Why Don’t More Surfers Wear Helmets? (& Why Some Do)

why don't surfers wear helmets

You rarely see surfers wearing helmets. Why is that? It’s easy enough to get a head injury while surfing; you could have a head-on collision with rocks, coral, the surfboard, even other surfers. Although uncommon, it is certainly possible to receive a traumatic head injury while surfing. Surely that is reason enough for all surfers to wear a helmet, not just the minority, so why isn’t it the norm?

Surfers don’t wear helmets for the same reasons anybody else in other sports don’t like to wear helmets. Helmets can be uncomfortable, an impediment to one’s mobility, vision,  hearing, and could trigger one’s claustrophobia. High end helmets might be too expensive to justify buying. Or, the most petty reason of all: helmet designs might not look good enough and many surfers don’t want to be seen wearing one.

The purpose of this article is not to turn this issue into a stone throwing contest between surfers who wear helmets and those who don’t. But rather, this article should serve to highlight the pros and cons between wearing a helmet or not and to help you make an informed decision.

We will try to remain as impartial as possible as we go over the upsides and downsides over wearing a helmet while surfing. To be fair, we typically don’t wear a helmet while surfing, however our decision to wear one or not depends on the weather conditions at a break. Let’s go over what factors can influence our decision.

How many surfers wear helmets?

We can’t give you an exact number or percentage as it would be impossible to conduct an accurate count on a global scale. However, based on our experiences, we can say that the number is extremely low, probably less than 1% or maybe even another decimal point to the left. It’s so uncommon that most surfers have yet to encounter another surfer with a helmet on.

Why is this the case? Are helmets so useless to surfers that it would be a detriment to wear one? This is where there are two camps – a (tiny) camp that believes helmets should be worn while surfing, and another (much larger) camp which does not think so.

Most surfers don’t wear a helmet because they just don’t think it’s worth it or necessary. If you are surfing during idyllic conditions, the chances of injuring your head is extremely low. However, that is not true if you are surfing over rocks or a dry reef with powerful waves. Then it would be foolish not to wear a helmet.

With that said, most people don’t wear a helmet while surfing, not even surfers who do surf big waves and legitimately could benefit from the protection. As we go over the advantages and disadvantages of wearing a helmet, it will be up to you to decide if the masses are right or if the minority of headgear wearers are right.

Are there laws or rules regarding wearing a helmet for surfing?

As you can probably guess by now, there are no regulations about surfing with a helmet, otherwise the authorities would have a field day handing out fines and you would see a lot more surfers wearing helmets.

Since surfing is a water sport and the ocean is vast, collisions are mostly avoided and there is usually enough distance from the surface to the ocean floor that falling off the surfboard is usually harmless. As such, most people feel safe enough to surf without a helmet, and clearly the authorities agree.

With that said, if you are part of a surf school, camp, or at a private resort, then they may have their own rules regarding wearing headgear. Particularly if you’re starting out, it’s probably a good idea (and a rule) to wear a helmet while taking lessons.

When should you wear a helmet while surfing?

Even though you rarely (if ever) see surfers wearing a helmet, that doesn’t mean it’s a bad idea to do so. Helmets are situational and in some cases, you should wear a helmet.

Big waves

You can reach some pretty high speeds with a surfboard, and a head-on collision with your own surfboard, other surfers, or the ocean floor can result in loss of consciousness, brain damage, or even death.

It’s not just the surfboard or the ocean floor that’s a danger; the devastating power of the lip of a wave can feel like a brick wall just crashed down over you. Even if they aren’t all wearing helmets yet, more and more big wave surfers are starting to use inflatable life vests for safety, and perhaps helmets will soon be the norm.

However, this trend seems to only be affecting experienced or professional surfers; will there be a time when even recreational surfers adopt wearing a helmet as the norm? We will see that there are also legitimate reasons why one might want to wear a helmet even as a recreational surfer.

Shallow breaks

Surfing in shallow water means the distance between you and a sharp coral reef or rocky floor bed is smaller. If you were to fall off your board, your chances of coming into contact with one of these dangers is increased.

That means lacerations, concussions, and broken bones become much more likely. Just as a wetsuit can provide some level of protection for your body, so too can a helmet protect your head specifically against any serious damage.

When there is less water to pad your fall due to the reefs getting sucked dry as they break, wearing a helmet over a shallow reef should be a serious consideration – particularly in a big swell – if you want to protect yourself.

Protect an old head injury

Repeated head injuries can result in a generative brain disease known as Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE). Very famously, it has affected professional wrestlers and American footballers, two sports where the athletes are repeatedly hit in the head.

