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How to Choose a Climbing Helmet

By Cam McKenzie Ring ⋅ Senior Review Editor
Monday November 13, 2017

The climbing helmet market has been exploding with new options recently. Advances in materials and technology have created new ones that are stronger, lighter, and more comfortable than ever before. And yet, there are still so many climbers that never wear one. Perhaps these newer and more improved options will bring about the sea change that hit the skiing and snowboarding industry in recent decades; but even if it doesn't, if you personally wear a helmet no matter what, you're sure to find something that's way better than the twenty-year-old Ecrin Rock that you're still sporting. You can head over to our comprehensive climbing helmet review, where we discuss the standouts in various categories, including the best all-around model, the lightest one available, and special options for the ladies or those on a budget. Keep reading if you want to learn more about climbing helmet construction, the different types available, and what specific features you might want to look for in your next purchase.

Pro climber Libby Sauter wears a helmet no matter if she's climbing sport  trad  or setting speed records on the Nose.
Pro climber Libby Sauter wears a helmet no matter if she's climbing sport, trad, or setting speed records on the Nose.

What is a climbing helmet anyway? If your gear room looks anything like ours, you probably have many different helmets for many different sports. Ski helmets, road bike helmets, mountain bike helmets, downhill helmets, kayak helmets, the list goes on. Why all these different types? We only have one head. Well, the difference is in the types of impacts you are likely to sustain while doing each sport. Climbing helmets are designed to protect against impacts from falling objects like rocks and ice, and to some degree protect against impacts from the wall when falling. There are currently two main types available today: hardshell plastic and lightweight foam.

Hardshell


Hardshell helmets are composed of an ABS outer shell covering a small piece of expanded polystyrene (EPS) foam. The polystyrene is positioned at the top of the helmet and is designed to absorb impacts just like in lightweight foam ones. The big difference with hardshell helmets is that the main structural component is the ABS or other plastic shell rather than the foam. The ABS plastic shell is much thicker than polycarbonate shells found on lightweight foam models, which allows the harness and adjustment band to be attached to it.

The hardshell models in this review (left to right): Black Diamond Half Dome  Petzl Elios  CAMP USA Armour  Mammut El Cap.
The hardshell models in this review (left to right): Black Diamond Half Dome, Petzl Elios, CAMP USA Armour, Mammut El Cap.

The biggest advantage of hardshell helmets is that they are considerably less expensive than lightweight foam ones. The ones that we tested retail for $60-70, which is considerably less than the $100 and up foam options. The second advantage of hardshells is increased durability. Their thick ABS outer shells are more resistant to dings than polycarbonate shells. It's hard to say exactly how much more durable they are, but since they are less expensive and will likely last far longer, they represent a much better value. Note that the hardshell and foam models all pass the same CE test standards (See the Certifying Agencies section below).

Hardshells are heavier and have less ventilation  but more durability and cost less than lightweight foam ones.
Hardshells are heavier and have less ventilation, but more durability and cost less than lightweight foam ones.

The disadvantage of hardshells is the weight. The models that we tested weigh between 11.4 and 12.8 ounces, almost double that of some of the foam models. The added weight detracts from your comfort level, and an uncomfortable one is more likely to get left behind. We recommend hardshell helmets as first helmets for newer climbers as well as guide services or groups looking for durable ones that will last a long time. They are also perfect for climbers on a budget looking to get the longest lasting helmet for their precious dollars.

Lightweight Foam


Lightweight foam models are constructed primarily of expanded polystyrene (EPS) foam covered with a thin layer of polycarbonate plastic, which protects the foam. In this type of construction, the structural component is the polystyrene foam, while the polycarbonate shell serves to distribute sharp impacts and protect the foam from every day wear and tear. It is the same foam used bicycle helmets, though you should never sub one for the other, as they are designed to handle different types of impact.

The EPS foam models that we tested (left to right): CAMP USA Storm  Edelrid Shield II  Black Diamond Vapor  Black Diamond Vector  and Petzl Meteor.
The EPS foam models that we tested (left to right): CAMP USA Storm, Edelrid Shield II, Black Diamond Vapor, Black Diamond Vector, and Petzl Meteor.

We also tested two ones made with expanded polypropylene (EPP) foam. This is the same material that is used in bumpers and side-impact protection in cars. The advantage of EPP over EPS is that EPP can withstand multiple impacts without damage, whereas EPS foam will shatter and crack after a heavy impact. The disadvantage is that EPP is more expensive than EPS, and since it's softer it is more likely to get nicked by sharp objects. Both of the EPP foam models that we tested also have a partial shell. The Petzl Sirocco has a small polycarbonate crown, while the whole front half of the Mammut Wall Rider is covered in hard plastic.

The EPP foam models that we tested: the Mammut Wall Rider (left) and Petzl Sirocco (right). This newer type of helmet material and construction might be the wave of the future for our sport.
The EPP foam models that we tested: the Mammut Wall Rider (left) and Petzl Sirocco (right). This newer type of helmet material and construction might be the wave of the future for our sport.

