While not extremely common, head injuries do happen in surfing from either hitting a reef, rock, sand bed or getting hit in the head by a board.
With so many other sports like skating and kite surfing embracing helmets as a norm why don't surfers wear helmets more often?
Surfers rarely wear helmets when surfing because it doesn't look cool and attracts attention because not many surfers wear helmets. Head injuries do happen in surfing and it's becoming more common for big wave or reef surfers to wear helmets.
There are actually a variety of reasons people don't we
1. Wearing a Helmet Can Make You Look Like a Dweeb/Kook
Honestly, this is really the number one reason that people don't wear helmets when they're surfing.
It's just extremely uncommon to wear a helmet in the water and so if you do wear one you draw attention to yourself and look like a bit of an idiot.
While surfing looks blissful and beautiful the social dynamics of a lineup can be brutal at times. Especially if you're not a local of if you're not an amazing surfer.
Part of the allure of surfing is that it is cool. It feels cool, it is a fun and cool thing to do and you look cool doing it.
Being the only surfer in a lineup wearing a helmet does not feel cool. It is not one of the ways to look good in your wetsuit.
While it's not frowned upon and you're unlikely to be made fun of it the water, it's just difficult being the only one wearing protective gear when everyone else feels it's not needed.
You might get some jeering from your mates but most people will leave you alone and let you do your thing. But yeh, it just doesn't feel as cool and it's not expected.
2. Surfing Feels Safe and Head Injuries Feel Unlikely
I've been surfing for nearly 20 years now and honestly until now I've never really even considered the idea of getting a surfing helmet.
It just doesn't feel necessary surfing in mild condition with small swell at the beach breaks near my home.
Even when surfing reef breaks or point breaks with shallow rocks I don't tend to go out in the big swells.
When having a wipeout or getting stuck in the impact zone I'll often use my arms over my head to protect my head from any impact.
I also skateboard and I'll often wear a helmet when skateboarding. But falling off a board onto concrete vs falling off into water is so different and the risk for head injuries in surfing are much less likely when compared to skateboarding or impact sports like American Football.
With everyone using a leg rope the chances of being hit in the head by a stray board is also less likely.
For me and the way I surf and the conditions I surf in I feel the risk of a head injury is extremely low for me. If it did happen it would likely be a minor head injury and so wearing a helmet just doesn't feel worth it.
3. Head Injuries Are Less Common In Surfing Than Other Sports
While head injuries do happen in surfing they are much less common and less frequent than other riskier sports like skateboard, kite surfing and American Football.
According to surfing medicine head injuries account for 37% of all surfing injuries with only 84% of those head injuries being minor and only 16% being more severe injuries like concussions.
This data set also doesn't take into account all the minor surfing injuries that are never reported on as surfers just deal with them themselves and don't need medical attention.
For example, the other day I had a wipeout on a wave. My fin slammed into my leg and in the process the fin broke off and my leg got a minor cut and a solid bruise. I didn't go to the doctor or report that.
In my nearly 20 years of surfing I've never known anyone to have even a minor head injury surfing, let along a major one.
This study looked at a sample of 50 surfers and found 70% had sustained some kind of head injury with 26% having experienced a concussion. Maybe it's because it was done in Hawaii where waves are bigger or just the subset of 50 people they interview but it's not that common in the surfing town I'm from.
In big wave surfing it's certainly more common.
There is also this great article in The Guardian that talks about concussions, brain damage and head injuries in surfing. It's definitely something that can happen and definitely more so for big wave surfers.
4. It Restricts The Sounds Around You and The Experience of Surfing
Surfing is a full sensory experience. The feel of the water, the beautiful view of the beach and waves, the smell and taste of salt water and of course the sound of the wind and the waves.
For many of us surfing is a fully immersive and almost spiritual experience. It strips away all the worries of the day and it's just you and the surf.
Surfing helmets often cover your ears which can lead to a strange and confusing audible experience of the ocean.
5. It Feels Claustrophobic
Being underwater with something strapped to your head and around you ears can feel claustrophobic and stressful compared to the feeling of wearing nothing on your head at all.
But in saying this surfers wear wetsuit hoodies all the time in frigid water and that completely covers their ears and head to keep them warm. So it would definitely be something you could get used to.
6. The Designs Aren't Great
Helmet usage in skateboard has come a long way, in large part to innovative skate helmet designs that actually look good when wearing them.
Helmets in surfing are far less common and if I'm completely honest the designs aren't nearly as good as their skating counterparts.
While some people can pull off a surfing helmet and look awesome for a lot of us the designs are good enough that we'll look good in one.
They aren't an incredibly popular product so I imagine it'll take some time for companies to develop better and more attractive designs.
6. Surf Helmets Are Expensive
While there are a few affordable options a quick look on Amazon at surfing helmets shows that most surfing helmets are around the $200 mark.
This is a lot of money to shell out on a helmet and could be money that you put towards a new board or new wetsuit or the latest Go Pro to strap onto your board.
Unless you're a big wave surfing or surfing dangerous reef breaks it can be difficult to justify the expense.
Should Surfer's Wear Helmets?
If you lived in a perfect world where you could make people do the safest things possible and everyone had the money then sure, every surfer should probably wear a helmet.
But you could also say the same thing about everyone driving a car or riding a scooter.
Everyone riding a skateboard should probably be wearing a helmet but not everyone does.
The reality is for most people surfing smaller beach breaks a surfing helmet is an unnecessary piece of equipment. The risk of major head injury is just so low that it doesn't really warrant spending the money and putting up with the hassle of wearing one.
For those surfing big waves or dangerous breaks where the risk of serious head injury is much higher then yes, they likely should be wearing a helmet.
Surfers Sometimes Wear Helmets On Big Waves or On Shallow Reefs
While still not as common as it should be you are now starting to see more and more surfing putting safety ahead of style and wearing helmets on big waves.
One of the most famous big waves is the thick and nasty Teahupo'o and during the championship tour competition in 2019 The Intertia reported on a few surfers wearing helmets.
This is a giant, thick and powerful wave that breaks directly onto a shallow reef. Head injuries are much more likely here.
But even still those wearing helmets are most likely those who have suffered previous head injuries. Though apparently head gear is now available for all surfers on the World Tour.
Below you can see a video of the legend Tom Carrol wearing a surfing helmet way back in 1991
Some Surf Spots Helmets Are More Common
There are some surf spots that are notoriously rocky and dangerous and surfing helmet are far more common.
Fort Point, which is a surfing break under the golden gate bridge is one of these spots. Surfers there know the dangers the low lying rocks pose and thus are more likely to wear helmets to protect themselves.
Surfing spots where surfers are required to surf through the pylons of a wharf or pier people are more likely to wear helmets as they may collide with the pylons.
So while surfing helmets aren't a super common sight there seems to be a time and place for them.
Hopefully over time they will become more popular and we'll see more and more surfers choosing to protect their head and surf wearing safety gear.