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2011 Gear Guide: Helmets

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LIGHT HEADED Four ultralight helmets prove their worth

As helmets get lighter and more comfortable each year, the excuses for not wearing one are dwindling. Gone are the days of feeling like you’re climbing with a bucket balanced on your head.

There are two types of climbing helmets on the market today: suspension and foam. Suspension models have a shell supported by webbing, like a construction hard hat. The latter is lined with foam and covered with a thin, outer shell, similar to bike helmets.

If you’re focused on lightening your load, a foam-lined helmet is the way to go, as they are typically much lighter than traditional suspension helmets. Foam helmets absorb energy by deforming on impact. Because of this, they have the drawback of being more susceptible to accidental dings than suspension helmets. If you’re tough on gear, a suspension helmet may be a better bet. Many climbers find that suspension helmets provide better airflow than foam-lined helmets, although this is changing as foamlined helmets incorporate more vents into their designs.

Below, we take a look at three of the newest foam-lined helmets on the market, plus a sneak peak at the latest version of Black Diamond’s popular Half Dome suspension helmet. A team of climbers put these helmets to the test on ice and mixed routes in Idaho, Wyoming, and Montana. Not only did they climb, they also did their best to shake headlamps off their heads; wore the lids with a variety of hats; tested adjustability with and without gloves; and checked the brain buckets’ fit against climbing packs.

2011 Gear Guide: Helmets

Lightest CAMP SPEED $

The Speed wins big points for its lightweight construction and comfortable fit. With a simple buckle and single dial in back, the helmet is easy to adjust, even with big mitts on, although testers did find its boxier cut better suited for bigger heads. (Regardless, hoods slid over this helmet just fine.) Best to try this one on before purchasing it—one tester climbing in Montana’s Hyalite Canyon found that the adjustment design created pressure on his forehead. Testers were torn on the bright green and gray design. Some thought it was cool, while one tester said the helmet looked like it had been slashed by a grizzly bear.

Instead of being fully covered in the standard light, plastic shell, the Speed’s outer surface is a combination of thin, bright-green plastic and dark gray foam. This definitely saves weight (the helmet is just 7.4 ounces), but it also means the helmet is more vulnerable to wear and tear. Even after just a few days of testing, this helmet was already showing some dings, and it isn’t recommended for those that severely abuse their gear.

2011 Gear Guide: Helmets

Comfort King GRIVEL AIR TECH V39 $

Testers loved the fit of Grivel’s Air Tech V39. A dial at the back of the helmet allows easy adjustments for comfort and keeps this lid firmly in place, no matter the size of your head or if you’re layered up with a hat. One tester at the Teton Ice Park said she loved how the helmet moved with her instead of having a “mind” of its own. Depending on their build, some climbers may find the location of the chin buckle irritating (on a few testers, it landed right where the neck and chin meet), and the buckle is a bit tricky to adjust, especially when gloved up. The Air Tech’s three headlamp clips (one in back and two in front) were more finicky than on other models, but once the headlamp’s band was in place, it stayed put. Sixteen vents cut throughout the helmet, including six metal mesh-covered vents placed on top. Although no breakage occurred, a few testers questioned the strength of these six vents, which flexed when pressed on. According to Grivel, even if they broke, the helmet’s structural integrity should not be affected.

The Air Tech weighs just 10.5 ounces, and its sleek, streamlined design means you won’t have to wrestle a hood up over your head. Plus, you’ll look good—this helmet avoids the bubblehead look plaguing many models on the market.

2011 Gear Guide: Helmets

Best in Show PETZL METEOR III+ $

The latest iteration in Petzl’s popular helmet line, the Meteor III+ was a favorite among testers. After climbing multiple pitches in Teton Canyon, one tester said he forgot he was even wearing it. Weighing in at 8.3 ounces, the Meteor III+ is the second-lightest among the bunch. It also proved to be impressively comfortable for a wide variety of heads, with an easy-to-maneuver dual-point adjustment system. This system, which engages by depressing two little tabs, does a great job at keeping the helmet in place, no matter if you’re wearing a ball cap or snow hat. Likewise, the chinstrap is easy to alter with a single yank. All of this can be done even with bulky gloves on. Three clips in the back and two in the front ensure that headlamps won’t slide around, and small vents throughout the helmet’s sides help keep your head cool despite the heat or difficulty of the pitch.

