How often do you see someone with a helmet on and think to yourself, “What a loser!?” If you’re anything like me, it’s probably never. I tend to think that if someone is wearing a helmet, they’re probably doing something dangerous and that they’re a badass. The idea that helmets are lame is a childish concept. As you find yourself branching into adulthood you gain more than just achy bones and a deep hatred for new fads (don’t eat tide pods). You tend to gain some wisdom, insight, and a greater sense of self-preservation. Don’t ignore these revelations. They may quite literally save your life!
Oh, Is Rock Climbing Dangerous?
When I started climbing, I didn’t use a helmet. Most of us don’t and won’t. If you read about my first lead climb, you can easily see how close I was skirting the edge with my lack of head protection. I did end up buying a helmet after that trip. However, It still wasn’t until I actually fell on a lieback runout, flipped upside down, and was stopped (by my twig and berries) literally inches from the ground that I decided to start wearing my first Black Diamond Vector.
“Only a fool learns from his own mistakes. The wise man learns from the mistakes of others” –Otto von Bismarck
Though my climbing partner originally discouraged me from wearing a helmet, he got wise and learned from my mistake. He not only wears his now but encourages others to as well. According to Otto, I am in the fool in this story. And that’s fine. I would rather play the fool and learn than never learn at all. However, I urge you to play the part of Señior Otto’s wise man and learn from my mistakes.
Gravity, a Climbers Worst Enemy
Flipping upside down and bumping your noggin may be one of the worst-case scenarios in climbing. But it’s far from the only reason to wear a helmet. A ton of variables exist in climbing, and there are a number of ways to scramble your brain while you’re on the wall. To name a few:
- Falling rock/ice – whether its bowling ball sized or as small as a marble, you’re not going to want it to bounce off of your head.
- Dropped gear – If I had a dollar for everytime someone almost killed me with some gear I would have a couple of dollars.
- Bumping into the wall – I bump into the wall with my head a lot, and sometimes pretty darn hard, especially on roofs or chimneys.
With so many different ways to smack your dome around, I’m honestly surprised about how often I see people climbing without helmets. Especially on multi-pitch. I understand people trying to look cool on sport routes. But multi-pitch trad? With all that gear and loose rock dangling above you? That’s just insanity.
Weighing Your Options and Your Helmet
Now that we KNOW you’re going to wear a helmet, you have to choose one. The helmet market may look a tad overwhelming. I’ll help you break it down. The two main styles that dominate the market are hard plastic and foam/hybrid. They each have their pros and cons.
- Extremely Durable – Can take a lot of damage before forced into retirement
- Cheap – half the price of its foam competitors.
- Heavy – twice the weight of foam
- Doesn’t protect side impacts – good for falling objects, not as much so for falling INTO objects
- Ugly – makes you look like a 20’s era coal miner
- Recommended: Black Diamond Half Dome, Mammut El Cap, Petzl Vertex – (one of the only climbing helmets that are OSHA approved)
- Not durable at all – You can break these by throwing them around your trunk
- Expensive – starting around $100 for a decent one
- Light – average weight is about 7-8 ounces
- Excellent fall protection – whether you’re upside down or sideways, its got your dome covered
- Sporty – looks a lot more streamlined
- Recommended: Petzl Sirocco, Mammut Wall rider, Black Diamond Vapor
After taking these factors into account and choosing the best type of helmet for your budget and climbing style, you’ll need to worry about the #1 factor in your helmet purchase: The size. There really isn’t much of a point in buying a helmet if it doesn’t fit properly. A poor fitting helmet will be a hindrance throughout the day and you’ll probably just not wear it. It’s not rocket science though. Just make sure you try on a couple sizes before making your purchase. Ensure that the helmet sits squarely on your head and you can bend over, without it strapped, and it doesn’t fall off.
Which Helmet Should I Get? One That You’ll Wear
Now that you’ve got yourself a nicely fitting badass dome guard, you still have to do the hardest thing: actually wear it! A helmet doesn’t do squat when a microwave sized rock glances off your cranium unless you’re wearing it. I also highly recommend inspecting your helmet prior to every outing. I mean, it takes likes 17 seconds. It’s not that big of a deal to give her a good glance over real fast. If the foam is showing any signs of cracking, or it looks like it might have taken a hard hit (from dropping it in a pack or something) then you should just go ahead and replace it.
Replacing your helmet doesn’t necessarily have to be wasteful. There a ton of cool options for recycling an old climbing helmet. Personally, I use one as a fruit basket in my van. It’s even better than when I had an actual fruit basket. You can also use them for potted plants, or creating some form of art. The nifty recycling possibilities are endless! The only thing cooler than protecting your noggin is protecting the Earth.