Helmets - Everything you need to know!

© Mick Ryan -

Dan Middleton (user profile) of the BMC gets down to the nitty gritty:

Dan Middleton, belayed by Carissa Lough, practicing what he preaches at Brandy Crag, Duddon Valley, Cumbria.
© Mick Ryan -
When it comes to climbing helmets, there's never been more choice than there is today. So how do we choose what to buy, when there is such a wide range to choose from?

The best helmet is the one that fits you, is comfortable, and you can afford. All the neat design features in the world aren't going to help unless the helmet is where it needs to be to protect you – fitted securely to your head. When buying, try lots of different helmets on, not just that cool one you saw your hero wearing in their latest video. See if you can adjust it to fit you well – do the shake test by wobbling your head around like an overexcited heavy metal fan. If it slips out of position, don't buy it!

If you are lucky, you'll have a choice of several helmets that fit you, are comfortable, and are within your budget. Which of these helmets will perform best when it comes to the crunch?


Climbing helmets are designed to meet minimum performance standards set by CEN, and by the UIAA, with the latter being more difficult to pass. So, look for the UIAA label if you want extra protection.

The performance testing finds out how much force the helmet would transmit to your head when subjected to impacts in various locations. The helmet must also resist a sharp object penetrating the top of the shell, but nowhere else (which explains why any vents are located to the sides!)

Helmet Diagram
© Dan Middleton BMC

Performance in these tests, as well as other properties, varies from model to model. There are some trends though, which can be related back to the basic design:

Shell/Cradle (SC)

Petzl Ecrin Rock (S/C)
© UKC Gear, Jun 2008

An internal webbing cradle holds the hard shell away from the head. During impact, the force on the head is reduced by stretching of the cradle, and also by progressive damage to the shell. Protection becomes minimal towards the rim of the helmet. Top impact and penetration resistance are often bolstered by reinforcement of the top of the shell. Most designs are quite rugged and durable.

Best for: Alpine, winter mountaineering, group use.

Expanded plastic foam (EPS)

Black Diamond Tracer (EPS)
© UKC Gear, Jun 2008

Made from expanded closed cell foam, with a thin cosmetic cover. Impact force is reduced by the gradual disintegration of the foam cells. These designs tend to only just pass the top impact and penetration tests. They do however give protection all the way to the rim of the helmet – the only type to do this. Damage from impact or lack of care can render them useless, so not ideal for long, serious routes.

Best for: Sport & outcrop climbing, ski-mountaineering.

Shell/Foam (SF)

Dmm Ascent (SF)
© UKC Gear, Jun 2008
The majority of modern designs fall into this category. They have a chinstrap but no cradle. A hard shell provides penetration resistance and durability, whilst a foam liner absorbs impacts. The thicker and more extensive this foam liner, the better the protection will be. Any soft open cell foam around the rim is purely cosmetic.

Best for: All-round climbing and mountaineering use.

Helmet Performance Table
© Dan Middleton BMC

Don't forget to check for those additional features you might be after before making your final choice, such as head-torch clips or visor attachments.

Finally, remember that all helmets only offer limited protection, however well designed they may be. Wearing one may stack the odds in your favour if the worst happens, but it won't remove the risk of injury. Individual judgement is still essential when deciding what is and isn't an acceptable level of risk.

Tom at Eagle Crag
© Will Ripley, May 2008

Tom Ripley (user profile) takes a blow to the head:

It is a truth universally acknowledged that every good climbing helmet shall protect its users head. Alpinists, mountaineers and winter climbers all wear helmets; no surprise really as large hunks of rock and ice regularly home in on their craniums with the speed and precision of a cruise missile. Rock climbing on the other hand, why bother?

It is the best of times, especially when clipping bolts. The sun is on your back; you have your top off, the rock looks solid, it's only VS, it's only single pitch, why spoil all this with a big, chunky, sweaty, heavy helmet that makes you hit your head on the rock more often?

Very quickly it becomes the worst of times as a hold snaps, someone above knocks off a rock or drops a piece of gear, or maybe you just pump out. Next you are peeling off backwards and that rope running so innocently behind your legs catches, causing you to invert, crunch - darkness. Later you awake in hospital, where you are coolly informed that you will never walk again. Why risk losing everything for the sake of £60 and an unnoticeable piece of polystyrene?

