Once upon a time, the only skiers who wore helmets were professional and competitive athletes or ski film stars who jumped out of helicopters into the trees, skiing down 45 degree couloirs and hucking reverse somersaults off of 200-foot cliffs. Not anymore.

Skiers today are wise to wear Snell Foundation approved helmets because of the increased popularity of the sport and the introduction of shaped skis that make skiing at high speeds more common. It's especially important for kids.

There were over 16,000 head injuries on the slopes in 1998. The number had doubled by 2002. The Consumer Product Safety Commission estimates that 40 percent of those injuries could have been prevented if the victims had been wearing helmets. A February 2006 article in the Los Angeles Times quoted Dr. Stuart Levy on his research that showed ski helmets can reduce the risk of ski-related injuries by over two-thirds and reduce the risk of ski and snowboard fatalities by over 80 percent.

Detractors on the opposing side support the theory of "risk compensation" - those who wear helmets tend to ski faster because they feel invincible and immune to injury. Others site the large number of ski injuries that occur to the face, neck, and other areas that are not protected by helmets. It's up to you, when all is said and one, to make your own choice whether or not to wear a helmet. The good news is if you are ready to wear a one, there are plenty of choices.

How do you know which one to buy with so many helmets on the market? Which features are important and how much should you spend? There are a variety of factors to consider when buying a helmet such as shape, ventilation, size, and design type, but it all begins with the proper fit.

The best way to evaluate the proper fit of a helmet is to try on a few, just like any other clothing or equipment purchase. Since each of the most popular brands differ slightly from the others, begin by settling on a budget, the most important features, then visit your local ski shop - one that carries all of the major brands. Helmets start as low as $75 and can go up to $300. Some of the more popular helmet makers are Boeri, Briko, Carrera, Giro, Leedom, Leki, Pro-tec, Red Corp and Zamp.

Helmets come in several styles: full shell, short shell, competition, and youth. Full shell helmets are similar to motorcycle helmets - they fully encompass the head and are typically heavier than recreational helmets. They are built to withstand higher impacts and offer more protection during high-speed collisions. Some models come with adjustable vents that allow for better temperature regulation on warm, spring days.

Short shell helmets are probably the most popular selling recreation helmets. While offering similar protection to full shell models, they tend to be lighter and cooler, so they're ideal for warm days when the sun is out. Look for models that offer venting and replaceable liners that can be swapped out depending on the weather conditions.

Competition helmets come in a variety of models depending on their application. Most offer a denser liner than recreational models to absorb more shock. They also have open ear zones that help the wearer to hear what's going on around them, add-on protection for the jaw and lower part of the face. Many are built for high-speed and slalom racing events.

Youth helmets are based on adult models and have all of the same safety features as their adult counterparts. They're just smaller. Children's helmets also come equipped with a variety of liner pads that can be added or removed from the helmet to help with proper fit.

One of the best resources for information concerning kid's helmets is Lids on Kids. Many professional ski schools will not allow your child in class unless they are either wearing an approved helmet or sign a liability waiver.

Finally, consider how well your helmet accommodates goggles and allows for peripheral vision. Most of the popular brands will accept the majority of goggles, but it's a good idea to bring yours along when getting fitted for a helmet. Choose another design or buy a new pair of goggles if your goggles don't fit the helmet. Peripheral vision is the ability to see objects in a wide panorama to the sides. Generally speaking, full shell helmets will offer less peripheral vision than short shell or competitive models.

Should you wear a helmet this winter or go without? It's your decision. The good news is there are many fine helmets to choose from that should fit your budget. Be safe while having fun.