Hey, snowboarding needs you guys.
Of the different types of impact protection available, it is only helmets that have recognised snow-specific testing standards in place. If you’re looking at a helmet, make sure it meets or exceeds one or more of the following standards, and has the sticker on the helmet, otherwise it could be about as much use as taping a pillow to your head. There are other helmet certifications around but only snow-specific ones test to give you protection for winter sport hazards and conditions:
CE EN 1077 – Apparently the easier standard to conform to. Helmets are tested by dropping a sensor-laden headform with a helmet onto a flat anvil from a height of 1.5m. This is done for 5 different areas of the helmet. On impact, the acceleration of the ‘head’ must not exceed 250g, with 69 joules of impact energy for a medium-sized helmet. A penetration test is also required, intended to simulate a ski pole or tree branch. A hammer is dropped onto a conical metal punch, placed above the helmet and headform, from 0.75m and the helmet fails if the punch comes in contact with the ‘head’. The chinstrap is also tested, as is resistance to rotational force.
ASTM F 2040 – Potentially tougher to conform to due to the more varied and forceful impacts, though it doesn’t require a penetration test. A magnesium alloy headform with acceleration sensors is used, with a shape similar to the skull. The helmeted headform is dropped from 2m onto a flat anvil and the acceleration of the headform cannot exceed 300g in order to pass the test, with 98 joules of impact energy. Additionally, ASTM F 2040 calls for drops to be made on both a hemispherical and a steel-edged anvil. The retention system is tested in hot, cold and wet conditions with a fake jaw and dropped onto an anvil from 0.6m. It fails if the system breaks or elongates more than 30mm. A roll-off test is also performed.
Snell RS 98 – While this appears to be the most stringent standard, with random testing of on-the-shelf helmets, it seems never to be used for snowboard helmets. This may be because of the not-insignificant cost to the manufacturer and/or the bulkier look and added weight required to pass being impractical for snowboarding, or customer demand at least.
Most snowboard helmets use a semi-rigid outer shell and a single-impact EPS foam (both EN 1077 and ATSM 2040 only require single impact tests). With a hard hit, the foam liner compresses to take the blow, but stays compacted, reducing the impact-absorbing qualities. If you have a severe head slam, it’s important to get a new helmet. A few brands use EPP foam, which is more expensive but retains its protective qualities after numerous slams, though for exactly how many is unclear. You also need to use thicker foam to get the required protection. Zorbium is also a multi-impact foam that conforms to the multi-impact skate helmet standard, as well as the ASTM 2040. After any crash, always inspect the helmet for signs of damage and consult an expert if in any doubt. In all cases, if you get a spanking so bad the helmet’s dented or cracked, it’s certainly time for a replacement.
As mentioned earlier, it’s important to remember that some of the high-speed slams can lead to multiple injuries that no helmet could prevent or reduce. Hit a tree or a rock or a person at high-speed and you are pretty certain to be in trouble. Nevertheless, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that bouncing your beanied head off ice or a rail ain’t good, and protecting to a certain level has got to be better than none at all. Various studies have shown that wearing a helmet significantly reduces the risk of head injury overall, and it certainly doesn’t increase the risk. It’s pretty much a no-brainer.
Whilst it was once rare to see pros riding with a lid, fuelling the geek image, today it is a different story. Nitro’s Jonte Edvardson has had several concussions in his career and is fully backing them. “After 6 concussions, where I ended up in hospital on 3 occasions, I always use a RED helmet. I started this season and I wore it all the time. And the thing is that I like it too! It feels good! It was either a helmet or quit snowboarding, so I chose the former. I just wished I'd chosen it a bit earlier." Pipe specialist Ben Kilner also fell foul of several concussions early in his career and always wears one for any kind of progressive halfpipe ripping “as there’s so much potential for serious injury," and when was the last time you saw Shaun White shred lidless? So if you don’t dig the helmet, that’s your call. Just don’t bag on the kid who does – they may well be having the last laugh as you’re carted off with a cracked melon.
It is also of utmost importance that the helmet fits your head properly for it to protect you as it should. If you’re unsure, ask in a reputable shop and get them to measure your bonce.
Wrist injuries are the most frequent type of snowboard injury, and even more so for beginners. There are, at present, no international testing standards for wrist guards.
Some people have argued that in a heavy fall a wrist guard will simply transfer the energy higher up the arm and break that bone, rather than the wrist, but there’s little evidence to back this up. In 2005 a Canadian research team studied the effect of wearing wrist guards on injuries in 19 resorts and concluded that wearing them reduced the risk of wrist, hand and arm injury by 85%. The consensus is that longer ones offer better protection.
