How To Choose the Right Paddling Helmet

Photo: Michael DeYoung/ TandemStock

Pick one that’s comfortable and fits you well so that above all else, you wear it every time you take to the water.

If you’re paddling whitewater (whether it’s in river rapids or ocean surf zones), a helmet should be at the top of your equipment list, alongside a properly fitting PFD. A standard for paddlers running rivers rated Class III and above—whether it’s in whitewater kayaks, canoes or inflatable kayaks, as well as paddle rafts—helmets come in multiple shapes and designs, offering different levels of protection. Most feature drainage and/or ventilation holes plus other features to enhance a customized fit. Pick one that’s comfortable and fits you well so that above all else, you wear it every time you take to the water.


Paddling helmets come in three types: half-cut, full-cut, and full-face. Half-cuts are the most minimal, covering your head but not your ears. Full-cuts provide more protection, covering your ears as well while offering a more secure fit. While more cumbersome, full-face are for those tackling more difficult, shallower creeks, offering face and jaw protection. 


Fit is one of the most important features to consider. Your helmet should fit snugly, not too loose and not too tight, without any fore or aft movement. Adjustable both in front of and behind your ears for added security, the chinstrap should hold it solidly in place without chafing or any other discomfort. Some manufacturers offer different, oftentimes proprietary retention systems that let you adjust the fit via a rachet or dial system at the rear end of the helmet. Many also include removable foam shims to fine-tune the fit.  

A man in a drysuit puts on a helmet before going whitewater rafting on the Lochsa River in Idaho. Photo: Ben Herndon/TandemStock


Paddling helmets are made from a variety of materials, from plastics (typically ABS) to proprietary composite make-ups of fiberglass, carbon fiber or Kevlar. Built to be lightweight and durable, they’re often constructed in layers for added reinforcement and protection. All are designed for impact protection and dispersing the force of potential blows across the outer shell. The insides consist of suspension systems, closed-cell foam and other linings and features built to absorb impact and increase comfort. In general, the higher the price, the lighter the weight for that protection plus improved fitting features. 


While you want to get a helmet in a color you like, in general, the brighter the better for visibility, especially in the case of a swim when you might need to be rescued. 


If sun protection during long days on the water is more of a priority than the need to protect against flips in more technical whitewater, look for half-cut helmets with an integrated visor included. Otherwise, you may need to check to see if your helmet is compatible with a baseball cap underneath, or a breakaway/removable aftermarket visor add-on.

All articles are for general informational purposes.  Each individual’s needs, preferences, goals and abilities may vary.  Be sure to obtain all appropriate training, expert supervision and/or medical advice before engaging in strenuous or potentially hazardous activity.