When friends get into rock climbing, they often ask us what kind of shoes, harness, or rope they should buy. We always tell them the same thing: “the first thing you should buy is a helmet.” But not just any helmet: a good, comfortable, well-fitting model that they will actually wear. A helmet does no good if it’s sitting in the dirt or in your gear closet back home. If it’s on your head though, it can mean the difference between life and death. Below we break down the top climbing helmets on the market in 2019 from ultralight models to leading budget options. For more information, see our helmet comparison table and detailed buying advice below the picks.
Weight: 6.9 oz. (size S/M)
Construction: EPP w/ polycarbonate shell
What we like: Lightweight, durable, and sleek design.
What we don’t: Heavier than the Petzl Sirocco below; webbing adjustment isn’t very intuitive.
The best climbing helmet is one that manages to combine durability, protection, and comfort into a lightweight package—and the Mammut Wall Rider does just that. Using a majority of expanded polypropylene (EPP) foam, the Wall Rider can withstand multiple impacts without shattering, unlike most of the models on our list that are made with EPS (for more on these differences, see the buying advice below). Add to that a sleek look and comfortable feel, and the Wall Rider gets our top spot for 2019.
The biggest competitor to the Wall Rider is the Petzl Sirocco below, but the Mammut wins out in terms of value and appearance. With both helmets, you get EPP foam, which we’ll always take over EPS when given the choice. The two helmets are streamlined for weight-savings, incorporating simple adjustment systems (both of which are rather finicky) and exposed foam. But the Mammut does it all for $20 less, with a more fashionable design that comes in a couple different colors (unlike Petzl’s standard orange and black/white combo). If you’re focused on going ultralight, you might fork out the extra cash for the 1.3-ounce lighter Sirocco, but we’ll stick with the Wall Rider for most purposes. And it’s worth noting that Mammut recently released a version with MIPS for $180, which is the first climbing helmet of its kind. MIPS is designed to protect against angled impacts and is popular in the ski and bike world, but now is trickling over to other outdoor sports as well.
See the Mammut Wall Rider See the Mammut Wall Rider MIPS
Best Budget Climbing Helmet
Weight: 11.6 oz. (size S/M)
Construction: EPS w/ ABS shell
What we like: Affordable and dependable.
What we don’t: Heavier and less durable than the Petzl Boreo below.
With new climbers flocking to the sport, we’d be remiss not to give a nod to Black Diamond’s tried-and-true Half Dome. This helmet isn’t groundbreaking in any particular way, nor is it the lightest or most comfortable model on the market. But it’s affordable, reliable, and will protect your head from falling rocks—and that’s what matters most. Additionally, the rear dial (updated for 2019) offers incredibly easy adjustment—better than the comparable Boreo below—and Black Diamond also makes a women’s version with more venting and a ponytail-friendly design.
It’s all about protection and toughness here: the Half Dome’s heavy ABS plastic shell can absorb a sizable impact on its own without damaging the softer EPS foam inside, unlike helmets with lighter and less durable polycarbonate shells (the BD Vapor below, for example). The Half Dome is not without competition though: for just $10 more, the entry-level Petzl Boreo adds EPP foam for even greater amounts of protection and durability, and the Mammut El Cap offers better styling and ventilation. But for a quality helmet at the lowest price point, the Half Dome is still our top choice for climbers looking to venture outdoors without breaking the bank.
See the Black Diamond Half Dome See the Women's Black Diamond Half Dome
Best Ultralight Climbing Helmet
Weight: 5.6 oz. (size S/M)
Construction: EPP w/ EPS & polycarbonate crown
What we like: Ultralight, comfortable, and vents well.
What we don’t: Pricey and the magnetic chin buckle can clog with dirt.
The original Petzl Sirocco shook up the climbing world with its lightweight yet durable construction, and soon earned the endorsement of many serious alpinists. The second version builds off the first, with similar fundamentals but a more traditional shape and palatable look. Like the Mammut Wall Rider above, the Sirocco uses a majority of expanded polypropylene (EPP), but with less polycarbonate covering and a lower-profile design, it weighs over an ounce less. In fact, this helmet is so feathery light that you’ll forget it’s on your head.
