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 2020 from ultralight models to leading budget options. For more information, see our helmet comparison table and detailed buying advice below the picks.
Weight: 7.5 oz. (size S/M)
Construction: EPP w/ EPS & polycarbonate shell
What we like: Lightweight and durable at a reasonable price point.
What we don’t: Not the lightest option in its class.
We wondered how and when climbing gear giant Black Diamond would join the expanded polypropylene (EPP) movement, and here’s our answer: for spring 2020, the new Vision features an EPP body and a “puck” of EPS along the crown of the head. Because EPP foam absorbs impacts rather than shattering, it’s a more durable and protective choice for helmets, and we’re happy to see it becoming more commonplace (for more on EPP and EPS foams, see our buying advice below). And the foam is shrouded in a polycarbonate shell, which fends off dents and adds a boost in durability. At $100 and clocking in at 7.5 ounces, you simply won’t find an EPP helmet that better balances weight and price.
The Vision joins a growing and competitive field of premium EPP helmets, competing with the likes of the Petzl Sirocco and Mammut Wall Rider below. The Vision offers similar protection (we love its generous coverage) and ventilation, as well as a slightly more robust and easy-to-adjust suspension system. It’s the heaviest of the bunch, but 7.5 ounces is still ridiculously light (perfect for multi-pitch climbing and redpointing), and all but the most weight-conscious of climbers will find this a fair tradeoff for the $20-$40 savings. Finally, it’s worth noting that the Vision also comes in a MIPS version ($150), which is a popular technology borrowed from the ski and biking worlds that protects against angled impacts.
See the Black Diamond Vision See the Black Diamond Vision MIPS
Best Budget 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.
Because protection is a given (every helmet here meets the same certification for safety), beginner climbers should have one main priority when it comes to shopping for a helmet: price. And here’s the good news: not only is the Boreo the most affordable helmet here at $60, it’s also one of the most durable. Constructed with an ABS shell and including both EPS and EPP foam, you get maximum impact protection at both the top and sides. In other words, the Boreo is constructed with the most robust shell material and some of the most durable foam, making it among the most reliable helmets here. You can throw this thing around, stuff it at the bottom of your pack, and use it and abuse it for years, and it’ll just keep trucking.
Not only is the Boreo one of the most hardwearing and affordable climbing helmets, but it’s also relatively light for an entry-level model (1.5 ounces heavier than the Half Dome below). Further, you get generous venting for hot weather and a suspension system that nests nicely in the crown of the helmet. We do think that Petzl could improve the suspension, as the two-handed adjustment and fixed straps under the ears aren’t as user-friendly as the click wheel and adjustable chin strap on the Half Dome. But the benefits far outweigh these minor downsides, and the Boreo (and women’s Borea) is far and away our top pick for budget-oriented shoppers.
See the Men's Petzl Boreo See the Women's Petzl Borea
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 Black Diamond Vision above, the Sirocco uses a combination of expanded polypropylene (EPP) and expanded polystyrene (EPS), but with less polycarbonate covering and a lower-profile design, it weighs almost 2 ounces 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 farther 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 $40 less, the Black Diamond Vision above has a slightly more durable build with its larger polycarbonate shell.
See the Petzl Sirocco Helmet
Best of the Rest
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 updated rear dial offers incredibly easy adjustment—better than the comparable Boreo above—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 $5 less, the entry-level Petzl Boreo adds EPP foam for even greater protection and durability, and the Mammut El Cap ($70) is more stylish and well-ventilated. But as a quality helmet at a low price point, the Half Dome still is a 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
Weight: 7.9 oz. (size S/M)
Construction: EPS w/ polycarbonate shell
What we like: Certified for ski touring and less expensive than the Vapor below.
What we don’t: EPS foam is more fragile than the Sirocco’s EPP.
The newest version of the Petzl Meteor is a head-turner and one of our favorite helmets of 2020. Most notably, it’s the first ever CE-certified ski touring helmet, with an updated shape that accommodates ski goggles and a high-quality rear suspension system that expands to fit a beanie underneath. Further, the retooled Meteor features more coverage down the neck and increased ventilation throughout. All in all, this high-quality lid just got even better, while still managing to retain 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 Vision 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 earns our top pick for an EPS dome with polycarbonate shell.
