raising little ones in the great outdoors

Helmets: The Love Hate Relationship

“Bottom line – wear a helmet,” says Jed Williamson. As editor of Accidents in North American Mountaineering, a round up serious climbing accidents intended to help climbers learn from others mistakes, Williamson should know. According to the long-time editor, the third leading cause of accidents is falling rocks or objects

The data is irrefutable, but I don’t want to be told when or where I have to wear a helmet. I also wear one regularly. Sometimes.

I’m guessing a lot of you out there are a bit like me.  When you turn a self-examining eye to your habits, you find there’s little rhyme to your slap-dash reasoning. I always wear a lid mountain biking, but only sometimes when I’m riding through city traffic.  Always when I snowboard. As a climbing writer I’ve heard enough climbing accident stories to last a lifetime, and yet I’d estimate that 75 percent of the time I don’t wear a hard hat.

We may have bizarre rationales, but when it comes to kids I’m willing to bet that on average you’re not quite as loose about the brain bucket. Take for instance this study published in the New England Journal of Medicine.  They concluded that a rider with a helmet reduced his or her risk of head injury by 85 percent. Children suffer the majority of serious head injuries in bike accidents.

I’m curious. How do you approach it when it comes to your kids?  If you’re top roping do they wear a helmet? What about when they’re cruising the street on their two-wheeled, flying machines a.k.a. their bikes? It leads us to the age-old parenting conundrum: why is one behavior acceptable for adults and yet not for children especially if we teach by example? What is it about helmets that we just don’t like?

Please leave your thoughts as comments.

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15 Responses to “Helmets: The Love Hate Relationship”

  1. Bren says:

    Ditto here. Helmets for skating, snowboarding, and biking, but not surfing or climbing. My kids always wear helmets for scooters, skating, and biking. But not for climbing. I dunno why, and I occasionally feel guilty about it.

    I wish helmets weren’t so unwieldy. I think those ribcap beanies are a step in the right direction, at least for some sports. (http://www.ribcap.ch/cms/pages/)

  2. mark says:

    John Sherman (who I honestly had not heard of but appears to be a pretty good climber and funny writer) apparently always wears a helmet climbing (see http://deadpointmag.com/blogs/5-john-sherman/41-blog-1). I have not yet decided to go buy a helmet for my bouldering and sport climbing, but I am close. I do always wear a helmet when riding, and I can’t imagine my children will not at least wear their bike helmets when climbing while younger (only one 2 year old now, so no real climbing or biking yet).

    • That’s pretty interesting. Especially coming from someone who pushed the standards in bouldering with absolutely disregard for his body.

      • that is interesting, Verm climbed The Thimble with the guard rail intact – and now he wears a helmet…

        the helmet debate is an interesting one. i would never mountain bike without a lid – but for years in the infancy of the sport i wouldn’t have dreamed of wearing one.

        but beyond biking things get a bit blurry. when i ski at a resort i wear a helmet – in the backcountry no. trad climbing yes, sport climbing no. mountaineering yes, bouldering no.

        you would think that with modern climbing helmets being so light and comfortable that we would all be gladly wearing them all the time. perhaps it’s a matter of old habits are hard to change and the simple fact that the paradigm for cool in our society doesn’t wear a helmet. Fonze didn’t wear a lid when he jumped the shark, James Bond and Indiana Jones would never be seen in one.

        so with kids what should we do? i think that much of the resistance to wearing a helmet by the 30plus age bracket of climbers has much to do with the environment we grew up in. none of us learned to ride a bike with a helmet on, nor learn to skateboard, ice skate and most likely rock climbing too.

        children these days however have grown up wearing helmets for almost every activity. they are comfortable wearing them, and the ‘it’s not cool to war a helmet’ factor is less of an issue.

        it’s silly not to put kids into helmets, start them off early wearing them for all forms of climbing, skiing and biking – that way when they get to our age they aren’t having this debate. if we’re really honest climbing without a helmet is akin to smoking a pack a day or driving drunk – you don’t have to be a rocket scientist to know it’s a pretty silly thing to do. not wearing a helmet is the worst bad habit we could pass onto the next generation of climbers.

  3. zach says:

    I have to completely agree with your post: I rarely wear a helmet when I’m cruising the streets on my bike, but if I’m doing any trail riding there is no question that I will wear it. Snowboarding on the other hand… well, I’ve had three concussions while snowboarding and the worst two (granted were in races) were when I was wearing my helmet.
    Climbing though, I have just recently started wearing a helmet for. After a good friend was hit in the head and got 5 staples as a direct result, I thought about buying a helmet. When the next week we were climbing at what everyone jokingly calls the “outdoor gym” of Chuckwalla Wall, where you can practically belay from your car, a big piece came off and landed right in front of my foot. The next time I went out at Utah Hills with some friends my partner brought his helmet and we swapped it out – the belayer used it, the climber didn’t. I put up a route, he cleaned it and rapped down. When he got down I took off the helmet and he pulled the rope — and when it came down a fist sized rock came with it, shattering on the ground five inches in front of me. I bought a helmet that afternoon.
    With that being said, I have to admit that I still don’t wear it all the time. I wear it at chaucy climbs, or places I’m not familiar with.. but it’s really hard to continue wearing it at places we hit 3 days out of the week for 2 hours at a time and know every knob, pinch and crimp on. Hopefully I won’t learn the rest of that lesson the hard way, but as things stand right now some part of my mind justifies it by the rarity with which pieces come off there.