For ounce-counting alpine climbers, it doesn’t get any better than the latest Sirocco. In addition to its impressively low 5.6-ounce weight, the helmet vents well and now extends further down the back of the head for more protection. Further, it’s certified for ski touring, putting it in a distinct group along with the Petzl Meteor and CAMP Speed Comp below. But such a lightweight build does mean a minimalist adjustment system, and we’ve been less than impressed in this regard: the magnetic chin buckle and rear adjustment can loosen or come undone while climbing. And for $20 less, the Mammut Wall Rider above has a slightly more durable build with a larger polycarbonate shell.
See the Petzl Sirocco Helmet
Most Durable Climbing Helmet
Weight: 10.1 oz. (size S/M)
Construction: EPS & EPP w/ABS shell
What we like: A lightweight yet durable entry-level helmet.
What we don’t: Inferior adjustments compared to the Half Dome and costs $10 more.
Outdoor companies constantly are innovating and improving helmet technology, and even entry-level models are now reaping the benefits. True to form, Petzl has replaced their popular Elios with the Boreo, which is an upgraded all-around workhorse. It keeps the ABS shell and EPS foam design of the Elios, but adds EPP foam along the sides, offering maximum durability. In fact, this puts the Boreo in an exclusive category of multi-foam, ABS-shelled helmets, joined only by the unique Edelrid Madillo below.
The Boreo is comparable to Black Diamond’s flagship Half Dome above, but the EPP foam cuts weight and increases durability. It’s also designed with a few more vents, making it a better hot-weather helmet. However, we think the two-handed adjustment and fixed straps under the ears simply aren’t as user-friendly as the click wheel and adjustable chin strap on the Half Dome, plus the Boreo is $10 more. And for women, Petzl also makes the ponytail-compatible Elia ($65), which is similar to the Boreo but without the EPP-foam update.
See the Petzl Boreo See the Women's Petzl Elia
Best of the Rest
Weight: 7.9 oz. (size S/M)
Construction: EPS w/ polycarbonate shell
What we like: Certified for ski touring; less expensive than the Vapor.
What we don’t: Again, the EPS is more fragile than the Sirocco’s EPP.
Updated for 2019, the Meteor earns a higher spot on our list with a new build that offers more coverage down the neck and ventilation throughout. But that’s not all: the Meteor also holds the title of being the first CE-certified ski touring helmet, making it an extremely versatile pick. To accomplish this feat, Petzl changed the shape of this climbing helmet slightly to accommodate ski goggles and revamped the rear suspension system to be extremely adjustable, even under a beanie. All in all, this high-quality helmet just got even better and, surprisingly, held onto its reasonable $100 price tag.
With the Meteor’s EPS foam construction, you do give up the durability and class-leading protection of the Sirocco and Wall Rider above. Be sure to treat the helmet gently to get the most use out of it. And this might be a small nitpick, but the Meteor no longer comes in a wide variety of colors and designs—Petzl streamlined the selection with its standard orange schemes (although there is the option for a purple accent). But with ski-touring versatility, great coverage, and a good price point for what you get, the Meteor now beats out the Vapor as our top pick for an EPS dome with polycarbonate shell.
See the Petzl Meteor Helmet
Weight: 6.6 oz. (size S/M)
Construction: EPS w/ polycarbonate shell
What we like: Lightweight, comfortable, fits big heads, and ventilates extremely well.
What we don’t: Fragile and expensive.
If you’re not yet sold on EPP foam but still want an ultralight helmet, the Black Diamond Vapor is another solid option. It’s almost as light as the Petzl Sirocco, adjusts better than the Mammut Wall Rider, and is virtually unnoticeable when it’s on your head. And one of the Vapor’s big selling points is its top-of-the-line venting, which basically surrounds the entire helmet and should satisfy just about any hot-headed climber.
Our one major gripe about the Vapor is price: at $140, it’s one of the most expensive helmets on our list. At that price point, a helmet should have more durable and protective EPP foam construction. And compared to the Meteor above, the Vapor is over an ounce lighter and offers just as much coverage, but is not certified for ski touring (although we often see it used in this setting). And again, keep in mind that EPS foam can be fragile and we don’t recommend throwing this helmet (or any EPS-constructed model) on the ground or stuffing it at the bottom of your bag underneath heavy racks and ropes.
See the Black Diamond Vapor
Weight: 10 oz. (52-57cm)
Construction: EPS w/ ABS shell
What we like: Function meets fashion.
What we don’t: $10 more than its competition.
