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I have a bicycle helmet that fits well. Can it be used effectively as a rock climbing helmet?

Most climbing helmets have a hard shell that the bicycle helmet does not. However, one of the more expensive climbing helmets, the Petzl Meteor III, appears to have the same construction of a thin plastic shell over foam as the bicycle helmet.

The bicycle helmet clearly has better impact protection on the sides, with a thick layer of expanded bead foam that is absent on most climbing helmets. On the other hand most cycling helmets have vents on top that the climbing helmets to not.

  1. How do the safety tests and standards for climbing and cycling helmets compare?

  2. What protection would I give up by using a cycling helmet for climbing?

  3. Does a cycling helmet provide better protection in any applicable way?

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Short climb: no problem. A bike helmet works reasonably well and provides reasonable protection. –  SwimBikeRun Sep 14 at 8:04

3 Answers 3

up vote 38 down vote accepted

No you should not use a bicycle helmet for climbing. They are designed for different types of impacts and will not provide you with proper protection outside of their designed activity.

Bicycle helmets are designed for a SINGLE ground impact. Like modern cars they are designed to crumple and absorb the energy from an impact. They probably provide the best protection of any type of helmet because of this design. Once they've had an impact they are now completely useless though. This is not a big deal after a bike accident as you can probably stop riding the bike and walk or get a ride home.

Climbing helmets on the other hand are designed for multiple impacts. They do not absorb impact energy like a bicycle helmet but they can provide protection even after an impact. This is important when you're climbing because unlike biking you can't always stop climbing just because you've had an accident. You've got to complete your ascent or return to the ground. Additionally, most head injuries from climbing are not from the climber falling but rather from rocks falling on their heads from above.

So imagine you've worn your bike helmet to climb and managed to bang your head on the wall. The bike helmet is crumpled now and will provide no protection now. Suddenly some rocks fall from above. You would be severely injured as the bike helmet would not absorb the impacts or even deflect very well at this point.

Added 5/28/12

You can't really compare the standards as they are for different activities and requirements. As stated above the cycling helmet standards do not require multiple impacts. EN climbing helmet testing is done under EN 12492: 2000 and these tests require multiple impacts to the helmet. Specifically a 5kg hemispherical striker is dropped at 30 and 120 degrees (from the horizontal plane) on the top of the helmet from a height of 2 meters. A flat 5kg striker is then hit on the front, sides, and rear of the helmet. There are also penetration tests done.

The maximum force that can be transferred to the head 10kN. So climbing helmets are not designed to absorb as much of an impact. They are designed for multiple impacts of smaller force instead.

I am not as familiar with bicycling helmet standards, just that their design does not require multiple impacts. If you've ever seen a cycling helmet after a ground impact you can see clearly it would not provide protection for a second impact. Rather, they are designed to absorb much higher levels of force by crumpling. CPSC standards permit only 3kN of force to be transferred to the head. I'm not sure what weight and how they test this though.

So the short version is that a cycling helmet must not transfer more than 3kN of force while a climbing helmet may transfer up to 10kN.

There are many more standards setting bodies for cycling helmets as well. I only used the CPSC because it's the most common one on the market. Snell has a much more stringent standard.

I have seen some of the foam climbing helmets but I'm not sure what the design theory is behind them. I suppose they would absorb more impact from any single impact. Once the foam has been impacted it would not provide that level of absorption again though. The shell of the helmet would still need to meet the multiple impact requirements to be approved by EN.

The other issue is that most cycling helmets have fairly wide ventilation slits. These are far to large for climbing and could easily allow falling rocks to penetrate to the head.

There are now some multi-sport helmets on the market but these are intended for climbing, canyoneering, and kayaking/rafting. Cycling and motoring helmets will always require higher absorption levels because higher speeds (and thus force) are involved.

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I added some additional comments and referenced the testing standards as best I could from memory. I hope that answers your questions better. Please - if you're climbing use a properly approved climbing helmet. Most people imagine falling as the cause of injuries when in reality it's rocks or climbing gear falling on you that are more likely to cause injuries. Even a small 1/4 pound rock can kill you if it falls from 20 feet above. –  Dante Martinez May 28 '12 at 19:53
    
Now you've answered my question. Thank you. :-) –  Mr.Wizard May 28 '12 at 20:40
    
Just a small note; the cycling helmet tests also use multiple impacts (usually 4). Testing is a 5kg headform which is dropped (with the helmet) onto the anvil rather than the anvils dropping on the helmet. To me, the key difference is the lack of a penetration test. (The higher speeds bit actually isn't a factor in cycling helmet design.) –  requiem Jul 20 at 19:07
    
Rock climbing helmets are also designed to deflect impacts (i.e. a rock bounces off), cycling helmets are designed to absorb impacts (i.e. a rock will indent the helmet). –  Liam Jul 21 at 12:54

The main standards to focus on for bicycle helmets are probably the CPSC standard in the US, and the EN 1078 standard in Europe. The climbing helmet UIAA 106 standard is based on the EN 12492 standard. Unfortunately the EU standards do not appear publicly available due to copyright issues.