    • It’s funny Zach. Yesterday after authoring that post I went climbing…with out the helmet. We were doing a three pitch route and just left of us a friend was putting up a route, so he’s got forty pounds of gear hanging off him. He was exchanging gear and I saw his rock hammer fly out into space. Just to the right of my partners head and explode a pack at the base.

      I hear you on the snowboarding concussions. I try my best not to get lured into the park. At 30 I should know better.

  4. Kevin says:

    I really appreciate your blog on Outdoor Parenting. Your topics are relevant and interesting. I appreciate your question at the end of this article; why is one behavior acceptable for adults and yet not for children especially if we teach by example? As parents, many of us who did not grow up with these safety devices and governement regulations to do so, don’t really think about ourselves often. We are more concerned with our children. However, as a speech language pathologist, having worked with several children and adults who are less cognitively due to head trauma, I am a firm believer that if the safety device is available EVERYONE, myself included must take advantage of it. Thanks again for The Outdoor Parent.

  5. Andy G says:

    The funny part about accidents is that they aren’t planned and that’s why they’re accidents. What I worry about is the other guy. Is the crazy guy in the car less likely to hit you if you are time trialing vs. tooling around town on your bike?

    I don’t really buy the arguement that a helmet makes one more bold, and therefore a person doesn’t wear one because they don’t want to let themselves get all crazy out there. Geez, show some self restraint. Tell Natasha Richardson that she didn’t need a helmet.

    My girls know that if they are getting on their Razor scooters or bikes or skis to put on the helmets. If you make it routine AND lead by example, they will do it. If you make it routine, it’s not cumbersome; they’ll believe it’s what is required to participate in the sport.

  6. Ward N says:

    The reality is that helmets save lives and brains every day. I’m a parent but also an Emergency Medicine Doc, and at work I meet a lot of people who walk away from nasty wipe outs with a few scrapes because they are wearing a helmet, without the helmet it would not have been so.

    ‘Longboarding’ has become increasingly popular where I live, with kids usually in their teens and twenties bombing down hills on skateboards designed for high speed stability. Almost NONE of them wear helmets. In the last 6 months I’ve taken care of three young men with bad head isolated head injuries, one died, two will never be the same. The painful part is that other than the bad head injury they were basically fine. I’m convinced that a helmet would have made a huge difference for those kids (damn, now I have to call people in their 20s kids, I am getting old).

    I love just about any human powered sport that lets me go, and grew up in So Cal in the 80s when helmets just weren’t available. But now they are, and they make a difference, every single day.

    My daughters (6 & 3) have grown up with helmets riding bikes and scooters and skiing, and don’t give it a second thought. For them it’s as automatic as a seat belt.

    Please, please, please encourage these habits in your children, and set a good example by wearing your own brain bucket!

    • Thanks for the input ward. That is a shame about the “kids.”

    • Steve says:

      A kid from our neighborhood was in a longboarding accident. He made a miraculous recovery after having two sections of skull taken out and placed in his abdomen for safe keeping. Like Ward says, he had no other serious injuries.

      I don’t know if you can ever make helmets look “cool” to kids and teens. Even if you try to set an example as a parent and mandate helmet use, your kids still feel self-conscious and lame when they see all their friends without them. Abby thinks she’s old enough not to need a helmet. I think we’ve arrived at an understanding. I like what Andy says about no one ever planning to be in an accident. But kids naturally have such a self-centered worldview that if they haven’t had an accident themselves they can’t imagine it ever happening to them.

      I guess in the end it comes down to how much of a fight we parents are willing to endure to make the helmet wearing a habit. I personally think it’s worth the effort.

  7. Shane says:

    I’ll pipe in to offer an alternative thought. I often find it interesting when I see four and five year-olds in ski school on the bunny slope wearing helmets. Especially when they are beginning, kids move at 1 mph on relatively soft snow that even has a slope (meaning a fall is often less impactful that a flat surface), which is ultimately less dangerous that walking on a sidewalk. I understand that it is habit forming, but what about forming the habit of making judgment decisions such as when a helmet is necessary or not.

    Kids don’t wear helmets playing basketball or soccer or baseball (except the batter and catcher), yet in all those sports I have had the worst concussions and head bongs as compared to kayaking, skiing, climbing, surfing etc. What’s the difference? The logic that applies to skiing would then carry over to even walking out the door of your house.

    All this being said, I will surely strap helmets on my kids more often than not. But I also doubt it will be an every sport, all the time rule.

  8. Steve Bohrer says:

    I know it’s been awhile since we’ve visited this topic, but here’s an interesting story related to helmet wearing.


  9. Diane says:

    I am going through H-E double L with my 17 year old as I write this post. He is going out riding with a friend on city streets (in San Diego!) without a helmet. He’s REALLY REALLY mad at me as I’ve said ‘no helmet, no ride’…and yet, he doesn’t understand WHY I have that rule. I’m looking for stories and/or pictures of head injuries so I can sit him down and SHOW him the end result. A 15 yr. old was just killed when a car from BEHIND him struck him while he was on his skateboard….without a helmet. I am so frustrated in trying to make him understand the WHY…this is my rule, deal with it!

  10. Quinner says:

    I have twin girls who ride their bikes multiple times a day, and helmets are mandatory. I ride my bike to work 4 days a week and cannot imagine walking out the door without it on. What possible example would I be setting? Are we that vain people? When I am on my skateboard around the girls, I always wear it too. Am I worried about looking lame? I have a beautiful wife, 3 gorgeous healthy girls and a lovely home with a nice job on the side. Call me lame, I love it. My lame is better then your cool!

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