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BLOG | TIPS

How to Choose a Helmet for Rock Climbing and Mountaineering

Helmets are fundamental for our safety in the mountains. Climbing, alpinism, mountaineering, it is always practically obligatory. We will explain why and help you to choose one best suited to your needs.

Helmets are a fundamental element for our safety in the mountains

The fundamental importance of using a helmet

Helmets for alpinism and climbing should be more commonly used than they are.

It is true that, except for people who climb very overhung routes, these days the majority of people climbing in crags wear a helmet. It is also difficult to find come across someone in a couloir, ice climbing or mixed or alpine route without one.

However, it is more complicated to see someone with a helmet mountaineering in the summer, in 3000m mountains or higher where the normal route often suffer from rock falls. Falls caused by weakened permafrost which is evermore a growing issue.

The use of a helmet is fundamental in any activity in the mountains: mountaineering, alpinism, rock climbing and caving. It is difficult to calculate the number of injuries or grave problems avoided, not is it difficult to find an experimented mountaineer that can’t tell a related tail.

The problem with climbing helmets and their certifications and their importance when making a choice

Helmets in any activity have two missions:

  • To protect us from impacts from objects such as rocks, etc. We are usually stationary, and the object can be penetrative.
  • To protect us from from impacts against the floor, rock etc. We are usually in movement and the object is stationary, usually the object is not penetrative.

They are different: the first category can penetrate our head, the second category shakes our brain causing commotion.

As a result each activity requires an appropriate helmet. A motorbike, cycle or ski helmet for example is more designed for an impact from the second category, which furthermore will usually be head or side on; a mountaineering helmet is designed more for the first category and the impact will often be from above.

When the norm for mountaineering helmets was created, the main activities were alpinism, mountaineering and classical climbing and the main objective was to protect from falling rocks, etc. Due to this the norm created only demanded protection from above but not lateral or frontal.

And that is the way it continues to be: the EU CE- EN 12492 is the norm that regulates standards of these helmets in the EU

However, especially with the arrival of sport climbing, times have changed. Falls in this activity can cause impacts against the wall with the climber in movement. As a result the norm has become somewhat obsolete.

The UIAA and its experts have reacted, and although it is no obligatory, they have added the necessary frontal and lateral protection. It can be expected that the EU, based on their criteria, will change the norm to adapt it to the UIAA one, although it may take time due to testing and bureaucracy.

UIAA tests for helmets: frontal, lateral and top protection

For this reason, when you are purchasing a helmet, if it isn’t going to be exclusively for alpinism, mountaineering, couloirs and classical climbing, it is recommendable to go for one with a double certificate: EU (obligatory) and UIAA (optional).

Comfortable, light and ventilated

One of the reasons that traditionally the use of a helmet was not extended was due to comfort, weight and ventilation. It’s true that they got in the way, moved around and generally bothered, but that is history.

Current models, of both categories, have overcome this problem. From the ultralight models to the most rigid, all of them are usable during activities and are as comfortable as a lightweight bike helmet.

This is thanks to R+D, both in materials and designs, and as we have said, it doesn’t only affect the latest generation of helmets: more classical models have also benefited from these advances.

Fit

Something very important: everyone’s head is unique. As a result each type and model of helmet will be better or worse for each person. There is no point saving a few grams in a helmet that is not as comfortable as it should be, in the end we end being worse than if we purchased a more traditional model.

The thing is fit is fundamental. A helmet will work well when it is correctly worn and adjusted. If it is loose, leaning back or on one side it loses it’s capacity to protect us as well.

Due to this, as fit is so important, we find:

  • Sizes
  • Models for women, for men and for children

Types of climbing helmets

Except for caving helmets, which tend to be different in having specific attachment systems, helmets for activities in the outdoors basically differentiate in resistance to wear and tear and fabrication method, variable that are closely related.

Here are the different types.

1. Hard helmets

They have an external structure made from ABS or high density Polyethylene, which makes up the heart of the helmet. Both ABS (Acrylonitrile Butadiene Stirene) and PE (Polyethylene) are hard, forming an authentic shell.