Bike helmets:

CPSC: Helmet is attached to a 5kg headform and dropped: 2 meters onto a flat anvil, 1.2 meters onto hemispheric and curbstone anvils. The test is performed on helmets conditioned for at least 4 hours at ambient temperature, sub-freezing temperatures, high temperatures, and immersed in water. Peak acceleration must not exceed 300 gravities for any impact. Each helmet receives a test of the retention system (chinstrap) and 5 impacts: two each from the flat and hemispheric anvils followed by one from the curbstone anvil.

EN 1078: The EN standard appears to call for two impacts from 1.5 meters; one onto a flat anvil, the other onto a curbstone anvil, with a 250 gravities limit. Helmets are conditioned by temperature and UV aging.

Climbing helmets:

EN 12492: Helmet is placed on a headform and a 5kg striker is dropped onto the helmet. Front, side, and back impacts are done by tilting the headform 60°. A hemispherical striker is dropped 2 meters for the top impact, and the flat striker is dropped from 50 cm for the front, back, and sides. A penetration test is done using a 3kg conical striker dropped from 1 meter. Finally, there is a retention system test. To pass, none of the impacts must transmit more than 10kN of force to the headform.

UIAA 106: Identical to EN 12492, except the transmitted impact force must not exceed 8kN.

Comparing the two:

One item immediately apparent is the use of acceleration in the cycling helmet standards vs. kilonewtons (a unit of force) in the climbing helmet standards. (I suspect this is because for a cycling helmet the total force is known; it's a person's head falling from a bike to the pavement. Thus, the goal is to manage the deceleration.) If we assume a 5kg headform is experiencing 250g's from the bike helmet test, the classic F=ma equation gives us: 5.0 kg * 250 g * 9.80665 m/s-2/g = 12.3 kN. (Hopefully someone will speak up if I'm completely off-track here!)

Combined with the types of tests performed, one might conclude that a climbing helmet of the expanded foam sort, should have a better chance of passing the cycling helmet tests than the other way around. A well-known example is the Petzl Meteor III+, but others, such as the Kong Scarab, also exist. I would point out that these meet the European cycling standard, but have not been certified against the American standard. This may be due to the high cost of certification, but it may also be due to the stricter CPSC requirements. Hard-shell climbing helmets are likely to have trouble with the side impact cycling helmet tests. Personally I would not use a cycling helmet to climb with, but I have used a foam climbing helmet on my bike.

References:

On a related note, there's an excellent article about the overall effectiveness of helmets in reducing brain injury at bicycling.com. The takeaway is that most helmets are not designed or tested to offer protection against concussion or similar traumatic brain injuries; only against direct physical impact: http://www.bicycling.com/senseless/index.html

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Rock falls from the sky and hits bike helmet. Good chance I'll survive.

Rock falls from the sky and hits bare head. Good chance I'll get bad headache or worse.

Even though it's not exactly designed for this purpose it will be better than nothing. I find it hilarious when people get super into design and what can and cannot be used.

Reminds me of salad vs dinner fork. And someone saying that the salad fork just will not work for eating your steak.

I plan on using my bike helmet when I do Longs Peak. If you can pick up the real deal that's better, but if all you have is a bike helmet, I imagine its better than a baseball cap deflecting a rock.

Good luck.

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Maybe you have a good chance to survive with a bike helmet. But if you'd read the useful answer here, you know that this bike helmet is useless after a noticeable impact. Therefore using your bike helmet whilst going climbing is just a bad idea - it's too expensive and can be dangerous when you get hit more than once on your trip. –  EverythingRightPlace Jul 20 at 17:58
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Ok, get a bicycle helmet, then got a rock climbing helmet, sit them next to each other, they look totally different, right? Why do you think that is? A single rock of a good size hitting a bicycle helmet, will kill you! Bicycle helmets are built to absorb the impact of a head hitting something, not something hitting a head. –  Liam Jul 21 at 12:48
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You should watch this video –  Liam Jul 21 at 12:50
    
@Liam about that single rock hitting a bicycle helmet, I think this helmet will protect you also pretty well. Hitting with your head the ground or hittint your head with the ground/wall/rock, is quite similar. For me the multi-impact is the relevant part. –  EverythingRightPlace Jul 22 at 5:47
    
@EverythingRightPlace, it's rather rare for you to hit your head against something when climbing. Your centre of gravity is based on the harness attachment point, this tends to keep you upright. You can do it, but this isn't the main risk. The main risk is rocks falling on you. This is what climbing helmets are built to protect against –  Liam Jul 22 at 8:51

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