However, unless you’re a total beginner, the traditional wrist guard does feel cumbersome to wear and as you get more competent riding the chances of falling in a way that most wrist injuries occur is reduced. If you have weak wrists, either go for the aforementioned longer wrist protectors from or look at the Biomex work of Dr Georg Ahlbaumer that can be found in Level gloves.
Some don’t state adherence to any testing standards, others use CE EN 1621/2, which is for motorbike impact protection. While it is tempting to say this is more than adequate, and better than no testing, it would be preferable to have some kind of snow-specific safety standards for back protectors.
Although statistics show that spinal injuries are comparatively rare, they are much more commonplace in riders who class themselves as ‘expert’. The number of riders we know who have fractured or broken their backs snowboarding is pretty damned high, though it must be noted most spinal injuries result from compression, i.e. landing on your arse.
These will definitely save you from the pain when slamming back-first and hold you together if you scorpion. Forum European team manager Jon Weaver is a fan: “I wear a back protector from Dainese all the time on the hill. I have always found that they come in useful, especially when I was younger and bouncing off knuckles on my back. They do make a great get-out-of-jail-free card as well as if you’re going down they can really take the impact." Jon also believes the back protector prevented a serious injury becoming something far worse. On a routine day in the Mayrhofen park, he got caught in a rut on take-off and landed back/head/neck first on the icy death cookies at the side of the tabletop and proceeded to bounce down a load more. “As soon as I hit and kind of scorpioned backwards I felt something strange. When I got up I had a warm feeling in my neck and couldn't move my left arm, which was pretty scary. In hospital I was told I had broken my neck and required an operation to remove the joint between C5 and C6 and replace it with bone from my hip and then wrap the whole thing in screws and metal. Thankfully I was walking around within 3 days and doing physio within 10. After a summer of getting strong, it’s all back to normal pretty much but I am pretty sure that without my back protector those death cookies would have made sure that it would have been more than just my left arm that I couldn't feel or move. If you’re just getting into jumps or trying new stuff, definitely get one."
While most riders who wear a back protector mentioned using it in icy conditions or handrail sessions, others made a different but equally valid point. “Every time I go riding in powder I use a back protection," states Jonte. “Since I don't stomp all my tricks, tumbling around in the snow happens and it's easy to hit a rock with your back or your head and that could be devastating." His point was echoed by, amongst others, Markus Keller and Aymeric Tonin.
A bruised behind or a broken tailbone can quite literally be a terrible pain in the arse. Again, there’s no testing standard but many pros use them when on metal missions or if conditions are bulletproof, though you’d never know it ‘cause of their dang baggy pants.
British pipe slayer Dom Harington puts his case for them with almost too much gusto: “I usually never strap on a snowboard without my impact shorts on. I started using them when slams on dendex (old dryslope) became too unbearable. The other day I decided to ditch them ’cos I was sick of having sweaty bollocks, but I got the worst dead arse I’ve ever had and couldn’t sit down for ages. I’d choose sweaty bollocks over a dead arse any day." A significant number of our riders said they too preferred a sweaty crotch to a dead arse and either wear them all the time or certainly for rail riding and when conditions are icy.
Being steadily adopted by more brands each year, d3o is a specially engineered material made of intelligent molecules that flow, remaining soft and flexible when you move but react to impact by locking together to absorb the energy. Companies such as Sessions have integrated it into some of their base layers and Quiksilver have a beanie that uses it. This stuff is much lower profile than traditional impact padding and the fact that it solidifies means it performs more like, for example, ‘hard’ impact shorts, but with a fraction of the bulk of even the ‘soft’ ones. The 9mm parts are CE EN 1621 standard recognised, but the beanies, admittedly, will not protect as a helmet will. As there’s no chin strap it could very easily fly off in a ragdoll situation but for those who still steadfastedly refuse to wear a lid it’s a compromise worth considering. For taking the spank out of icy arse checks, rail beatings and the like with improved freedom of movement they are well worth a look.
We decided to do a random survey to see how many pros regularly – outside of situations when they are required to, such as contests – wear some form of impact protection. Of the 43 who responded, the results were fairly evenly spit with 19 yays and 14 nays. When conditions were super gnarly or the terrain was sketchy, the nays dropped lower. It’s interesting to note that most of the riders who said they didn’t wear any kind of protection ever tended to say variations of “… although I probably should".
So, now you’ve seen the numbers, read the facts and taken in what the pros have to say, we hope you are in a position to make a more informed decision on whether you’ll be suiting up in the future. With many contests and parks now making at least helmet use mandatory it might be that you may have to get used to the feeling. We’ll leave you with a quote from Darius Heristchian: “Your body is the greatest instrument one can have. It is silly to blow it up if you can avoid it. My goal in snowboarding is to last long and not end up as a wreck." Amen to that.