Helmet Buying Guide

Helmet Buying Guide

Author: Jarrett Hofmann

A climbing helmet is a vital tool to protect your head from falling debris and direct impact during a climbing fall. Whether you need help deciding on your first helmet or if that old hand-me-down bucket of yours needs replacing, we break down everything you need to know from how to fit a helmet, helmet materials, what helmets are (and aren't) certified for, and what we've got in shop.

Out with the old, in with the new

A few years ago, helmet manufacturers began going above and beyond what was required by certifying bodies after recognizing an increased need for protection due to modern risks and hazards inherent to the sport we love so much.

In the early era of climbing, all helmets needed to do was protect mountaineers from rockfall. Recently, manufacturers began adding protection to the lower third of the helmet. This is because the needs of modern rock climbers who tie into the sharp end may be at greater risk of awkward or dangerous lead falls. If you have an old helmet with reduced protection in the lower third of the helmet, we recommend you replace it with a modern helmet designed to protect your head from side, rear and front impact.

Above: A young Alex Ratson sports an older-style mountaineering helmet, somewhere in Vancouver Island's underrated alpine. Alex no longer wears this style of helmet. Photo credit: Alex Ratson

How to fit your helmet

As you'll learn more about later, climbing helmet standards are only tested on helmets that are fitted properly.

1. Ensure the helmet is the correct shape for your head. You should intuitively know whether or not the shape of the helmet is right for your head. If it's not, try different padding that may come with the helmet, a different size, or a different helmet altogether.

Staff Tip: Jarrett likes to be able to fit a finger between the back of his head and the helmet. This leaves enough space to wear a lightweight beanie or hat under the helmet.

2. Ensure the helmet is centred on your head and is sitting flat across your forehead just above your eyebrows. Use a mirror or ask a friend if necessary.

3. Tighten the straps, dial or ratchet on the back of the helmet until it's snug and comfortable. To test this, shake your head with the chin strap undone. If the helmet remains in place it's a good fit. If the helmet falls off or shifts, try tightening the helmet or downsizing to a smaller size. Alternatively, try a different model or brand.

4. Fasten the chin strap and tighten it until you can only fit a finger between your chin and the strap. Adjust the buckles so they're close to your ears but clear of the straps.

Staff Tip: If you're unable to try the helmet on beforehand, refer to the brand's fit guide for instructions on which helmet might fit your head best.

Materials

On a basic level, climbing helmets consist of an outer shell, inner foam, straps and a suspension system. The outer and inner shells of a helmet are comprised of a variety of materials which each have their role to play in protecting your head.

Outer Shell Materials

ABS (Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene) Plastic

ABS is ideal when manufacturers need to mold awkward shapes while still maintaining long-lasting and stiff helmets. ABS is resistant to scratches and offers limited flex which helps retain its shape after minor hits to the helmet. ABS is used as an outer shell material in “workhorse” helmets.

Polycarbonate Plastic Coating

Polycarbonate plastics are moldable thermoplastics that are flexible and impact resistant. Most sunglasses use polycarbonate lenses. In helmets, Polycarbonate plastics are bonded to the foam inner to prevent penetration from falling objects. Polycarbonate shells are used in lightweight helmets. Polycarbonate shells are not as hard or durable as ABS shells.

Composites

Edelrid is doing away with the hefty weight penalty of ABS for some of their 2023 helmet coatings by introducing lightweight composites instead. According to Edelrid, their proprietary composite Curv “provides high stiffness and tensile strength with outstanding impact resistance.”

Inner Foam Shell Materials

EPS Foam (Expanded Polystyrene)

EPS is used in helmets due to its ability to distribute large amounts of energy applied to the helmet during a lead fall or rock-strike while also remaining extremely lightweight. After a significant impact, the polystyrene beads collapse and deform and the foam is unable to rebound. This means the helmet can't safely withstand any further impacts. EPS cannot protect your head on its own and always needs to be coated by a harder material such as polycarbonate or composite.

Staff Tip: Yuki has had the unfortunate experience of breaking a helmet while transporting it home from a west coast alpine climbing objective and recommends you heed her advice to avoid the same mistake.

"I store my helmet near the top of my pack with the inside of the helmet filled with something soft/moldable such as a jacket. The helmet needs to have something in it to avoid it from collapsing. It takes a surprisingly little amount of force to damage them, such as putting your bag down, to crack an empty helmet."

