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Helmets for heroes: protect your head or end up dead

Posted on May 03 2016

Helmets have been relatively slow to catch on in climbing circles despite some high profile accidents and injuries. Whilst they are fairly ubiquitous within an alpine setting, it’s still quite unusual to see many people ‘sporting’ them at their local bolted venue. This article isn’t about advocating their use; assuming you have any grey matter inside your head you can make your own choice (and also leave others to make theirs). This is about how to choose the right helmet for you and how to make sure it fits.

Suspension vs Foam vs hybrid Suspension (hard shell):

Broadly Speaking, climbing helmets can be divided into three groups. ‘Suspension’ style helmets are composed of a hard outer shell with an internal webbing system which holds it to your head. The outer shell deforms under impact and the energy is dissipated away from the occupants within. Often they will return to their original shape after said impact meaning they can theoretically take more than one hit. Whilst it would always be a good idea to retire a helmet after a big impact even if it does appear undamaged, that’s not always possible halfway up a big alpine face. For this reason it may be worth considering using a suspension lid in the mountains.

Foam:

Foam helmets differ from suspension style helmets in that rather than deforming, the foam itself takes the impact. These are a newer kind of lid and as such are widely regarded as ‘cooler’. In actual fact they are often cooler, having lots of holes for ventilation as well as usually being lighter. They also have the advantage of being able to take a wider variety of impacts. Hard shell suspension helmets are designed to take an impact from above whilst foam helmets will protect any part of the head covered by foam. This is an important development if you expect to be taking any falls whereby the likelihood of taking an impact to somewhere other than the top of your head is greatly increased.

The downside to foam helmets is their durability. Obviously if they take an impact they will need to be replaced but even travelling with them can cause damage. Whilst they might save your life once, you don’t want the next ice screw your partner drops to be saved from loss by your head! The other thing to watch out for is their ‘permeability’; some newer models are so ‘cool’ that you could use them to strain pasta! You want to think very carefully before strapping one of these on where anything might actually fall on your head.

Hybrid:

Unsurprisingly manufactures have developed helmets which try and make the best of both these styles. Hybrids have a hard outer shell with foam inside. They are much more durable

than foam whilst being lighter than a traditional suspension style lid. Unfortunately to make this weight saving and to prevent them being too warm the foam only extends across the top of the helmet in most models. This means they are less likely to prevent an injury from an impact coming from any direction other than directly above. Despite this drawback, these helmets have become very popular and suit pretty much every style of climbing.

Which one to choose?

As with all consumer driven industries, manufactures are producing a plethora of products to fill every conceivable nieche. Not unlike drug manufacturers, they have started to invent problems to which they, and only they, have the miraculously cure for. Therefore the best advice is to simply buy a helmet that looks cool. This may not seem like sound advice on the face of it, but if you think you look like an idiot in your helmet then you’re probably not going to wear it. Conversely, if you think your helmet actually makes you look cooler (and let’s be honest, if it hides that hair cut your mate gave you in a carpark behind your van it probably will) then you might actually be inclined to strap it on.

Fit:

Like all good equipment, you shouldn’t notice its existence. The best kit is the stuff you use every time you go climbing and yet never notice. The thing you do notice is that seam that rubs, that buckle that hits you in the face every time it’s windy and the Zips you can’t undo with gloves on. This is especially true of helmets. Find one that’s heavy or moves around as you move your head and it’ll drive you insane. In the same way that your perception of looking ‘cool’ is important in terms of the likelihood of you wearing it, so too is its fit.

All helmets are different so try a lot on. Check that you can undo the buckle with a gloved hand (if you’re going to be wearing it with gloves!); Check you can shake your head with it on and that it doesn’t move around; Make sure it covers your whole head (this can actually be a problem for people with very large heads!); If you are going to wear a head torch, ensure it has head torch attachment points. Some helmets are manufactured specifically to fit a ponytail in which may be worth considering if you sport such a hair cut. Above all else remember that if something’s annoying in the shop, it’ll be ten times as annoying half way up a route!

Thomas King 

The author ‘testing’ a suspension style helmet on the Nipple Rib, NZ. Mt. Tasman.

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