A quick search of the UKC forums discovers that the subject of helmet wearing whilst rock climbing is one that sparks great debate, often creating evangelism from both the 'helmeters' and the 'helmetless'. You'll have to make your own mind up. If you do decide to wear a helmet - then we've tested a few. The helmets featured in this review are all lightweight, well ventilated, polystyrene models designed with rock climbing as their primary use.

A helmet costs under £60, could save your life and is so light and well ventilated that you will hardly notice you are wearing it. Currently there are a lots of reasonably priced lids on the market. During the golden age of adventurous rock climbing (1970's), despite the helmets available being much heavier, hotter and far more stupid looking than the stylish versions available now, climbers still wore them. If one is to flick through old copies of Mountain magazine, they will find the pages awash with the superheroes of the day all wearing helmets. The 1980's followed, with bolts, bright lycra tights and harder climbing; climbing became super-cool and suddenly sweaty, uncomfortable and silly looking helmets were certainly no longer in, to the extent that you had to be climbing on serious choss to reduce yourself to wearing one. This is well illustrated in the book Extreme Rock, packed full of inspiring shots of lycra-clad climber's doing daring and dangerous deeds, but just about the only picture featuring a helmet is Mick Fowler on Caveman.

I've used my fair share of Helmets; my first was a Petzl Ecrin Roc, which by all accounts is an excellent lid. It's comfy, bombproof and well ventilated. The Ecrin is still one of the best lids out there for serious winter climbers and Alpinists. However, its weight was noticeable whilst on my head, to the extent that it became mildly annoying. For this reason, along with a belief that only 'punters' wore helmets (the last thing I wanted people to think I was) I began to stop wearing my helmet. This very nearly became a fatal mistake.

I was climbing at Raven Crag Threshwaite Cove with another impressionable 'yoof'. I had just lead my first E2, Redex and Will was leading Grand Prix, one of his early E3s. Perhaps it was because it was warm and sunny, or perhaps it was that we were surrounded by rock-gods on E4s and E5s, looking cool with their bare bonnets, but we decided to leave ours in the bags. I set off following Grand Prix, after about a third of the route I felt my foot kick something off, looking down I saw a hunk of rock, the size of an ostrich egg, zooming down on the exact spot where I had been casually paying out rope just minutes before. "Below!" Thud! The rock exploded. Helmet or not, the rock would have hurt me, but without a helmet it would have doubtless killed me. This acted as a bit of a wake up call, ridding me of my blasé attitude. From that point onward I have worn a helmet for rock climbing.

Following this incident I decided to ditch my trusty Ecrin for something a little lighter that would be less noticeable on my noggin. My choice wasn't the most appropriate. The Black Diamond Half Dome, although much less obtrusive and 200g lighter than the Ecrin , is still not a helmet designed just for rock climbing. The polycarbonate shell injected with polystyrene plus the lack of cradle, restricts the airflow, making it poorly ventilated - hotter and sweatier than my Ecrin and so I left it useless at the bottom of the sunny crag. Where the Half Dome does perform well is winter climbing, being very strong, compact (therefore great with hoods) and lightweight. Conversely the lack of ventilation is a bonus for this superior form of endeavour, not only adding insulation, but also preventing that damned whistling noise caused the annoying combination of strong winds and ventilation holes.

In my opinion the best helmets for rock climbing are the polystyrene ones, chiefly because they are so light and comfy that you forget you are wearing them, but also because BMC research shows that foam helmets offer good all round protection against impacts, even towards the rim. These lids look remarkably similar to a bike helmet and are best typified by the classic Petzl Meteor. Currently there are about 6 of this style of helmet available, but Grivel have their own version coming out soon. Salewa also make a couple of helmets, which also pass CE regulations for cycling, canoeing and horse riding.

In conclusion: I would recommend that any climber, whose primary activity is rock climbing should buy and wear a dedicated rock climbing helmet. What do you have to lose? Modern helmets are unnoticeable, light and comfy, cheap, look good, and are even worn by sponsored heroes on hard routes in magazines. They will save your life too. Buy one. Wear one.

Camp Starlight Helmet Camp Starlight - Price £70, Weight 280g, one size.
(by Tom Ripley)

When I first received this lid, its first noticeable feature was its size. The Starlight is much more compact than other helmets I've used of its style, making it less obtrusive. The starlight is an excellent lightweight and compact lid, more suited to mountaineering and winter climbing, where the lack of ventilation and small size would be an advantage (I found it poorly ventilated when climbing in the sun in Sella). Despite its compact size the Starlight is still comparatively heavy compared to similar lids, but it is extremely easy to adjust. It does have head-torch clips, but they are poorly designed. Becasue of the shape of the lid there is a risk that the head torch could walk off, but a bit of 2mm elastic would solve this.

