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Helmet Hunting

Submitted by daisuke on 2002-03-07

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Not too long ago I took a 30 foot whipper and came close to decking out whilst lead climbing, after this experience I realized I could have hit my head on the rock on the way down and easily killed myself, so after this ordeal I decided to get a helmet for leading. Little did I know what I was in for, choosing the right model became quite hard!

Let's start by looking at the use of helmets in climbing. There are two fundamental purposes, protection from impact against rock when falling, and protection from rocks falling on your head.
Climbers these days have a variety of helmets at their disposition, and many work under different principles. The two main types of helmets are the hard exterior shell kind and the foam lined flexible exterior shell kind.

Hard exterior shell helmets are the classic helmets you may have seen at the crags, a durable plastic shell with webbing inside to keep your head away from the plastic and soften impact from falls or falling rock. They work well and are proven designs, any good helmets will have passed the CEN penetration tests and/or will be UIAA or CE approved. Many are also cool (as in opposed to hot). The downside of these helmets is their weight and their bulk, you may not think much of it, but you WILL notice the extra weigh when you tip your head back to belay someone and feel the helmet pulling down. Also, as a general rule of thumb, the cheaper the reference price of the helmet the heavier it is, I compared a Black Diamond Half Dome with a generic brand while at the climbing shop and the weight difference was notable. Recommended helmets of this kind are the Petzl Ecrin roc or one of it's variants, the Black Diamond Half Dome or one of Camp's many hard helmets.

Foam lined flexible exterior shell helmets such as the Petzl Meteor are the other alternative when it comes to climbing helmets and they are quite a different beast compared to the "hardhats". flex shelled helmets cushion the impact of rock or fall with foam only and look a lot like bicycle helmets, the pretty much ARE bike helmets in all ways but one, instead of being covered with a regular plastic shell, any good climbing helmet of this type will have a polycarbonate exterior shell. Polycarbonate is an extremely durable and lightweight material and is best know for being nearly unbreakable, for example, if you were to hit the windshield of a car that was made of polycarbonate with a sledgehammer, the hammer would simply give it a couple of scratches and bounce off, the whole windshield would come out of it's socket before breaking. that's how strong it is.
So, these helmets are light and they're strong and since they're usually smaller they get in the way less. Where's the downside? For starters they're hotter than hard helmets due to the foam cushioning, and if hit hard enough there is a good chance the foam will break on the inside making the helmet useless from there on out. They are also generally more expensive than their hard shelled stable mates

NEVER use a bicyle helmet for climbing, they are not penetration resistant and a large piece of falling rock going fast will smash through it as easily as a bullet will go thru a gauze pad.

So in conclusion, you have to decide what kind of helmet suits your needs more. Sport climbers might be better off with the foam lined type, since they mostly need their head protected from falls; while trad and aid climbers, exposed more often to falling rock, will be better off with the more durable hard helmets. Price and heat can also be determining factors, ice climbers might be better off with foam helmets because of their warmth. Simond makes a helmet called the bumper made specifically for ice climbing and it can be fitted with a face cover to protect your eyes from ice shards.
Make sure you do your research before going for a cheap helmet however, your life depends on the quality of your future noggin-saver and spending that little extra is quite akin to getting a better life-insurance plan.

Hope this helps you all stay safe and happy helmet hunting!


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