Like the Black Diamond Half Dome above, the Mammut El Cap is a nice value helmet that sports a traditional EPS foam and hard shell (ABS) construction. But with its 2019 update, the Mammut now has two layers of foam instead of one—a high-tech spin on a traditional helmet that both lightens the build and provides more shock absorption. Further, it’s hard to deny that the El Cap is downright fashionable for a climbing helmet. With its streamlined design, you won’t look like a mushroom, and the visor—designed to block out sun during long, multi-pitch days—actually is functional on the rock. At a reasonable $70 price point, the El Cap is a solid budget option.
Stacked against other helmets with ABS shells, the Mammut El Cap certainly is competitive. It has more vents than its counterparts and the inner foam even has small, built-in channels to facilitate airflow. In addition, the helmet’s unique adjustment headband is functional and user-friendly. Finally, the updated version weighs a reasonable 10 ounces, placing it among the lightest ABS helmets on this list. The only notable downside is price, but at only $10 more than the competition, this isn’t a huge hurdle to overcome.
See the Mammut El Cap
Weight: 8.8 oz. (52-57cm)
Construction: EPS w/ ABS shell
What we like: More durable than polycarbonate options but similarly lightweight.
What we don’t: Comfort is more in line with a budget helmet like the Half Dome.
Mammut’s Rock Rider is one of a kind: it sports the same durable ABS shell as entry-level models like the Half Dome and Boreo above, but features the in-mold construction we see on helmets with polycarbonate shells. The result is a lightweight ABS helmet that looks more top-shelf than it actually is. In fact, the Rock Rider is one of the best values on the market. For $80, you get a lightweight build, great buckles and venting, and head coverage similar to a helmet like the $100 Edelrid Shield, but with a far more durable exterior. As a result, this helmet likely will still be around when others with polycarbonate shells are long gone.
The Rock Rider gives up a little in terms or weight, but we’re talking mere tenths of ounces here. You’ll certainly get a lighter build with the polycarbonate shells of helmets like the Petzl Meteor (7.9 ounces) or Camp Storm (8.1 ounces), but you’ll pay for it in durability and price. The difference is more tangible when you look at other ABS helmets—they’ll run you $10-20 less, but tack on an additional 2-3 ounces with each build. Overall, we think the Mammut strikes a nice balance. It might not be as stylish as some of the helmets above, but if you’re looking for a practical helmet that you can wear year after year, the Rock Rider is a nice choice.
See the Mammut Rock Rider
Weight: 8.7 oz. (size 1)
Construction: EPS w/ polycarbonate shell
What we like: The best-looking helmet of the bunch.
What we don’t: Heavier than most of its lightweight competition.
If you ascribe to the three most important rules of climbing—look good, climb hard, be safe (in that order)—then the Shield II is a worthy option. The helmet makes a bold statement with colorful designs and a visually pleasing shape. But more importantly, you get excellent coverage and a highly customizable fit system. If you struggle to find a helmet that fits your odd-sized noggin, the Shield II is a great option to try.
Despite its EPS construction and polycarbonate shell, at 8.7 ounces, the Shield II is the heaviest of our lightweight options. We also noticed that the adjustment dial doesn’t fold as neatly into the dome of the helmet as it does on most other models, making the Shield II a bulky addition to a pack. But with 10 large vents, a slightly lower price tag than most, and a sleek design, the Shield II still is worth considering.
See the Edelrid Shield II
Weight: 7.2 oz.
Construction: EPS w/ polycarbonate shell
What we like: Great price for what you get.
What we don’t: Adjustment system is not ideal; only comes in one size.
Singing Rock isn’t the most popular brand in climbing gear, but the Czech company is known for producing some quality products. The Penta is no exception, and with a price tag $30 to $70 less than other helmets in its weight category, is one of the best values on this list. We don’t like that it only comes in one size, but the Penta is light, provides good all-around coverage, and is comfortable enough to wear all day.
The Singing Rock Penta is made of the same budget-friendly combination of EPS and polycarbonate as many helmets on the market. Like the Mammut Wall Rider and Petzl Sirocco, it shaves weight by using webbing for its suspension system, which does make adjusting the fit a bit of a bear. But what’s most impressive is that the Penta is just $10 more than the nearly 4-ounce-heavier Black Diamond Half Dome above, and $30 less than the popular BD Vector below. If you don’t have a brand allegiance and want a lightweight helmet at a good price, give this bucket a serious look.
