Rock Climbing: Mastering Basic Skills -- Helmets

Don't use your head, use a helmet!

Rock Climbing

Want good advice on helmets? Buy a helmet that you will wear when you climb.

A helmet protects your head from falling rocks and dropped equipment, and minimizes head injuries if you smack the rock in a fall. Many climbing injuries could have been prevented or made less severe if the climber involved had been wearing a helmet. As Ned Crossley, former climbing coach for the cadets at West Point Military Academy, says, “They haven’t performed a successful brain transplant yet. Wear a helmet.”

In dramatic climbing magazine photos, and at many sport and cragging areas, you’ll see climbers without helmets. Many experienced climbers choose not to wear a helmet on certain climbs due to the awkwardness of doing tricky gymnastics or climbing off-width cracks while wearing one. While it is almost always safest to wear a helmet, consider these guidelines:

  • Practice wearing a helmet as the default, and only choose not to wear a helmet when you judge it safe not to wear one.
  • Only forgo the helmet on vertical or steeper, solid, well-protected climbs when no climbers are above you.
  • If you’re not wearing a helmet, pay extra attention to the rope below you—making sure it is not around your legs—to avoid being flipped upside down in a fall.

Don’t wear a helmet in cracks that are the same size as the helmet, since the helmet can jam and create a dangerous situation.

Always wear a helmet when belaying directly under a leader, on low-angle rock, in an area with loose rock, top-roping where the rope could bump into and dislodge loose rock, in alpine terrain, and while learning to lead.

Helmets are designed to absorb energy by self-destructing under impact. They take the blow so your head does not. If the impact is greater than what the helmet can absorb, though, the helmet will not perform a miracle. The manufacturers have not tested helmets under all possible blows, so it’s hard to determine which helmets give the best protection.

Some climbers refuse to wear a helmet because it’s not fashionable. Many newer helmets have a stylish, modern look, so this excuse is becoming less credible. In adventure-climbing areas, most climbers are wearing helmets, so it’s unfashionable not to wear one. But it’s your head, and your choice.

Retire your helmet after any serious blow, even if you do not see damage. Otherwise, manufacturers recommend getting a new helmet after 5 years due to UV degradation of the plastic. You might eke a couple extra years out of a fiberglass helmet. The adhesives in stickers and especially paint applied to a helmet can undermine the strength of the shell. If you need to display stickers, put them on your car, not your helmet.

The ability of a helmet to protect you depends on having a proper fit and a sturdy, energy-absorbing shell and suspension. There are several types of shells, ranging from the old and durable but heavy fiberglass, to ultralight modern designs.

Some helmets are suspended above the climber’s head with webbing straps, while others have a foam liner that sits on your head and crushes under impact. Some have both. Until more thorough testing is conducted, it’s difficult to say which style offers more protection. What is important is to select the correct size of helmet and adjust it to properly fit your head. A sloppy fit diminishes the helmet’s ability to protect you.

A white or light-colored helmet can be cooler than a dark one on a hot wall. When it is warm or when you’re working hard, you’ll appreciate ample vents on the helmet. Some helmets have screened vents to prevent debris from getting inside the helmet. Most helmets also come with clips to hold a headlamp in place. Make sure your headlamp works well with the clips on the helmet that you choose. If you have long hair, check to see that the helmet will accommodate a ponytail. If you’ll ever be climbing in cool conditions, make sure the helmet can also accommodate a warm hat underneath.

Do not carry anything, for example sunglasses, inside your helmet; these will get pushed into your skull under a severe blow. Keep the space in the helmet free. Remember, too, when setting the helmet down to set it upright so it can’t roll down the mountain.

Perhaps the most important thing is to choose a helmet that fits well, is comfortable, and has a good look so you’ll actually wear it. A heavy, hot, ugly, or uncomfortable helmet that stays in the closet offers no protection at all.

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