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Rock Climbing Helmets: How to Choose the Best Helmet for You

Updated on October 22, 2014

A rock climbing helmet is an essential part of your safety climbing equipment just the same as your harness or your rope. Remember, that a safety system is no stronger than its weakest point and this point is not other than your head.

It doesn’t matter that all the photos you see in the climbing magazines never show anyone wearing one. If you have at least some regard for the well-being of your brain, then you must always wear a helmet while climbing. Not only falling debris -whether they are loose rocks or climbing gear- are constant dangers during your climb, but also it could be an ugly possibility that you fall while leading the route crashing your head against the rock wall. Wearing a helmet will reduce the danger from both of them.

Now, that we have discussed the importance of wearing a helmet for the sake of your head. I will discuss about how to choose the right one for you.

The Author climbing in Valle Encantado - Neuquen - Argentina. Helmet in the Photo: Half Dome, one of the most popular helmets on the market. At 90ºF a little more ventilation could have been handy.
The Author climbing in Valle Encantado - Neuquen - Argentina. Helmet in the Photo: Half Dome, one of the most popular helmets on the market. At 90ºF a little more ventilation could have been handy.
Petzl Meteor III one of the most lightweight helmets on the market
Petzl Meteor III one of the most lightweight helmets on the market

Choosing the Right Rock Climbing Helmet

First, be sure the helmet you choose is made for rock climbing. They are designed different from helmets designed for other sports. Mainly, a rock climbing helmet is designed to protect you from falling debris, and second to protect your head for blows when falling.

In a cycling helmet for example the concern is the exact opposite. They are designed to protect you from a fall when crashing. The possibility that a rock or a carabiner from a careless fellow climber will impact on them was never consider. So, a cycling helmet is almost useless in the mountain.

Besides, a helmet designed for Rock climbing has to conform to one of the following standards: UIAA (Union Internationale des Associations d'Alpinisme) CE (European Committee for Standardization) or ASTM (American Society for Testing and Materials). So, look for certification of compliance with one of these standards at the hour of choosing one.

Petzl Elios: a good compromise between toughness, weight and price.
Petzl Elios: a good compromise between toughness, weight and price.

So, what kinds of helmets are out there? Rock climbing helmets comes in two types depending on how they absorb the energy of an impact:

  • Foam interior helmet: the shell in this case is supported by a crown of polystyrene or polypropylene closed-cell foam. In case of an impact the foam is crushed permanently to absorb the blow. The shell in this type of helmets can vary from a thin plastic shitting (example Petzl Meteor III) to a semi-rigid plastic shell (example Petzl Elios.) These kinds of helmets are more popular. They are lightweight but less durable.
  • Harness suspension helmet: A strong shell, commonly of polycarbonate, is supported by an interior webbing suspension system. In the face of an impact the shell deforms absorbing the energy of the blow. These are more durable but heavier helmets.

Now that we know what kinds of helmets are on the market, surges the question of which criterions to apply for choosing one.

Criterions

Fit: the helmet must fit properly in your head. Most helmets nowadays are adjustable, so fit is not really and issue. Before you buckle the chin strap a well-adjusted helmet must fit snugly enough that it doesn’t feel loose.

Ventilation: you have to know in what weather and climbing conditions you will be usually climbing. If you climb in warm weather, then more vent holes can be handy. But more vent slots mean less coverage against falling debris in an alpine or ice environment. At usual there is a trade off, so choose depending in your own needs.

Weight: other thing equal, choose the more lightweight helmet. Of course, it depends again in what type of climbing you do. Do you plan to do lots of long mountaineering climbs? Choose a less durable foam lightweight model. Do you do a lot of sport climbing in a spot where you park your car at the foot of the walls? A more durable model (heavy) could be OK then.

A classic example of a polycarbonate shell with harness suspension system: Petzl Ecrin a tough but a little heavy helmet 475 grams
A classic example of a polycarbonate shell with harness suspension system: Petzl Ecrin a tough but a little heavy helmet 475 grams

What more to look for?

Buying second hand is not really a good idea. Sun rays weaken the material making it brittle. This is especially a problem if you climb at high altitude. Sometimes the only way to know is the helmet is ok is knowing its history. And with a second hand helmet you can't.


Good video to know what forces a helmet have to fend off.

Check the following video by Petzl showing the Helmet Elia designed for women. It is interesting because they show some of the tests they perform on the helmet to guarantee compliance with international safety norms.

Petzl Elia Climbing Helmet for Women

Conclusion

These are the basic things to consider when choosing a rock climbing helmet. So, now that you know what to look for. Buy a helmet and wear it! Your gray matter will be grateful to you. Happy climbing.

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