They may not be as comfortable as a knitted beanie or as flattering as a well-fitting shirt, but they’re a staple in the world of climbing, and an important one at that.
As unpopular and often detested as the climbing helmet might be, it does one thing that nothing else can, namely protect the most important thing we have: our head.
Because virtually every mountain sports brand now offers a wide variety of mountaineering helmets, I thought it was as good a time as any to illustrate the most significant differences between them. It’s weird to think about, but up to just a few years ago, people were just grabbing whatever helmet was available without even thinking about the fit, the colour, the intended application – nothing!
Oftentimes, the fit was so poor that you had to take pain reliever with you! Colour options were no better. But now, all that has changed. Today, there is a wide variety of helmets on the market designed for an even wider variety of applications. Interested? Ok, let’s talk helmets.
“Just” a climber or a multi-sport athlete?
With the market constantly growing and the technology becoming more advanced, there are more and more criteria determining what kind of helmet we ultimately decide to buy. One of the most important criteria is certainly the intended area of use.
Since many of us don’t just do one sport and would rather not have a separate helmet for each, there are now several models that are certified for multiple disciplines.
That’s all well and good, but you do need to consider the fact that this jack-of-all-trades is not a specialist in all areas. It is simply designed to meet the standards required by multiple sports. In other words, it’s a dabbler, and dabbler will never be as good at one thing as the specialist would be at that same thing.
Helmets for mountaineering and climbing have two primary functions: to protect our heads from falling rocks and impact from a fall. Mountaineering helmets should be able to do both, but due to differences in their construction, one helmet may focus more on one function than on the other. Which one you need depends entirely on what you plan on using it for.
In the world of climbing and mountain sports, we basically differentiate between two types of helmets. Hardshells and modern In-Mold helmets with a polystyrene foam core. The combination of the two results in a third type of helmet, namely the hybrid helmet, which has a polystyrene foam core under the hard plastic shell.
These are your traditional mountaineering helmets. They’ve been around since the beginning, more or less. You can recognized them by the hard plastic shell.
They are designed to protect your head from rock fall and are pretty robust. However, because of their construction, their ability to absorb lateral energy is quite limited. In other words, they provide little side impact protection. Another disadvantage of these helmets is their weight. They are pretty heavy when compared to the foam helmets.
Foam helmets have two important advantages. Not only are they incredibly light, but they also provide optimal impact protection. However, the soft construction makes these helmets less capable of withstanding rock fall because the impact forces cannot be distributed sufficiently. What’s more, they are more susceptible to scratches and dents, so they should be handled with a bit more care so as not to impair their usability.
A hybrid helmet balances out the advantages and disadvantages of both materials: the foam is enclosed by a thin plastic shell that provides solid protection and doesn’t weigh all that much.
However, the difference between a foam and a hybrid helmet can be rather blurry, as most foam helmets also have a thin shell for protection, the difference being that these thin shells really pale in comparison to a hardshell helmet when it comes to strength.
Although it’s difficult to make a general statement about the durability of helmets, hardshell helmets tend to have a longer lifespan than foam helmets. Details concerning the durability or lifespan of your helmet can found in the user’s manual. The lifespan provided in the manual is by no means arbitrary or purposefully short in order to force you to buy a new helmet and thus make as much money as possible. According to the DAV (German Alpine Club), the practical lifetime of a helmet is 5 years.
With time, plastics will age, become porous and thus lose their ability to absorb energy, so it’s always important to inspect the condition of your helmet. If your helmet took a hit from a falling rock for you, you should replace it as well. Don’t even think about continuing to use it. Besides, it’s always better to retire a helmet prematurely than to rely on one that is no longer capable of doing what it should: protect your head.
A good fit to combat headaches
The fit of a helmet is incredibly important as well. As a general rule, the helmet should fit the circumference of your head and not wobble or fall off when you have it on unsecured. If you feel any pressure, forget it! It’s not the helmet for you. It shouldn’t give you a headache, either, even after several hours of wear. After securing the helmet to your head, you should try one more thing: Check to make sure that the helmet doesn’t shift backwards when you look upward. This is particularly important, since you usually have your head tilted back when belaying. Your forehead should be covered.
If you wear belay glasses, you ought to test whether you can see past the helmet with your glasses on as well. It’d be a shame if the helmet wasn’t compatible with them and you found out after the fact!
Stylish or practical?
When it comes to climbing helmets, colours are not just there to please the eye. The colour of your helmet fulfils various functions. For example, it can help to prevent overheating. If you opt for a lighter colour like white, the helmet will be much more comfortable to wear in places with lots of sunshine. Black will just make life difficult. The helmet’s colour can also serve as a signal for rescue teams. If you’re going ice climbing in a white helmet, you’re not doing yourself any favours. If you get lost or hurt, your white helmet will just blend in with the landscape. The same goes for black when you’re out rock climbing. Instead, you should go for brighter colours, as these could really save your life in the event of an accident. No kidding!
60% less weight
Weight is certainly another important thing to consider when choosing a helmet. After all, you don’t want it weighing you down when climbing. I mean, imagine having to carry your helmet in your backpack on a two-hour long approach and then wear it an additional 8 hours on a multi-pitch climb. Not to mention your having to constantly look up along the way. It may not sound like a lot in the shop, but there’s no doubt you’ll end up feeling the difference between a 165g helmet and 380g one.
The coolest thing I’ve seen so far is a magnetic closure that makes using one hand even easier. But, a more important feature is a working head torch mount.
Now, there are even helmets designed specifically for women! They may have a smaller circumference or room in the back for a pony tail. Pretty cool if you’ve got long hair!
Last but not least: ventilation
Ventilation plays an extremely important role in a helmet’s overall comfort. Not only do all of the little openings create a pleasant environment underneath, but they also reduce the weight of the helmet. That way, you can spend all day climbing and be comfortable in the process! Try to come with an excuse now not to wear a helmet!