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Starting Out: Head Case or No-Brainer? Do YOU Need a Helmet?

by Tamia Nelson

By Tamia Nelson

Look at the pictures in most boating catalogs and you won't see many folks wearing helmets. Whitewater outfitters show them routinely in their action shots, of course, but helmets are all but invisible on the pages of other outdoor merchandisers' glossy come-ons. I've got one such catalog in front of me as I write this. It offers a full range of bicycle helmets, including one specifically designed for toddlers, but there's not a helmet to be seen on the twenty pages of canoeing and kayaking gear—despite the fact that several photos show paddlers in surf.

That's too bad. While helmets are usually associated with whitewater kayaking and rafting, they make sense anytime there's a chance your head will hit something harder than itself. And helmets aren't just for kayakers. Here's what the Safety Code of the American Whitewater Affiliation has to say on the subject:

Wear a solid, correctly-fitted helmet when upsets are likely. This is essential in kayaks or covered canoes, and recommended for open canoeists using thigh straps and rafters running steep drops.

That's pretty sweeping, isn't it? "Wear a…helmet when upsets are likely." Not on Golden Pond, perhaps, but certainly in rapids—even easy rapids—and in surf. Anywhere you're likely to be slammed on your head if you dump, in short.

But surely open-boaters don't have to worry, do they? They don't "stay with the ship" when they capsize, after all. Unless, that is, they're using thigh straps.

Well, maybe. If you're wearing a life-jacket, and if your life-jacket fits, and if it's zipped all the way up, you're likely to have relatively little trouble keeping your head above water when you go for an unplanned swim in easy-to-moderate (Class I-III) whitewater. The same thing can't be said for more difficult rapids, though. Swimming in Class IV water (or worse) is a little like going for a ride in a washing machine. One moment you're up. The next moment you're down. You're tumbled and tossed, willy-nilly. The word "swimming" doesn't really apply, in fact. You don't swim in difficult rapids. You struggle. You struggle to keep on your back. To keep your feet pointing downstream. To avoid being washed over ledges and trapped in recirculating eddies, or pinned by your runaway boat. And through it all, you'll find yourself underwater as often as you're above it. If you're flushed into a cobble-filled pothole, you'll soon feel like the clapper in a church bell on Easter Sunday.

In such conditions, a helmet makes a lot of sense, whatever type of boat you paddle.

OK. What should you look for when you go shopping? A good helmet is both light and strong. A good helmet fits snugly but not too tight, and it has a chin-strap with a quick-release buckle. A good helmet doesn't prevent you from hearing the shouts of your companions, fry your brain, or trap large quantities of water (look for ventilation and drain holes). And a good helmet is designed specifically for boating. While a cycling or climbing helmet may be better than nothing, nothing's better than the real thing.

The bottom line? If you own a kayak and you think you'll want to paddle rapids—even easy rapids—get a helmet. Then wear it every time you leave the placid waters of Golden Pond, and every time you practice your roll, engage in deep-water recovery drills in rough conditions, or surf. Every time, in short, that your head could suddenly find itself between a rock and a hard place.
If you paddle an open canoe, inflatable, or sit-on-top, and if you plan to use thigh straps, get a helmet. (Be sure to check the release on your thigh straps, too!) And what if you won't be using thigh straps, but you still think you'll want to run Class III-IV water someday? The answer's a no-brainer: once again, get a helmet.
Lastly, if you're going to take your kids with you in your kayak, I'd recommend that you insist they use helmets even on Golden Pond. In the confusion of a capsize—or just a sudden squall of wind—it's surprisingly easy to clock a kid on the head with your paddle. And it's not just kids. I know one couple who paddle a tandem Folbot in whitewater. The woman paddles in the bow, and her husband can get a little absent-minded at times, particularly when they're in the middle of a tricky Class III drop. After he hit her in the head with his airborne blade for the second time, she bought a helmet. It worked. Both her skull and her marriage are still intact.
Helmets. If you value your head, they're always worth considering. 'Nuff said.

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