Climbing Helmet Buying GuideClimbing Helmet Buying Guide

Climbing Helmet Buying Guide

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 avoid these risks is not to climb which is clearly not an option. That’s why climbing helmets are a key piece of equipment for any climber. This buying guide outlines the pros and cons of the different helmet constructions available. It also gives some fitting tips to make sure you get the best possible helmet for you and runs through the testing criteria each helmet must pass. Whichever helmet you choose, always wear it 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.

Helmet Constructions

There are three main types of helmet construction: Foam, Shell, and Hybrid. Each of these has different performance characteristics. These affect their ability to cope with different types of climbing.

Superlight Foam

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 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.

Combination Shell/Foam

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. This bonds 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. However, able to take the knocks when mountaineering or winter climbing.

Cons: They're not as light as the Superlight EPS options or as durable as the old school pure polycarbonate shell designs. 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.

Tough Shell with Suspension Cradle

Construction: A hefty moulded polycarbonate shell is held 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.

Cons: At ~450g this type is heavy. Protection is also concentrated on the crown making it less effective in the side impacts encountered in a fall. The basic suspension system and minimal ventilation can make it a hotter and less comfortable experience. They're 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. This 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 on several different models. 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 about what type of climbing you need the helmet for. If your itinerary involves 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 a 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 done up when you shake your head from side to side.

Testing Criteria

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!).

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