man climbing with blue sky behind

Today we’ll be telling you absolutely everything you need to know buy your perfect climbing helmet.

So there you are. Standing in your bathroom, admiring the different layers of fingertip skin you’ve managed to leave on the various rocks in the area.

You get to counting them. Looks like 3, maybe 4, you can’t decide.

Nice.

You catch your reflection and a thought runs through your brain, “If this is what rock does to my fingers, what could it do to my head?”

An image of your helmet pops in your mind. Is it a good image?

Maybe it’s a beautiful shining helmet that promises to love and care for your precious noggin at the slightest bump or most extreme bang.

Or is it dented? Or maybe, is it just an image of a backwards hat?

If you’re looking to remedy that situation, you’ve come to the right place! This is your one-stop shop, A-Z guide on all things climbing helmets.

Let’s dive in.

Climbing Helmet Buying Guide

Black Diamond Half Dome ~ The Classic Battle Tested First-Timers’ Choice

The Half Dome is BD’s answer to the Boreo. 

It has a full ABS shell to ensure the EPS underneath retains its condition. This means increased durability and protection throughout all possible angles.

The focus of this helmet is protection above all else. Due to this, it comes in a bit heavier at 350 g. It also makes sacrifices in ventilation. 

There is a Women’s version. Only differences between the Women’s and the Men’s S/M sizes are a place for a ponytail and colors.

Headlamp attachment is easily achieved via 4 clips surrounding the helmet.

The internal headband adjusts via an easy to use dial in the back.

Time of writing, the Half Dome is on sale on the BD site. Normally $64.95, it’s going for $51.96.

Verdict:

This helmet is great for beginners, looking to get out and no need to baby a helmet. This helmet is also tremendous for cavers and canyoneers, due to the full shell encasing. Not the best for long days where weight is priority. 

Black Diamond Vector ~ For Longer Days or Cragging


The Vector is a slight step up from the Half Dome, you get a bit more ventilation and reduction in weight. 

A full polycarbonate shell retains the majority of the protection found in the Half Dome. 

Under our shell sits a layer of EPS foam for use against big hits. 

The change in shell material and increased ventilation results in reduction of 110 g from the Half Dome, to 240 g. 

Headlamps will attach in the normal BD manner, 4 clips around the circumference of the helmet.

BD offers a Women’s version with ponytail compatibility and differing colors.

This helmet is on sale, at time of writing, for $67.96 on BD. That’s off of $84.95 normally.

Verdict:

This helmet is a great blend of weight and durability. It’s the same weight as the Petzl Meteor, while being much cheaper. Granted, the Meteor comes with more ventilation. 

Use this helmet for all applications. Great for cragging, also solid for longer days in the mountains. Good all-around helmet.

Black Diamond Vapor ~ High Alpine Sends

The Vapor is BD’s equivalent of the “going fast shades” and answer to the Sirocco. 

It comes in very lightweight, 199 g, due to many vents and a polycarbonate shell. 

The shell covers all would-be exposed EPS foam to increase durability. However, the shell is quite thin and takes dents quickly. As EPS is a foam which doesn’t revert to its old shape, the life of this helmet can be short if not cared for properly. Watch where you’re putting this helmet from day to day.

Internal to the EPS is a sheet of Kevlar and carbon rods in an effort to increase durability. 

The headlamp system here is worth noting. It’s 4 clips, as normal. The clips can be removed. BD claims that this reduces snagging potential on gear and clothes. Our recommendation is to leave those clips in. Gear rarely gets caught on those clips but losing clips is all too easy.

Verdict:

A solid alternative to the Petzl Sirocco. Recommended for light ascents of big rocks. This helmet will almost certainly get chewed up if used as a daily tool.  

Mammut Wall Rider ~ Longer Days, Cragging & Some Alpinism

The Wall Rider carries some solid features, making it an interesting choice for many types of climbing.

It has a partial hard-shell, extending from the top of the helm into a visor. The foam on this one is EPP. In this review, only the Petzl Sirocco shares this feature. It retains some amount of impact resistance, even after minor hits. The drawback being less protection for the major hit.

