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Gear Guy

Should I Buy a Plastic or Foam Helmet?

I am looking for a helmet, but don't know whether I should buy a plastic or foam helmet. What should I get?

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I am looking for a helmet, but don’t know whether I should buy a plastic or foam helmet. I am a weekend warrior, lead 5.11 sport and trad and do some ice. What should I get?

—jimbo via rockandice.com

The good ol’ plastic brain bucket.To enter the world of climbing helmets is to step into a realm as unknowable as the fifth dimension. Theoretically, we think that helmets will help keep us safe, but no one knows to what
extent—there’s no comprehensive body of data that proves one way or the other the benefits of a helmet. Even in the multi-billion-dollar world
of professional football, the protection offered by the various helmet designs is a hot topic and even the clinical definition of a concussion debatable.

We do know that no blow to the head is good, and that a helmet could prevent or minimize head injuries and likely save lives. Certainly there is no harm
in wearing one, so why not?

My hunch is that some helmets probably don’t offer the protection that their wearer believes they provide. A helmet, for instance, may have been designed
to barely pass the CE test and might not offer much side protection since the CE does not require helmets to be tested in full side-impact mode. Since
most rock climbers are more likely to bang the sides of their heads in a fall rather than be struck on the crown by a falling object, certain high-cut
models might be little more than glorified pith helmets.

You didn’t ask whether I believe in helmets, but I do, so long as I am wearing the best one I can find.

There are three types of helmets: plastic, foam and hybrid.

PLASTIC. These have a hard plastic shell and a nylon webbing suspension much like you’d find in an old army pot helmet. Plastic helmets
are heavy—mine weighs a solid pound—but also the cheapest and most durable. These are the old standards, and were once common for
ice climbing where you often get clocked in the head by ice. Plastic helmets can take a beating and keep on protecting you, at least from
impacts from above. For side impacts, a plastic helmet can bend inward and transmit most of the impact directly to your head. For that reason and market
demands, plastic helmets have largely been discontinued by the major players.

HYBRID. Think hard-boiled egg. These helmets have a plastic shell with a foam “EPs” lining similar to or exactly like the stuff used to
make styrofoam coolers. Hybrids weigh around 10 ounces and cost about $60. With a hybrid helmet, the foam sits directly on your head and the webbing
harness does not have a true structural function. On impact, the foam shell breaks, absorbing energy. Hybrid helmets aren’t as durable as plastic,
but do weigh a lot less. Durability is good as long as you do not pack hard items inside the helmet. Depending on how far the foam comes down the sides,
a hybrid helmet can offer better side, front and back impact protection than a plastic helmet, although some hybrids are cut alarmingly high above
the ears and forehead.

FOAM. These have a foam body of expanded polystyrene with a thin plastic coating, usually polycarbonate, to protect the foam. These weigh
around 8 ounces and cost upwards of $100. As with a hybrid helmet, the foam sits directly on your head. Foam helmets are the least durable and bang
up quickly if you just toss them around like a slob. Yet I prefer them because they are lighter, and the ones I have look like they would do well in
a side-impact situation, such as what you might encounter in a tumbling sport-climbing fall. Most climbers will find that a hybrid will serve them
well in all situations.

Relatively new to the market are the Black Diamond Vapor and the Petzl Sirocco. Both are foam, but use the latest
technology to make them even lighter than all other models—and also more expensive. Both are worth a serious look and I expect to soon see some
of their innovations trickle down to the less expensive models.

If you do choose a foam or hybrid helmet, carefully read the manufacturer’s notices. most manufacturers advise against using their foam or hybrid models
in temperatures below four degrees, when the foam can become brittle, or above 95, when the foam can soften. It’s also not a good idea to put stickers
on a foam helmet, as the adhesive can adversely react with the shell. Take care not to sit on a foam helmet and carefully pack it away from hard objects
such as cams, crampons and ice tools, which can cut or ding the precious foam.

Last, a helmet won’t do jack squat if you haven’t fit it correctly. Get it too loose and it can shift and expose your head. That doesn’t sound good, does
it? Fit your helmet snugly and cinch down the chinstrap until the helmet no longer moves about. Next!

This article was published in Rock and Ice issue 209.