Helmet Review – No 227 – February 2004
Helmets: 10 top models tested
At some point in every climber’s career, an object lesson on helmets comes crashing down. I received mine at the age of 21, with my father, as we rapped down a crumbling sandstone tower. He was wearing his usual hefty, fiberglass Joe Brown lid. I, being a fashionable young lad, sported nothing more than a windblown coif. At the bottom of the first rap, my father suggested I crouch under an overhang while he pulled the rope. Sure enough, as he gave the cord a final tug to pull it free, a fist-sized rock came clattering down, striking dead center on my dad’s helmet. He looked over at me with a knowing, penetrating smile and began coiling the rope. No words spoken, but the message was loud and clear: better to look less than chic than to suffer a lacerated scalp, fractured skull, or worse.
Most of us won’t admit that we avoid wearing helmets due to vanity. Instead, we make excuses about fit, overheating, or weight. While those are legitimate criteria when choosing a helmet, they are by no means excuses for not wearing a helmet at all. With the bevy of stylish and functional models on the market now, you’ll be able to find a helmet that fits well and makes you look like a superstar.
Fit and suspension. You can own the strongest, most stylish helmet on the market, but if it’s floppy, pokes your skull, or grinds on your neck, it’ll never make it into your pack, languishing instead in the dark recesses of your gear closet, far from your head.
Fit adjustments can come in the form of rotating dials, hook-and-latch patches (e.g. Velcro), plastic tabs, and simple D-ring cinch straps. Each has its advantages. Dials can provide excellent micro-adjustability, but are mechanically complicated and can break; if you’re someone who constantly likes to fiddle with fit, dials are a good call. Hook-and-latch patches are solid and effective, perfect for one-time fitting, but can easily wear out or clog with dirt. Plastic tabs are also great for micro-adjustments, but are prone to slipping, as are D-ring cinches; if you find yourself in need of adjustability melded with security, tabs or D-rings can be the ticket.
What matters most is how the adjustment system fits the helmet to your head. Ideally, a suspension system should envelop your skull, with no pressure points or gaps, and it should prevent the helmet’s shell from flopping around at odd angles. Use a mirror or have a buddy check out the helmet’s positioning; it should be aligned correctly front to back and side to side. Many climbers, in an effort to keep their vision unobstructed, tip their helmets too far back, dangerously exposing the fronts of their heads.
The chin strap should help hold the helmet securely on your head, without digging into your neck or pulling up on your chin. Light padding adds all-day comfort. If you find yourself loosening or unclipping the chin strap, you need to readjust the fit or choose a different helmet.
If snow and ice is your domain, be sure to check how the helmet fits over your cap or balaclava and whether you can operate the adjustments and clips while wearing gloves. If you wear a ponytail (or shaggy mullet or dreadlocks, for that matter), check how your ’do mates with the helmet’s suspension, especially when you’re looking upward. Earrings and eyeglasses/sunglasses can also cause fit issues. Leave the dangling ear baubles at home and check how easily you can remove and replace your glasses.
Helmet suspension systems fall into three categories: suspended shells, where there is a gap between the webbing suspension and the shell, sometimes with a small cap of expanded polystyrene (which is often mistaken for Styrofoam but is much denser and more resilient); bicycle-helmet-style polystyrene models that fit right against your skull; and hybrids that combine aspects of the suspended shell with a more extensive polystyrene cap. Suspended-shell models rely primarily on the suspension/shell gap for absorbing energy, while the bike-style units distribute energy directly through the polystyrene, with the hybrids melding both concepts. Despite what you may have read in an earlier Climbing Tech Tip, carrying sunglasses or a first-aid kit between the suspension and the shell is a bad idea.
Shell design and materials. Though most helmet shells are some variation of plastic or nylon — e.g., polycarbonate, ABS, or polyethylene — many manufacturers are using more advanced materials, including carbon fiber, Kevlar, and Dyneema, composites that can be woven into incredibly strong, light, and resilient shapes. However, helmet shells do operate in different ways. With suspended-shell and hybrid units, the shell operates in tandem with the suspension for energy absorption, while bike-style polystyrene helmets utilize polycarbonate shells that function primarily to hold the helmet together if the polystyrene deforms under impact.
Ribs, ridges, and lips can add strength and rigidity to the shell. Helmets with small lips can do a better job of deflecting small debris and keeping out rain, but this is a minor consideration.
Ventilation. Ventilation is very important for anyone who climbs in hot environs or sweats like a pig on the way to the slaughterhouse. However, you don’t want a helmet so riddled with ventilation holes that debris and precipitation can rain in unchecked. Assess your climbing and environs and choose accordingly, as venting varies widely from helmet to helmet. If you choose a helmet with minimal venting, be prepared to suffer if you venture to the Utah desert. For heavily vented models, check to see if the vents are shrouded or protected, or can be closed to prevent debris entry.
Bulk. Any helmet is going to feel bulky. The key is finding a lid that feels minimally bulky to you. This can be more than a comfort issue — many a climber has fallen after unexpectedly bonking his or her helmet against the rock.
Headlamp compatibility. Even if you never plan to climb at night, bring your headlamp with you when making a helmet purchase — don’t just pull the same model off the shop shelf. Mismatched helmet/headlamp combos have caused many an epic. Make sure the lamp straps seat well and don’t ride up the helmet’s sides. Check to see how the lamp unit and battery pack align. Many helmets have an old-school shock-cord system for headlamp attachment that can be incompatible with modern headlamps. Conversely, it can be very difficult jamming a headlamp strap into some of the new clip-style systems. If you don’t have a headlamp (and why don’t you?), you should consider purchasing one in conjunction with your helmet.
Helmet life span. Daily wear and tear, as well as ultraviolet rays, give helmets a finite lifespan. If you climb several times a month, you should replace your helmet every five years, regardless of how spiffy it looks. If it takes any kind of significant impact — from rockfall larger than pea gravel or a rough fall — retire it immediately.
With all this information in mind, we tried 18 different lids and present to you 10 of the best. A final reminder: a helmet is just one part of your rockfall defense system. A good lid will protect you in certain cases, but there is no substitute for a deep well of knowledge and experience when it comes to assessing dangerous terrain and avoiding rockfall in the first place. On the longest curve, well-informed and wily beats strong and stupid, hands down.