It rolls in quite light at 220 g. While no Vapor, and certainly not Sirocco, still great.

This comes with a MIPS option. Explored more above (anchored link), this gives you a bit more protection against angular forces to your helmet.

The headlamp attachment is 2 clips and a bungee. 

At time of writing, it retails at $119.95 or $179.95 for the MIPS.

Verdict:

A great workhorse of a helmet. It’s light, has decent coverage with the shell, and comes with optional MIPS. This could be a great everyday helmet, more edging towards long days.

Petzl Boreo/Borea ~ Best Beginner Helmet

The Petzl Boreo is a cheaper offering from Petzl that maximizes durability and protection.

With a full ABS shell, this helmet is great for applications where side impact is likely, think caving or canyoneering. It has both EPP and EPS liners to keep your head nice and safe.

All Petzl helmets we’ll look at have Petzl’s TOP AND SIDE PROTECTION label. Basically, EN and UIAA certifications only cover direct impact on the top of the helmet. This internal certification tests resistance to later blows. 

Go for a deep dive into that. You know you want to.

This helmet is a bit on the heavy side, 295 g. Not ideal for light alpine days. 

Ventilation is pretty minimal on this one. 

There is a Women’s version, the Borea, that is ponytail compatible as well. 

At the time of writing, the helmet was $59.95 on the Petzl site. 

Verdict:

The Boreo is a perfect workhorse introduction helmet. Take this helmet cragging, caving, and canyoneering. 

Petzl Meteor ~ Perfect For Longer Days Or Cragging

Petzl Meteor ~ A solid, middle of the road kind of helmet.

It features a full polycarbonate shell for increased durability while reducing weight. It weighs in at 240 g.

This helmet features EPS foam throughout, no EPP on this one. That means that you’re more protected from that big hit but less from consistent small ones. You’ll have to keep an eye to make sure the dings don’t get too extensive. The full shell helps significantly with this.

Large vents are located throughout the helmet to really let that sucka breathe.

It has the Petzl TOP AND SIDE PROTECTION label that we addressed in the Boreo overview.

The Meteor is a certified ski touring helmet. The helmet is designed to work well with ski goggles. You really get a swiss-army knife with this one.  

The headband system features 2 clips and an elastic band in the rear, accommodating ski goggles perfectly.

At the time of writing, price is $99.95 on the Petzl site. 

Verdict:

This is a solid, do everything helmet. You can put long days on rock in. You can crag. You can ski tour. Not really a caving helmet though.

Petzl Sirocco ~ High Alpine Sends

This is the top shelf offering from Petzl. The Sirocco is aimed, and aimed well, at those who want a very light helmet for long days in the mountains.

Structurally, Petzl leaves most of the foam exposed to cut weight otherwise spent on full shells. The exposed foam is EPP to bounce back from lateral impacts. It features EPS on top to protect from that direct rockfall.

A new touch on the updated model is a polycarbonate plate on top of the helmet for added protection.

The Sirocco comes in at a wispy 170 g.

Mentioned above, a light helmet is a comfortable helmet. This makes you more likely to keep it on, especially on long days.

Just like the Meteor, the Sirocco is a ski touring certified helmet. Go nuts.

The headlamp system features 2 clips up front with a strap in back for ease of use with ski goggles.

It comes with a magnetic clip in the buckle to fasten it. The idea is to grant ease of use. Mixed reviews revolve around this feature. The clip can get gummed up with magnetic sediment and make it harder to stay clipped.

I had a Petzl helmet with this feature with just that problem. A bush unclipped it from the backpack and I got to watch it roll a thousand feet down a ravine. Not a deal breaker but keep it in mind.

Time of writing, it retailed at $139.95 on Petzl. 

Verdict:

Quite expensive, but worth it if you’re mountaineering or putting in some long days. Get this when weight really matters. You won’t be disappointed.  

When to Wear a Helmet

man at anchor of route looking up with snow in background

This is an interesting answer. It feels like answering, “When can I take off my seatbelt?” Also, what people say may differ widely from their behavior at the crag. 

The answer is largely the same across climbing disciplines, but does change a bit. We’ll give you some factors to look out for, so you’re geared up to make the safest choice possible.

