• Published: March 23, 2011

As an avid skier, I have watched the transformation of the heads in lift lines go from day glow head bands and mohawks, to wool beanies, to what we see today–helmets. It makes sense. The speed and the likelihood of falling are high. Why not protect our noggins. This same transformation has been seen with many sports–motorcycles, biking, and climbing to name a few.

Standard issue for kayakers, helmets are, however, often not worn by canoers. The reasons for this are complex. There is certainly an element of tradition and culture that comes into play. Another factor is comfort.

When learning to canoe, it is often done on lakes or gentle streams. These safe, slow moving environments do not necessarily warrant the use of a helmet. It is very unlikely that the canoe will flip, and if it does, it is even more unlikely that the passenger will strike a rock. With this logic, then, helmets do not need to be worn in these environments by canoers, right?

I see a problem with that. As we learn an activity we develop habits. Our mind creates mental scripts that will effect our future actions taken during that activity. We do this for efficiency. Take the act of driving your car. This is an action that most of us have done a thousand times. When we were learning we had to think about every step. First, I put my seat belt on. Now I turn the ignition, next I put the car in drive, now use my right foot to accelerate. Now imagine if we had to think about each of those (overly-simplified) steps every time we set foot in a car. We would be paralyzed by the process. The mental scripts that we create, then, serve the purpose of allowing us to take action.

Apply this to canoeing. If we learn to canoe on the lake up the road and never wear a helmet, then our future actions may very likely put us in a different situation (a fast flowing river) where the script we have learned does not apply. This is not to say, however, that we do not have the ability to see through this script and realize that, hey, a helmet would be a good idea here. However, this can be difficult, especially if the script we are using is powerful and well intrenched. Why not, then, set ourselves and our students up for success? If we always wear a helmet when canoeing, on a lake or a river, we will never encounter this problem.

In addition to the mental scripts that we develop, we create an identity based on the activity we choose. The activity of canoeing is not the same as the activity of kayaking. Kayaks have been labeled extreme by our society, while canoes are more docile and a tool used by the sightseer. Extreme sports require helmets, while more recreational sports do not, right? The problem is that a canoe and a kayak function in the same environment and the hazards are the same for both activities. This is a cultural problem or rather, a group think problem, and is very difficult to remedy. As individuals choosing to participate in an activity, it is important to realize that the group and the customs of the group are not always correct. To best battle this, we should attempt to make as many decisions concerning our own personal safety in isolation and prior to the event. If you come with the firm resolution that you will be wearing a helmet for this canoe trip, you will be less likely to be dissuaded by your peers.

The last problem with the non-use of helmets is comfort. Many helmets are not comfortable. Either they are too tight, the chin strap is constricting or they are hot. It is important, therefore, to find a helmet that fits you well, and that does not constrict or irritate you. The more comfortable it is, the less likely you are to take it off.

While I do believe that each individual should maintain the right to choose whether or not they should wear a helmet on a given day, as an instructor of novice river users, I find it my responsibility to set my students up for a successful and safe future. By creating an environment where comfortable helmets are used at all times, I know that my students will have the tools to make the proper decision when the time comes.

“Whether you are a river-rookie or an experienced boater, WRI tailors their classes to what you need to learn in a fun and challenging environment. Their scenario based teaching approach creates an electric learning atmosphere where you feel like you are in actual river rescue situations. I would recommend them to anybody!”

Eric Giddens, Owner Kern River Brewing Company/1996 Olympic Kayak Team Member
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