See the Singing Rock Penta
Weight: 8.1 oz. (size 1)
Construction: EPS w/ polycarbonate shell
What we like: Fits well and highly adjustable.
What we don’t: Heavier than other models in its price range.
CAMP USA has made plenty of functional and durable helmets over the years, but until recently, they haven’t earned many style points. The Storm is a good start: it’s available in four color combinations and includes an internal adjustment system that keeps it snug and close to the head. It also takes a few pointers from CAMP’s Speed Comp below, resulting in a comfortable, lightweight, and well-ventilated climbing helmet that is made for just about any type of mountain adventure.
The CAMP USA Storm’s makeup is similar to many helmets on our list that combine EPS foam with a polycarbonate shell. It’s about the same weight as the Black Diamond Vector and Petzl Meteor, and matches them both in price. The Storm also fits a broad range of head sizes and shapes and comes with a well-designed adjustment system. We know it’s hard to choose among all of these options, but if you’ve struggled to find a helmet that fits well, the Storm is a good choice.
See the CAMP USA Storm
Weight: 7.4 oz.
Construction: EPP w/ ABS shell
What we like: A lightweight and well-made helmet.
What we don’t: Doesn’t quite measure up to the EPP competition.
We’ll start off with the bad news: the new Edelrid Salathe doesn’t lead in any department. It’s not the lightest helmet on this list, nor the most affordable, nor the most durable. But it is another viable EPP option, and a unique one at that. Instead of pairing this ultralight and durable foam with a polycarbonate shell—like our chart-topping Wall Rider and Sirocco helmets—Edelrid uses a patch of ABS (the same material found on entry-level models like the Half Dome above). While ABS is more durable than polycarbonate, it’s heavier and mostly-cosmetic here (EPP foam should be durable enough to stand alone).
A few ounces isn’t the end of the world, but all else being equal, we’ll always take the lighter helmet. For comparison, the Salathe’s 7.4-ounce weight is a bit heavy compared to the Wall Rider (6.9 ounces) and Sirocco (5.6 ounces), and even the EPS-foam Black Diamond Vapor is lighter at 6.6 ounces. Apples to apples, you get a better deal for the same price with the $120 Wall Rider. In terms of adjustment straps and closure, the Salathe features similar minimalist webbing with easy adjustments and a secure buckle (we like it more than the Sirocco’s magnet closure). And for the ski mountaineers out there, keep in mind that unlike the Sirocco and Meteor, the Salathe is not certified for use while skiing, although it is shaped to accommodate goggles.
See the Edelrid Salathe
Weight: 6.7 oz.
Construction: EPS w/ polycarbonate shell
What we like: Great combination of weight, price, and coverage.
What we don’t: Comes in only one size; kind of looks like it’s from the Space Age.
Offering an impressive price-to-weight ratio, superior coverage, and an aggressive love-it-or-hate-it design, the Grivel Stealth is a solid do-everything option. One notable feature in particular is the unique, flat-paneled construction that sits lower on the head and is less likely to move around in the event of a rockfall or whipper. According to Grivel, this design actually provides a stronger and more protective barrier against impact than a traditional dome helmet.
In terms of shortcomings, we’ll start by saying that we aren’t huge fans of its celestial vibe, but we know that style mostly is subjective. And in terms of fit, the Grivel only comes in one size. You do get a simple webbing strap for adjustment, that—unlike the Sirocco or Wall Rider—is surprisingly easy to loosen and tighten, even with gloves on. However, the focus on simplicity means that the chin strap is fixed in position and can dig into your neck. The one-size-fits-all Stealth does fit most heads, but if you’re on either end of the spectrum, we recommend going with a helmet that comes in two sizes.
See the Grivel Stealth Helmet
Weight: 11.1 oz. (size S/M)
Construction: EPS w/ ABS shell
What we like: Durability + comfort.
What we don’t: One of the heaviest helmets on our list.
Similar to the Black Diamond Half Dome above, the CAMP USA Armour goes old-school with its ABS plastic shell. To recap, this translates to increased durability, longevity, and affordability, at the cost of added weight. But with a 2019 update, the Armour now offers a better fit, a more durable and easy-to-use rear adjustment, and a variety of new colors and designs. For $60, it’s tied with the Half Dome in terms of affordability and some consider it to be more comfortable. In fact, we’ve started seeing more and more of the Armour at the crag and it’s easy to see why.