EPP Foam (Expanded Polypropylene)

Unlike EPS foam, EPP doesn't need to be coated in a shell, it's higher density and multi-impact foam which will bounce back to its original shape after smaller impacts.

Having the right balance of both EPS and EPP foams, like in Hybrid Helmets, ensures your helmet is lightweight, able to withstand large impacts and can still bounce back to its original shape after small impacts.

That being said, it's important to both carefully inspect your helmet and understand its construction when wondering if you should retire your helmet after an impact. If your helmet is primarily EPS it will show obvious cracks when in need of replacement.

Types of Helmets

Climbing helmets can be broken into 3 different categories based on their materials: Hard Shell Hybrid, In-Mold, and Hybrid helmets. We'll help you identify the major differences between each category, the pros and cons, which ones we carry at Climb On Equipment and why certain climbers may prefer one type over another.

Hard Shell Hybrid Helmets

These helmets have a hard shell consisting of ABS plastic and an inner EPS and/or EPP foam to absorb impact. In these helmets, the hard ABS plastic protects the inner foam from penetrating objects and aids in dispersing forces while the inner foam absorbs the impact.

Who Are Hard Shell Hybrid Helmets for?

These helmets are great for someone who isn't concerned about weight or ventilation but wants it to stand up to impacts and abrasion over a long time. As a bonus, these helmets usually cost less and are great for saving money for your next climbing trip.

Climb On Equipment's Hard Shell Hybrid Helmets

  • Petzl Borea/Boreo (ABS shell, EPS & EPP inner)
  • Petzl Picchu (ABS Shell, EPS inner)

Not Pictured

  • Edelrid Zodiac 3R (Recycled Polyamide shell, Recycled EPS inner)
  • Black Diamond Capitan (2-piece ABS shell, EPS & EPP inner)

Left to right: Petzl Picchu, Petzl Boreo, Petzl Borea

In Mold Helmets

These helmets are made of a combination of EPS foam inner for shock absorption and a thin outer layer of polycarbonate or composite material for durability and to protect your head from top-down impacts. In Mold helmets are lighter and have a lower profile (more stylish) fit than Hard Shell Hybrid helmets. These Helmets are also the most delicate helmets since Polycarbonate is more flexible than ABS and provides less structural protection for the EPS foam inner which can crack if bent. Be careful when placing your helmet down and pack it carefully so you don't risk cracking your helmet.

Who are In Mold Helmets for?

Climbers who frequent every style of climbing from the Crag to the Alpine, are willing to pay a little more for lightweight low profile performance and are prepared to treat their helmet with care.

Climb On Equipment's In Mold Helmets

  • Mammut Crag Sender (Polycarbonate shell, EPS inner)
  • Petzl Meteor/Meteora (Polycarbonate shell, EPS inner)

Not pictured

  • Grivel Stealth (Polycarbonate shell, EPS inner)
  • Wild Country Syncro (Polycarbonate shell, EPS Inner)

Hybrid Helmets

Hybrid Helmets are the lightest, most breathable and highest-performing helmets on the market. The difference between these and In Mold helmets is Hybrid helmets don't have hard outer shell materials around the bottom 2/3rds of the helmet. Instead, an EPP foam shell is found to absorb impacts and provide protection. Since EPP bounces back after deformation, EPP foam can withstand some compression and therefore Hybrid Helmets don't need to be treated with the same extreme care as In Mold Helmets. Also, since EPP can withstand multiple impacts, these helmets are a more durable choice for climbers heading to remote destinations where it isn't possible to replace your helmet mid-trip.

Who are Hybrid Helmets for?

The gram-counting performance climber will be completely satisfied with a Hybrid Helmet given its impressive ratio of weight-to-protection ratio and enhanced durability.

Climb On Equipment's Hybrid Helmets

  • Mammut Wall Rider (plastic crown shell, EPP)
  • Petzl Sirocco Ultralight (Polycarbonate crown shell, EPS under the crown, EPP)
  • Black Diamond Vapor (Polycarbonate crown, Aluula composite under crown, EPS under the Aluula composite, EPP)
  • Black Diamond Vision (ABS shell, EPS under the crown, EPP)

Not Pictured

  • Salathe Lite (Curv Composite crown shell, EPP)
  • Black Diamond Vision (Polycarbonate crown shell, EPS under the crown, EPP)

Left to right: Petzl Sirocco, Petzl Meteora, Petzl Meteor, BD Vapor, BD Vision, BD Capitan, Mammut Wall Rider, Mammut Crag Sender

 

Multidirectional Impact Protection System (MIPS)

Above: Mammut Wall Rider MIPS helmet with the recognizable MIPS sticker marking, as well as the yellow low-friction shell on the inside of the helmet.