But first, a cautionary tale…

I tied in below a roof, eager to lead a roof that had stumped everyone before. It was well below what I normally climbed.

No helmet needed, I wasn’t going to fall.

I was confident. Overconfident.

The first bolt gets clipped, no problem. The second, a different beast altogether. A blind roof pull laid ahead, then I could place the draw. Searching for hands, few were found. My feet slipped out beneath me, sending me 15 feet to the ground. 

A football-sized pillar of stone was all I contacted. Full force, a few inches from my spine. 

I got lucky. I walked out and couldn’t move right for a few weeks. Consider, if you will, the chances that rock could’ve gone into my spine or head. Just as likely. 

No helmet needed; I was too good for the climb. That notion was almost enough to get me into serious, potentially permanent trouble.

So, while there are circumstances where a helmet feels unnecessary, always err on the side of caution. We’re never immune to accidents.

While Cragging

man crack climbing with yellow shirt and cams

This is the ultimate domain where you will find unsheathed heads on rock or belaying. These may be warranted. What’s important is to review the safety concerns of your route and make the smartest choice for yourself, regardless of the actions of those around you.

A big reason to wear a helmet is rockfall. The problem varies depending on your crag. Some are famously chossy. Generally, areas that see a ton of traffic are going to have less loose rock since it’s already been pulled. Not a hard and fast rule though. 

Rockfall always seems to be an issue in places like El Potrero Chico, which definitely gets plenty of love. That being said, it’s always a good idea for the belayer to be clad in a helmet. It’s less of an issue for the climber, unless there is someone above them and it’s low angle. The more overhanging, the less danger rockfall poses to our climber.

Speaking of overhangs, they are usually less dangerous for the unprotected cranium. Reason being, when you fall, it’s into open space. On lower angle stuff, you’re more likely to skid down the rock and take a tumbling fall. 

If you’re new to leading, firstly, welcome! Secondly, you may not have leg positioning dialed yet. When your foot or leg is behind your rope during a fall, you could flip and fall headfirst. It’s a skill that comes with time. Wear a helmet until you have that figured out <3.

Are you top roping? If yes, then you’re in the clear! Still be looking for loose rock that could be kicked down from above. Much like driving, you might not be the reason you get into a wreck. Love those around you and make sure you give them enough room for safety. 

Lastly, consider the consequence of an injury at your crag. Can help get to you? At sport crags, you’ll generally be able to get help right away, and a rescue won’t be too challenging. The more remote, or higher up you are, the harder to get medical attention. 

As a recap:

  • Look at the angle of the climb. Overhangs are safer falls for your head.
  • Is it at all likely you’ll interact with loose rock? The belayer should always wear a helmet in this case because they are constantly below someone.
  • Are you leading? TR is low consequence in terms of falling. Still keep loose rock in mind though.
  • How far away is help? How hard is a rescue?
  • Are you still learning to lead? Wrap the head if yes. 

While Multi-Pitching

man top rope climbing with hat on backwards
No helmet? Tsk tsk

Based on our list above, we can evaluate the risk of multi-pitch climbs, as well as alpine.

Multi-pitch climbs deserve a bit more safety for a few reasons.

Firstly, even if you’re doing some aggressive, hard, mega-hard, super-hard climb, it probably has some more chill pitches. Or slab. This means low angle so helmet up for the full shebang.

Also, loose rock is more prevalent the more adventurous, and longer, a climb. Even if this 5-pitch masterpiece is right off the road at a popular crag, it’s likely to have more loose rock. 5-pitches compiles the chances of 5 climbs into one. Also, people are less prone to multi-pitch, so danger rocks stay behind, waiting for you to yank them down.

Rescues. They get much harder for you as well as those who need to get to you. The higher up you are, the more you need to be in control of your safety.

So, recommendation here, wear your helmet as soon as the leader ties in until you’re back on sweet, sweet ground.

While Alpine Climbing

man crack climbing on slab with blue shirt and red pants

Everything above in multi-pitching applies here, only more so. 

More likely to have low angle pitches. 