This trauma can worsen over time, resulting in confusion, loss of memories, a change in personality, and in extreme cases, difficulty with communicating or even eating. As you can expect, it’s pretty life-changing in a negative way.

Due to how serious head injuries are, surfers who want to keep their brain healthy or people who have suffered a brain injury in the past should wear a helmet to prevent further damage.

When there is a crowded lineup

If you’re surfing at a popular break or during peak hours, then you may encounter large crowds while lining up. Surfing in a densely populated location would increase your chances of a collision, and therefore a helmet might be warranted.

While most surfers are generally pretty good at avoiding collisions, it’s also not that uncommon for surfers to run into each other. As the line up grows in size, the chances of an accident increases in proportion.

Even if the line up is small, you never know if there are any new surfers taking surf lessons among the line up. If you are ever in a situation where there is a limited amount of space and a little bit of chaos, consider wearing a helmet.

When you’re starting out

The first time you ever went skating, rollerblading, or biking, you probably wore a helmet, knee and elbow pads, gloves, etc. This was done in anticipation of a nasty fall which was almost certainly going to happen due to your inexperience. As you progressively get better, you can wear less and less protection, but starting out without any protection is just asking for an injury.

All of this applies to surfing as well. Whenever you’re starting a new extreme sport, you should err on the side of caution and protect yourself. Even if you’re starting out in shallow water with small waves, beginners often have insufficient control of their upper body strength for surfing, which increases your chances of hitting yourself with your own board.

As a result, it’s wise to wear a helmet if you’re just getting started with surfing. In some cases, if you’re staying with a high-end surf resort that offers ruf lessons and rents out surf gear, they may have a rule that you must wear a helmet while surfing.

When surfing with your kids

If an adult surfer has a head-on collision with another adult surfer, or if they hit their head on a rock or surfboard,they could get seriously injured or even killed. How much more dangerous then is it for children to surf without a helmet? Plus, they have a lot more to live for compared to some of us who are older.

A surfboard is really hard and can seriously injure one’s head. A rock is even harder. And a coral reef is… well it’s brittle, but it can give you a nasty cut. If you happen to butt heads with another surfer, then both of you could be in serious trouble. If a child accidentally collides with an adult surfer, it’s the child that will end up flying and getting hurt, not the other guy.

With some of the antics kids get up to, it’s actually a miracle how some of them reach adulthood intact. However, rather than gambling on your kid’s survival , why don’t you stack the deck in your favor and get him/her a durable helmet to wear for surfing.

When you’re surfing alone

Surfing alone is very liberating and fun, but also comes with the highest risk. If you were to hit your head while surfing alone, there wouldn’t be a friend close by who can immediately call for help or try to assist you.

That’s why if you’re planning on paddling out alone, you might want to have some extra protection in the form of a helmet. This is especially true when you’re surfing at a new location alone and aren’t yet familiar with the area.

If you’re feeling anxious

You should do whatever is necessary to help you feel safe while surfing; you don’t need any particular reason to wear a helmet. Not everyone is so happy-go-lucky and carefree; some people are more risk-averse and maybe that’s you and that’s totally okay.

Just because the weather is nice, the water visibility is high, and no other surfers are wearing helmets doesn’t mean that you can’t. Never let social pressure cause you to do something you feel uncomfortable doing like surfing without a helmet when you’re actually feeling anxious or unsafe.

Benefits of wearing a helmet while surfing

Look, there isn’t a laundry list of reasons why you should wear a helmet while surfing. In fact, there is only one reason: to protect your head against any impacts. This singular benefit is crucial; you can think of it like a super benefit.

After all, it only takes one bad head injury and you might be debilitated for life, if not dead. Plus, there is no shortage of danger in the ocean. Even if you are high above the rocks and coral reefs, you could still get hit by your own board or another surfer. If you were to hit your head so hard you lose consciousness, you can easily lose your life.

So even though there is only one major benefit to wearing a helmet while surfing, you can think of it like a super benefit. In the next section, we’ll discuss the numerous downsides to wearing a helmet. Despite there being a greater number of downsides, we believe that it still does not necessarily make a stronger argument. Let’s dive into it below.

Downsides to wearing a helmet while surfing

Yes, a helmet will protect your head from injury. No one is arguing against that fact. However, many surfers refuse to wear a helmet because they feel that they are skilled enough to avoid accidents, and that surfing is a safe enough sport to not warrant wearing protective headgear or eyewear.

Helmets do have their fair share of grievances; some of them are legitimate and some of them are petty but can be enough of an annoyance for people to not want to wear one. You can decide if any of these downsides are deal breakers for you.

Helmets can trigger claustrophobia

Some people can suffer from claustrophobia if they have something strapped to their head that impairs their senses, such as snorkel and dive masks or helmets in this case.

