Interested in a surf helmet? Congratulations, you’ve got more common sense than most. Despite the well-known risk factor for those participating in the Sport of Kings, helmets are still an unpopular choice, even at extremely heavy pro-level waves like Pipeline and Teahupo’o. However, that could be changing as high-profile athletes such as Owen Wright, Koa Smith, and others have donned head gear in the water at waves of consequence, and crowded lineups are giving all of us more and more reason to follow their lead, powerful waves or not. And if you’re looking to get in the water to do some photography instead of surfing, a helmet is a must, especially when paddling close to the action with surfboard fins slicing through the water inches from your head.
We’ve gotten in the water with the best surf helmets on the market, and have some thoughts on the subject. Here they are.
What Are The Best Surf Helmets?
Best Overall Surf Helmet: Gath Hat EVA/Neo
Runner Up Best Surf Helmet: Simba Sentinel 1
Best Multisport Helmet: Gath Gedi
Most Protective Soft Helmet: Gamebreaker Pro
Lightest Surf Helmet: DMC Soft Surf Helmet
Best Overall Surf Helmet
Gath Hat EVA/NEO ($169)
Pros: The industry standard since 1989.
Cons: Less protection than other hard-helmets on this list. Minimal adjustability.
Gath has an undeniable hold on the surf-helmet market. It was one of the first and is a leader in the category for good reason – Gath has perfected its designs over time. The Gath Hat (above) is the original Gath surf helmet first introduced in 1989. Time tested, it’s sported by current pro surfers at various breaks (especially heavy ones) around the world. The sleek design was built for the wear of critical surfing so it sheds water, allowing you to move through the water like a sea ninja while keeping it locked on your head.
Preferred for its comfort and wraparound fit, the Gath Hat offers a bit thinner protection than other Gath models, but is the helmet you’re most likely to forget that you’re wearing. Choose a neoprene headband for ultimate comfort and head-fitting flexibility, or the EVA version for extra forehead protection. This helmet especially requires a precise fit, so be sure to check the size charts before making a purchase.
Runner-Up Best Surf Helmet
Simba Sentinel 1 ($199)
Pros: Highly protective, well-designed surf helmet. Available for (sometimes) as low as $130.
Cons: Adjustability uses thin stick-on pads, not great for swapping between head sizes.
Simba’s Sentinel 1 helmet may be one of the newest surf helmets to hit the water, but it’s quickly becoming one of the most popular but has since received support from Garret McNamara and other big-wave legends such as Gary Linden. Koa Smith wears a Simba, as does Nazaré local João Macedo.
The Sentinel 1 has the most head protection of any helmet in this lineup, including coverage for the lower forehead, jawline and temples. The shell material is also very rigid, giving plenty of protection despite the thinness of the material. Simba describes its Sentinel design as “Aquadynamic,”meaning it’s shaped to minimize drag when duckdiving as well as lessen the impact on your head when it hits the surface of the water in case of a fall, and in testing we did find duckdiving to be particularly easy,
An advanced foam lining allows for customization beyond the size charts, but since the foam liners are stick-on, it’s a bit of a one-and-done solution – you won’t be able to put on and take off the pads more than once to, say, adjust for fitting a hood underneath, or sharing the helmet between friends/family, basically the only downside of the helmet. That said, the pads do a phenomenal job of dialing in the fit past the size charts, so you can be sure to minimize helmet-rattle and get that snug and secure fit. Check out our full review here.CHECK PRICE ON AMAZON
Best Multisport Helmet
Gath Gedi ($189)
Pros: An extra layer of protection over the Gath Hat. Adjustable fit.
Cons: A bit bulkier and heavier than the Gath Hat.
Gath makes a few different styles so we’re going to pay them respect here with a second model writeup. The Gedi is another great Gath helmet, but trends towards the multi-sport user. With higher impact protection than the Gath Hat but a bit more bulk, the Gedi is a great helmet for those interested in windsports, like kiting and foiling, as well as surfing. It also comes with an EN1385 approval, an accreditation for watersports helmets.
The Gedi comes with the brand’s latest fitting technology to dial in the fit beyond the size charts and includes removable ear pieces. With a full range of customizable options such as a visor, headlamp mount, or GoPro-ready brim, the Gedi is a solid choice for just about anything in the water. For an in-between option between the Gath Gedi and the Gath Hat that gives a bit more protection than the Hat, but is better for duckdiving than the Gedi, check out the Gath SFC Helmet.
