Although you are free to make your own decision about wearing a helmet when rock climbing, there is no question that they offer a great deal of protection. As technology improves with increases in comfort and decreases in weight, many of the traditional excuses for not wearing a helmet are becoming less relevant.
Confidence in being able to climb a route should not necessarily be seen as a reason to not wear a helmet as injuries are far more likely from falling objects landing on your head than from you falling onto it.
Broadly speaking there are three helmet designs on the market, having decided which of these fits your needs best then fit and features will narrow down your choice further.
The most traditional design of helmet features a shell made from a very rigid plastic kept off the head by a webbing cradle. Due to the high strength of the polycarbonate typically used, these helmets can in theory resist multiple impacts and are the standard for industrial use. This makes them the obvious choice for those who are fully expecting prolonged exposure to danger and consider the extra weight of the solid shell a fair compromise for the extra protection it provides. Petzl's Ecrin Roc, a classic example, has been around for many years but is still the first choice for big wall aid climbers today.
Expanded Polystyrene (EPS) Foam
This design features a thick foam shell which rests almost directly on the head of the wearer and is the lightest of the three. They often look similar to the cycling helmets which the technology was first used on, but with a shape that allows them to deal with the potential dangers encountered in climbing. The expanded polystyrene absorbs impact by being gradually resisting compression, meaning that a single small stone could mean your helmet has a large dent and needs to be retired. Even shoving one into a pack full of climbing gear could compromise its protection. The low weight and close fitting shape make them popular with those who are pushing their limits on terrain which is free from much objective danger and those who do not like the idea of wearing a helmet.
ABS Shell with EPS Liner
This design sits between the previous two featuring a thin rigid shell protecting a layer of foam which rests almost directly on the head of the wearer. It deals with both the weight issues of polycarbonate and the durability issues of EPS, making them very versatile and a great choice for most climbing activities. They also tend to be better value than EPS models. The hybrid design does however make it difficult to achieve much in the way of ventilation, which may be worth considering for those who mainly climb in warm weather.
Most modern helmets will safely fit the vast majority of adults, however small thing can make a big difference if you have to wear a helmet all day. Models which come in more than one size may provide a more accurate fit and some manufacturers now make models specifically for women and children.
Most adjustment systems now use a small wheel which can be operated with one hand which is quick and easy. This is especially important if the same helmet is being used by multiple people or if you have to adjust layering systems as the weather changes.
This depends very much on personal preference and additional comfort often means less practicality so it is worth trying a couple of helmets on before buying. In general the more padding on the chin strap, and around the headband the better. However often the more comfortable the helmet/head interface the larger the distance between your head and the top of the helmet. When climbing in corners, roofs and wide cracks the extra comfort may not be worth the frequent bashing of your helmet. Ventilation can also make a massive difference to comfort, wearing a close-fitting plastic hat for 8 hours will make concentrating on climbing difficult.
The BMC have launched a Helmet Campaign to promote their use in rock climbing. Find out why below.
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