Best of all, this helmet is rated not only to take the impact of an object hitting you (like a rock whizzing down from above)—it’s also built to absorb the impact of your head hitting something (like smashing into a wall in a fall.) That means not just better protection for you when climbing, but also protection for your wallet—you can use the same helmet for biking and white-water sports, according to European standards.

2011 Gear Guide: Helmets


Black Diamond has made major upgrades to its popular Half Dome helmet, all of which are bound to be well received when the helmet hits store shelves in July. This suspension helmet’s Velcro adjustment strap has been replaced by a large dial. The chinstrap adjustment, which took a lot of futzing to get just right on previous models, has been replaced by a buckle that adjusts with a single pull. Vents are larger throughout the helmet, and the new headlamp clips are much easier to use. Black Diamond also shaved almost three ounces off this helmet, making it 10 oz. for the S/M size—exceptionally light for a durable suspension helmet.

HELMET CARE When to hang it up

Not only does Rick Vance have nearly two decades of experience climbing across the disciplines, but he is also Petzl’s technical information manager and is certified as a personal protective equipment inspector and inspection course trainer. That’s a fancy way of saying he knows when it’s time to retire gear.

What’s the biggest mistake you see people make with their helmets? Number one is sitting on them. While helmets are designed to absorb relatively large impacts, they are not designed to be sat on. It’s a completely different type of load than what the helmet was designed for. Number two is stickers. Certain types of adhesives, and even compounds in the sticker itself, can degrade the strength of a helmet’s shell.

With normal wear and tear, after how many years should you retire your helmet? Most manufacturers provide an “ideal lifespan” or shelf life. This does not mean the helmet will survive for X years—it just means that it should definitely be retired if it is X years old. If used gently, a helmet could last for years, but it could also be ready for retirement on the first day out if it’s subjected to a large impact (falling rock) or overloaded (sat on). The point being that it’s best to get in the habit of inspecting it regularly, rather than waiting for a generic expiration date.

What do you look for when inspecting a helmet? With a foam-lined helmet, it’s important to look for any cracks, dents, or deep (greater than 1mm) gouges in the foam. Look for similar types of damage in the helmet’s shell as well. Additionally, with all helmets, it’s crucial to make sure that the suspension webbing, adjustment system, and buckles all work properly and are free from excessive wear, UV damage, tears, and abrasion. A helmet can’t protect you if it doesn’t stay on your head or fit well.

Since suspension helmets don’t deform like foam-lined helmets, what’s the best way to determine when to retire them? A suspension-type helmet relies on its shell to distribute and dissipate energy around the user’s head, so it’s important to ensure that the shell and its connections to the suspension are intact. Any cracks, deformation, discoloration from bending, or gouges deeper than about 1mm in the shell or the suspension attachment points are grounds for immediate retirement.

How does UV radiation affect a helmet’s durability? UV exposure can definitely reduce a helmet’s lifespan. An easy way to inspect your helmet for UV damage is to compare the color of the inside to the outside of the helmet’s shell. If there is a noticeable difference in color, it’s time to retire.

Do cold temperatures have any ill effect on helmets? Extremely cold temperatures can affect the performance of any helmet. In fact, most manufacturers include a recommended temperature range in their product’s instructions. Our Meteor III and Elios helmets, for instance, are not recommended for use in temperatures below –20°C (–4°F). For more equipment-care advice, check out Petzl’s free online inspection tool:


Just as in ice hockey, skiing, and even surfing reef breaks, helmet use is becoming increasingly popular in rock climbing—gone are the days when beginners wore helmets at the crag and experts did not. Buy a helmet that’s so comfortable that you’re never tempted to take it off. A uniformly snug fit, good ventilation, and a stylish look will all help. Climbing helmets need to provide two kinds of protection: from falling objects, such as dislodged rocks or ice chunks, and from impacts to the head during falls. For the first kind of protection, be wary of a helmet that leaves much of your forehead exposed. For maximum protection during falls, look for generous side protection. Helmets last a long time, so look to the future when you buy, considering features such as headlamp mounting, adjustability for comfort over a hat, and even the ability to mount a faceshield, which many climbers like when ice climbing. That said, many climbers end up owning several different kinds of helmets and using them for different disciplines. —

Jeff Achey


• Max comfort = max helmet use = max safety