Rock Climbing Helmet- Everything You Need To Know

Those YouTube gym fail compilations might be morally questionable to laugh at. Still, they are efficient in imparting a very sought-after value: the fear of looking like a chump compromising on basic tenets of their safety. The same goes for rock climbers.

Noggin injuries are lethal but, for the most part, avoidable- if the climbers strap the helmet!

Because gears fall, ropes wear out, and equipment fails to do its due diligence. Everyone must know about rock climbing helmets to assure oneself before choosing.

How well does a Helmet protect?

Prima facie, it might sound redundant to acknowledge a simple fact, but it is essential, as we advance, to know- helmets are not foolproof in themselves. Since they are dealt a shoddy hand against gravity, their very first precautionary motif is to keep objects like pieces of rock, debris from colliding with the head or penetrating the skull.

Perchance it fails, the science dictates helmets mitigate the energy dispensed at the impact of the collision. Since, the helmet’s shells are slightly suspended (a minuscule suspension not easily visible) from the inner foam in direct contact with the climber’s head. It sits like a cradle. So during an impact, the shell is supposed to move towards the head, allowing the object to bounce, like on a trampoline, in opposing direction.

If either foam or the shell is too stiff, it loses the springy quality. Not stiff enough, the object successfully hits the intended target- the climber’s head, which is why there is a slight gap between the shell and the foam.

Thinner foams are inadvertently stiffer, like cardboard. Their cells are tightly packed, leaving little to no room for movement. How can they decelerate the blow or absorb and distribute the impact? They can’t.

On the other hand, soft foam slumps under pressure, becoming the epicenter of impact. In short, soft foams bottom out.

What makes a rock climbing helmet so one of a kind?

Devil’s in the details. Even with rock climbing gear, a material study of the exterior shelf and interior foams is a must. In rock climbing helmets, the carbon fibers are seeping in the market, albeit slowly. Whereas plastics are administered more frequently.

Tough outer shells are made of ABS (Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene) or Polycarbonate, which are thermoplastics. ABS and Polycarbonate have their differences and similarities based on their contingencies. ABS and Polycarbonate both can absorb shockwaves. They are easily fixed with adhesives and are pliable (easily molded). In ABS, the impact point can become a locus where tension gathers. And Polycarbonate is airier and thinner, thus resulting in more lacerations and tears.

EPS (Expanded Polystyrene) or EPP (Expanded Propylene) foams are used in the inner lining of the helmets. EPS is the white cooler foam found in the egg/gear packaging, while EPP appears shinier. Black-colored foam is less dense.

Tensile strength: POM (Polyoxymethylene) is the finishing touch for helmet shells wherein carbon polymers cross-bind to increase the tensile strength which is now vital in all helmets. Whereas Fiberglass is an old-school material that lives up to its hype. They were first integral in designing motorbike helmets to break severe falls. And now they are used in climbing helmets and industrial helmets too.

Are rock climbers spoilt for variety?

Not really. Design and manufacturing may go faster than the time it takes to climb a steep mountain, but ultimately only three types of helmets strut the market. But what’s exciting is within these primary models, there are enticing options to choose from.

  • Hardshell Helmets – Thin foam of EPS is frescoed underneath ABS plastic top shell in a complete dome-shaped helmet. These are heavier to carry. But the hardshell doesn’t always deviate from the force of off-center impact. Clumsy as they are, their tendency to collapse inwards on impact is more bothersome.
  • Foam Shelled Helmet – Polycarbonate shell is layered on top of expanded propylene or polyethylene to form a lightweight helmet that interprets tension/point of contact by deformation. The only reason to be wary is these helmets don’t see it to the end in rough and tedious climbs.
  • Hybrid Helmet– a perfect collage of Hard Shell and Foam Shell helmets. Foams work the way they do in foam helmets, and the top covering is like a Hardshell lid. The foam doesn’t extend to the rim, so these helmets are prone to failure at protecting from off-center injuries. That’s why, the proper foam crown is needed to protect the climber from the front, rear, and lateral injuries, not just the forehead and top of the head.

What else matters when it comes to Helmets?

This is the part where climbers need to get slick and let their previous experience speak for itself. Prerequisite insight is important to deconstruct the core concepts of ventilation, straps, a functional bulk that doesn’t leave neck or spine overwrought when climbing. Here is what seasoned climbers understand.

Ventilation is cathartic in all situations. But it is a saving grace when it comes to climbing helmets. The big/small, abstract holes in the helmet serve this exact purpose. Ventilations keep climbers from feeling hot and grimey with sweat.

Now, the best-placed ventilation is to the sides and the back of the helmet. Lateral ventilation gaps need to be small enough, so objects don’t lodge their way in and penetrate the skull. Expansive ventilations cover more surface area, which is instrumental in providing ample air. An ideal number of ventilation holes is anywhere between 16 to 24 for standard breathability. However, ventilation now comes with slide shutters. How cool is that? Climbers can adjust the ventilation when needed.

What cushions the climber’s head is the supple padding inside. Friction due to head/hair causes surface erosion, and since it must absorb some sweat, it’s difficult to keep the padding dry. In response to this dilemma, new helmets now come with an extra pair of inner sole paddings, which climbers can replace when they wish. Some paddings are washable too. The instructions are written and relatively easy to follow.

The final piece is sturdy chin straps. Forked chin strap, when described in layman’s terms, is the strap climbers put under their chin to fasten the helmet. They should extend from a ‘Y’ shaped harness on either side of the ear or cheek.