The biggest advantage of both types of foam construction is their light weight compared to ABS plastic. Weight is a huge factor in the overall comfort of a climbing helmet, and in general the lighter it is, the less we noticed we were wearing it. The biggest disadvantage of lightweight helmets, like most super light products, is less durability. The polycarbonate shells are very thin and are prone to dents and dings. Since they are also more expensive, they don't always represent as good a value as hardshell options. For the most part though, we feel that the increase in comfort and weight savings are worth the higher price and slight decrease in durability. Simply put, this is our favorite style of climbing helmet. We recommend lightweight foam models for intermediate to experienced climbers who appreciate lighter, better performing products but understand that they need to be treated with more respect.

Once you start wearing a lightweight foam helmet  it's hard to go back to heavy plastic.
Once you start wearing a lightweight foam helmet, it's hard to go back to heavy plastic.

Sizing and Protection


The majority of the climbing helmets that we tested come in two sizes, which cover a range of head sizes. This measurement is the circumference of your skull and is usually expressed in centimeters. We've created a sizing chart for the models that we tested to help you compare and find the size best suited to your head. This chart uses the manufacturer's suggested size ranges, and we note in the individual reviews of each model if any of the sizing seemed off.

A comparison of manufacturers' specified sizes for climbing helmets. We find some of these specs to not be entirely accurate  such as the size for the CAMP Armour  which fit smaller than this chart indicates.
A comparison of manufacturers' specified sizes for climbing helmets. We find some of these specs to not be entirely accurate, such as the size for the CAMP Armour, which fit smaller than this chart indicates.

To find your size, use a flexible tape measure or a piece of cord, and measure the circumference of your head just above the eyebrow. Make sure to keep the measuring device level. Compare this measurement to the size chart to pick the right size. Keep in mind you may want to wear a Buff or a beanie on cold days so if you are on the cusp, size up.

A little extra room under your helmet for a beanie or balaclava is always a good thing for frigid days on the wall.
A little extra room under your helmet for a beanie or balaclava is always a good thing for frigid days on the wall.

You want the material to cover a significant portion of your forehead and also as much of your occipital bone in the back as possible. While getting hit from above by rockfall is one way your helmet protects you, it also offers coverage for your forehead if you fall and slam into the wall, and for the back of your head should you get flipped upside down when falling, which can happen if the rope gets behind your leg. It can be the lightest or most comfortable model out there, but if it doesn't actually cover your skull properly then it's not much good to you. Since every model is constructed differently, and every skull has its own unique shape, what works for you might not cover someone else's head well.

Due to differences in head shape and helmet design  you may get better coverage from one model over another. Our 61 cm tester gets great rear occipital coverage from the Mammut Wall Rider and Black Diamond Vapor (top)  but less from the Petzl Meteor and CAMP USA Armour (bottom).
Due to differences in head shape and helmet design, you may get better coverage from one model over another. Our 61 cm tester gets great rear occipital coverage from the Mammut Wall Rider and Black Diamond Vapor (top), but less from the Petzl Meteor and CAMP USA Armour (bottom).


Adjustments


Climbing helmets have a variety of adjustments to help tune them to a specific head shape and accommodate for a layer underneath. We consider a fully adjustable helmet to have an adjustable length chin strap, fore/aft chin strap adjustment, and a rear adjustment band which adjusts in both circumference and height. The most important adjustment is the rear adjustment band, which is key to keeping it in place. All of the different models use a rear adjustment band which adjusts in circumference to clamp down on the occipital area.

Some models use click wheels to adjust the rear band. While this feature adds weight and bulk, it allows for one handed adjustment, which is nice if you want to tighten up mid-pitch. It can make it easy to overtighten them though, so beware of that final turn. The Black Diamond Half Dome, CAMP USA Storm, Edelrid Shield II and CAMP USA Armour all have a click wheel. Others use a sliding band with notches. These tend to be easy to close — you just push on each side — but a little trickier to open since you need to push on a small button or area on the band. The Mammut El Cap, Petzl Meteor, Petzl Elios, Black Diamond Vapor and Black Diamond Vector all have a sliding band. Our testers who typical wore ponytails when climbing and/or who had a protruding occipital bone tended to prefer this method to the click wheel, as it interfered less with whatever we had going on back there.

Slider bars might offer a little more room in the rear than a click-wheel.
Slider bars might offer a little more room in the rear than a click-wheel.

The two EPP models that we tested use a textile harness to save weight, and those close with webbing through a small buckle.

All webbing harness are lighter and very comfortable  though a little challenging to fine tune the fit.
All webbing harness are lighter and very comfortable, though a little challenging to fine tune the fit.

Many models are now forgoing the V-yoke adjustment in favor of saving weight. While a small buckle can't weigh but a few grams, in the race to have the "lightest" option available, every "ounce" counts apparently. The downside to no adjustment on the V-yoke is that unless the helmet fits you perfectly, you might find it slipping to the side.