At 13.1 ounces for the large version, the Armour is one of the heaviest helmets on the list and definitely not our favorite to wear or carry for extended stretches. The new Petzl Boreo is lighter and more durable, and we’re not ready to dethrone the Half Dome as our favorite budget hardshell helmet just yet. But for beginner climbers who want some style points and aren’t counting ounces, the CAMP USA Armour is a nice value option.
See the CAMP USA Armour
Weight: 8.1 oz. (size S/M)
Construction: EPS w/ polycarbonate shell
What we like: Great adjustment system.
What we don’t: Pretty unremarkable.
Petzl and Black Diamond seem to go tit for tat with their climbing helmet models. The BD Vapor above competes with the Sirocco, and the BD Vector competes with the Meteor. Between the latter two, it’s a close call. Both come in at $100 and feature similar construction, material types, and features. So why is the Vector all the way down near the bottom of our list, when the Meteor clocks in at number five?
The biggest reason is the Meteor’s versatility: you get a climbing and ski-touring helmet in one, and with a better adjustment system to boot. Further, we’ve found the Vector’s design to be lacking in durability—the seam between the rim and the helmet body can come undone and form a gap. And compared to the competition, the Vector is less breathable than the similarly priced Storm, heavier than the $70 Penta, and looks more mushroom-like than the $100 Shield II. It is a tried-and-true option for sure, and if you’re a Vector devotee, we get it. But if you’re in the market for a new lightweight helmet, we’d recommend checking out the options above.
See the Black Diamond Vector See the Women's Black Diamond Vector
Weight: 12.7 oz.
Construction: EPS w/ polycarbonate shell
What we like: A go-to alpine all-rounder.
What we don’t: Heavy if you’re looking for a high-performance, climbing-specific helmet.
The CAMP Speed Comp is unique: not only is it a climbing helmet, it doubles as a ski mountaineering helmet as well. But don’t get this confused with the Petzl Meteor’s ski-touring certification—the Speed Comp takes it to another level with a beefy build worthy of a more speed-oriented alpine skiing and skimo cert. Further, it sports a relatively thick external shell and is slightly more durable than most of the EPS versions listed above. And some climbers feel that the shape of the Speed Comp is slightly rounder than they’re used to, so if Black Diamond or Petzl helmets don’t fit your head well, this might be your solution.
However, while it may be lightweight on the slopes, the Speed Comp is a bit on the heavy side for an in-mold climbing helmet. Overall, we recommend the Speed Comp only if you spend significant time crossing over between climbing and skimo and are looking for one helmet to do the job of two. If you’re not randonee racing and just looking for a helmet for ski touring missions, the Petzl Meteor above is much lighter, $20 cheaper, and also accommodates goggles.
See the CAMP USA Speed Comp
Weight: 13.8 oz.
Construction: EPP, EPS, EVA foams w/ ABS shell
What we like: Packs down to half its size.
What we don’t: Weighs more than any helmet on our list.
If you’re the type that hates hanging your helmet off of your pack during the approach, is always tight on space, or needs a durable helmet to abuse in the packing process, the Eldelrid Madillo is worth a look. This helmet folds down into a rather streamlined shape half its original size, allowing it to be easily packed with the rest of your gear. Packability might be the only major selling point of the Madillo though: at 13.8 ounces, it’s the heaviest helmet on our list.
Made with three different foam types and an ABS shell, the Madillo, like other hard shell helmets, is a very durable choice. With more moving parts however, it’s also more likely to break than a helmet like the Half Dome or the Armour. And at a price point about $40 above its competition, we find ourselves struggling to find the upsides. Unless you have a specific need for a collapsible helmet, we recommend the options above.