Most Protective Soft Helmet
Gamebreaker Pro ($79)
Pros: Highly protective for a soft helmet. Comfortable, good price.
Cons: Still a soft helmet.
A multi-sports helmet that has gained traction in flag football, water polo, and other contact-ish sports, the GameBreaker Pro has been seeing more and more use in the surf with surprisingly good results. Its soft shell means there’s little chance for whiplash which can happen when a helmet collects water and gets whipped back, is pushed back hard by a wave, or both. That, along with savings in weight, comfort, and a more adjustable fit are why one might choose a soft-shell helmet over a hard-shell, and the Gamebreaker Pro checks all of those categories.
Powered by smart molecule technology, don’t let the soft shell fool you. The foam padding is made with D30 Impact Protection Technology, which works to absorb shock and hardens upon impact. Having received a five-star rating in the Virginia Tech Impact Labs’ Helmet Ratings, you can be sure that this is no snake oil. This is the most protective soft helmet that we’ve seen out there, and have heard nothing but positive feedback from those hitting the water in it, including an ER-room doctor at the notoriously heavy wave of Ocean Beach in San Francisco. That’s gotta count for something.CHECK PRICE ON AMAZON
Lightest Surf Helmet
DMC Soft Surf Helmet V2 ($99)
Pros: Soft and quite comfortable.
Cons: Not a ton of protection.
DMC swim fins have been a top pick for bodysurfers and swimmers alike for years, and recently, they expanded their offerings with the DMC Soft Surf Helmet, a lightweight soft-shell watersports helmet. The helmet is the lightest on this list with a weight of only 100 grams, is comfortable and easy to forget about, with features like a comfortable chin-strap, neck-flap for sun and wind protection, as well as a small visor peak in the front of the helmet that can be flipped up when not in use. The back of the helmet also features a lace-up system so you can adjust the fit as needed. DMC just released the V2 version of the helmet, with adds a buckle to the chin-strap, and a redesigned neck protector.
While the comfort of the helmet is certainly noteworthy, the cost it comes at is a lack of solid protection. The helmet has nicely shaped impact pads across the entire helmet, but if I were going to land on a shallow reef headfirst, I think I’d rather have something stiffer covering my noggin. That said, for more casual surf-activities, like learning to surf, foiling, etc., where the risk is less catastrophic impact and more likely a surfboard or foil-board to the head, I can see the Soft Surf Helmet from DMC having a great application.CHECK PRICE ON Amazon
|Gath Hat EVA/Neo||$169||355-390 g||Hard Shell||Best Overall|
|Simba Sentinel 1||$199||430 g||Hard Shell||Runner-Up|
|Gath Gedi||$189||360-420 g||Hard Shell||Best Multi-Sport|
|Gamebreaker Pro||$79||200 g||Soft Shell||Most Protective Soft Shell|
|DMC Soft Surf Helmet||$99||100 g||Soft Shell||Lightest Soft Shell|
What Features Matter in a Surf Helmet?
Protecting your noggin is no joke, especially when it comes to sports as unpredictable and potentially dangerous as surfing. Similar to a surf hat, the main criteria for a surf helmet is it’s gotta stay where it is, especially when duck diving. And unless you’re donning a helmet for a chaotic lineup, chances are you’re putting one on to surf a more powerful wave, and will be doing plenty of duck diving.
Duck diving puts an inordinate amount of backwards pull on the head area as the wave washes over you towards shore (excuse my layman’s terms, I’m no physicist), and if your helmet doesn’t fit properly, or worse, isn’t made for surfing, it’s going to be swinging around your neck, full of water and choking you with the chinstrap. Not exactly the picture of safety.
Tightening the chin strap is easy, but it won’t fix a bad fit. Many of these helmets are available in different sizes, some with limited adjustability or precise sizing. Luckily, the head is (usually) not the most complicated part of the body to measure, and all of the helmets here have a decent sizing chart. When searching out the perfect surf helmet, measure twice, purchase once.
The amount of protection a helmet provides is also worth considering. A hard helmet will provide more protection than a soft helmet, although the Gamebreaker Pro does get pretty close to the level of protection we see in thinner surf helmets like the Gath Hat EVA/Neo.
Editor’s Note: For more gear reviews and features on The Inertia, click here.