Six helmets were tested in the climbing helmet category in 2016. Helmets were rated according to comfort, ventilation and ease of adjustment while being used by dozens of testers in a wide range of climbing venues including rock, ice and alpine. Features such as headlamp attachment points and unique chin strap buckles were rated after extensive testing. The combination of each helmet’s characteristics also enabled us to rate a helmet’s relative versatility for various climbing exploits. What we didn’t try to do was evaluate the safety of these helmets. The International Mountaineering and Climbing Federation (UIAA) tests helmets to the CE EN 12492 standard to be sold as climbing and mountaineering helmets. The testing involves helmets withstanding impacts from above and most helmets sold carry this safety certification, particularly if they want to be sold in Europe. In the Wild West of the United States there is no safety certification required for helmets to be sold for climbing and mountaineering and there is some debate about the effectiveness of only testing helmets to impacts from above. As it stands, we focused on testing helmets for their function and stayed out of the quagmire of determining the comparable safety of helmets.
The Singing Rock Penta is a comfortable, lightweight molded foam helmet with good ventilation, making it a well-rounded and versatile helmet for rock and ice climbers. The soft, nylon chinstrap and suspension system makes this unisex helmet attractive for both male and female climbers as it allows long hair to fit comfortably in the rear. Low profile headlamp attachment clips are effective and stay out of the way of slings and clothing while keeping your light in place.
The Petzl Sirocco is a comfortable, lightweight molded foam helmet with features to appeal to both rock and ice climbers. As the lightest helmet on the market, the Sirocco stands out in terms of weight but also in features such as a simple yet effective headlamp attachment system. A magnetic chin strap buckle is unique as is the lack of a plastic outer shell.
The Black Diamond Vapor is a lightweight molded foam helmet featuring great ventilation and a comfortable fit. The Vapor is a popular option for rock climbers seeking out a super light helmet that can be worn all day and not weigh down their packs on long approaches while mountaineers will appreciate the great ventilation.
The Mammut Wall Rider is a lightweight, comfortable molded foam helmet with good ventilation and increased durability from the partial capping of the helmet with a hard plastic shell. The thin chin straps and comfortable padding make it an attractive option for a wide range of climbers.
The Beal Atlantis is a lightweight molded foam helmet with an easy-to-use magnetic chin strap buckle that was particularly popular with ice climbers. While ice climbers will enjoy the fit of this helmet, rock climbers will appreciate the fine tune adjustment and the easy to use headlamp attachment points.
The C.A.M.P. Speed 2.0 is a versatile molded foam helmet that works well for ice and trad climbing as well as ski mountaineering. A large dial provides for easy adjustment, even with bulky gloves on. Climbers who are rough on their gear will appreciate the improved durability though it comes at the cost of being a bit heavier.
The saying goes that the best helmet is the one that is actually worn. Whatever safety a helmet can offer is irrelevant if the helmet doesn’t get put on. Hence, comfort can be key to having a helmet that a climber will wear consistently. In this round of helmet testing we found a number of really comfortable helmets thanks in part to the lightweight construction of the molded foam helmets – evidenced by the top helmets for comfort also being some of the lightest. The top helmets for comfort were the Black Diamond Vapor, Mammut Wall Rider and Singing Rock Penta, all measured in the six to seven ounce range. Weight isn’t the only thing, otherwise the Petzl Sirocco would have taken the prize. Soft mesh padding placed in the right spots on the inside of the helmet along with comfortable chin straps was evident in the most comfortable helmets, along with the general feel of the helmet. Placed on a variety of heads, on many different testers, some helmets were barely noticeable when climbing and others felt top heavy and cumbersome when climbing.
Along with comfort, ventilation may be the other big factor in getting people to wear a helmet. No one wants to be sweating away on a hot day at the crag and feel like their helmet is only making things worse. With with helmets of the past, ventilation seemed to be a secondary concern, today helmets are increasingly employing an ever increasing number of ventilation holes spread throughout the helmet or increasing their size. With as many as 22 ventilation holes found on one helmet tested in this category, determining the best ventilation came down to putting helmets on testers in a variety of climbing situations, including hot, summer days and climbing on an indoor garage wall. Testers found the Black Diamond Vapor to be the best ventilated and many remarked that it barely felt like a helmet at all. Close behind were the Petzl Sirocco, Mammut WallRider and Singing Rock Penta.
Ease of Adjustment
The right fit is essential for safety, but also for comfort. With a number of testers taking helmets off and on, the ease of adjustment was a key criterion. Some helmets were easy to adjust, while others were a bit like using a Rubik’s cube blindfolded. Wheeled adjustment systems on the rear of helmet suspension systems used to be the most prevalent method of adjustment systems. Now many of the helmets we tested featured cinches, or even a ratchet, illustrating manufacturers’ quest to make things easier while keeping the helmet light and comfortable. While the wheeled adjustment system of the C.A.M.P. Speed 2.0 drew the highest marks in this category, the ratcheting system on the Black Diamond Vapor tied, showing great value in these newer systems. Systems such as those found on the Vapor and Speed 2.0 were easy to use with gloves on and to find and adjust despite the blindness in the task. Other helmets using cinches were harder to find and operate, particularly with gloved hands, limiting their appeal for ice climbers.
