Climbing Helmet

It's simple: Climbing helmets save lives. They are designed to protect your head from falling overhead debris—whether it's loose rock or a stray carabiner—and they offer protection in the event of a fall. Consider a helmet to be essential safety gear and the surest way to keep your gray matter intact.

Shop REI's selection of climbing helmets.

Helmet Types

All helmets are meant to save your skull from sudden impact, but different models take distinct approaches.

  • Suspension helmet: This durable, traditional lid offers a solid outer shell supported by an interior webbing suspension system—much like a construction hard hat. Energy is absorbed primarily by elastic deformation; that is, the shell deforms on impact and will normally return to its original shape afterward. This absorbs the energy of a vertical impact, such as a falling rock. Suspension models offer great durability but are relatively heavy.
  • Foam helmet: This lighter-weight style features a crown of polystyrene or polypropylene foam protected by a thinner shell. Energy is absorbed by plastic deformation; that is, the crown deforms permanently on impact as the foam is crushed. This disperses the energy of a vertical impact and the frontal, side and rearward impacts more common with a falling climber. Durability varies according to shell thickness, which can range from thin plastic sheeting to a semi-rigid shell. Foam helmets are often lighter and more popular, but a bit less durable in the long run due to their thinner shells.

The helmet design you choose will depend on the fit (discussed below) and your type of climbing. Headed for the ice? You'll be vulnerable to larger-than-average volumes of falling debris, so look for a lid that offers solid coverage and fewer ventilation slots. Do you climb mostly in warm-weather conditions? Look for models with plenty of air vents that promote air circulation and keep the helmet lightweight.

Weight: Planning a long mountaineering climb? When you're hauling a lot of gear, helmet weight becomes an important consideration. Check out lightweight foam models, which shave ounces at the cost of some durability.

Headlamps: Pre-dawn starts are no problem. Today, all climbing helmets come equipped with clips for attaching your headlamp. Always make sure your headlamp and helmet are compatible before heading out on your climb, particularly if you have an older helmet style.

Helmet Fit

Once you've narrowed down your selections, fit becomes your top priority. Consider that you're much more likely to actually use a helmet that fits properly. It feels more comfortable and offers better protection, too.

Before buying, it's best to test-drive a helmet at REI or another reputable climb shop. Start by placing it squarely on your head, with the front rim straight across your forehead. Avoid tilting the helmet backwards, which leaves your forehead unprotected.

Adjustability: Many climbing helmets can be adjusted to fine-tune the sizing. Once you've adjusted the overall fit, but before you've buckled the chin strap, do this: Shake your head from side to side. The helmet should already fit snugly enough while unstrapped that it doesn't feel loose.

Layering: Climbing in high mountains, colder climates or on frozen waterfalls? Factor in enough room to layer in a balaclava or hat to keep your head and ears warm under the helmet.

Chin straps: When you buckle the chin strap securely at your throat, the front and rear straps should form a "Y" at your ears on either side. There should be no slack in the straps. If you are carrying a medium-to-large pack, be sure you have enough room to look upwards without interfering with the pack.

Safety Testing

All climbing helmets sold at REI are certified to a pair of European standards that measure a helmet's performance capabilities. In a real-life climb, you're most likely to sustain a hit on top of or at least halfway up the side of your helmet. This is why, in addition to testing for overhead impact, both the CE (European Committee for Standardization) and the UIAA (Union Internationale des Associations d'Alpinisme) also test for side impacts by tilting the helmet at a 60° angle.

What is the key difference between the 2 certifications? A UIAA-certified helmet meets a more stringent standard. Their EN 12492 standard requires that 20% less impact force get transmitted to the headform during lab testing than does CE certification using the same test method, so keep this in mind when comparing models.

Helmet Retirement

Climbing helmets have a limited lifespan. In the best case scenario, one should be retired no later than 10 years after the date of manufacture. This date is stamped on some brands. Even with UV inhibitors, the plastic materials in the helmets are vulnerable to ultraviolet radiation from sunlight, which causes them to weaken. Frequent climbers will want to cut this lifespan time in half or more.

You should also retire a helmet anytime it's been dented, cracked or damaged—including the straps. But helmets can be damaged and still not show obvious wear and tear. Keep this advice in mind: Any time you take a hard hit and you think to yourself, "I would have been seriously messed up if not for my helmet," then it's time to get a new one.

Helmet Care

To maximize a helmet's lifespan, do these checks each time before you store it:

  • Test that the chin buckle is in good working order.
  • Check the webbing (near the ears). Is it in good shape and free from frays and tears?
  • Make sure the foam casing is secure inside the helmet's shell.

Stow your helmet inside a climbing bag to protect it from banging against hard surfaces, which makes it vulnerable to chipping and cracking.

Accept No Substitutes

A well-fitted climbing lid is the best protection you can buy for your brain. This, combined with your knowledge and skill in assessing rockfall danger in the first place, offers your best defense against unwelcome impacts. Don't cut corners by substituting helmets meant for biking, paddling or other sports. They simply do not undergo the same type of safety testing and aren't designed for climbing.

Have fun and be safe!

Contributors: Steve Nagode, REI research & development engineer; Hank Moon, technical writer for Petzl; Linda Givler, REI product manager, Joe Pasteris, REI climbing gear editor.