Climbing helmets were once cumbersome and bulky and worn mostly by mountaineers and ice climbers, but modern helmets are sleek, light and suitable for every climbing situation. Older models were designed primarily for to protect from falling objects, but many new helmets protect against the side impacts often encountered during uncontrolled falls. With their improved fit, ventilation and significant weight reductions, the new designs destroy the old arguments against wearing helmets.
Currently helmets fall into three major construction categories.
The traditional hardshells deliver exceptional protection against rocks and are durable enough for expedition use. Basically a hard plastic dome, the hardshell helmet uses a cradle suspension system which maintains a buffer zone between the top of the head and the inside of the helmet. This system prevents direct transfer of rock impacts to the head while the hard shell minimizes the chance of rock punctures. A solid design for vertical impacts, this set-up unfortunately falls a bit short for side-impact protection.
This is the next evolution in helmet design and it borrows heavily from cycling helmet construction. Consisting of an expanded polystyrene foam core covered in a very thin plastic shell, it delivers the highest level of protection from side and top impacts but is too delicate for expedition use or situations when multiple impacts may occur during the climb. Like a cycling helmet, this single-hit affair. These helmets might not offer the same level of protection that traditional hardshells provide against rock penetration.
Consisting of anything from a traditional hardshell with a small piece of expanded polystyrene foam in the crown to a full foam core with a thinner hardshell covering, hybrid helmets bridge the performance features of the previously discussed designs. They are often lighter with better side impact protection than pure hardshells but are more durable than expanded polystyrene helmets.
Three other points worth considering are weight, durability, fit and ventilation.
Weight and Durability
The pure expanded polystyrene designs are the lightweight champions in this category but some of the newer hardshells and hardshell hybrids are closing the weight gap. Durability is usually the direct inverse of the helmet’s weight with heavier hardshell rigs offering the most toughness.
Helmets only provide protection if they sit properly on the head. Adjust the straps so the helmet sits squarely on the head and will not slip during climbing. Remember, it’s a helmet, not a summer sun hat.
For summer cragging, look for multiple vents and internal air channels. Ventilation is not as critical during winter climbing.
Altios – $70
With its hybrid construction, the Altios bridges the performance between Petzl’s durable Ecrin and their lightweight Meteor III. The Altios features Petzl’s new suspension system that positions the helmet away from the head for improved airflow and comfort. Ventilation is controlled by six plugs for increased warmth in colder weather. The Altius is comfortable and light enough for long rock routes while providing the durability necessary for more remote alpine climbing.
Most climbers prefer the light weight and protection provided by expanded polystyrene for rock climbing but realize their delicate construction is less suitable for backcountry climbs. The solution until now was buying two helmets, but thanks to Wild Country’s Alpine Shield, that is no longer the case. The Alpine Shield is a conventional foam helmet with a removable hard plastic shell that transforms it into a tough alpine climbing rig. The shell also blocks the vents, adding warmth in colder temps without obstructing the built-in head lamp clips. A clever and versatile addition to the helmet market.
Armour – $60
Using hybrid construction, the Armour combines the burliness of a hardshell with the impact absorbing qualities of expanded polystyrene. The result is a helmet that works well for long rock routes and backcountry climbs. An easily adjusted harness system ensures a good fit, while side vents cool without compromising coverage. The colour options make this a fun helmet to choose.
Gear editors often describe new gear as revolutionary but most equipment saddled with this term is at best a mash-up of existing designs. Not so with the Edelrid Madillo. This is the only helmet that folds into itself, simplifying transport and minimizing damage during long approaches. The hybrid hardshell/expanded polystyrene construction provides excellent penetration protection while the expanded foam reduces impact forces. Ventilation is acceptable for all but the warmest conditions and headlamp clips assure epic-free descents.
Stunt – $60
The Stunt is a good looking, no-nonsense design that delivers versatile protection for rock or alpine climbing. The hard plastic shell repels small debris while the expanded polystyrene in the top of the helmet reduces the force of larger impacts. Small vents allow airflow without compromising warmth in colder temps, while four headlamp clips simplify evening descents.
Tracer – $115
The Tracer is an excellent rock climbing helmet with great ventilation, rock fall protection and side-impact protection. The easily adjustable harness ensures a stable fit while the polystyrene construction minimizes weight. A thin shell is bonded to the foam core, protecting it from minor bumps while increasing the helmet’s strength. Headlamp clips extend the Tracer’s versatility while mesh-covered upper vents allow airflow and keep out minor debris.
Tripod – $79.95
Constructed with expanded polystyrene, the handsome and lightweight Tripod provides exceptional protection with a full-coverage design that effectively shields all sides of the head. The adjustable harness easily pivots and tucks into the helmet when it’s not being used preventing damage to the plastic sizing mechanism. Venting is good, with multiple openings while four clips provide headlamp compatibility. This is a great helmet suitable for rock climbing and ice cragging.