A key feature of all helmets is their ability to secure a headlamp, a necessary condition for those early morning starts or those climbing missions that run into darkness. Today, all of the helmets show evidence of efforts to make sleek, streamlined attachment points that won’t hang up on clothing or slings when not in use although some proved more effective than others. A couple of helmets, the Petzl Sirocco and the Mammut WallRider, move away from having the standard four plastic attachment points and incorporate an elastic cord in the rear. This proved particularly effective at keeping a headlamp secure, is relatively streamlined but can be a little difficult to operate without taking the helmet off. Testers found the Singing Rock Penta’s headlamp attachment system to be a good balance between offering security and ease of use.
Other features found on helmets included magnetic chin strap buckles on the Sirocco and Beal Atlantis. The Atlantis’ system was particularly popular as it made connection easy, even with bulky gloves on, as all you had to do is get the two ends close to each other and they would clip in place. The Speed 2.0 features the ability to add a visor, a nice feature for ski mountaineers or ice climbers.
Climbing gear has become more and more specialized with harnesses intended for alpine climbing only, ropes best suited for redpoint attempts and a huge quiver of shoe options. Helmets can befall the same fate but there is great crossover in the helmets with versatility being more easily achieved. The trend has been to make helmets lighter in large part due to molded foam construction. That construction can be less durable, limiting the appeal of the helmets we tested for user groups that need something more rugged and tough, such as institutional groups, schools, and kids. But, some helmets try to address that balance by offering greater durability while maintaining their high performance features. The Singing Rock Penta and the Mammut WallRider scored the highest for versatility due to this balance. The C.A.M.P. Speed 2.0 tied with those helmets due to its ability and popularity for ski mountaineering. Other helmets found a greater measure of versatility due to their ease of use for ice and rock climbers, such as is the case with the Beal Atlantis.
Helmets have gotten light in recent years, with a focus on molded foam construction and some helmets shedding their plastic shells. The Petzl Sirocco is the lightest helmet on the market, weighing in at a scant 5.29 ounces in the smallest of two sizes offered (5.82 for the large). The Black Diamond Vapor and Mammut WallRider closely follow the Sirocco, each with weights in the 6 ounce range while the Singing Rock Penta tips the scales at just over 7 ounces. The Beal Atlantis trails those at 8.5 ounces and the C.A.M.P. Speed 2.0, once the lightest helmet on the market, was the heaviest helmet in this round of testing at 9.5 ounces. All represent a huge weight savings compared to the heavy plastic shell helmets that were dominant 20 years ago. The weight savings is felt when worn, a comment frequently expressed by testers who were impressed by the light weight of the helmets tested.
We spent dozens of days field testing these helmets while cragging, climbing multipitch, hiking and climbing up long alpine routes, and while bundled up on cold days of ice climbing. We also spent time climbing indoors with these as a way to help test their comfort and ventilation. The helmets were placed upon dozens of different heads on climbers with a wide array of experience levels in an effort to get the best test results. The Singing Rock Penta squeaked out the best in class award thanks to a good combination of comfort, ventilation and features. Close behind was the Mammut WallRider, a comfortable and lightweight helmet. The lightest helmet in the test, the Petzl Sirocco, was close behind those two and was popular with testers for its comfort and nifty magnetic chin strap. Ranked next was the helmet with the best ventilation according to testers: the Black Diamond Vapor. The easy to use magnetic chin strap on the Beal Atlantis drew rave reviews from ice climbers, making it a versatile helmet for both rock and ice. The C.A.M.P. Speed 2.0 was popular with climbers but also with ski mountaineers and represents a good helmet for buyers looking for one helmet to do both.
To test the helmets in this category we put them on the different heads of male and female climbers of various experience levels. The goal was to come to some consensus as to how helmets fared across a broader spectrum of climbers and not just how they felt to a select few. Particularly for comfort, head sizes and shapes could dramatically determine how a tester felt about a helmet. On top of that we used the helmets in a wide range of climbing venues, including single pitch sport, multipitch, ice and alpine. The goal was to see how the helmet performed in a wide array of venues. A helmet that feels great one day may feel hot and stuffy or uncomfortable when climbing a steep sport route the next.