Infinitely more likely to have loose rock. Alpine is notoriously crumbly. 

Getting rescued becomes more harrowing, making head injuries much more serious.

There may be some groups above you, hidden to your vision, kicking stuff down on you.

Another big one here is scrambling. You’ll probably have decent amounts of low-key class 4 and 5 stuff. This increases your chances of taking a tumbling fall. Be wary and keep in mind rescues are a ways out. Scrambling the Second Flatiron is a little different than some peak miles away from help.

Same as multi-pitching, helmet up if you’re roped up. Keep it in mind on scrambly bits too. It’s easy to be overconfident.

Things to Consider Regarding Your Climbing Helmet

When to Retire a Helmet

If you’ve just taken a massive impact, retire the helmet. We can’t always tell from looking that the impact did significant damage, so be cautious. You can tell it was significant if, “Whew, that would’ve been bad” ran through your head.

Check frequently for compressions in the foam, separations, breaks, and other indications of damage. Make sure all the structures are intact. The shell or exterior foam should only have minor dings. Ensure your straps are still functional, not just fashion statements. 

At the latest, helmets need to get retired after 10 years. The foam and straps begin to break down naturally by that time.

Durability

Obviously, durability  is something you want. Depending on what you buy, you may sacrifice some durability for weight. 

If you’re looking for durability above all else, look for a helmet with a full shell. 

Prize durability above all else if it’s a first helmet and you’re looking to crag with it. Weight doesn’t matter as much in that case. 

Also, if you’re doing canyoneering or caving. You’ll smack your head on stuff constantly. If it’s just exposed foam taking these blows, you’re gonna have to retire that helmet even earlier.

Weight

Climbing rack
Helmets, Like All Your Gear, Weigh You Down

Ounces make pounds. If you’re looking to do big days with your gear, consider looking for a lighter helmet. The more slight amounts of weight you take on your big alpine/multi-pitch day, the more you’ll be needlessly huffing and puffing. 

Unless you like to struggle. 

Respect.

If you’re out on Wall Street, belaying out of your car, you can take a bit more weight. 

A lighter helmet is also more comfortable. We’ll get to this next.

Comfort

A comfortable helmet is a helmet that you’ll wear. No matter how bomber your helmet is, it doesn’t work if it’s not on your head. 

Comfort is a beautiful thing. 

Look for straps that sit well on your head, especially around the ears.

Try helmets on too. They aren’t as personal as climbing shoes, but they can still vary some in shape.

Get yourself a nice home for that dome. You earned it.

Ventilation

Consider where you’re climbing. Is it cold? Consider less ventilation.

For longer days of hard work, or those beautiful Tonsai Beach days, get you some vents.

Remember, more ventilation means less protection on the sides. Cavers and canyoneers, don’t make that sacrifice. 

Sizing and Adjustability

two climbers in the desert of Bolivia
You Should Always Belay With a Helmet Too!

You can size at home and order online. Even better, go in and try some on. This is especially a good idea when you’re seeing how the adjustments work with your head. Play with them. Ideally, the adjustment system is intuitive. Something that seems sturdy as well. You don’t want it slipping on you. 

If you do measure at home, go around the thickest part of your head. You’ll find this about an inch above the eyebrows.

You can tell the helmet fits if you can shake your head with it unbuckled and it doesn’t move much. It also shouldn’t ride up high on your head. Put your index and middle fingers together. Place them across your forehead, bottom of the index finger touching your brows. You want to touch the bottom of the helmet with the middle finger.

Price

The idea here is similar to buying climbing shoes. 

If you’re just starting out, get a cheaper helmet. You don’t need to go above $65. All the fancy bells and whistles are enjoyed and applied on more advanced climbing applications. 

When you start getting into long multi-pitches and alpinism, you’ll have to start shelling out some cash. Some helmets can get up into the $180 range. 

Protection: Coverage and MIPS

diagram of petzl's side protection tech for their helmets

You want maximal coverage, especially on the back. 

Petzl recently addressed this with their new models, lowering them all. 

Look for a helmet that gives you as much as possible.

MIPS is a fascinating technology that comes from the world of biking and skiing. It stands for Multi-directional Impact Protection System. It lowers the force transferred to the brain in off-angle hits. 

