Climbing Helmets a Tough Nut to Crack

A huge part of climbing (and abseiling) is the adrenaline caused by the risks being taken. However, an even bigger part of climbing is the calculating of these risks in order to ensure the safety of the climber is not in any way compromised. This is no easy task with many considerations such as climbing ropes, safety harness, climbing shoes, karabiner’s, chocks, helmets and other climbing equipment.

In this post I want to take a look at Climbing Helmets, take a glance at why they are used, how they work and which one is right for you.

Why Do Climbers Wear Safety Helmets?

Clearly no body wears a climbing helmet because it looks good, so what is the primary reason climbers wear a helmet? The answer is simple, it is safety … the difference between wearing a helmet and not can literally be life and death as a story in the recent BMC helmet safety guidelines tells.

This was a 50ft fall in which I was inverted before hitting the ground on the stretch of the rope. The helmet had a 4 inch diameter hole in it. I walked away without even needing to go to hospital. Without the helmet I would certainly have died – hopefully instantly! Based on my experience and with recent advances in the comfort of helmets frankly I think it is crazy of anyone not to wear one. Of course that should be their choice – but if I had not worn one I’d no longer be making any choices.
BMC Head Injury Survey 2008

BMC Mountain Climbing Helmets - Your Guide Too
Climbing Helmets Save Lives

There are two main types of head injury, the mechanism of both is an impact (either the the climber impacts something or an impact causes a secondary injury – such as brain damage). The first type of head injury is the one most people think of (mainly because it can be visible) and this is where an impact causes a physical injury, such as cut’s, abrasions, fractures and other broken bones. Thankfully few injuries such as this type cause death themselves, death tends to be caused by the second type of impact injury. The second type is a secondary injury (generally to the brain) caused by sudden deceleration of the skull. Without going into the science of this, basically the brain moves around in the skull fairly freely and when suddenly stopped causes the brain mass to impact the side of your skull causing injury to the cells. Both types of impact injury to climbers can be caused by any number of events, though for the most part climbers falling or being hit by debris are the main causes.

How Do Climbing Helmets Work?

The first thing to know is there are 3 types of climbing helmet: Hard, Foam & Hybrid. Each helmet type has it’s own set of pro’s and con’s which determine the use of that kind of helmet.

Hardshell Climbing Helmet
Hardshell helmets consist (you guessed it) of a hardshell, they have also have a flexible inner webbing cradle. The cradle is not only for comfort and holding the hardshell to your head, but also to manage impacts by stretching upon impact. These helmets are the type you will most commonly see in climbing centres, as they are robust and resist small impacts very well, making them ideal for groups. With larger impacts the hardshell is likely to deform permanently and often discolours (usually turning white at the problem area), also with larger impacts the cradle maybe permanently deformed – regardless of which of these two events occur after a large impact, any climbing helmet should be retired and replaced. Luckily it is easier to determine retirement age for a hardshell helmet than it is a foam or hybrid type helmet. A draw back to this type of helmet is they offer no protection around the rim, this means during off-centre impacts the helmet can crack and/or collapse.

Foam Climbing Helmet
The best way to think of a foam climbing helmet is to think of a general-use biking helmet, made from expanded polystyrene with a thing hardshell exterior made from polycarbonate, of course with plenty of ventilation. These “soft shell” foam climbing helmets are much lighter than hardshell helmets. Due to the nature of the foam being on all sections of the helmet, the foam climbing helmet offers support even at the rim of the helmet, unlike hardshell’s, meaning a great amount more off-centre protection. This extra protection makes it a good choice for all round climbing where, falling is likely to be the most common event causing a bang to the head, where as hardshell’s are better for impacts on the top of the head (in a fall you can hit your head anywhere not just on the top). When impacted softly the thin shell offers some resistance (causing stones to bounce off) and the foam cushions the impact, during a larger incident the shell will take some force and crack allowing the foam to progressively collapse taking the impact over a larger area, meaning serious injury is less likely. A major problem with foam helmets is simply that they are much more likely to be damage in transit than other helmet types due to having only the thinnest of shells. Note: There are some important differences between cycling and climbing helmets, do NOT wear a cycling helmet when climbing.

Building Climbing Safety Assurance
"stepping lightly" always wears a helmet, especially when up the Blackpool Tower

Hybrid Climbing Helmets
As you may guess hybrids are a cross between hard and soft (foam) climbing helmets. In essence they have a hardshell exterior with foam inserts adding greater protection for the climber, however the foam does not run to the rim causing some of the issues of none protection a hardshell has. Another difference between the hybrid type and the hardshell is that a hybrid climbing helmet tends to weigh less as the internal cradle is replaced by foam and the hardshell can be a little thinner. Unsurprisingly due to the increased durability of this helmet compared with the others this is generally the most popular type of climbing helmet. I suspect that “stepping lightly”,
climber and urban explorer, wears this type of helmet.

Which Climbing Helmet Suits You Best?

Hopefully the information above will have give you some idea as to which helmet suits your needs. If not, then here is a handy summary about the climbing helmets.

Hardshell Helmet
Pro – Top Impact Protection (falling debris), General Protection & Durability
Con – No Off-Centre Impact Protection, Weight & Ventilation.
Use – Mountaineering, Caving & Groups

Foam Helmet
Pro – Off-Centre Protection & Low Weight
Con – Durability & Residual Protection
Use – Outcrop & Sport Climbing

Hybrid Helmet
Pro – All Round Protection, Fairly Low Weight & Good Ventilation
Con – Off-Centre Protection Only at Location of Foam
Use – All Round Protection & Mountaineering

There are a few ways you can ensure the safety of any helmet you wear, probably the most common of these in use internationally is the UIAA‘s logo upon the helmet. You can see the safety logo by taking a look at our interview with the UIAA.


2 thoughts on “Climbing Helmets a Tough Nut to Crack

    1. Thanks for sharing that CampingLinks!

      What a lucky escape for Tomás. A translation of the post can be found here:

      This photo from their website shows the damaged climbing helmet.


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