Unisex Vs. Women's Specific
So you need to buy a climbing helmet. The obvious question is, should I buy a women's helmet? What is the difference between a men's and a women's helmet anyways? Aren't helmets one of those things that don't need to be women's specific?
The answer is — it depends! No, helmets do not need to be specifically designed for women. A unisex version, if sized correctly, will fit just fine and protect your head just as well. In general, the main differences between men's and women's helmets are different color options and a smaller size range. The good news is that women's helmets do not cost any more than a unisex helmet, so you can pick that bright pink helmet you like best at no extra expense.
If you are a female with a particularly small head, it may be easier to find a well-fitting women's helmet, only because they are slightly smaller. If your head is not particularly small, then this is not an advantage. The exception it the Petzl Elia, which actually does have some features designed with women in mind. However, this ponytail accommodating feature may not be important to you, and does add some complication to the adjustment of the helmet.
Our overall consensus is this: if you already own a helmet that is in good shape, it is not worth upgrading to buy a new women's specific helmet. If you are in the market for a new helmet, the women's helmets are good contenders with the unisex helmets, but it is worth looking at all options and not narrowly focus on just women's specific models.
Women's Specific Features
Here is exactly what makes each women's helmet a "women's":
The Black Diamond Vector - Women's is identical to the smaller sized men's version of the Black Diamond Vector, but it has different color options. There are no women's specific features.
The CAMP Armour Lady has a different, smaller size range than the one-size-fits-all unisex CAMP Armour, in addition to different color options. (So yes, the lady's version of the Armour just follows the Shrink it and Pink it marketing scheme for women's gear.)
The Petzl Elia has a unique size range that falls right in between the size 1 and size 2 of the unisex Petzl Elios. It also has different colors, a patented adjustment system that leaves room for a ponytail, called the OMEGA system, and removable, washable foam lining. This is the only women;s helmet that really stands out for having women's specific features that are different from unisex models.
The first thing to consider when buying a helmet is whether you want a hard plastic or light foam, polycarbonate-shelled helmet.
Polycarbonate helmets look and feel like bicycle helmets, are very light, and usually cost in the $90-100 range. They are not as durable as hard plastic helmets, so you must take care of them. Manufacturers recommend retiring them after a significant impact, just like a bike helmet. That said, their light weight and excellent ventilation make them ideal for climbing at your limit or lugging with you on long days. Also, the light weight makes them comfortable, so you are more likely to wear the helmet than leave it in the car.
Hard plastic helmets typically range in price from $60-$65. They are durable, so you don't have to baby them or carefully pack them as you do with polycarbonate helmets. You can slap them on the back of your pack and bang it on talus when you drop your backpack in the dirt without fear of dents or damage. Plastic shells are best for entry level climbers or climbers who want a long-lasting helmet at a good price.
Comfort, Fit, & Sizing
The best helmets are the ones you forget you have on, which is why we have a preference for lightweight helmets. We like snug-fitting helmets that stay secure on your head all day and are easy to adjust. Nothing is more annoying than looking up and having your helmet roll onto the back of your neck, or having all your summit shots show your helmet just off center. Helmets fit everyone differently, so what is comfortable for one person may not be right for another. Women's helmets are sized slightly smaller than unisex equivalents, or in the case of a unisex helmet that comes in 2 size options, the women's is often the same as the smaller size. This means that they are more likely to fit a female, but some women may still prefer a larger unisex helmet. Below is a chart showing a comparison of the size ranges for popular helmets, and it includes the three women's models that we tested. Based on this chart, the Camp Armour Lady has the largest size range, though in our experience, we did not find this to be true and instead felt that it was much smaller than both the Elia and the Women's Vector.
In order to select the correct size for your head, use a flexible tape measure or a piece of string and wrap it around the circumference of your head just above the eyebrow. Make sure to keep it level. Then measure the piece of sting or note the diameter on your measuring tape. Compare this measurement to the above sizing chart to pick a helmet that will acommodate your size. Keep in mind you may want to wear a Buff or a beanie underneath your helmet on cold days, so if you fall between sizes, we recommend sizing up.
All helmets use some type of foam to protect from impact. Then many helmet manufacturers add strips of cozy soft foam on the interior where the helmet rests against your head. This makes the helmet more enjoyable to ear but also soaks up sweat. In the case of the Elia and the Vector, these sections of soft foam are attached with velcro so that are removable and washable.
The helmet you are likely to wear is the best helmet. No helmet makes you look dead sexy, but perhaps selecting a brightly colored women's helmet is what will make you want to wear it. One female tester painted her Elios helmet so that it looked more fun, which made her wear it more often. This could present a case for wanting a women's specific color way - it makes you feel less dorky.
Ease of Adjustment
It is standard for a modern helmet to be adjusted with wheel on the back. Out of the three women's helmets we tested, only one had a wheel, and each one had a unique method for adjusting. The Black Diamond Vector uses a ratchet system and the Elia uses a more complicated system that has room for a ponytail. The important thing is selecting one that you can easily adjust in order to obtain the correct fit.
Ease of Putting on Headlamp
All the helmets we tested will hold a headlamp with small plastic clips on the outside, but some are easier to attach than others. We gave the the headlamp score little weight because it is not nearly as important as comfort or our other metrics.