See the Edelrid Madillo Helmet
|Mammut Wall Rider||$120||6.9 oz.||EPP w/ polycarbonate||Alpine, multi-pitch|
|Black Diamond Half Dome||$60||11.6 oz.||EPS w/ ABS||Cragging, multi-pitch|
|Petzl Sirocco||$140||5.6 oz.||EPP w/ EPS & polycarbonate||Alpine, multi-pitch, ski touring|
|Petzl Boreo||$70||10.1 oz.||EPS & EPP w/ ABS||Cragging, multi-pitch|
|Petzl Meteor||$100||7.9 oz.||EPS w/ polycarbonate||Multi-pitch, alpine, ski touring|
|Black Diamond Vapor||$140||6.6 oz.||EPS w /polycarbonate||Alpine, multi-pitch|
|Mammut El Cap||$70||10 oz.||EPS w /ABS||Cragging, multi-pitch|
|Mammut Rock Rider||$80||8.8 oz.||EPS w/ ABS||Multi-pitch, cragging|
|Edelrid Shield II||$100||8.7 oz.||EPS w/ polycarbonate||Multi-pitch, alpine|
|Singing Rock Penta||$70||7.2 oz.||EPS w/ polycarbonate||Multi-pitch, alpine|
|CAMP USA Storm||$100||8.1 oz.||EPS w/ polycarbonate||Multi-pitch, alpine|
|Edelrid Salathe||$120||7.4 oz.||EPP w/ ABS||Alpine, multi-pitch, cragging|
|Grivel Stealth||$100||6.7 oz.||EPS w/ polycarbonate||Multi-pitch, alpine|
|CAMP USA Armour||$60||11.1 oz.||EPS w/ ABS||Cragging, multi-pitch|
|Black Diamond Vector||$100||8.1 oz.||EPS w/ polycarbonate||Multi-pitch, alpine|
|CAMP USA Speed Comp||$120||12.7 oz.||EPS w/ polycarbonate||Skimo, alpine|
|Edelrid Madillo||$110||13.8 oz.||EPP, EPS, EVA w/ ABS||Cragging, multi-pitch|
- Foam Types: EPP vs. EPS
- Shell Types: ABS vs. Polycarbonate
- When to Wear a Climbing Helmet
- Sizing and Adjustability
- Women's-Specific Climbing Helmets
- Headlamp Compatibility
- Ski Helmets
We touched on EPS and EPP foams briefly in the product descriptions above, but it’s worth going into extra detail about the differences between these two materials. After all, this barrier will be protecting the most important part of your body.
Expanded polystyrene (EPS)
Expanded polystyrene (EPS) has been the shock-absorbing foam of choice in climbing helmets for as long as we can recall. It’s very hard and functions incredibly well for absorbing a serious impact—once. EPS is known for crushing and fracturing when impacted. In fact, on some of the lighter-weight EPS models like the Black Diamond Vapor and Petzl Meteor, the EPS foam is so delicate that it can fracture from simply being tossed down on the ground or stuffed under heavy gear in a pack. Once EPS foam starts to show those fractures and fissures, its integrity is compromised. If you can see cracks on the inside of your helmet, it’s already time to replace it.
EPP (Expanded polypropylene)
Expanded polypropylene (EPP), on the other hand, is designed to absorb impacts without shattering. It’s the same material found in car bumpers and is more durable than EPS. We still don’t see many helmets being made with EPP in 2019—the Petzl Sirocco, Mammut Wall Rider, and Edelrid Salathe are a few exceptions—although we expect this to change in upcoming years. In fact, EPP is so effective and durable that it technically does not need a polycarbonate or ABS shell, but many manufacturers incorporate a partial covering or crown for extra protection against falling objects and to improve both shape and appearance. The downside is that EPP helmets are more expensive, but they are more protective, durable, and lighter. If EPP doesn’t become the de facto material of choice for climbing helmets in the future, we will be very surprised.
Now that we’ve covered the stuff on the inside, we’ll break down what protects it. We’ve mentioned some “hardshell helmets” with ABS plastic shells, such as the Black Diamond Half Dome and CAMP USA Armour. ABS shells can absorb sizable impacts and protect well against any debris falling from above, and they’re also generally cheaper than other options. That said, they typically are thicker and more durable than polycarbonate shells, and that comes with added weight (which is why we mainly recommend them for cragging as opposed to multi-pitching).
For long days on the wall, however, opting for a helmet with a polycarbonate shell—or crown, like the Petzl Sirocco—to shave weight definitely helps. That said, lighter-weight helmets always need to be treated with more care as they will damage more easily. For budget-conscious or new climbers who want more durability for their buck, a hardshell helmet will do the trick.
It’s widely accepted that a helmet is a mandatory piece of equipment for every alpine climber. The mountains are volatile and objective hazards loom large. However, it’s our opinion that no matter where you’re climbing—in the mountains, at the crag, or even on lead at the gym—gravity (literally) is a force to be reckoned with. Rocks can fall even in popular, established areas, people can drop things, and whippers can result in head trauma. A helmet always is essential for your safety. Now that we’ve cleared that up, here are our recommendations for each type of climbing.
