Words: Marc Simonpietri
Photo Credit: Various
A mis-tossed (and frozen!) Sour Patch Kid. A full Nalgene sliding down Rainier’s summit cone. A lead swap gone wrong with a dropped #2 cam. Falling ice, falling rock, and falls on rock or ice. These are all instances in which we need head protection while recreating in the mountains. Because of that, a helmet is an essential piece of equipment when mountaineering, climbing, or skiing. But there are so many options out there – how do you choose? Below, we’ll look at a few points to consider when looking to protect your head.
First, consider fit. No matter they type of helmet, a good fit is essential to providing protection. If the helmet is too big and slides around on your head, it will not actually protect your brain, and could go as far as falling off in the event of a fall or tumble. When fitting your helmet, you should be able to slide the helmet onto your head, tighten the strap in the back, and shake your head around upside down without the helmet moving or falling off (with the chin strap unbuckled!). If you can do that, your helmet fits.
While trying the helmet out, make sure that it is comfortable. This could be in the form of foam or padding inside the helmet, or that the straps contour and fit to your head well. You’re less likely to use an ill-fitting or uncomfortable helmet. Also playing into the comfort factor is adjustability. Some helmets offer multiple easy-to-use adjustment points (back and sides), while others offer less adjustability or fit systems that are just plain harder to adjust correctly.
Finally, make sure your helmet is adjustable enough to fit well both with and without a warm hat on underneath it!
Many of our first-time mountaineering climbers ask, “I already have a ski helmet. Can I use that for climbing Mount Rainier, instead of a climbing helmet?” This gets at an important point. Designers build helmets for specific uses. For safety reasons, it’s critical that you only use your helmet for its intended purpose.
Testing agencies certify helmets to protect your head from different factors. For example, a climbing helmet is designed to absorb point-impacts from above, like a falling piece of rock. A ski helmet, on the other hand, is designed to protect your head from the more widely distributed blunt force of your head impacting packed snow or a tree.
The second reason to use a helmet for its intended purpose is comfort. Ski helmets are designed with insulation and less ventilation, which means while walking uphill on a Mount Baker climb, your head will be overly warm and sweaty. We try and avoid overheating while mountaineering! Ski helmets are also heavier than climbing helmets, making them less comfortable on long days. Ski helmets are great options while actually skiing, but for mountaineering and climbing objectives, it’s key to utilize the specific equipment that will keep you safe and comfortable on the mountain.
Some helmets receive a dual rating. For example, for ski touring and for climbing. See our recommendations at the end of this article to check out one of our favorite versatile, dual-rated helmets.
Last, consider features. There are many, many features to consider when choosing a helmet, so let’s touch on a few of the most important here.
- Protection – All helmets provide protection, right? Well, yes. Just some more than others. Look for a helmet that provides top AND side protection. This will guard your head most fully.
- Weight – An important factor, as a heavier helmet can be much more uncomfortable over a long summit day push, causing neck pain and the desire to not wear a helmet, even when you should be. The lightest helmets come in at an astonishing 6.1oz (Petzl Siccoro) while heavier helmets can weigh almost a pound (Mammut Skywalker 2).
- Headlamp Clips – While most helmets these days feature headlamp clips for those brutally early alpine starts, make sure that the helmet you are considering has clips that are easy and straightforward to use. Many ski helmets do not have headlamp clips – for climbing, headlamp clips are an absolute must, as a headlamp will not stay secured on your helmet without clips.
- Durability – While it may seem obvious that a helmet should be durable, there are some specific pros and cons in considering durability. A more durable helmet (typically made with harder plastic) will be heavier. But, you won’t have to worry as much about breaking it while it’s in your backpack or in transit. A less durable helmet (typically made of dense foam) will weigh less, but you’ll need to be more careful with it, especially when it’s not on your head (i.e. don’t sit on it when you plop down on your backpack during a break on the approach).
- Ponytail-Friendly – These days, those who rock a ponytail in the backcountry might consider a model shaped to allow a normal-height ponytail to exit the back of a helmet. The alternative – wearing a ponytail very low with a normal helmet – is somewhat less comfortable.
SO WHICH HELMET SHOULD I BUY?
At the end of the day, which helmets should you consider? Here’s a few of our favorites to kick-start your research:
- Petzl Meteor – The Meteor strikes a great balance of a mid-range price, light weight, and well ventilated. It is also easily adjustable and decently durable. Finally, the Meteor is rated for climbing and ski touring! This is great for those looking to buy one helmet for a wide range of uses.
- Black Diamond Vector – Less expensive than the Meteor and a bit more durable all around, the Vector has all the features you need and is still lightweight and comfortable. Not quite as many vents make this helmet slightly warmer than other weight conscious models.
- Petzl Boreo – An all-around good climbing helmet, the Boreo is durable and sufficient. It’s a little heavier than other models and less adjustable. But, it comes at a great price point and will last a long time with proper use.