See the Petzl Meteor Helmet
Weight: 6.9 oz. (size S/M)
Construction: EPP w/ polycarbonate shell
What we like: Lightweight, durable, and sleek design.
What we don’t: Pricier than the BD Vision above; webbing adjustment isn’t very intuitive.
The Mammut Wall Rider is one of the most premium helmets in the game, combining a minimal weight, great coverage, and durable construction and materials. Like the Sirocco and Vision above, it uses EPP foam covered with a lightweight polycarbonate shell, resulting in a helmet that offers full coverage and nice all-around impact protection. To top it off, the Mammut is a great-looking helmet—we especially love the bill—that comes with a long track record of success both in the alpine and at the crag.
The Wall Rider occupied our number one spot for a number of years and was only recently dethroned by Black Diamond’s new Vision. Compared to the Vision, the Wall Rider is 0.6 ounces lighter and has a slightly more appealing shape and overall look, but we find the Wall Rider’s simple webbing adjustment more difficult to use (the Vision sports a more intuitive plastic slider). But the real clincher for us was price: the Wall Rider costs $20 more than the Vision without many tangible performance benefits. Like the Vision, the Wall Rider is also available in a MIPS version, which retails for $180.
See the Mammut Wall Rider See the Mammut Wall Rider MIPS
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: 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.
For years, the Vapor has been Black Diamond’s premium climbing helmet, well-loved for its good looks, low weight, and streamlined design that still offers great protection along the top and sides of the head. At just 6.6 ounces, it’s almost as light as the Petzl Sirocco above, adjusts better than the Mammut Wall Rider, and is virtually unnoticeable when it’s on your head. Finally, 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.
All that said, we do have one major gripe about the Vapor: price. With so many great helmets available in the $100 range, spending $140 on an EPS model—remember that EPS shatters while EPP absorbs—is simply hard to justify, especially given that Black Diamond’s new Vision ($100) and Mammut Wall Rider ($120) are both more durable and protective. What’s more, unlike the Meteor above, the Vapor is not certified for ski touring. To be clear, the Vapor still is a lightweight and streamlined choice, but the competition is stiff in 2020 and bumps this helmet down to a mid-pack finish.
See the Black Diamond Vapor
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 $5 more than the 4-ounce-heavier Black Diamond Half Dome and $30 less than the popular Edelrid Shield II above. 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: 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 a recent 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 low $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 $5 more than the competition, this isn’t a huge hurdle to overcome.
See the Mammut El Cap
Weight: 8.1 oz. (size S/M)
Construction: EPS w/ polycarbonate shell
What we like: Great value and easy-to-use adjustment system.
What we don’t: Not as lightweight, durable, or versatile as the pricier options here.
For the intermediate climber who’s ready to level up from an ABS helmet without facing a sizable price jump, the Black Diamond Vector is a nice middle ground. You get EPS foam covered in a polycarbonate shell (similar to the pricy Vapor above), an intuitive adjustment system, and a very reasonable weight of 8.1 ounces (for a size S/M). And priced at $85 in a sea of $100 competition, the Vector is a nice value.
Our biggest complaint with the Vector is that it’s a jack of all trades but master of none. Petzl’s updated Meteor (which costs $15 more at $100) has the added versatility of being both a climbing and ski-touring helmet, plus it comes with a more customizable adjustment system. And compared to Black Diamond’s more premium Vapor, the Vector is bulkier, heavier, and overall less durable—the seam between the rim and the helmet body has a tendency to come undone and form a gap. But for a very affordable $85, the Vector gets a spot on our list as a good-looking, lightweight option for climbers on a budget.
See the Black Diamond Vector See the Women's Black Diamond Vector
Weight: 8.1 oz. (size 1)
Construction: EPS w/ polycarbonate shell
What we like: Fits well and highly adjustable.