To help test ventilation and comfort we also spent time bouldering on an indoor wall. While few climbers would ever don a helmet for such climbing it was a helpful way to help get results in a more controlled setting. If you’ve ever bouldered around in a garage wall on a hot summer day you’ll know how hot it can get and the ventilation and relative comfort of the helmet can be more readily demonstrated. Those indoor bouldering sessions were a helpful way to get feedback on comfort since that is tied to the feel of the helmet while climbing and not just when lounging around at the base or put on for a few moments in your living room.
Field testing helmets in a variety of settings informed us about the ease of adjustment. A helmet that was easy to adjust on a warm sunny day for one person can be a very different experience on a cold day of ice climbing for someone else. The intuitiveness of some adjustment systems was shown as well as the ease with which they worked. Adjusting them repeatedly on a given day when helmets were passed between different testers was also telling. Some helmets were easier to operate than others, including on days when gloves were worn, whether it be belay gloves while rock climbing or thick, warm gloves for those days on the ice.
By testing helmets in a variety of settings with a diverse group of testers, we identified the functional features that stood out and weeded out some features that seemed to be more marketing fluff. A lot of time was spent putting headlamps on helmets and some helmets were easier to work with while others had headlamp attachment systems that could prove frustrating. Neat little features like magnetic chin strap buckles or different ways of attaching a headlamp were noted by testers, some more than others. The feedback on these features and the comfort, ventilation and ease of adjustment of helmets helped testers speak to the versatility of the helmets. Every tester could remark about where they would most likely use a given helmet, or where they wouldn’t, helping us score each helmet for its versatility.
What is a Climbing Helmet?
Climbing helmets are often affectionately called brain buckets, perhaps in large part due to the appearance of early climbing helmets. Google “Joe Brown” or “Vintage HB” climbing helmets or go climb with someone who started climbing in the 60’s or 70’s and you’ll get an idea of where the morbid phrase comes from. Hopefully your older friend has retired their old helmet and upgraded to a modern helmet, which have made huge improvements over helmets of the past that had simple designs using plastic or some other material to create a shell. They protect your head by deflecting things and it wasn’t long ago that the Petzl Ecrin Roc was a popular helmet, which can still be seen at crags all over the country. Helmets of the past tended to have simple suspension systems to attach the helmet to the head and may have lacked ventilation holes or the fancy ways modern helmets have to adjust to fit or hold a headlamp in place.
Today, fewer helmets like the Ecrin Roc are being sold and while many manufacturers still have a basic plastic shell helmet in their lineup, they are increasingly the domain of institutional groups like schools and guide services because they are durable and stand up to abuse. Even in those helmets, many of them have a chunk of molded foam on top of the head to help protect the head from impacts from above. Foam is essential, and the increasingly popular helmets today involve all foam construction, like the Petzl Sirocco, or mostly foam construction. Hence, today’s new climbing helmets look similar to bike helmets and that foam helps absorb energy when hit, thus protecting the climber’s head. While molded foam climbing helmets offer better protection they suffer from durability issues and are prone to cracking and breaking if they aren’t handled and stored carefully. That old Joe Brown helmet could probably have bags of concrete thrown on top of it in the back of your pickup truck but today’s new molded foam helmets are easily crushed if you haplessly throw your pack in the back of the car or if someone sits on your pack in the back of your truck. Another drawback of that foam is that once a helmet is impacted by a rock or cracked from an accident it’s recommended for it to be retired. While the old shell helmets could stand up to greater abuse without fear of their future utility, today’s foam helmets lose their ability to absorb energy if they’ve been damaged.
A big advantage of that foam is its reduced weight. Lightweight gear is all the rage in the climbing world with lightweight carabiners, cams, harnesses and more. With helmets, that weight savings can be noticeable, not because you might climb better but because for the vast majority of climbers it feels good to have less on your head than more. A lighter helmet makes it easier to move, climb steep terrain and to take away the excuses for not wearing a helmet, even when sport climbing where helmets have been less popular historically. Today, you see more climbers wearing helmets at sport crags like Rifle and it’s increasingly rare to see helmetless climbers on multipitch routes.
Today’s modern climbing helmets have also improved ventilation and the helmets tested in this round of testing had ventilation holes in various shapes, sizes and orientations. Having a helmet that breathes well is important if people are going to be happy with the helmet they are wearing and in every helmet tested you could see evidence of that effort. Helmets increasingly have soft, mesh padding on the interior to make them more comfortable and to help wick sweat. The systems used to buckle, tighten and adjust helmets have evolved and various iterations are found on modern helmets. Magnetic chin strap buckles seem novel but can be really helpful. Adjustment systems involving wheels, ratchets or cinches with thin straps have their pros and cons as some work better than others, particularly when they are located in the rear of the helmet and are operated blind or with thick ice climbing gloves on. These various features and systems help today’s helmets be extremely versatile and they can find their place in rock or ice climbing thanks to their weight, comfort, ventilation and ease of use. Today’s helmets are easier to use than ever and help take away the poor excuses some may have for not using them.