In the past ten years, the use of helmets in all adventure sports has increased significantly. Anyone who has spent time at a ski resort knows that even the newbies are wearing helmets these days. Rock climbing seems to be following the same trend, and with helmets being more comfortable and lighter than ever before, there is no reason not to jump on the helmet bandwagon. The rule in all education/ school-related climbing programs is that everyone who is near a climber or the climbing area needs to wear a helmet. This is not a bad rule for all climbers to adhere to.
The reasons for wearing a helmet while climbing are twofold. First, if you fall, you want something protecting your head. Second, even if you are the best climber in the world and you never fall, or you are doing an easy route, there is always potential for falling rocks from above. These can be either human-caused rock falls or natural ones. Rocks fall all the time. A small stone falling from 100 feet above you can do some serious damage to your head. In summary, if there is anything between your ears worth protecting, wear a helmet.
UIAA approved: This is the standard approval from the International Mountaineering and Climbing Federation. Really, any helmet is going to be better than no helmet, but one that is approved for certain impacts is best.
Materials: Helmets are usually made out of a hard plastic shell, a carbon fiber shell, or a polycarbonate shell. Plastic is heavier, but it’s also more durable. Carbon fiber needs to be well cared for, but it’s light and you will barely notice you are wearing it at all. Most helmets have a foam lining, either made out of a squishy comfortable foam or close-cell foam, which is more breathable. What your helmet is constructed from is a matter of preference. There are pros and cons to each, but they all will get the job (of protecting your head) done in the end.
Backband Tightening System: The best tightening systems are the ones that are easy to adjust and that stay in place. After that, it really doesn’t matter. The wheel tightening system seems to be the most popular these days since it’s easy to do with one hand and it doesn’t slip much. There are some that use a more standard strap tightening system, but if you go with this option, make sure to get it in place before you get to the wall or boulder, so you can use both hands and have the helmet off.
Chin strap: A simple adjustment system is the best. And one that doesn’t leave you with a bunch of loose straps. Once you get your chinstrap in a comfortable place, you shouldn’t need to adjust it again. Some helmets have a fleece-lined piece under the chin to avoid chafing and admittedly, it’s a nice, luxurious addition.
Even if you don’t buy a climbing-specific helmet, make sure to wear one. It’s best to find a helmet that has either side ventilation or only very small holes since you wouldn’t want rocks getting through. The heavier they are, the more your neck will hurt if you are belaying and the more you’ll notice it, but either way, it’s better to be safe than sorry.