The sliding buckle on the sides of the Black Diamond Half Dome (right) gives you more adjustability than the fixed yoke on the Vapor (left).
The sliding buckle on the sides of the Black Diamond Half Dome (right) gives you more adjustability than the fixed yoke on the Vapor (left).

Women's Specific Models


Unlike the shape of a woman's a hips or feet, when it comes to the difference between men's and women's skulls, the only general difference is that women tend to have a smaller circumference. There is technically no need for a female specific model beyond two things: hair, and color choices. As such, many manufacturers make a "women's" version of some of their climbing helmets, but it's really just the same as the men's in some prettier colors. This is the case with the women's Black Diamond Vector and Half Dome models, and the CAMP USA Armour.

The Women's Black Diamond Vector is the same as the men's version with a female-centric color scheme.
The Women's Black Diamond Vector is the same as the men's version with a female-centric color scheme.

While not all women have long hair and wear ponytails, those that do (and the guys too!) know that it can be challenging to get a good fit in a helmet. Petzl decided to try and solve the ponytail issue with the Elia, which has a cutout in the rear band to accommodate a ponytail. Unfortunately for the guys with hair, this one has feminine styling and pink colorways.

The Petzl Elia is the only model that is designed specifically for women's ... hair! Since many women wear their hair long  and in a ponytail  and option that accommodates that is a welcome addition to the market.
The Petzl Elia is the only model that is designed specifically for women's ... hair! Since many women wear their hair long, and in a ponytail, and option that accommodates that is a welcome addition to the market.

Some of the unisex models that we tested can also be ponytail compatible. If the tightening band sits high enough on your head there may be room below it for a ponytail. alternately, if there is enough room between the tightening band and the helmet itself, you can always slide it through the gap. This worked best with the Petzl Sirocco and Mammut Wall Rider, but not at all with any of the models that used a click-wheel to tighten it.

There's enough room to fit a ponytail through the harness on the Petzl Sirocco.
There's enough room to fit a ponytail through the harness on the Petzl Sirocco.

Kids Specific Models


If you're taking the little ones out climbing, it's always a good idea to put them in a helmet as well. There's nothing specific that children need out of a helmet — other than to wear it all the time! They'll typically need a smaller size than the average adult, but also something that they can grow into. Because children's heads grow so rapidly, they might outgrow it quickly. We were really impressed with the size range on the Edelrid Shield II. It was able to fit our 61 cm male tester and his 53 cm six-year-old son.

We liked the adjustability of the Edelrid Shield II. This one helmet was adjustable enough to fit the whole family  kids included.
We liked the adjustability of the Edelrid Shield II. This one helmet was adjustable enough to fit the whole family, kids included.

Lining


Linings are an important component of a comfortable helmet, and ensure a secure fit. Most models have small pads composed of open cell foam covered in fuzzy material. These pads are for fit and comfort, and are supposed to keep your head from directly touching hard plastic or raw styrofoam. Similar to bike helmets, the lining also serves to soak up sweat so it doesn't drip in your eyes. The linings can be removed for washing, but we usually feel like we "ain't got time for that." We found that all of the padded linings do a good job, and don't have a strong preference for one over the other.

Certifying Agencies


All of the climbing helmets that we tested display the CE label, which means that they meet the CE EN 12492 requirement. This is a standard for mountaineering helmets established by the Conformité Européenne; if a manufacturer wants to sell their products in Europe, it has to pass their test. In addition, many climbing helmets are further certified to the voluntary UIAA standard, which is a little more stringent. Here's what you need to know about these tests.

First, a 5 kg mass is dropped from a height of 2 m while the helmet is on a head form. There's a sensor in the neck of the head form that can't register more than 10 kN for the CE test and 8 kN for the UIAA standard. Then there's a frontal, lateral and dorsal test, where a 5 kg mass is dropped again but this time from a height of .5 m while the helmet is tilted at a 60 degree angle. Again, the neck form can't register more than 10 kN for the CE test and 8 kN for the UIAA. The standard for the penetration test is the same for both bodies — a 3 kg mass with a pointed tip is dropped from a height of 1 m. The tip can penetrate the helmet but can't touch the head form. There's also a slippage test and a strength of chin strap test.

All of Petzl's climbing helmets are certified to both the CE and UIAA standard, while other manufacturers, like Mammut, only do the CE. In Black Diamond's lineup, the Vector and Half Dome are CE and UIAA, but the Vapor is only CE.

Manufacturers have to display what standards their helmets are certified too. A climbing specific helmet will display the CE EN12492 label and/or the UIAA insignia.
Manufacturers have to display what standards their helmets are certified too. A climbing specific helmet will display the CE EN12492 label and/or the UIAA insignia.

Cam McKenzie Ring
About the Author
Cam McKenzie Ring began climbing over 20 years ago and considers herself a Jill-of-all-disciplines. She has climbed Camp 4 boulders, El Cap big walls and many things in between. After working for Yosemite Search and Rescue for five years she “retired” to Las Vegas, where she can be found out on the rocks with her two little boys in tow.

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