Onto this main structure, cushioning can be attached similar to the second type of helmet that we will look at, with soft foam, or they can be separated with internal structure similar to a builders hat, or some other type of system.

They don’t tend to have many vents, but there are often canals in the cushioning similar a backpack, or it the structure is separated from the skull, it creates ventilation canals, they are not as hot as they appear.

The are the heaviest and the bulkiest, but be careful: as we said, the latest models have little in common with the classical ones and this weight and volume is acceptable if we are looking for the benefits these models bring, as we will see when we compare them.

2. Helmets with soft foam and hard shell

These are a good middle of the road option between hard and ultralight helmets. The main difference from hard helmets is that, similar to a cycling helmet, the main structure of the helmet in not the shell, if not a EPS shell of polypropylene or polystyrene or a combination of both.

This type of helmet, which are perhaps the most used these days, include an external hard shell (in this case they are a mix between this type and the first with ABS or PE) or semi-rigid. In the case of being semi-rigid, the shell tends to be quite thin. They tend to be made with some type of polycarbonate. This shell follows the vent patterns of EPS interior so they are not complete.

They are lighter, and in some cases very light, similar to a bike helmet, but they comply with climbing helmets standards and are totally safe.

3. Soft foam helmets with no outer shell

To complicate things even further, we can now find helmets that only have a polypropylene internal structure without any exterior shell. We can also find models that incorporate kevlar or other materials.

In some cases we can find mixed helmets: with the outer shell only found on the top portion of the helmet.

They are extremely lightweight, weighing hardly anything, they are used by people who are take the most minimalist approach. The advantage they have, apart from making life easier in the most technical routes where every gram counts, is that as they are practically imperceptible they are used by people who, if they didn’t exist, would not use a helmet at all.

Advantage and disadvantages of each type. Which one should you choose?

Initially we could think that, as all helmets pass the norm and protect us the same, that we should just choose the lightest. However things are not that simple.

The fact is weight does not affect protection, but it does affect durability.

In other words: the lighter the helmet, the less hard wearing it will be.

And here we are not talking about impacts -we should always follow the manufacturers indications after an impact-, if not wear and tear.

The curious thing is that wear and tear has as much to do with use as it does with transport. In fact, if it doesn’t receive an impact, it is likely to last longer being used than if we are carrying it in our backpack. Naturally this is the same for ultralight helmet and does affect their lifespan negatively.

  • If we are looking for an all round helmet which will last a long time, with which we can rock climb, practise alpinism on mountaineering, or carry in our backpack in the mountains just for use in areas prone to rock falls, etc, a hard helmet will be ideal.
  • If we want to shed weight, helmets with soft foam and a hard shell are great as they bring us the best of both worlds, they are great for sport climbing where weight is more of a factor than ice climbing or alpinism, etc. These days they are the most common and can be used for any activity.
  • Ultralight helmets are the least hard wearing. They are for weight saving fanatics, and above all, for whose that any other way would not bother with a helmet. Initially we could think of them, thanks to their minimum weight, to keep in our backpacks ‘just in case’, but if we do this we have to be very careful with bangs and brushes etc, as they do not have a shell their durability is not high.

Multi norm helmets

It is logical that these types of helmets comply with two norms: the climbing norm and type B alpine skiing (without covering ears, not integral). In this activity it is possible to be at risk from falling rocks in the ascent, and ski falls in the descent.

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They are relatively recent. In 2017 the ISFM (International Ski Mountaineering Federation) introduced this norm for ski competitions. Brands started the manufacture them, and since then their use has massively extended in ski touring.

Everything does have it’s downside: even though they comply with the norms, they are less hard wearing than ski helmets, and heavier and hotter than climbing helmets. If you are looking for a helmet that does everything, these are available.

There are even some helmets, like the Movement 3Tech Alpi, which comply with three norms: skiing, climbing and cycling.

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