What we don’t: Heavier and less versatile 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 Petzl and Black Diamond’s comparable offerings above, but without the Meteor’s ski-touring functionality or the Vector’s low $85 price tag, it falls short of the competition. That said, the Storm does fit 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 Vision 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 it’s right on par with the 7.5-ounce Vision, which is much more affordable at $100. In terms of adjustment straps and closure, the Salathe features 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 Boreo and 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 the most recent 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 Boreo 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. As we touched on above, the Petzl Boreo costs the same but is both lighter and more durable. 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: 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 $50 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
|Black Diamond Vision||$100||7.5 oz.||EPP w/ EPS & polycarbonate||Multi-pitch, alpine, cragging|
|Petzl Boreo||$60||10.1 oz.||EPS & EPP w/ ABS||Cragging, multi-pitch|
|Petzl Sirocco||$140||5.6 oz.||EPP w/ EPS & polycarbonate||Alpine, multi-pitch, ski touring|
|Black Diamond Half Dome||$65||11.6 oz.||EPS w/ ABS||Cragging, multi-pitch|
|Petzl Meteor||$100||7.9 oz.||EPS w/ polycarbonate||Multi-pitch, alpine, ski touring|
|Mammut Wall Rider||$120||6.9 oz.||EPP w/ polycarbonate||Alpine, multi-pitch|
|Edelrid Shield II||$100||8.7 oz.||EPS w/ polycarbonate||Multi-pitch, alpine|
|Black Diamond Vapor||$140||6.6 oz.||EPS w /polycarbonate||Alpine, multi-pitch|
|Singing Rock Penta||$70||7.2 oz.||EPS w/ polycarbonate||Multi-pitch, alpine|
|Mammut El Cap||$70||10 oz.||EPS w /ABS||Cragging, multi-pitch|
|Black Diamond Vector||$85||8.1 oz.||EPS w/ polycarbonate||Multi-pitch, alpine|
|CAMP USA Storm||$100||8.1 oz.||EPS w/ polycarbonate||Multi-pitch, alpine|
|Edelrid Salathe||$130||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|
|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
- Protection: Foam Types, Coverage, and MIPS
- 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. In 2020 we’re seeing more and more helmets with EPP in their construction—the Black Diamond Vision, Petzl’s Boreo and Sirocco, the Mammut Wall Rider, and Edelrid Salathe in particular—and we’ve seen this number grow each year. 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/Borea are our favorite cragging options.
We’ll start by noting that all climbing helmets are guaranteed by an international standard (if you’re curious, the UIAA 106 and EN 12492), which means they all meet certain safety requirements. However, there is some variation in the amount of impact protection each model provides. The first factor is the type of foam, which we detailed above. To summarize: EPP foam will absorb impacts, whereas EPS foam will shatter. Therefore, when it comes to EPS foam, a cracked helmet is a retired helmet. EPP lids, on the other hand, can take a licking and keep on ticking, meaning EPP is far and away the more protective choice.
The second factor—and this is a big one—is which part(s) of your head is protected by the helmet. Thanks to the UIAA and EN, all helmets are built to take impacts from above, which usually come in the form of rock fall. However, only some provide adequate protection at the front, rear, and sides. This wraparound coverage is especially important if you’re a lead climber, as it’s not uncommon to flip upside down when taking a fall. Rumor has it that there is a proposed UIAA standard for around-the-head protection, but for now we look for companies to call it out in their product specifications. For example, the new Black Diamond Vision features increased fall protection, and some Petzl models are certified to their “Top and Side Protection” standard (like the Sirocco, Boreo/Borea, and Meteor).
Finally, MIPS has finally made its entrance in the climbing world, most notably with the Black Diamond Vision and Mammut Wall Rider. Widely used in ski and bike helmets, MIPS (which stands for Multi-Directional Impact Protection System) provides extra protection by creating a low-friction layer between the helmet’s shell and soft liner. The intention is that when hit at an angle, the MIPS layer will allow the shell to move just enough to mitigate the rotational forces on the head and brain. In other words, the MIPS insert absorbs some of the impact. You’ll pay about $50 more for it (the Black Diamond Vision MIPS is $150 compared to the standard version’s $100), but for some, the added assurance is well worth it.
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 Borea. 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 and Vision in women’s models, 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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