Choosing the Right Helmet for Canoeing & Kayaking

September 11, 2015
Choosing the Right Helmet for Canoeing & Kayaking

If you plan to paddle your canoe, kayak or raft on white water or in the surf, you should definitely look for a quality helmet before launching into things.

It’s not uncommon to find you and your boat up the wrong way heading down river, and a good solid helmet will protect you from underwater structures and rocky outcrops. If you are rafting with a group, paddles can tend to fly about a little bit so you should always wear a helmet.

Tour operators will ensure that everyone is provided with a helmet that not only protects their head, but fits well too.

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Designed for the Job

While a bicycle or rock climbing helmet will provide much better protection than none at all, helmets used by kayakers and canoers are designed specifically for the rigors of a turbulent ride and lots of water.

Types of Helmets

There are three main helmet configurations available to canoers, kayakers and rafters.

The most common are open face helmets which come in either the half-cut or full-cut configuration.

  • Half-cut helmets sit above the ears providing good protection for the skull as well as good drainage.

  • Full-cut helmets come down over the airs providing additional protection and insulation.

  • Full face helmets provide protection to the jaw and lower portion of the face, but sometimes don’t drain as effectively and can be uncomfortable on the ears in rough conditions. These are more suited to experienced paddlers who need a great deal of protection.

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Helmet Features

There are three main parts to a helmet, and a number of additional features that appear on products designed for specific types of paddling.

  • The outer shell. This is the hard casing that takes the full brunt of an impact. The harder the shell, the more effective it is at dispersing the force from an impact across a wide surface area. However, a hard shell will not be as effective at absorbing an impact. A more flexible shell will be better at absorbing impact, but if struck hard enough has a higher chance of breaking.

  • The inner lining. Most helmets feature a dual layer of foam; each layer has its own specific job to do. The layer closest to the shell is usually a harder polystyrene based foam that is incredibly good at absorbing the impact and dispersing it before it reaches your head. The second layer, the layer that sits against your head, is designed primarily for comfort and to ensure that the helmet fits close to the contours of your head.

  • The strap. This keeps the helmet secured to your head, even when you are bouncing around in white water rapids. Straps are adjustable, and usually buckle beneath the chin or along the side of the jaw line.

  • Adjusters. Some more modern types of helmets feature a mechanical adjuster that sits around the back of your head, providing additional support and security. They can usually be adjusted on the fly using a dial at the back of your head.

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Things to Look for When Choosing Your Helmet

Everyone is unique, so it’s important that you select a helmet that is suited specifically to you.

The first thing to look for is the right fit. Helmets come in a range of sizes, but brands can sometimes fit differently to others so be sure to try a range before you settle on one.

Your helmet should fit comfortably, but snug, and your chin strap should fit close but not cause uncomfortable rubbing on your neck.

The type of paddling you are doing will determine what additional features to look for in a helmet.

  • Are you performing a lot of rolls and tricks? You might need a helmet with a lot of drainage holes so that you don’t carry half the river around with you above your head.

  • Are you paddling as part of a team? Check that your helmet doesn’t block your ears so much that you can’t hear your team mates.

  • Are you paddling in extremely cold conditions? A helmet with removable ear flaps, or a full-cut helmet might be the way to go, providing that little bit go extra insulation.

  • Is your helmet easily recognisable? It’s a good idea to choose a helmet that is brightly coloured and that is a different colour to those of your buddies, helping you to identify one another in rough conditions.

Get out there and enjoy paddling knowing that if things should go topsy-turvy, your head is well protected.


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