This one is a no-brainer—virtually no one goes to the mountains without a helmet. Rock is loose, falls often aren’t clean, and snow and ice succumb to gravity too. Because approaches to the mountains can be long and you’ll likely spend all day wearing or carrying your helmet, you’ll want a lightweight bucket with suspension that packs down into it. Durability also is a crucial consideration here—there’s nothing quite as disappointing as having gear malfunction when you’re days from the car. Our top picks for the alpine are lightweight and durable helmets made with EPP foam, like the Petzl Sirocco and Mammut Wall Rider. If you get out frequently, the extra cost is worth it.
For long days on the wall—think the Chief in Squamish or Black Velvet Canyon in Red Rock—you’ll want a lightweight helmet with good adjustability, ventilation, and comfort. Helmets made with EPP foam like those mentioned above are our top recommendation for multi-pitch climbing as well, but those on a budget can definitely get away with a slightly heavier, less durable build. Look for a helmet with EPP or EPS foam with a polycarbonate overtop, a sub-10-ounce weight, a one-handed adjustment system, and a headlamp attachment. For long multi-pitch climbs, helmets like the Black Diamond Vapor, Petzl Meteor, and Edelrid Shield II are our top picks. You can get away with a helmet with a heavier ABS shell, but your neck might be feeling it at the end of the day.
We know too many people who leave their helmets at home for days at the crag (on single-pitch climbs), but there’s a lot wrong with that logic. You’re more likely to be climbing at your limit right off the ground, meaning you’re also more likely to be falling at the crag. And even when you’re hyper-aware of where the rope is running, you still can take a lead fall with a leg behind the climbing rope. When this happens, chances are high you’ll flip upside down and swing head-first into the wall. And this doesn’t just happen to newbs unfamiliar with proper rope management. Last year, a well-known, helmetless climber was whipped upside down during a fall at Smith Rock—a crag notorious for bad rock and no head protection—and many locals since have changed their ways.
OK, enough time on our soapbox. Ultimately, the decision is up to you, and if you do choose to wear a helmet at the crag, you’ve got some decisions to make. Are you pushing the grade? If so, you might want an ultralight helmet to go along with your lightweight harness and rope. Think EPP or EPS foam with a polycarbonate crown, like the helmets mentioned in the sections above. But because you’ll likely be taking your helmet off when you’re not climbing, most craggers can get away with a helmet that emphasizes durability and a lower price point above saving weight. Look for EPS foam with an ABS hardshell, a convenient adjustment system, and a sub-$70 price tag. The Black Diamond Half Dome and Petzl Boreo (and women’s Elia) are our favorite cragging options.
Aside from safety, one of the most important traits in a climbing helmet is comfort. If it’s not comfortable, you won’t wear it. And if you don’t wear it, it won’t protect you. Comfort is subjective and depends a lot on the shape of your skull. For example, the biggest critique we’ve heard about the Petzl Sirocco is that it doesn’t fit comfortably on larger heads. As with most climbing equipment, your best bet with helmets is to physically try them on before buying. That said, we haven’t noticed huge variability in comfort between different companies, but we’ve definitely seen it between models. And almost without exception, heavier means less comfortable, and lighter is better.
A good climbing helmet should fit snugly but comfortably, and shouldn’t bob around much when you move your head. When guiding, we always ask our youngest clients if they like ice cream, provoking them to nod emphatically. If the helmet fits, it won’t move while they express their love for tasty cold treats. If it bobs up and down or comes to rest with their forehead showing, we tighten up the rear adjustment and chinstrap. And if the helmet just floats on top of the head more like a yarmulke than a baseball cap, it’s too small.
Most climbing helmet models are available in two sizes, and there is usually some overlap between one size and the other. If you are near the cutoff point for either, we suggest you try the helmet on before buying (although this is never a bad idea regardless). In terms of adjustments, all climbing helmets offer two straps: one around the head, and one around the chin. Some helmets like the Sirocco—usually those that emphasize weight—have a strap and buckles to adjust the head strap. Others, like the Black Diamond Vapor, offer a two-sided plastic ratcheting system, which is meant to be adjusted using two hands. The Black Diamond Half Dome offers a really simple one-handed adjustment system using a circular knob that tightens when turned in one direction, and loosens in the other.
