Helmets for climbing
Alun runs through key issues on the design and fitting of helmets and how you should look after one of the most important pieces of kit.

Helmets for climbing

When climbing on a climbing wall you should wear one on the first session or two until you are confident and know how to fall. There is no doubt that wearing a helmet reduces the chances of head injuries, especially on lower grade routes, where you are most likely to end up on a ledge if you fall.

Wearing a helmet reduces the chances of head injuries, especially on lower grade routes, where you are most likely to end up on a ledge if you fall

Design and fit

Helmets are designed primarily for protection from falling rock, with the result that most are of limited use in a fall when a blow to the side of the head is more likely.

Broadly speaking, helmets work in two ways. The first type has a harness that holds the shell away from the head and the second type uses a foam lining that fits directly against the skull. If a rock hits onto either type, the shell dampens the initial impact by bending or delaminating. Beyond that, either the cradle absorbs the remaining energy or the foam lining shatters to absorb the impact.

Helmets made of fibre glass are can be heavy and cumbersome and the lightweight models do not survive continued abuse for long. The lighter plastic helmets, made of fibre-reinforced thermoplastics, are preferable especially for young climbers (who have weaker neck muscles) or if you need to wear the helmet all day.

Although ventilation is far more important than colour, avoid dark colours, as these will absorb heat. If money is no object and you want a lightweight helmet, consider buying one made from carbon fibre or Kevlar. These space age materials offer great strength and can absorb forces extremely well any given weight.
A poorly fitted is as good as no helmet. The helmet should not flop over your eyes or expose the front of your skull to a falling rock.

Do consider whether you are ever likely to wear a balaclava, waterproof hood, a head torch or glasses, or wear your helmet with a rucksack. If so, do try your prospective new purchase with these accessories before you buy. They may make a difference to your final choice.

Helmet care

Check your helmet regularly for wear, scratches, cracks and other damage to the shell or webbing.
Do not throw, drop, kick or squash your helmet.
Discard your helmet if the foam lining is cracked.
Do not put stickers or paint on helmets, the solvents may weaken them.
Do not leave plastic helmets in the sun - especially by a window or in a car. UV light will cause damage.
If your helmet is exposed to salt water, rinse it in fresh water.
Clean your helmet, inside and outside, with a mild detergent or disinfectant.

Lifespan of a helmet

Most manufacturers suggest the lifespan of their 'plastic' helmets as five years and perhaps 10 years for glass reinforced fibre helmets. This does seem a conservative estimate but it is difficult to assess a well looked after climbing helmet's ability to absorb forces by visual inspection. However, it's not a bad idea to have a five-year replacement policy just to make sure that your helmet is always in serviceable condition.

Fact file
  • You will fall 10m (40 ft) in the first 1.6 seconds. In the next 1.6 seconds you can reach 50m (170 ft) and be travelling at 110kph (70 mph). It is not very reassuring to know you will not exceed 250kph (155 mph).
  • A stone falling free reaches 160 kph.
  • A 5kg stone falling 2m produces an impact force of 1800KN.
  • The human skull is only capable of withstanding 1000KN without injury.
  • The impact of even a small pebble is enough to cause serious injury.
  • Even minor blows to the head can cause significant injury.
  • Once brain tissue is injured there is little that modern medicine can do.


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