Climbing is a risky game, which is part of the excitement and the challenge. However there are often risks you can’t control. Objective dangers like rock fall can strike when you least expect it. Other climbers can drop protection or dislodge blocks from above. The only way to totally avoid these risks is not to climb which is clearly not an option! That’s why climbing helmets are an absolutely key piece of equipment for any climber. This buying guide outlines the pros and cons of the different helmet constructions available, gives some fitting tips to make sure you get the best possible helmet for you and also runs through the testing criteria each helmet has to pass. Whichever helmet you choose, wear it at all times when you’re climbing, belaying or even just relaxing below the cliff. A helmet can’t protect you when it’s stuffed in your pack!
There are three main types of helmet construction; roughly categorised as Foam, Shell and Hybrid. Each of these has different performance characteristics that affect their ability to cope with different types of climbing.
Construction: The main body of this kind of helmet is expanded polystyrene (EPS) moulded to a comfortable shape that sits close to the head. A thin polycarbonate shell covers the outside to add durability. The foam compresses to absorb energy from an impact.
Pros: These helmets typically weigh less than 250g! They are so light it’s easy to forget that you’re wearing a helmet at all. Big ventilation ports give good airflow and they are particularly suited to hot summer days at single pitch crags. Good side impact protection makes them a good choice for sport climbers, who may take regular falls.
Cons: The nature of foam shock absorption results in permanent deformation. Once your superlight helmet has taken a major knock it will need to be retired and replaced. In this sense they are more 'fragile' than the heavier Shell/Foam combo lids. They typically cost more as well, so the cost-to-lifespan ratio is less favourable.
The current crop of Superlight helmets is led by the Black Diamond Vector and Petzl Meteor III+. The latter is certified for use in cycling and water sports as well as for climbing, making it in some ways the most versatile lid on the market.
An exciting newcomer to this category is the Petzl Sirocco. This is made from expanded polypropylene with no polycarbonate covering. Its super thin strapping and one-handed magnetic buckle contribute to making this the lightest helmet on the market, bar none.
Construction: These models are an excellent all round solution for most types of climbing. There is a moulded expanded polystyrene (EPS) foam layer next to the head, bonded to a midweight plastic shell (often acrylonitrile butadiene styrene or ABS). This gives two levels of defence; plastic elastic absorption in the shell followed by foam deformation underneath.
Pros: These helmets are suitable for any kind of climbing. They are light and well-vented enough to work in warm weather but substantial enough to take the knocks when mountaineering or winter climbing. Offering a great combination of performance and durability at lower prices than pure foam helmets, these combo lids are top value.
Cons: Neither as light as the Superlight EPS options, nor as durable as the old school pure polycarbonate shell designs; though these are not really negatives if you’re after all-round performance for all types of climbing. The major thing to look for is good internal foam coverage, as the plastic shell isn’t strong enough on its own to withstand large side impacts.
The most popular designs here are undoubtedly the Petzl Elios and Black Diamond Half Dome.
Tough Shell with Suspension Cradle
Construction: In this traditional design, a hefty moulded polycarbonate shell is held slightly above the head by a cradle of webbing straps. On impact the shell deforms (with some elasticity) to absorb the force.
Pros: The thickness of the shell makes this type of helmet a tough cookie to crack. Durability is high and they can withstand hefty blows from falling objects. They are a good option for winter or multi-pitch trad climbs where you may encounter repeated rockfall throughout the day and can’t instantly retire the helmet.
Cons: At ~450g this type is relatively heavy! Protection is also concentrated on the crown making it less effective in the side impacts potentially encountered in a fall. The basic suspension system and minimal ventilation can make it a hotter and generally less comfortable experience. Fine for winter mountaineering but not so good for summer sport climbing!
This form of helmet has pretty much disappeared from the market. The last popular model was the Petzl Ecrin Roc, which was popular for use at outdoor centres and also had a loyal following amongst cavers. The comfort, durability and value of the hybrid shell/foam system has reduced demand for traditional heavyweight shell helmets.
Fitting a Helmet
Just like your favourite pair of rock shoes, helmet fit is very personal to the individual. The best way to get a great fit is to go into a store and try several different models on. Be aware that some models come sized; for instance there are two sizes in the Black Diamond Vector and two in the Petzl Elios. Then think what type of climbing you need the helmet for. If your itinerary might involve winter climbing then try helmets when wearing a beanie as well as on a bare head.
The retention system that keeps a helmet stably attached to your head can be adjusted in three areas:
- Headband - Easily tightened to a snug fit using a wheel or ‘click-strip’ at the back
- Side Straps - These should be flat to the head forming a neat V shape around your ears
- Chin Strap - Usually a simple webbing strap with buckle
Helmets should be quite snug, though not tight. If the helmet is a good fit it should stay in place without the chin strap being done up when you shake your head from side to side.
Whether you choose a classic hybrid lid or cutting edge superlight foam model, every single climbing helmet we sell has had to go through the same series of safety tests. Helmets can be put forward for certification by two bodies: the European Committee for Standardisation (CEN) and the Union Internationale des Associations d’Alpinisme (UIAA).
The test rig is set up with a helmet on a wooden head form. A blunt 5 kg weight is dropped onto the top of the helmet from 2 metres. Side, front and rear impact tests are also performed. For all these tests, the maximum force imparted through to the head form is 10kN for EN-12492 certification and 8kN for UIAA-106 certification. The lower the impact force, the softer the blow felt by your head. Since UIAA standards are higher it is worth checking for their label as well as the usual CE mark.
The last impact test is also the simplest. A cone-shaped 3kg weight is dropped onto the top of the helmet from 1 metre. The tip of the cone simply must not penetrate the helmet. If it touches the head form, the helmet has failed.
Even the retention system has to meet certain standards. When pulled downwards the chin strap should withstand a force of 500 Newtons without breaking and without stretching more than 25mm. There is also a slippage test which assesses resistance to pivoting off the head when a force is applied upwards against the rear of the helmet.
Caring for Helmets
The better you look after your helmet, the better it will look after you. This means being careful to store it in clean, dry conditions out of direct sunlight and away from sources of heat. If the shell gets dirty or the strapping needs a wash just use warm water with mild soap, but avoid detergents or solvents of any sort. After climbing on sea cliffs it’s a good idea to rinse off any residue of sea water. Similarly do not put stickers on your helmet! Some adhesives can degrade and weaken the shell.
It’s also worthwhile checking your helmet regularly for any signs of wear or damage. Even dropping a helmet on the floor (perhaps when attached to the outside of your pack) can result in hairline cracks which compromise safety. Equally watch out for heavily worn or slightly ripped straps. See individual manufacturers' safety instructions for guidance on the expected lifespan of helmets, but most conservative estimates will give at least 2 years of regular use (given care, attention and no damage!).