As a hobbyist rock climber with a passion for teaching, I love taking people to the crag for their first climbing experience. While I always bring an extra climbing helmet along for the first-timer, I've noticed a trend of these novice climbers showing up with their own headwear – typically whatever type of helmet they can find and often one they bought for that bike that's been sitting in their garage for years. In case you didn't know, all helmets are created differently, often created to be specific to particular risks one faces in a given sport. Wearing the helmet designed for the specific sport is crucial to protecting your noggin.
A deeper look at the differences between a biking helmet and a rock climbing helmet can make it easy to see why the helmet choice matters. While both helmets are designed to offer protection to the wearer, they offer different types of protection.
For starters, a bicycle helmet is typically designed to collapse and absorb the energy of a crash. They literally crumple or crack on impact and are designed to be replaced immediately after a single hard fall. Rock climbing helmets can typically withstand several collisions, as a rock fall scenario may mean taking several subsequent blows. If a rock climbing helmet were to collapse and lose its integrity, it would leave someone on the rock wall without protection.
Considering the rock fall scenario, this is also an important difference between the two helmets. Climbing helmets often seem to focus on top-down impact, cutting out some of the bulk on the sides and back of the helmet. Meanwhile, a bicycle helmet has more bulk and sometimes covers more of the head, though this doesn't necessarily offer more protection in a climbing scenario, as this bulk is designed to collapse.
The safety standards between the two are quite different, as well. In safety standard testing, bicycle helmets are typically dropped from a distance onto a surface, meant to mimic a crash. Comparatively, climbing helmets have items dropped onto them from all sides, meant to mimic falling rocks hitting the wearer.
Long story short, bike helmets are designed to protect someone in a single, blunt force impact and most effective against a flat surface like the ground, while a climbing helmet is designed to withstand multiple objects falling onto the helmet.
Another helmet commonly found in Colorado is one used for alpine snow sports. These helmets are similar to a bike helmet in that they're designed to take a single, hard blow, though they offer protection at much higher speeds than a bike helmet. Plus, most alpine sport helmets come with insulation to keep the head warm in a cold environment. Water sport helmets also have their own specifications and should be chosen with care, as well.
Use the right helmet for the right job. Your head will thank you.
A couple notes from the author: This explanation is very simplified. More specific information about the differences between the two types of helmets and testing can be found here. I should also note that the fit of the helmet is crucial to its ability to protect your head. Get it fitted at your local gear shop and try to find one that adjusts around the head on the inside of the helmet (not just the chin strap) for the most secure fit.
Another note on climbing helmets: With rockfall risk being a major concern in rock climbing, belayers on the ground should always wear a helmet, too – not just the climber on the wall. Many times, the belayer can be at an even greater risk of head injury than the climber.