Ideally, chin straps are made of plastic or strong textile otherwise found in school-bag straps. It comes with a cheeky little chin padding right in the middle. With these, adjustments are quick and easy to make amid a climb. They are removable and can be reattached or renewed.

Webbing and buckles attached to the rivets shouldn’t have abrasions, tears, or cuts of any form. Webbings are like belts but stronger, made of stretchable nylon and polyester. They can be swapped over time separately.

Another determinant is the weight of the helmet. ABS shells weigh more than polycarbonate, but all these stereotypes are outdated now that Hybrid helmets are here. Their meager weight of 170 grams and maximum of 300 grams is the range, irrespective of the brand, size, or quality.

Lighter helmets can squish, mold, and fold. But it is inadvisable to do so. Heavier helmets are no party, either. They can survive hard dents and significant accidents, but they chip away sooner than foam-shelled helmets.

Helmet Rims are practically non-existent, as climbers need a direct line of sight above them. Slightly protruding rim helmets are used in low-peak climbs. Conclusively, shielding climbers from the sun’s glare or small dust particles isn’t a climbing helmet’s job.

Tension banding, another tool propagated for industrial climbing purposes (engineers, electric pole fixers), is morphing into rock climbing. These straps break deliberately when the climber is caught in a heavier structure to avoid strangulation. This scenario is implausible when rock climbing, but it’s better to be safe.

Vent Plugs are for arch traditionalists who choose to use traditional helmets even when they climb ice mountains. Plugs are like corks used in bottles, easy to dispose of. However, climbers lean towards vent plugging strips, where vents are arranged in a row, for they last longer.

Headlamp clips, which are lodged straight to the crown of the helmet, are perfect for climbers who love predawn and post-dusk adventures. Clips with the magnetic clutch or more hooks are entirely a personal choice since both are equally good.

Are manufacturers and professional climbers reaching?

Advanced technology in every field is touch and go; on the brink of popularity one year, and not even a peep is heard the following year. So what possible ways could a climbing helmet develop more? It turns out there are many.

For starters, MIPS (multi-directional impact protection system)- Years spent studying the human brain revealed a fact that. cerebrospinal fluid (jelly-like substance), which protects the brain from angled impacts, slides towards the point of impact, creating a layer in between. Mimicking the same art, MIPS slides within the range of 10-15 mm.

Because the chances of linear injuries, wherein one falls head-on in a uniform path, are incredibly slim. Rotational injuries occur more often.

MIPS symbol is a yellow circle and black boundary. Helmets should be stamped with them.

If climbers are looking for the lightest and most comfortable option, then a helmet made from carbon fiber or Kevlar is probably their best bet. Since the use of Kevlar is limited to bicycle helmets, it is not an easy buy.

Earlier, the organizational function of foams and shells was discussed. It posed a question of what degrees of stiffness or lightness foams should be for optimum usage.

EPP and EPS foams are not experimented with, but if they were rate-sensitive, polycarbonate laminates would bring much-needed novelty to innovation. Even elastic foams- injected in rugby helmets is a tad better choice.

Click wheels are nothing new. Accessible accommodation to tighten or loosen the straps as one pleases did attract a huge chunk of the market. But, click wheels get stuck. Panicking mid-climb is an irreconcilable price to pay. It’s better to dispose of the idea until innovations take place.

Should the Climbing type govern which Helmet to choose?

Yes, absolutely. Accidents caused by external factors are not the worst case scenario. Internal factors like climbers fainting, asphyxiating or becoming hypothermic asks for forced bivouacs, or immediate medical treatment, which, let’s be honest, isn’t always plausible. Different helmets have different traits, and climbers must be aware of their applied sciences to bypass such adversity.

When climbing in a cold, damp, or icy environment, large vents are a disaster recipe. Chilly weather is a sure shot invitation for harsh winds, masses of ice cut loose or even simple unpredicted snowfall  rendering the sense of sight and hearing useless.

If climbers are trucking a lot of gear, airy helmets for proper ventilation are essential. But if there are chances of smaller debris getting caught in barnacles or edges of ventilation holes, it is best to go with minimal ventilation. The most likely scenario of such incidents taking place tends to be in alpine climbing. As opposed to humid and hot terrains, when it’s best to avoid hard shell helmets.

Lastly, the magnet buckle is a stand-alone fancy gimmick that doesn’t make sense. Magnets are fodder for small debris and grime, putting climbers at risk of losing the clip. If anyone’s hard pressed to use one, it should be at deep water soloing.

Check the fit

It’s pretty simple. Yank on the helmet, move the head sideways, and nod up and down without securing the straps at the chin. If the helmet isn’t displaced, and there is no awkward suspension between the head and dome that covers it, it is indeed a snug fit. Another way to judge is to see if the rim touches the hairline or rests half an inch above the eyebrows. Since the helmet is meant to protect the forehead, boundaries should fall at least halfway down to the eyebrows.

Helmets come in various sizes for children and adults, which is why wearing another person’s helmet is lackadaisical at best, and self-sabotaging at worst. Similarly, neither can it be swapped for a joyride on bicycle, and skateboarding. Each individual and each activity has a dedicated helmet.

Professional climbers are aware of the occupational hazard attached to their hips when it comes to rock climbing and has traded convenience for moments of pure adrenaline. But they’ve gotten more competent too.

It is about time hobbyists learn to do the same. Taking helmets as seriously as harnesses, jock straps, leg loops, and swami belts would save climbers a concussion and possible brain lacerations. It’s always better to be safe than sorry.