After taking the bike and skiing helmet markets by storm, MIPS is becoming more popular in the climbing helmet category, and rightly so.

MIPS is an added feature (and cost) available in some climbing helmets. MIPS can reduce impact force on the head on angled impacts due to a low-friction layer between the padding and foam layers inside the helmet. This layer allows multi-directional movement between 10 - 15mm on certain angled impacts thereby dispersing force. This can even help with off-angle rock/ice strikes to the head or awkward, rolling slab falls.

Who are MIPS Helmets for?

For those willing to spare no expense in protecting their noggin, look no further than a MIPS helmet.

Climb On Equipment's Helmets with MIPS

  • Black Diamond Vision MIPS
  • Mammut Wall Rider MIPS
  • Black Diamond Capitan MIPS

Not Pictured

  • Black Diamond Kid's Capitan MIPS Helmet

Left to right: BD Vision MIPS, Mammut Wall Rider MIPS, BD Capitan MIPS

Helmet Materials Pros and Cons

Staff Tip: Mike often thinks climbing helmets are one category where you can greatly improve your comfort and protection at the crag with a minimal premium in price.

"For an additional $30-$50, you can get a helmet that is significantly lighter and more breathable, making it more comfortable to wear over the course of the day. Amortized over the five-year life span of your helmet, it's a coffee or two per year to be more comfortable and reduce the weight in your pack on the approach."

Strap and Suspension System

Helmet straps are made of thin webbing woven through or attached to the inner EPS liner or outer EPP shell of your helmet to keep it where it should be, on your head.

Helmets will have a dial, ratchet, or cinch system to easily adjust the size of the helmet. Try on helmets, making sure the cinch systems is intuitive for you to use in the applications you envision using the helmet (e.g. Will you need to make adjustments wearing gloves?)

Climbing Helmet Certifications

Reading about helmet certifications can be confusing, wordy, tedious and hard to find. However, it's worthwhile knowing exactly how your helmet is tested and how it's meant to protect your head.

There are two main certifications that rock climbers, ice climbers, mountaineers and alpinists should concern themselves with; the CE EN 12492 and UIAA 106. These two certifications are very similar (basically interchangeable) and have criteria specifically designed for risks encountered while climbing.

Above: Look closely, and you'll see the EN 12492 and UIAA 106 certifications in the BD Vapor helmet.

CEN and UIAA

The 2 main bodies setting climbing helmet standards are The European Committee for Standardization (CEN) and the UIAA (International Climbing and Mountaineering Federation).

The CEN is recognized by the European Union and European Free Trade Association as being responsible for developing and defining voluntary standards at a European level.

The CEN is required to conduct testing using a CE (European Conformity) lab on any climbing gear sold in Europe. This gear must meet the EN (European Norm) standard they set for each piece of equipment.

Meanwhile, the UIAA was originally founded by 20 different mountaineering associations for the collective interest in creating safer mountaineering equipment and advocating for access to the mountains.

The UIAA has accredited over 2,000 products from 70 different manufacturers in their attempt to ensure climbing gear is safe for consumers around the world.

You'll typically find either, or both, the UIAA or CE EN stamps of approval on climbing gear sold in North America and the two standards are nearly interchangeable when it comes to climbing helmets. Typically, only one is found considering the cost of getting gear tested in certified labs.

Identifying the CE EN Standard

For climbing helmets, the European Norm is labelled as CE EN 12492:2012. Here, the number 12492 represents the European Norm standards that were tested in the lab while the number 2012 (not always found next to CE EN 12492) represents the year the norm was established.

Identifying the UIAA Standard

The certification labelled as UIAA 106 is modelled almost directly off of the CE EN 12492 standard, meaning it doesn't matter if your helmet has one over the other.

UIAA and CEN Testing Methods

While the UIAA and CEN don't test the products themselves, they write the rules for what products should be able to withstand, which are tested by 3rd party labs to verify those standards.

Below is a simplified diagram from the UIAA explaining how, and what, climbing/mountaineering helmets are tested for.

