Ratings for whitewater helmets help protect adventure-seeking athletes

Outdoor enthusiasts turning to whitewater rafting to escape the dog days of summer can chase the rapids more safely thanks to the newest ratings from the Virginia Tech Helmet Lab. 

Every year, tens of millions of Americans participate in paddle sports, a category that encompasses kayaking, canoeing, and rafting.

But like any sport, paddling can be dangerous — particularly the more aggressive whitewater variations that send paddlers through rocky rapids and swift currents. 

“Millions of people enjoy whitewater sports, but they’re also some of the highest-risk sports,” said Stefan Duma, the Harry Wyatt Professor of Engineering and the Helmet Lab’s founder. “There are almost 50 whitewater fatalities in America every year, putting the fatality rate ahead of almost any other sport.”

Head injuries are a big part of the reason: If paddlers capsize — either accidentally or as part of intentional maneuvers — and then hit their heads, the results can be deadly. 

“If you look at those fatalities, almost all of them are head impacts, followed by drowning,” said Duma, who is also the director of the university’s Institute for Critical Technology and Applied Science and a professor in the Department of Biomedical Engineering and Mechanics

A helmet that cushions those blows enough to keep a paddler from becoming disoriented or losing consciousness could make the difference between life and death. 

Robin Pope chairs the board of directors for the American Canoe Association, a national nonprofit that provides education and other resources for paddlers and is the governing body for the U.S. Olympic paddle sports teams. He’s also an avid whitewater paddler, and said those athletes understand that helmets are nonnegotiable.

“Most of us have lots of scrapes on our helmets because our helmets have protected us from head injuries,” he said.

“I would not paddle on whitewater with someone who’s not wearing a helmet,” he said. “Most people who know what they’re doing see it as too great a risk for the individual and for the rest of the group, because you know there’s a good chance you may have to deal with a rescue or a serious injury.”

But when it comes to choosing a helmet, Pope — who’s also a physician assistant with years of experience in sports medicine — said paddlers haven’t had much scientific guidance to rely on.

“It’s been a matter of group opinion and personal experience and personal fit,” he said.

That’s where the Helmet Lab comes in.

When Virginia Tech’s injury biomechanics experts released the first independent safety ratings for varsity football helmets in 2011, they introduced a new model for protecting athletes by evaluating the equipment designed to keep them safe. In the decade since, the lab’s ratings have armed athletes, parents, and coaches with the knowledge to choose the safest equipment and handed helmet manufacturers tools to optimize design.

The whitewater helmet ratings are the lab’s eighth major release. Of the 21 whitewater helmet models the researchers tested, four earned five stars, the lab’s top score, and two helmets earned four. Duma and his team recommend choosing a four- or five-star helmet. 

The ratings, Pope said, will be a valuable resource for paddlers.

The researchers develop those ratings by using data from real-world head impacts to design test methods that assess helmet performance under realistic conditions.

“One of the things that’s unique about our system is we characterize each sport,” Duma explained. The way that head impacts tend to occur varies from sport to sport, and understanding those interactions is the first step to figuring out how to protect players. 

For whitewater, that meant analyzing stream flows to determine how fast the current might sweep a paddler’s head into a rock in different scenarios — kayaking versus whitewater rafting, for example. 

Using that data, they designed lab tests that recreate those conditions. During the tests, a pendulum impactor strikes a headform protected by one of the helmets. Inside the headform, accelerometers allow the researchers to measure the force of the blow. 

Each helmet model was tested at three impact locations and two impact speeds: 3.1 and 4.9 m/s. 

As they’ve found for other helmets, price isn’t a predictor of quality — of the top six models, three retail for under $150. What does matter is a padding system that can handle a range of circumstances, compensating for moderate impacts as well as severe blows. That’s why it’s important that the lab’s tests evaluate helmets at different impact speeds, producing a more comprehensive assessment of performance than standard pass-fail certification standards can capture. 

The ratings for whitewater helmets — along with varsity, youth, and flag football as well as soccer, cycling, hockey, and snow sports — are all available on a website that has racked up more than a million unique visitors. 

The lab’s test methods are publicly available, too. That allows companies to use the protocols to evaluate designs and prototypes, optimizing a new helmet’s safety profile before it ever hits the market. 

“We want to help companies improve their products because that’s another avenue to reducing injuries,” Duma said. 

Companies have responded: Helmet performance has improved in the years since the lab’s first ratings, and major manufacturers use the lab’s logo as a point of pride for their flagship products.

No sport is concussion-proof. But effective helmets can dramatically reduce the risk. The lab’s work — which has been covered in the New York Times, the Washington Post, Sports Illustrated, WIRED, and ESPN — has enabled companies to make better products and empowered consumers to choose the best ones available.

Now, those benefits extend to whitewater rafters and kayakers, too. 

“We want to make sure that if you do have a head impact, it’s cushioned as much as possible,” Duma said, “so you can survive that event.”