Almost every climbing equipment manufacturer makes climbing helmets, usually a whole selection of them, ensuring that you have a ton of options from which to choose. While climbing helmets used to be a rather straightforward affair, made of a heavy, hard plastic shell and a rather elaborate internal harness, these helmets seem antiquated by today's standards. Now there are super lightweight EPP helmets, moderately lightweight EPS options, and the still classic ABS style hardshell, which have also become lighter and more comfortable over time. But what do all these acronyms mean, and how should they affect my purchasing decision? This buying advice article aims to answer these questions and more, as well as dig into some of the nitty-gritty details that aren't in our Best Climbing Helmets of 2019 review. Read on below to get the more in-depth lowdown on types of foam, adjustment systems, testing certifications, and the best options for your adventures.
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 kinds 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 impacting the wall when falling. There are currently two main types available today — hardshell plastic and lightweight foam — although these two types feature a variety of foams and plastics, and the lines between the two are starting to become blurred. A discussion of the most common materials is thus probably the most helpful.
Lightweight Foam: EPP vs. EPS
Every climbing helmet that you buy today uses a version of lightweight foam to serve as the impact diffusing agent. This fact is true regardless of whether the foam shows on the outside, or is fully encased in a hard plastic shell (more on those below). When foam takes an impact from a falling object, or from hitting the rock after falling, it deforms, squishing inward as it absorbs the impact forces, and sometimes even cracks. In most cases, the foam in your helmet is only capable of sustaining one large direct hit in that specific area before needing to be retired. If a second hit happened to an area that had already sustained damage, the resulting squished foam would not absorb nearly the amount of force, likely rendering the helmet useless. Hard plastic can help absorb and deflect some light blows, helping the foam inside the helmet "live" longer. There are two main types of foam used in climbing helmets, each with their advantages and disadvantages:
EPS — Expanded Polystyrene
EPS is the most common type of foam found in climbing helmets. EPS is the same stuff that packaging peanuts and Styrofoam coolers are made of, although the stuff in your helmet is of a much higher grade. The density of EPS is "tunable" for absorbing harder or softer impacts. EPS can only absorb one hard impact before it needs to be retired; while it may rebound in shape slightly over time, the energy transmitting properties of the foam expire during one impact event. In climbing helmets, EPS is usually covered in some form of plastic shell to protect it from "softer" impacts, which may ruin its ability to absorb the truly meaningful "hard" impact against which it would otherwise protect. Although this article talks more about EPS regarding biking helmets, we still found it very informative for understanding what is happening when your EPS helmet takes a blow.
EPP — Expanded Polypropelene
Expanded Polypropylene (EPP) is a very similar material to EPS, except that its manufacturing process is proprietary. In stark contrast to EPS, it is softer and more rubbery, and not instantly crushable, meaning it can absorb more and softer blows without needing to be retired. Worth mentioning is that a very hard impact will still likely permanently damage it, so consider retiring an EPP helmet after a hard blow. EPP is most often used on the sides of climbing helmets to provide more protection against hitting your head on the wall when falling and is less often used on the top of the head to absorb impacts from rocks.
Some climbing helmets use a combination of EPP and EPS foam. These generally have a plate of hard EPS on the top, to protect from a potentially hard impact from falling objects. They then use EPP around the sides and back of the head to give more resilient and multiple impact protection from falling and hitting your head.
Hardshell helmets are what they sound like — a hard plastic shell helmet. In the cases of old school helmets, such as the Petzl Ecrin Roc or the original Black Diamond Half Dome, there was no foam incorporated into these designs, and the hard shell itself provided all of the protection. These days, hardshells all use foam as part of their impact diffusing designs, which muddies the waters a bit when discussing what a hardshell is and what is a lightweight foam helmet. Not only do all hardshells incorporate foam, but every foam climbing helmet we tested also has some form of hard plastic covering it! The old definitions are breaking down. However, one way to think of these helmets is that with hardshells, the plastic itself is part of the impact resisting design, whereas most lightweight foam helmets use a shell of some nature, but mostly to protect the foam. Therefore, hardshell helmets have a much thicker piece of plastic on the outside, and this plastic generally covers the entire helmet.
Examples: Petzl Elia, Black Diamond Half Dome, Petzl Boreo
Regardless of whether a helmet is termed a "hardshell" or not, it has on the outside one of two different types of plastic: ABS or Polycarbonate.
