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How to Choose a Climbing Helmet

I have not only been climbing for years, but have also built ziplines around the country—so I understand the importance of safety, to say the least. Wearing a helmet is one of the easiest ways to protect yourself before you even tie into the rope.

billI wouldn’t consider climbing without a helmet, in this case the Black Diamond Vapor Helmet.

Climbing can be one of the most rewarding experiences out there. Obviously, there are inherent risks and as climbers we should take every measure to reduce them. You not only wear a helmet for single pitches at the crag but also for canyoneering, mountaineering, and multi-pitch rock/ice routes. The helmet is there is to not only protect you in the event of a fall but also from debris falling from overhead. Even a small rock falling from a height can be fatal.

Rock climbing, alpine climbing, canyoneering … no matter what your discipline, a helmet is a must.

Types of Helmets

When it comes to selecting a helmet, you have two kinds to choose from: hardshell and foam/hybrid.

Hardshell Construction: These helmets are constructed using a hard plastic shell, with webbing inside to help you get the perfect fit. They’re the most durable type of helmet, but also tend to be heavier. If you know you are constantly going to have rocks raining on you from above, this is the way to go; a foam helmet just won’t stand up to that repeated abuse. Since these helmets do not provide a ton of protection towards the rim of the helmet, they are most useful deflecting falling rocks and/or ice from above as opposed to blows from the side.

Hardshell helmets are a good choice when you’re out on long mixed routes or cayoneering, since even if they get dings they’re still protective so you can keep going.

Foam/Hybrid Construction: These helmets are built a lot like most standard bike helmets, using EPS foam with a shell over the outside. Some of the outer shells are quite thin, while some models sport relatively thick, rigid outer layers. They are much lighter than hardshell helmets and, since the foam often extends all the way to the rim of the helmet, they offer good protection against side impacts (such as swinging into a wall during a fall). In the event of an impact the foam collapses, absorbing the energy. This may crack the helmet but, save your skull.

These helmets are favored by sport climbers—they’re lightweight, and since you’re out on relatively short routes, you’re never too far from the ground should you end up cracking your helmet.

Fitting Your Helmet

Fit is probably the #1 consideration when you’re selecting a helmet. You won’t be motivated to put on—or keep on—if it does not fit comfortably. Remember, you might be in this helmet all day. And if it doesn’t fit properly, it may not keep you as safe as it should.

The helmet should fit squarely on your head with the front straight across your forehead. If you shake your head from side to side the helmet should stay in place and the fit should feel comfortably snug even when unbuckled. Most helmets will offer adjustments to enhance fit—play with it until you get it just right. The chin strap should form a “Y” around  your ears when buckled. Tighten the strap so that no slack remains.

I find the best way to fit your helmet is to measure with a soft measuring tape or get the size from a fitted hat. (You might need to use an inches-centimeter conversion chart if you’re looking at at European helmet.) Remember, you should be able to put the helmet on your head, and without strapping it on, bend over without it falling off.

Additional Considerations

There are several other features to consider when selecting a helmet:

Headlamp clips: You may find yourself on a pre-sunrise alpine start, or maybe you ended up on the wall a lot longer than you planned. All helmets should come equipped with clips for your headlamp. Be sure to check compatibility between each helmet and your headlamp.

Weight: Helmets come in a wide variety of weights. You may want to consider weight for climbs with really long approaches, multi pitch routes or mountaineering objectives.

Layering: Consider the profile of your helmet—bulkier models may prevent you from employing the hood on your shell or thermal layers. For winter climbing you may consider sizing up, or getting a highly adjustable hardshell, so you can layer a balaclava or buff underneath to protect your face and ears.

Nothing Lasts Forever

… And climbing helmets are no exception. You should perform periodic checks on your helmet to ensure it will protect you in the event of a fall.

Brandon Riza’s El Cap helmet is showing plenty of cosmetic damage, but is structurally sound.

Features to keep an eye on, and check on a regular basis, include:

  • Are the chin strap and buckle in good working order?
  • Scan the interior and exterior for any dings or signs of damage. Minor dings and scratches do not mean it “needs” to be replaced, but any visible cracks pretty much do. Just remember, if it is a foam helmet and the foam is a little collapsed, that’s less protection should the helmet take a hit in that exact spot.
  • Stow you helmet carefully inside your bag to prevent dings and bangs during the approach.

Wearing a helmet while climbing is definitely a no-brainer. If you have any questions about which helmet model would be best for you, hit me up. Safe climbing!


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