More details at: Camp

Tom at Scratchmere Scar Black Diamond Tracer - Price £60, Weight 245g, sizes: small, medium, large.
(by Tom Ripley)

An excellent lid, representing the high water mark in rock climbing helmets, along with Petzl's Meteor, the first thing I noticed was that it didn't feel like I was wearing a helmet. The second was the ventilation, which compared to every other helmet I have tried was excellent, another factor that compelled me to keep wearing it. The ventilation is in the form holes, similar to those found on a bike helmet, the constant air flow makes the helmet seem significantly less sweaty than any other I've used. The vents are covered by a mesh, designed to stop spindrift getting in if you choose to wear the lid for winter. The Tracer also has reasonable head torch clips. My only minor gripe with the helmet is the sizing. I have quite a big head (some say in more ways than one), so had to opt for a tracer in large. The helmet in this size, does feel noticeably large, too large for some hoods. Overall, the tracer was comfortable and unnoticeable, pretty much perfect for rock climbing. It comes in a selection of cool colours too.

More details at: Black Diamond

Alan James at Sella on the Costa Blanca Petzl Meteor 3 - Price: £60, Weight: 235g, one size
(by Alan James)

As someone who has spent most of my climbing life conspicuously ignoring helmets, middle-age, children and common sense have finally prevailed. The balance was tipped after spending a week in Pembroke in the company of some strong young climbers whose enthusiasm reminded me of myself in the late 80s - they all wore helmets without hesitation and suddenly the sense in wearing one seemed utterly obvious to me. What was a very pleasant surprise was the fact that, in the intervening years between my first helmet experience in the 70s - 2 kilos of wobbly fibreglass - the helmet manufacturers hadn't sat still. The helmet I eventually opted for was the Meteor 3 - a very light 'cycling style' helmet which seemed to offer the desired level of protection, but was also light and comfortable enough to be forgotten as I was climbing. The fit was good for my slightly over-sized head yet I have also been able to re-size it easily for my kids to wear on occasions. Ventilation is good and internal padding adequate. A minor problem is that the buckles on either size below the ear don't allow upwards and downwards adjustment, just forwards and backwards. This means that they can hang a bit low on smaller heads however it still wasn't really a problem with even the small kid-heads I put it on. More significant was the lack of chinstrap padding. The wide webbing under the chin actually chafes badly after a few hours and I ended up padding mine with finger tape. Since then I have constructed my own Velcro soft pad. This minor omission - something which many other helmets have as standard - was the only real problem though and overall I am now reassuringly addicted to wearing my helmet whenever the situation dictates.

More details at: Petzl

Mick Ryan on Pinnacle Route, Tryfan, North Wales Grivel Salamander - Price: £49.99, Weight: 388g, one size
(by Mick Ryan)

I've worn the Grivel Salamander for more than a year now, from Tower Ridge, Ben Nevis to multi-pitch sport climbs in Spain and everything in between. I wear it on almost every climbing occasion, and sometimes when I don't, I wish that I had; like last week descending a gully in the Lakes when I had a narrow escape when two cricket ball sized rocks whizzed passed my head - we thought they were dislodged by sheep but later found that the culprits were human. I'm human too; I'm sometimes forgetful and I make mistakes.

My old lid used to give me a headache all day and was hotter than hell (yes I've been there) on a long sunny day in the Sierra. This was caused by being ill fitting, non-adjustable and lacking any ventilation slots. It was also weighty. I still wore it of course, in an alpine arena you'd be an idiot not to. I can be an idiot.

Headtorch attachment on the Grivel Salamander
© UKC Gear
Modern helmets are now light and comfortable. The Grivel Salamander is 388g and it is adjustable, conforming to most head sizes courtesy of a ratcheted wheel system, which slackens or tightens a plastic internal headband. This band is cushioned for comfort. In addition removable foam pads attach internally allowing further adjust-ability to head size. This makes it very comfortable and yes, wearing it you hardly notice that you are. Ventilation is provided by nine air slots and if you get the popular yellow version low heat absorption - yellow reflects light waves better than darker colours, and light waves when absorbed change to heat. In addition yellow is more visible than white, which may be crucial in some mountain situations, you never know! This combination, light colour plus ventilation slots, reduces the overheating head syndrome and as a plus forehead sweat is absorbed by a felt lining on the headband.

