Serious head injuries are common in climbing and abseiling accidents, so it does seem sensible that everyone, regardless of what grade they climb, should consider wearing a helmet.
Obviously in winter or alpine climbing everyone wears one, but increasingly we are seeing safety conscious climbers using them for all aspects of climbing.
Once upon a time all helmets were Hard Shells – these were typically heavy, uncomfortable and sat high upon the head. Many climbers avoided using them because of these shortcomings, but also because of prevailing fashions.
Then in the mid 90s along came the Foam design (the Petzl Meteor
was the first of its kind) and suddenly there was a distinct shift. More climbers started wearing these comfortable, lightweight helmets; it even became a bit fashionable to do so.
Nowadays helmet use is well established, and the final trend has been the emergence of the Hybrid helmet – these foam + rigid shells are becoming the dominant style preferred by most climbers. And it easy to see why – they give you a lightweight, comfortable design with a low profile and good resistance to general abuse.
The BMC ran a campaign in 2012 to encourage climbers to wear helmets. To read more about it and view their Helmets guide go to the BMC website
As mentioned above, there are three main design styles:
As the name suggests this style of helmet has a hard shell made of polycarbonate plastic. Inside the helmet your head is held by a suspended cradle and there is often a small foam insert at the top of the helmet.
These helmets are designed to withstand multiple impacts from stone fall or chunks of ice – obviously if you get hit by something big enough it is possible to break the helmet. For top impacts they give the best protection, but they are vulnerable to side impacts – i.e. the type that you might experience in an awkward fall.
They are well ventilated but heavier than the Foam or Hybrid designs.
We recommend them for winter/alpine or group use. Check out the Edelrid Ultralight
for an example.
This style is constructed of a thick foam bowl which sits close to your head. They are light and very comfortable – and consequently popular with the reluctant helmet wearer. They are close fitting which means you are less likely to knock your head when moving around in constricted chimneys or under bulges or roofs – another plus point for the reluctant helmet wearer.
Unfortunately they are more vulnerable to damage; even a direct hit from a small stone can render the helmet unusable – not good if you are committed on a big route. Also, be sure to take care when packing a foam helmet in your rucsac as damage is likely if they are treated too roughly.
One major plus point is that they do give the best off centre impact performance – i.e. the type that you might experience in an awkward fall.
We recommend them for general rock climbing, either trad or sport. Check out the Black Diamond Tracer
for an example.
A halfway house combining the best characteristics of the Hard Shell and Foam helmet. Basically a thin but rigid shell sits over a foam bowl which sits directly on the head. The foam bowl is usually not as continuous as that found in a Foam helmet.
The result is a good all rounder that is becoming increasingly popular. The outer shell is tough enough to withstand impacts from small stones and ice chunks; the shell also helps to protect the foam when it is packed in your rucsac.
Ventilation tends to be a touch poorer than the Hard Shell or Foam helmets, so bear that in mind if you want to use it in summer.
Top impact performance is better than a Foam helmet but not as good as a Hard Shell, whereas side or off centre impact performance is good in the areas where the foam reaches. This of course, varies from design to design.
We recommend them for all types of climbing. Check out the Petzl Elios
and the Black Diamond Half Dome
for some examples.
Check out our Anatomy of a Helmet
document which shows the features on each of the three design styles.
Fit is key!
Getting the right fit is very important - an ill fitting helmet will only irritate you and make you less inclined to wear it.
Ideally you would come into one of our shops and try a few different styles on. But if you can’t do that you could always mail order two, and then return the one that doesn’t fit as well.
Modern helmets have quick adjustment; usually a rotating dial which slackens or tightens the head cradle, plus an adjustable chin strap.
Some designs have different size options and there are helmets specifically designed for women, such as the Petzl Elia
. There are also kid’s fit helmets; check out the Camp Armour
for an example.
Helmets for winter and alpine climbing
Nobody goes winter or alpine climbing without a helmet, and if they do they’re asking for trouble!
The temptation is to go for the lightest possible Foam design, but if you do any icefall climbing
, particularly on popular crags, you will soon come unstuck. A direct hit from a large chunk of ice can crack a foam helmet and render it un-useable. The same is true of stone fall on an alpine route.
You should retire a helmet even if it has the tiniest of hairline cracks as it will no longer work correctly in an impact situation.
Hard Shells and Hybrids offer much greater protection from ice and stone fall and consequently are the best choice for the type of hostile environments that are encountered in winter and alpine climbing.
Make sure you try a winter helmet with the same balaclava/hat that you normally wear. Most chin strap catches are pretty fiddly so don’t expect to be able to undo/do them up with gloves on (it’s much quicker to take your gloves off and avoid the fumble).