You’re already thinking it, but you just wanted to be sure.
Well, I’ll say it:
Lead climbers and top ropers who wear helmets are often looked down upon as being newbies.
It’s the age-old stigma about “optional” safety gear being basically training wheels.
Don’t get me wrong: the climbing community is about as a chill and non-judgmental as it gets, but that feeling is always in the back of everyone’s mind when they see climbers wearing helmets at a popular crag, alongside other climbers who aren’t wearing helmets in the same place.
For some reason, it isn’t standard to cringe when you see someone without a helmet. It’s the other way around, even thought it’s just silly that it’s like that.
Besides, there’s some really nice looking climbing helmets out there like the Black Diamond Vector that are so light that you forget they’re even there. Ventilation isn’t an issue either with a design like that, even on a hot day.
Anyway, the misunderstood thing about climbing helmets is that they aren’t primarily for protecting yourself against hitting your head on the rock wall accidentally. Sure, they protect against that, but it’s not why they’re absolutely necessary. Thinking that this is what they’re for, is pretty much what leads to their never-ending stigma of being “optional safety gear for newbies.”
Trad climbers and ice climbers tend to wear helmets more because have a better idea of what they’re really for.
What Climbing Helmets Are Actually For
They’re for protecting your head against rockfall and falling gear.
You’d be surprised how many people only start wearing a helmet for outdoor climbing once they get hit in the shoulder with a rock the size of their fist, realizing how much damage it would have done to them if they were stood just a few inches to the right…
If you’re belaying and you get incapacitated by a rock, it’s not just your own life that’s in danger. The climber’s left stranded up there without a belayer, which is arguably worse depending upon how far up the climb they are.
If you’re trad climbing, there’s also the risk of dropping fiddly gear such as nuts, which can easily be just as damaging as rocks when dropped from a height. That, combined with the increased risk of an uncontrolled fall from the temporary protection placed by trad climbers, is the reason why trad climbers tend to wear helmets more often than lead climbers or top ropers do.
Now, you might be thinking, “but what about climbs where rockfall isn’t as common?”
Well, if there’s basically zero chance of rockfall, like in outdoor bouldering, then you don’t need a helmet. That is, unless the boulders you’re climbing are below a tall rock wall.
There’s also overhang climbs to consider. As a belayer, you absolutely need a helmet for those, but as a climber? It’s less of an issue for sure. Even if your foot gets caught on the rope as you fall, and you flip, you’re not going to hit anything.
However, there’s still a problem here in that’s this reasoning only really applies to pure overhang climbs. Like, I’m talking climbs where there is nothing but an overhang from bottom to top, which is super rare to say the least. Even in that case, walking under such a precarious overhang without a helmet is just as risky as not wearing one for any other kind of climb.
In the end, your brains are far more valuable than the cost of a helmet anyway, and when your helmet sacrifices itself to save your life, you’ll be so glad you bought one.