Getting knocked off the surfboard by a wave and held underwater is an uncomfortable experience without a helmet. With a helmet on, this experience is worsened.

Imagine being disoriented but also having a tight helmet squeezing your head and weighing you down; it’s not surprising that it can trigger a panic attack in someone less experienced or prone to anxiety.

Helmets can muffle sounds

Some helmets can cover your head all the way down to your ears, and this can muffle sounds you’d normally expect to hear.

Imagine not being able to hear the sounds of wave breaks, birds, or the chatter of people around you. It can be disorienting and might even be a safety issue if it causes you to miss warnings or incoming dangers.

For instance, it would be very ironic if wearing a helmet causes you to not hear a nearby surfer causing you to collide with one another. In most circumstances, you would be alert and could easily avoid it by kicking out.

Helmets can limit your mobility

Unsurprisingly, strapping anything onto your body will limit your mobility. In the case of your helmet, it might slightly cause you to be off-balance or strain your neck over a long enough surfing session.

Furthermore, a helmet can make hold downs more difficult than they need to be by increasing drag underwater and weighing you down slightly. Surfing with a helmet can take away some of the freedom you normally experience surfing without one.

Helmets don’t look very fashionable

Helmets designs are very utilitarian, meaning that they are designed with functionality in mind with little thought put into how it might look. Ask any surfer what they think about helmet designs, and the answer you’ll probably receive is that they look stupid or bulky.

Of course, if you are in a legitimately risky situation where a helmet is warranted, then no one will bat an eye that you’re wearing what looks like a turtle shell on your head.

The problem is that many people who would benefit the most from wearing a helmet – such as beginners – are likely to be surfing in idyllic conditions where no other surfer would be wearing a helmet. This inadvertently gives them social pressure because they are the only ones wearing a helmet, and they might decide to forgo it entirely.

Perhaps if helmet designs looked better (without sacrificing functionality), they would one day be accepted as the norm for surfers.

Despite what we just said, don’t let any social pressure cause you to stop wearing a helmet from surfing if you feel you need it for protection. Ignore any comments or weird looks people give you and do what you need to do to stay safe.

At least in my experience (and asking other surfers’ opinions), they may stare because they so rarely see someone wearing a helmet, not because they are judging you.

Helmets can be expensive

Like all products, there are budget options and there are expensive options. When it comes to safety, how much are you willing to pay?

Since helmets are designed to protect your head, if you are someone who cares enough to even bother getting a helmet, then you’ll probably want to invest in at least a mid-range helmet if not a high end one.

To give you an idea of the price range, anything under $100 is on the low end, between $100-200 is mid-range, and anything above $200 is high end. Depending on how often you plan to surf while wearing a helmet, you might be able to justify your investment very quickly.

Again, how much of a price are you willing to pay to improve your safety? If you do suffer a preventable head injury, the medical costs would far outweigh the cost of a helmet. The cost might be even higher if you end up debilitated in some way.

Based on anecdotal evidence, most surfers rarely get into any serious accidents (maybe the occasional bump on their head against their surfboard) and so they cannot justify the price of a helmet.

Also, helmets are actually somewhat fragile. For instance, if you were to drop the helmet on land, the common wisdom is to buy a new helmet because the old one might be compromised. So there’s a possibility you can drop your helmet and lose your investment without it ever serving its purpose. This also makes it a hard sell for surfers.

Are there specific surfing helmets?

Yes, there are.

Since surfing is a water sport, surfing helmets are designed to be usable in the water; go figure. Regular helmets designed for land use should not be used in their place.

Surfing helmets are typically reinforced with stainless steel and rivets to prevent rust. There are also additional holes to allow water to drain out and improve ventilation for faster drying.

Additionally, the padding used should not absorb water to prevent getting waterlogged and becoming too heavy.

While there are helmets designed specifically for surfing, you can switch them out with helmets designed for other water sports such as kitesurfing, windsurfing, and wakeboarding. As long as they are designed for use with the water in mind, it should be fine.

Parting words

Surfers generally don’t wear helmets while surfing because they feel like they don’t need to, it can impair their senses, weigh them down, and the cost may be prohibitive for some. The biggest reason seems to be that most surfers don’t like how they look.

With that said, as water depth decreases and swell size increases, no one is going to fault you for wearing a helmet. Heck, you can even wear one if the conditions are ideal.

Head injuries are a serious risk for surfers. Even though helmets are uncommon, perhaps they should be worn more often. There’s no point worrying about how you look if you lose your life one day due to a serious head injury. In certain conditions, helmets are essential.

If you feel you need to wear a helmet while surfing for your safety, just wear one and ignore any glances or comments directed at you.

Last update on 2022-11-16 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API