The Best Climbing Helmet
Do you wear a climbing helmet every time you rope up? Like most climbers, you probably don't but know that you should. We've evaluated eight of the best and most popular climbing and mountaineering helmets on the market and found some that you will be stoked to strap on every time you climb. We tested four hardshell ABS helmets, three modern lightweight foam helmets and one totally unique helmet with no shell at all. Keep reading to find out which models came out on top.
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Test Results and Ratings
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Analysis and Award Winners
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Analysis and Test Results
Wearing a helmet is never a bad idea. Regardless of which helmet you decide to buy, if you don't wear it, it won't do you any good. This is why we feel it's important to get a helmet that suits your needs. Common excuses for not wearing a helmet are: it's too heavy, uncomfortable, moves around too much, and is too hot. We've found helmets that solve all of these problems, so you will have no excuse not to wear a helmet.
Start by considering what you don't like about your current helmet or by recounting excuses for not wearing a helmet you've used in the past. Look at helmets that score highly in those trouble areas. Never owned or wore a helmet before? Think about what qualities you look for in other parts of your kit. Are you more concerned about weight or durability? Do you want the most bang for your buck or the best product regardless of cost? Either way, we have a helmet recommendation for you.
The first thing you should decide is whether you want a lightweight foam helmet or a ABS hardshell helmet.
Types of Climbing Helmets
The helmets we tested can be broken into two categories: Lightweight Foam and ABS Hardshell.
Lightweight foam helmets are constructed mostly of polystyrene foam covered by a thin shell of polycarbonate plastic which protects the foam. These helmets are lighter, more comfortable, and have better ventilation, but are less durable. We also put the Petzl Sirocco in this category though it is constructed of polypropylene foam and has no outer shell. Other tested helmets in this category are the Petzl Meteor, Black Diamond Vapor, and Black Diamond Vector.
Hardshell helmets consist of an thick outer shell of ABS plastic covering a small chunk of polystyrene foam. The shell is the primary structural component of this type of helmet rather than the foam. These helmets are much heavier than lightweight foam helmets but are more durable due to the thick outer shell. Tested helmets in this category include the Camp Armour, Petzl Elios, Black Diamond Half Dome, and Mammut Skywalker.
For a full breakdown of the two types of helmet construction see our Buying Advice article.
Criteria for Evaluation
No matter what helmet you own, it only does you any good if you wear it. Our testers and other climbers we polled agreed that a major factor in not wearing a helmet is comfort. Head shapes vary quite a bit, though maybe not as much as feet. So just like climbing shoes, what fits our testers might not fit you. We tried our test helmets on as many heads as possible, and comfort was usually the first thing that our test subjects commented on. We found that the weight of a helmet is closely linked to overall comfort, just as much as the shape and design of the helmet.
Not surprisingly, our lightest helmet, the Petzl Sirocco, was also the most comfortable. This helmet is hardly perceptible on your head. It's so light and comfortable that we found ourselves looking for it on the ground twice while we were wearing it. We think that this is a clear sign that it's a comfortable helmet. This was definitely not the case with the least comfortable helmet, the Mammut Skywalker, which we always knew we had on due to it's top heaviness and clunky rear adjustment band.
We recommend that you try on as many helmets as possible to make sure you get one that fits your head. When trying on a helmet, be sure to make the appropriate adjustments, such as positioning the chins strap front to back and moving the rear adjustment band up and down if possible.We expect that most people will find lighter helmets most comfortable, but there are most likely some odd heads out there that will be more comfortable in a heavier helmet with the right shape. If you are one of those climbers who claims they can't stand wearing a helmet, we think you should get your hands on one of the super light helmets and start there.
Ease of Adjustment
Most of the helmets we tested have a standard set of adjustments to tailor them to your head. These adjustments are chin strap length as well as fore/aft positioning of the strap. All of the helmets we've tested have a chin strap that fully releases and is adjustable in length at the release buckle. Fore/aft adjustment is very important because it allows you to get the chin strap tight without feeling like you are being choked. Just like a bike helmet, if the strap is positioned too posteriorly, wearers have the tendency to leave the chins strap much too loose to be effective. All of the helmets we tested have this adjustment with the exception of the Black Diamond Vapor, which has a fixed chin strap yoke. Front to back positioning of the chins strap is something that is generally done by the user once and then not adjusted again.
All of the helmets we tested have a rear adjustment band of some sort, which tightens against the occipital area and forces the head into the front of the helmet. We found this the single most important adjustment in getting a secure fit. These rear bands range greatly in design, from the super slim, all-textile one found on the Petzl Sirocco to the rigid band adjusted with a large click wheel found on the Black Diamond Half Dome. Essentially all of the bands serve the same purpose, but we found that some were more secure and some were much quicker to adjust. Most of the bands require two hands to adjust, so it is something you aren't likely to do mid-send on a technical route. Bands which use click wheels can be adjusted with just one hand though they do add a bit of weight to the helmet. Adjusting the band is also important when switching between a beanie, a headband, or nothing at all underneath the helmet. This is something alpine climbers might do several times a day as temps and activity levels vary.