ABS (Acrylonitrile butadiene styrene) is a blended thermoplastic that used to be what composed all hardshell helmets. However, Polycarbonate has largely replaced ABS as the plastic of choice for climbing helmets, and among the choices in our review, only the Petzl Elia and Petzl Boreo still use ABS plastic. Compared to Polycarbonate, the advantages are lower price and lower weight.
Most climbing helmets now use polycarbonate for their plastic shells, regardless of whether they are a "hardshell" design or a lightweight foam one. Polycarbonate is stronger, more flexible, and more durable than ABS, so it can be used in thinner sheets to coat the outsides of brittle, single impact absorbing EPS foam to add longevity and durability, sort of like an eggshell. This design is very popular among those we have tested, although the hardness of the Polycarbonate shell varies greatly between manufacturers and models. The shell on the BD Vector and BD Vapor is extremely thin, so much so that it seems to do very little to protect the foam beneath.
On the other hand, the shells covering the Petzl Meteor, Edelrid Shield II and Camp USA Storm are strong enough to resist denting when getting thrown around. The small top shield on the Petzl Sirocco is very hard, to protect the plate of EPS beneath it, while the EPP foam around the sides of the helmet is left un-shielded. While it is a classic "hardshell" that used to be ABS, the Black Diamond Half Dome is now made of a thicker piece of Polycarbonate instead.
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.
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 manufacturer's size chart to pick the right size. Consider you may want to wear a Buff or a beanie on cold days so if you are on the cusp, size up.
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 cover your skull properly, then it's not much good to you. Since every model is different, and every skull has its unique shape, what works for you might not cover someone else's head well.
Climbing helmets have a variety of adjustments to help tune them to specific head shapes 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 that 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 helpful 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, and Edelrid Shield II all have a click wheel. Others use a sliding band with notches. These tend to be easy to close — you 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 Petzl Meteor, Petzl Boreo, Black Diamond Vapor and Black Diamond Vector all have a sliding band. Our testers who typically wear ponytails when climbing or who have a protruding occipital bone tend to prefer this method to the click wheel, as it interferes less with whatever we had going on back there.
The Petzl Sirocco, Mammut Wall Rider, and Wall Rider MIPS use a textile webbing harness system that is low profile and lightweight. To tighten these, simply pulling a tab of webbing through a small cinch buckle is all that is needed. While this method isn't quite as user-friendly, we found that it works quite well, and appreciate the low profile and low weight.
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.
Women's Specific Models
Unlike the shape of a woman's 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 just the same as the men's in some prettier colors. This scenario is the case with the women's Black Diamond Vector and Half Dome models.
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.
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 arrangement 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.
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 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.
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 come off 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.
All of the climbing helmets that we tested display the CE label, which means that they meet the CE EN 12492 requirement. This certification 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. Also, many climbing helmets meet 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 drops again but this time from a height of .5 m while the helmet tilts at a 60-degree angle. Still, 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 sharp tip drops 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.
Skiing in a Climbing Helmet
Climbing helmets have become increasingly popular for use while ski mountaineering. Skimo and randonee races require a helmet, and a lightweight climbing helmet is a preferred choice. This practice makes sense for many reasons. First, climbing helmets are super light. They also have fantastic ventilation, making them far more comfortable to wear while climbing a mountain. They also protect from falling obstacles frequently encountered on the side of a mountain in the winter. Petzl has worked to create the first CE certification for ski touring helmets, combining the requirements for mountaineering helmets with side and back impact protection. Both the Meteor and Sirocco meet this standard, and we found that the Mammut Wall Rider and Wall Rider MIPS are also designed with ski touring in mind, although they do not currently possess this CE certification.
However, climbing helmets are not rated to the same protection standards as downhill ski helmets, and shouldn't serve in place of one.
All climbing helmets will add to your margin of safety on the rocks, ice, and in the mountains. Which one you choose to buy depends on your level of experience and budget. While the lowest priced models are a good way to get into the game without spending extra money, we find them to be sufficient only for beginners and climbing close to the ground. Anyone looking to buy their second helmet, or who intends to climb multi-pitch routes or alpine climb, should be investing the extra $40 or so for a lightweight foam helmet. Our testing and opinions both concur that performance, as well as pleasure, drastically increase as weight decreases when it comes to helmets, but this also corresponds to an increase in price. When purchasing a helmet, you do get what you pay for, but considering that a helmet is usually a long term purchase, we think it is a great idea to think with your brain, rather than your wallet, and purchase the best climbing helmet that fits comfortably on your head.