It got its start in biking and skiing because of tumbling falls where the head might glance off of obstacles. 

For a bit more on the topic, go here.

Mammut brought this to the climbing world in 2018 with their Wall Rider MIPS.

While the application isn’t as obvious in climbing, it’s still possible to take gnarly falls, especially in alpinism. One could also imagine taking some off-angle rocks to the head.

It will add a bit of weight, price, and some piece of mind for a cool feature that you can deem worthy or not. 

Foam Types: EPP vs EPS

Jump into the Magic School Bus. We’re going on a wild ride into the nitty, gritty world of foams. 

You’ll see 2 types in climbing helmets: EPP and EPS.

EPP stands for expanded polypropylene. What’s cool about this foam is that it recovers some of its form after minor dings. So, it’ll still be good to go after small stuff. It’s a little less effective than EPS with large dispersion of force. You’ll see this in areas with multiple, low impact collisions.

EPS is expanded polystyrene. This is the overarching classification where you can find the brand name Styrofoam. Think about a Styrofoam cup. It has those little balls that you can smush. They don’t recover their shape. Same for an EPS in a helmet. Once those balls are flat, they can’t reduce force anymore. Thus, EPS can distribute more force than EPP but can only do so once. It is used for heavy impact areas for this reason.

Either way, take care to avoid dinging helmets with exposed foam on your day to day adventures. 

Shell Types: ABS vs Polycarbonate

Whooooop! More cool sciency talk.

ABS, or Acrylonitrile butadiene styrene, is a type of plastic. It’s very durable. It can be found in cheaper helmets as it’s easier to produce.

Polycarbonate is found in top end helmets. It’s a plastic as well, with more durability per unit than ABS. For this reason and production cost, it’s more expensive. Often, it is put in helmets where weight is reduced without losing function. 

Learn some more about materials. I dare you.

Headlamp Compatibility

basic red climbing helmet with headlamp climbs

Not the most crucial of factors, but it is nice to have an easy, clean system.

There are 2 different ways manufacturers go about this. They either have 4 clips around the helmet or 2 in the front with a big elastic band in the back. The benefit of the elastic band is that it can accommodate ski goggles as some climbing helmets are rated for ski touring.

Of the ones reviewed below, the Petzl Boreo and Black Diamond helmets all use 4 clips. The rest utilize the strap.

The BD Vapor has a unique, removable clipping system. The thinking is that these clips get stuck on slings and clothes. We recommend you keep them clipped in as soon as you get your helmet. It’s much more likely that you’ll lose a detached clip than snag and attached one.

Women’s Specific Climbing Helmets

All the Men’s helmets are unisex. The Men’s helmets come in a smaller and larger size. The smaller sizes are near identical, if not the same, to the Women’s size. 

They differ slightly in the Petzl Boreo/Borea and BD Half Dome. Only slightly.

The major difference is a cutout to wear with a ponytail. 

They also come in different colors.

Using Non-Rock-Climbing Helmets

This isn’t the best idea. Same goes for using rock climbing helmets in other applications.

Helmets go through certification processes for their specific sport. In climbing, this means certifying they can distribute direct forces to the helmet away from the head.

Other helmets may not be able to perform the same. Stick to climbing helmets.

If you’re interested in the certification process, check it out! And heck, if you like knowing too much about climbing equipment, enjoy.

Final Thoughts

Medieval man with helmet
You’re ready for battle now

Your vision clears and you’re back in your bathroom, oddly instructive vision complete. You now have the tools to decide whether to don a helmet, how to judge the merits of any helmet, and have a solid base of helmets to choose from.

So go. Get the helmet that makes sense for you. Grab your best Hawaiian shirt and vibrant tights. Bum-rush the crag, armed with the knowledge to do so safely.

Take a whip for me and stay tuned for more helpful info.

For further reading see: “Redpoint Climbing: What is it All About? (And Why You Should Care!)” and “The Dawn Wall vs Free Solo: Which Film Is Better? [Hint ~ It’s Not Free Solo]“. 

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Published by Andy Renz

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