The quickest and easiest to adjust helmet is the Black Diamond Half Dome which uses a click wheel on the rear band that can be adjusted with just one hand. Just behind that helmet is the Petzl Elios which no longer has a click wheel, but has two large easy to feel buttons on the rear band, though it still requires two hands to tighten, but can be loosened slightly with one finger. The hardest to adjust helmet is the Petzl Sirocco which has an all-webbing band and harness, and requires an extra amount of fiddling to get the band in place, though it is secure and very comfortable once in place.
At the most basic level, climbing could be considered a battle against gravity. The weight of your gear affects your send no matter what level you climb, and all helmets weigh something. Even more importantly, we found that weight is a major factor in overall comfort of a helmet. Simply, lighter helmets are usually more comfortable, less noticeable, and are more likely to be worn. Unfortunately, weight has an inverse relationship with durability when it comes to most things, climbing helmets included. Heavier helmets are also considerably cheaper.
The helmets in our test ranged in weight from a feather weight 5.8 ounces to 13.7 ounces, which is nearly two and half times heavier. The difference between the two is a little more than a #3 Black Diamond Camalot. Ever left one of those behind because you didn't want the weight? We have.
Helmets like the Petzl Meteor at 7.6 ounces and Black Diamond Vapor at 7.2 ounces are primarily constructed of polystyrene foam covered by a thin shell of polycarbonate, and are far lighter than hardshell helmets constructed of thicker ABS plastic. The lightest ABS hardshell helmet we tested is the Petzl Elios, which weighs in at 11.6 ounces. The lightest helmet on the market is the Petzl Sirocco which forgoes any type of shell and is constructed of a single layer of expanded polypropylene foam.
Lack of ventilation is another big reason why many people don't wear a helmet while climbing. We think the more ventilation a helmet has, the better. The consensus among our testers and climbers we polled was that helmets can only be too hot, but never too cold, unlike a ski helmet. All of the helmets we tested easily accept a beanie underneath, which makes it easy to regulate temperature when it's cold. One of our favorite things to wear under a helmet when climbing in cooler temps is a Buff, which provides warmth without too much bulk. In full-on cold conditions, we go for a thinner beanie and a jacket with a helmet compatible hood for maximum flexibility.
We found that lightweight foam helmets have a lot more openings in the shell, and therefore much better ventilation than hardshell helmets. In fact, we gave all of the lightweight foam helmets better ventilation scores than any of the hardshell models. The two best ventilated helmets are the Black Diamond Vapor and our Editors' Choice winner, the Petzl Meteor. Both of these helmets have large amounts of opens space at the rear and sides of the helmet to allow for cooling airflow.
Wether it be for pre-dawn starts or for getting benighted on an epic, the ability to attach a headlamp to a helmet is important. With the exception of just one helmet, the basic method of headlamp attachment is four downward facing clips positioned around the helmet to hold a headlamp strap from sliding upwards while the taper of the helmet and a bit of friction hold it from sliding down. The lone exception was the Petzl Sirocco, which uses two clips in the front of the helmet and an elastic band in the back of the helmet. There were no total fails in this category, and the difference in the ease of use and security of the each headlamp's clips were subtle.
Climbing helmets are designed to protect your head from falling objects through partial destruction of the helmet materials. Most helmets can withstand a few small sized rocks or a couple of good sized chunks of ice, but will need to be replaced after any big hit. What we look for is a helmet that can hold up to the normal wear and tear of loose rocks, roofs you didn't see coming, and a normal amount of ice shelling without needing replacement. Should any helmet fend off a likely fatal impact, it should be replaced.
For the most part, the heavier ABS hardshell helmets proved more durable to everyday climbing better than the lightweight foam helmets, which protect their foam with much thinner polycarbonate shells. The helmet that held up the best to climbing and cramming into a pack was the Black Diamond Half Dome. The most durable lightweight foam helmet was the Petzl Meteor, which is less prone to dings from small impacts than the other thin shelled helmets we tested. The two poorest examples of durability we found were the Petzl Sirocco, which we cracked simply by stuffing in a pack, and the Mammut Skywalker II, which broke before we took it out of the box likely due to vulnerably designed foam.
Helmets have come a long way. Manufacturers are making better, lighter, and more comfortable options for the adventurers of today. The helmets in this review are specific to climbing and are meant to protect your head from falling objects during your vertical pursuits. We hope that this review has helped you to choose the right type of helmet for your climbing needs. Please read our Buying Advice article for more information on the different types that are available.
— Luke Lydiard
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