You wouldn’t consider biking down a busy road without a helmet, so why climb without one? Whether sport climbing at your local crag or venturing up a 15-pitch alpine route, helmets offer critical protection from falling rock or ice as well as from a blow to the head during a fall.
Two basic designs of climbing helmets are available:
Suspension models, or “hard hats,” have a hard shell supported by webbing. The thick, durable exterior works with the suspension system to absorb a shock from rockfall or smashing your head into the wall. This type of helmet is best suited to those who are hard on their gear, including guide services, expeditions, and ice climbers, as the hard shell is less likely to be accidentally crushed and sometimes can be used even after the helment has fended off a blow. Some suspension models have foam lining along with the webbing, but the hard shell and webbing are the primary defenses.
Foam models are similar to bike helmets, with a thin shell protecting a dome of foam padding. A foam helmet absorbs energy by deforming on impact. This means they are not as durable—they are more vulnerable to cracks and dents than suspension helmets—and they should be retired immediately after one significant impact. Typically, they’re lighter than suspension helmets and more comfortable to wear. Consider a foam helmet at crags where rockfall is not common, or where weight might be a primary concern.
Also consider the overall shape of the helmet. If you’re seeking protection mainly from impacts while falling, versus rockfall or icefall, look for models that provide more coverage around the forehead and outward over the ears.
Look for helmets certified by the UIAA (International Mountaineering and Climbing Federation) to ease your mind when venturing up that chossy route. A few helmets may be certified for both climbing and skiing, or climbing and cycling, but never climb with a helmet that isn’t specifically rated for climbing.
To test the top of the helmet, samples are mounted on a wooden model that simulates the human head; a load sensor is located on the model’s neck. An 11-pound (5kg) weight with a 50mm radius is dropped from a height of 2 meters onto the top of the helmet, and the force transmitted to the neck is measured. The force created from the fall must not exceed 8 kN.
For the front, side, and rear of the helmet, tests are performed by angling the helmet 60 degrees to the direction of the blow, then dropping a 5kg weight from a height of 50 centimeters. Again, the blow cannot exceed 8 kN.
The UIAA also requires a test for penetration from rockfall. A 3kg, cone-shaped weight with a 0.5mm tip is dropped from a height of 1 meter onto the top of the helmet. This is a simple pass/fail test; the weight is allowed to penetrate the helmet, but must not touch the wooden model.
The stability of the helmet is tested by dropping a 10kg weight attached to a strap that yanks up the front and rear of the sample. To pass, the helmet must stay in place on the head-form.
Fit and Adjustability
Your helmet should sit squarely on your head and be snug around the brow. It should be comfortable, with no pressure points that could cause a headache after prolonged use. Some models come in different sizes, but adjustable, one-size-fits-many models are much more versatile. Look for a helmet that can be adjusted quickly to accommodate a hat or hood; if you’re planning to use the helmet for winter climbing, try making this adjustment while wearing gloves.
A good chinstrap is crucial for keeping the helmet in place. It must fasten snugly, keeping the helmet from sliding backward on your head when looking up, and thereby exposing your forehead. It should be quickly adjustable for convenience when adding layers on your head. You’ll also want to make sure it’s comfortable, as a chafed chin won’t encourage future helmet wearing.
This is a key feature if you’ll be climbing in extreme conditions, from hot summer sport climbs to long ice routes. If the helmet offers no ventilation, you might be tempted to remove it to cool off. But if you have too-big vents, you’ll need a beanie to keep your head warm when it’s cold, and you run the risk of having small rocks fall through the vents. As with clothing, consider the color of the helmet before buying: light colors help reflect the sun, while dark colors may fry your brain.
Even if you never plan to try long alpine routes, you might still need to attach your headlamp to your helmet for that unforeseen after-dark rappel marathon. Look for a system that securely attaches a light’s straps to the shell via clips or bungee cords.
If you’re planning to climb ice, consider a see-through visor to shield your face from shards of ice. Some helmets come with holes to accommodate an optional face shield.