The outer shell is moulded from ABS, a thermoplastic known for its good shock absorbency as well as its strength and toughness. Internally it has a dense shock absorbing polystyrene foam just in the crown of the helmet, and a thinner strip around the rim. There is a compromise here; full polystyrene foam lining from ear to crown would give more protection to a side impact but would make the helmet heavier and hot enough to roast a chicken in.

The nylon straps are well designed. The side Y strips meet well below the ear and the chinstrap cinches snug against the chin but has foam protector to prevent chin chaffing.

The head torch attachments? At the front is an elasticated cord and two small metal hooks for the bulb unit. At the rear similar cords secure the battery pack to a plastic hook built into the helmet. It's simple and effective and works with most head torches.

Is this helmet fit for purpose? Very much so. Ideal for sport climbing to alpine climbing, at home at Swanage as it is on Gimmer, on the Ben in the depths of winter, or sport climbing at Ceuse and always remember to wear it when descending inescapable gullies in the Lake District too, you never know, some idiot may be above you.

More details at: Grivel

The new Armour Helmet from C.A.M.P.
Allcord Ltd, May 2008
Camp Armour Helmet - Price: £39.99, Weight: 340g, one size (smaller versions for juniors and women)
(Being Reviewed)

Toby Archer currently has the new Armour Helmet from Camp on review. Initially he said,

"The fit is great for me and the twiddly-knob adjuster seems to work really well. It looks like a very solid all-rounder."

We will be running his review soon.

What CAMP say:

The new Armour delivers a precise fit, superior protection and a striking look all at great value. It has a new lightweight moulded thermoplastic shell with side ventilation. A fast and secure adjustment system with a ratcheted wheel system that makes the helmet ready to use. Available in five lively colors to suit all tastes. Headlamp compatible.

More details at:

Petzl Altios Helmet
© UKC Gear
Petzl Altios - Price: £49.95, Weight: 315 g/345 g, Available in 2 sizes:
(Not Yet Reviewed)

The ALTIOS' hybrid suspension system, composed of a mesh panel and expanded polystyrene liner, makes this helmet extremely lightweight and comfortable to wear. Thanks to this innovative design, the helmet "levitates" above the head for a near-weightless feeling. The space between the head and the liner allows for effective ventilation with the Climate Control System. Durable ABS shell. This helmet is very ergonomic, adapting to almost any head shape and offers two options for attaching a headlamp: a removable system-compatible mount, or clips. Available in three colours.

More details at:

Dmm Ascent (SF)
© UKC Gear, Jun 2008
DMM Ascent - Price: £39.99, Weight: 385 g
(Not Yet Reviewed)

The shell is constructed from strong ABS plastic that resists flexing and additional protection is provided to the crown by an EPS insert. Highly visible colours, wide size range, ease of adjustment, ventilation, light clips and rugged nature make this helmet hard to beat.

More details at: DMM

Web-links for helmet manufacturers:

Black Diamond

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19 Jun, 2008
Well done guys, I thought that was a really good article with some very useful reviews. Thanks.
19 Jun, 2008
good to see this topic given more air-time than it deserves. There we go- if you want to buy a helmet, there's plenty info there. If not, then don't. But let us never speak of Helmets again.
19 Jun, 2008
I Have a Grivel Salamander helmet that I always wear for Trad, Sport and Winter climbing. Prior to that I had an Ecrin Roc and an HB helmet. Pros- it's light, it is easy to adjust, it's comfortable, it has very good headtorch attachment points, it doesn't make you look too much of a fud (maybe that is debatable). Cons- the build quality is very poor/ crap. The plastic rivet holding the adjuster wheel broke on mine necessitating a repair using finger tape. If you have a look at one you will se how flimsy that design is. The expanded foam on the inside top of the helmet also came adrift and I had to repair that too. If I'd still had the receipt I would have returned it. It is a nice helmet from new- but I have never had to repair a helmet before, so I couldn't recommend it really. Davie
19 Jun, 2008
Franco, don't be such a wally. Remember, with Google cache people will be able to find all in 15 years still. Good article guys!
20 Jun, 2008
if you want to climb on the North York Moors, there's plenty of info there. If not, then don't. But let us never speak of the North York Moors again.
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