Climbing helmets are pretty simple, but we’re still amazed how many people we see at the crag who missed the memo on how to wear and care for their helmet. Here are the main problems we see, and how to avoid them.
1. Wearing the Wrong Size
A helmet is only as good as the coverage it provides, so if you have one that isn’t the proper size you’re already on the path to screwing up any efforts at protecting your head. Just because you found a small helmet in the clearance rack at your local gear store doesn’t mean you should put it on your big noggin. Plus, helmets from different companies – and sometimes even different models within companies – have varied shapes that fit some people better than others. That expensive new helmet can’t do its job if it slides around leaving parts of your skull exposed. Having one that is the right size will ensure that doesn’t happen.
2. Loose Straps or Loose Fit
– A poor fit is typically the result of people grapping the chin strap first rather than using the headband adjustment system to dial in the right settings. The chin strap isn’t there to create a snug fit, it’s there to keep the helmet from falling off your head. When adjusted properly, you should be able to tune the headband system so that the helmet is snug, allows you to look up at the top of the cliff without the chin strap in place and have the helmet stay firmly in place. If your helmet slides off the back of your head then use the adjustment wheel or cinch straps to snug it up along your forehead. It is important to recognize that the suspension system is designed to fit on your forehead, not loosely on top of your dome like a rapper’s flat-billed hat. If you can rock out with your helmet on then you’ve got a properly adjusted helmet that will help keep it where it needs to be.
3. Abusing a Foam Helmet
Today’s modern molded foam helmets are popular and with good reason. They provide greater protection because they have the ability to absorb the energy of falling rocks and other objects, although to do that the foam needs to be intact. But these helmets aren’t as durable as the old Ecrin Rock hard plastic shell helmets of the past so be careful with how you transport it to and from the crag. Don’t just throw it in the trunk of your car and then huck the rest of your gear in on top. Molded foam helmets are incredibly durable when struck from above but they can break easily if crushed from the side, such as when a heavy pack is tossed on top of it. Likewise, if your helmet does its duty and protects your scalp from a falling rock or you happen to fall and hit your head, be sure to retire it if there’s any cracking or dents. I’ve seen climbers play this game of “well, there’s a big dent there but as long as I don’t get hit on the head in the same spot I’ll be fine.” Just get a new helmet. You’re worth the money.
4. Not Paying Attention
Just as you should regularly check your harness or rope for excessive wear and damage, you should do the same with your helmet too. Proper inspection procedures are available from companies like Petzl, but generally you should be checking the condition of the shell and the foam, looking for cracks or dents, and testing the adjustment system. Most adjustment systems have plastic parts and those parts can break and lose their effectiveness over time. Plus, checking features like headlamp clips and the general condition and cleanliness of the padding will help to ensure your helmet is at its best.
5. Not Wearing One!
It blows my mind when I am out guiding and I see people going up the steepest and most exposed sections of the mountain with their helmets strapped to the outsides of their packs. That helmet isn’t going to protect you while it’s on your backpack. Keep it off on the easy hike in, but as soon as you get into firing range, stop and don your brain bucket. Or better yet, just put it on in the parking lot if you know you’ll be underneath potential danger within a matter of minutes. And obviously, bring your helmet in the first place. In the the choss filled peaks of our local Colorado Elk Range 14ers I am amazed to see hordes of people going helmetless. It’s poor form considering the amount of falling rock that occurs on a daily basis, both manmade and natural.