Valdez native Myles Burgett, 19, usually wore a helmet when riding exposed terrain, but whatever reason he went without one near the Pemberton Ice Cap last February, luck didn’t follow his decision. A massive head injury resulting from a fall left him in a coma, and left a lot of riders contemplating the wisdom of protective gear.

Burgett’s sad story is just one of an increasing number of injuries resulting from snowboarding. The most common involve the wrists, but torn ACLs, and head injuries are not uncommon. For example, hooking your heel side edge is a common occurrence that usually takes you by surprise and results in slamming your ass, and oftentimes, your head.

Although tallies for the 1996 season have not yet been finalized, the National Consumer Product Safety Commission reports that in the United States in 1995, 1,333 people showed up in emergency rooms with head injuries obtained while snowboarding, and 404 of these were diagnosed with concussions. That’s a smaller figure than the 6,500 and 3,315 casualties of skiing, but snowboarding is still the fastest growing winter sport.

Riders are starting to realize the importance of helmets, says pro snowboarder Shin Campos. Maybe you don’t need to wear them all the time, but definitely in any situation in which you’re not too confident.

Campos, a freerider who also competes in the pipe, hit his head during a Whistler national halfpipe competition three years ago, knocked himself out, and forgot part of the day. Now he wears a helmet in not only the pipe, but other hard snow or exposed conditions as well. They’re pretty important for aggressive riders, and those who want to try stuff beyond their normal limits, Campos said. Lots of people in Whistler are wearing them now because a couple people died from here.

The request this year from riders is greater this ever, says Barry Dugan, team/promotions manager at Burton Snowboards. With product development being so progressive, people are taking greater risks, and are able to access more dangerous terrain. Which means steeper, rockier cliffs. And going farther out of an icy, ten-foot high halfpipe.

Burton riders Jim Rippey, Craig Kelly, Jeff Anderson, Trevor Andrew have all expressed interest in the availability of helmets, and others, like Adam Petraska, always keep their heads covered. Petraska has a reputation for consistently covering his noggin at such events as the U.S. Open at Stratton last March, where he was the only male competitor to wear a helmet.

Another rider who swears by his helmet is Marc Bujold, snowboard division manager at Rossignol. Bujold began wearing one two years ago, and was sporting his Boeri Myto helmet the day he inadvertently slid off the icy groomed at an Eastern resort. Although he whacked the top part of his head on a slopeside tree while going about 35 miles per hour, Bujold came away with only a concussion. The doctors told me that if I wasn’t wearing a helmet, I probably would have been roached, he says. The thing saved my life.

Despite this mishap, Bujold’s biggest fear as an alpine rider is getting skied into from behind; other trail users is the primary reason he never goes without. And, he adds, Whenever anyone asks me why I wear them, I respond, ‘What do you wear when you mountain bike?’ and 99 percent of them say, ‘oh, yeah.’ Snowboarders go even faster and there’s an equal amount of opportunity for head injuries as in biking.

Mike Arzt, sales and marketing coordinator for Red and another rider who knocked his head so hard while in New Zealand that he couldn’t catch his balance for a few days, also compares helmet wearing with mountain biking: If you go without a helmet in skating or biking, you look like a kook, Arzt says. But the perception in riding is changing. Pro-riders are wearing cooler helmets that don’t make their heads look like they have buckets on them, and that image flows down to the consumer level. Besides, you only want to hit your head so many mes, and when you do take a bad crash, you’ll feel like an idiot if you left your helmet in the trunk.

Although attitude seems indicative of the increasing awareness of the inherent risk of the sport, (kind of like the increasing numbers of riders who carry shovels, probes, and transceivers when they hit the backcountry) there remains an obvious hole in the availability of snowboarding-specific helmets. Go to a BoarderCross event, one of the few competitions that actually requires helmets, and you’ll see everything from motocross versions, to, as Dugan puts it, That thing Jack Nicholson wore in Easy Riders.

If I had a trim, not cumbersome helmet, Id probably use it all the time, says Campos. People are starting to talk, and some companies are starting to respond, but there’s still not much out there that was designed with snowboarding in mind. To date, only Boeri and Bell produce what is toted as snowboarding-specific helmets, which is why companies such as Red, a subsidiary of Burton, have been developing helmets and others, such as Pro-Tech, are at least discussing the possibility.

And even if wearing a helmet all the time isn’t your cup of tea, still use your judgment. Experienced riders taking a few runs on open powder faced slopes or groomers face fewer risks (barring out of control skiers and powder-obscured obstacles) than, say, a rider who makes it a practice to launch 30-foot rocky cliffs, or turn tricks in icy halfpipes. Even so, I remember the time a friend of mine was stopped on the side of a nice, mellow intermediate trail at Breckenridge when she was plowed over by a skier who couldn’t stop in time. His ski made contact with her head; she was laid out flat. Thankfully, the crash resulted in only a minor concussion, but not a winter day goes by that someone isn’t so lucky.

Precautions sidebar:

Helmets and protective gear aside, there are other precautions you can take to help prevent snowboarding injuries:

1. Avoid icy conditions at speeds beyond your control.
2. Listen to your body; if you’re really tired, don’t take one more run.
3. First timers, and especially children, should always wear helmets, since you spend more time falling than riding.
4. Make sure your board and boots fit correctly.
5. If you’re a beginner, take lessons.
6. Watch out for potential collisions with other trail users, and hidden obstacles.

Equipment sidebar:

In addition to Boeri and Bell, there are several tried and true ski helmet manufacturers like Jofa, that will do in a pinch. Even if you have to deal with the emotional distress caused by people staring at you like you’re a total geek, that will be balanced by the emotional security in knowing that your noggin won’t get wrecked. Another upshot to all this, is that the helmets out there are actually quite lightweight and comfortable. They keep your head toasty on those frigid days, your goggles from sliding down your face, and they don’t get snagged and left behind on low branches.

Red’s Skycap ($100), claims to be the first snowboard specific helmet. Designed for halfpipe and freeriding, the Skycap blueprints include a beefed up back of the head area major impact zone, a fleece lining with wicking capacity, and a multi-impact resistant shell that keeps the helmet from denting, or, ugh, shattering, no matter how many times you take a digger.

Boeri offers seven various styled, foam-lined helmets dependent on your boarding preferences the Shorty ($90 to $123) and the Chop ($101) were designed with all day freeriding and freestyle in mind, and have expanded polystyrene inner shells that absorb the force of impacts. With its higher cut shell, the Shorty is lighter and less constrictive, and excellent for all day wear. New this year, the Chop comes complete with removable ear-flaps to adjust to the cold, or lack of it.

Bell’s Snowboard Helmet ($90) is made of a durable Lexan polycarbonate hard shell with expanded polypropylene liner and a brushed-nylon inner liner incorporating a rear neck curtain and adjustable ear flaps. The helmet comes in two styles: full ear coverage built into the shell and a short-cut version that has a shorter shell and unique zip-out ear flaps.

The ski helmets made by Jofa, from Karhu have polycarbonate and Kevlar shells that are designed to tolerate fall after fall. Padding makes them comfortable, and ear holes prevent sound from being too muffled, so you can hear when someone screams, to your left!r and a brushed-nylon inner liner incorporating a rear neck curtain and adjustable ear flaps. The helmet comes in two styles: full ear coverage built into the shell and a short-cut version that has a shorter shell and unique zip-out ear flaps.

The ski helmets made by Jofa, from Karhu have polycarbonate and Kevlar shells that are designed to tolerate fall after fall. Padding makes them comfortable, and ear holes prevent sound from being too muffled, so you can hear when someone screams, to your left!