There are 3 tests for the helmet's shell and 2 for the suspension. In the Energy Absorption Vertical test, the top of the outer shell is tested for vertical energy absorption from a rounded 5kg object dropped 2m. The helmet may not transmit a force to the head greater than 10kN as per the EN, and 8kN as per the UIAA.

The Energy Absorption frontal, dorsal and lateral test is when a flat 5kg object is dropped 50cm on the front, side, and back upper 2/3rds of the helmet. This test essentially tests the helmet for 'glancing blows'. The helmet may not transmit a force to the head greater than 10kN as per the EN, and 8kN as per the UIAA.

The last test for the outer shell is with a sharp 5kg object dropped 1m onto the top of the helmet. This tests the helmet's ability to prevent objects from penetrating the helmet.

The strap and suspension system is then tested. The chin strap cannot break or stretch more than 24.99mm under a force of 500N. Then, the suspension system and straps undergo a slippage test. This essentially tests how well your helmet will stay on your head and is critical to how well you fit your helmet in the first place.

Above: Photo retrieved from uiaa.org website. Click on the image for a larger view.

Not Tested

While these tests are important, it's difficult to recreate real life in a lab and impossible to test every real-life scenario a helmet might run into while in the mountains.

For example, it's unlikely a rock will fall perfectly flat on the top 2/3rds of your helmet and instead might impact the back part of your helmet while you're looking down.

What's also important to note is these tests only represent things falling onto a stationary helmet and not your helmet impacting other things like it would in an awkward or potentially dangerous lead fall.

Petzl was the first brand to incorporate additional testing methods to include side, rear and front impacts. These tests use a 5kg object dropped from 50 cm onto the lower 1/3rd of the side, rear and front of their helmets which cannot transfer a force greater than 10kN to the head (see below 2 photos from Petzl).

Above: Petzl's illustration of their additional energy absorption test. Photo retrieved from petzl.com website. Click on the image for a larger view.

Proposed UIAA Standard

The UIAA is working to release a new standard dubbed the “Helmet Rim Impact.” This standard is meant to be added to the UIAA 106 list of standards (pictured above) that will be tested in labs.

As of 2021, the UIAA is still working on testing methods to measure this new standard which is assumed to be similar to Petzl's proprietary Top and Side Protection standard. Petzl, Black Diamond and Mammut are some of the companies already testing their helmets to meet this new proposed standard.

Other Uses for Climbing Helmets

Some people use climbing helmets for biking and ski touring. However, it's important to be aware that while some companies may claim their helmets are meant for these activities, it's usually a proprietary set of standards set by the company, not standards set by the CEN or UIAA.

For example, the Petzl Meteor/Meteora helmets claim to be certified for ski touring. While it does have a CE certification, meaning it was tested by an approved 3rd party lab, it was tested for standards set out by Petzl specifically for ski touring, not standards set by the UIAA or CEN.

Above: While not alpine ski certified, backcountry skiers and ski mountaineers love the Petzl Meteor for these applications. Photo credit: Alex Ratson

While the Meteor does provide a good amount of protection for ski touring applications, it doesn't meet the CE EN 1077 requirements, a certification for Alpine Ski helmets that includes high-speed impact and ski pole penetration protection.

Helmets with Multiple Certifications

The Petzl Picchu helmet, along with the UIAA 106 and CE EN 12492 certifications, also has European Cycling (CE EN 1078) and United States cycling (CPSC) certifications for children to use while riding their bikes, skateboards and roller skates.

Above: Photo of the inside of the Picchu helmet showing the CE EN 12492 and EN1078 certifications.

Conclusion

Gone are the days where helmets are ugly, cumbersome and you're laughed at for wearing one. In fact, we're seeing quite the opposite as helmet design, certification protocols and technology evolves. Now more than ever, it's important to wear your helmet at crags and on your favourite multi-pitch route. Studies on Traumatic Brain Injuries reveal scary long-term and often irreversible injuries. Combining that with increasingly busier climbing areas where the likelihood of an accident increases, we suggest protecting yourself with a high-quality, certified and properly fitted helmet.

At Climb On Equipment, we're not here to guilt you into wearing a helmet (that's your parents' and friends' jobs), just to provide you with the best selection and information on helmets to help you protect your noggin no matter the climbing scenario.

If you have any questions, feel free to give us a call, send an email or visit our store online or pop by the shop next time you're in Squamish. We'll be more than happy to help you find a properly fitting helmet or provide advice on buying a new one whether you're a beginner buying your first helmet or you're a seasoned climber replacing an old one.


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