A few helmets on our list offer women’s models, notably the Black Diamond Half Dome and Petzl Elia. These women-specific versions are set apart by one main feature: a “ponytail-friendly” shell and suspension system, which means an upward curve at the back of the head. For the most part (and this is coming from a ponytail-wearing woman), this doesn’t seem like a particularly necessary feature, though I’m sure some women will appreciate the thought. Black Diamond also offers their Vector in a women’s model, though the only difference there is color. In general, climbing helmets are a unisex piece of gear and accommodate all kinds of head shapes, sizes, and hairstyles.
In the past, one of the main complaints we had about climbing helmets is that they didn’t breathe well enough, making our heads sweaty, hot, and uncomfortable. As technology continues to improve, we’ve seen helmet manufacturers add more and more ventilation. While we’re excited about the trend, it is worth mentioning the inherent disadvantages of greater ventilation. More vents means more empty space and less material protecting your head. It’s possible, although pretty darn unlikely, for a thin and narrow rock or ice shard to sneak through. And if you’re primarily a winter or cold-weather climber, ventilation may be more of a drawback than an advantage. All in all, we think that helmets like Petzl’s Sirocco and Meteor strike a nice middle ground of protection and breathability.
The helmets on this list weigh in anywhere from 5.6 ounces at the low end to 13.8 ounces at the high end, and there are even heavier models out there that didn’t make the cut. While 13 ounces (less than 1 pound) seems like a paltry amount to complain about, it’s still more than twice as heavy as the lightest helmet available. The truth is, these ounces can add up quickly. In any kind of multi-pitch climbing scenario, or even on long cragging days, the helmet goes on in the morning and doesn’t come off until the end of the day. Personally, we like our helmets to be as feathery as possible. Lighter helmets also ride less on the neck and don’t seem to shift around the head as much when looking up and down.
Typically, weight and durability are inversely correlated with climbing gear (or any type of outdoor gear). In other words, the lighter the gear, the less durable it will be. In the world of climbing helmets, however, this pattern doesn’t always hold true. Helmets made with EPP foam, like the Petzl Sirocco and Mammut Wall Rider, are the lightest and the most durable on the market. Remember, EPP foam is made to bend and absorb impact, whereas EPS foam fractures in order to handle blunt force. Among EPS designs, those with an ABS hard shell will withstand wear much better than those with a polycarbonate shell.
Once you’ve chosen your helmet, it’s important to know how to gauge its wear and tear. In general, one fall or impact is enough to end the life of an EPS-constructed helmet—any sort of crack in foam means that your helmet’s safety is compromised. But the tricky thing is, not all fractures are visible (some lay on the inside underneath the polycarbonate or ABS shell). To check, look for major dents on the shell as a good marker of internal damage. It’s also important to inspect the webbing and suspension system, buckle, and in the case of ABS helmets, the sturdiness of the foam’s attachment to the shell. On the other hand, because EPP does not fracture in the same way as EPS, these models are exempt from the “replace your helmet after impact” rule. Nevertheless, you will want to continue to inspect the foam. Given its partially exposed nature on helmets like the Sirocco and Wall Rider, this should be a rather straightforward process.
We would be hard-pressed to find a climbing helmet that does not claim to be headlamp-compatible, so it’s pretty much a given. That said, some helmets hold a headlamp better than others. For example, the convenient rear strap on Petzl’s Sirroco is a breeze, while the attachment points on Grivel’s Stealth are rather difficult to use. Some clips even are removable to save weight, but popping these pieces in and out of the foam may loosen and weaken the attachment points over time. The bottom line is that any helmet you buy will be headlamp-compatible, just study the system used for securing the headlamp before you make a purchase.
Many weight-conscious skiers will opt for a climbing helmet for fast-and-light days in the mountains, but only a few are actually designed and certified for both skiing and climbing (the Petzl Sirocco, Petzl Meteor, and CAMP Speed Comp). These helmets provide more coverage than climbing helmets, protecting against impact from the side as well as the top. They also are compatible with ski goggles. The Speed Comp takes it a step further with impact protection and even is rated for alpine skiing and skimo racing. If your version of skiing involves a lot of climbing or traveling over varied terrain, you might appreciate the lighter weight, added breathability, and lower profile of these versatile helmets.
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