I’ve written an updated version of this post because there some helmets that will fit big heads have come onto the market since this original post was written.
My Big Head
Whether it’s due to excess brains or empty space, I have a larger than average head. This makes it hard to find any headwear that fits. Anything marked “one size fits all” does not seem to include me in the definition of “all”. This might be only an annoyance if I were not a rock climber. I need a helmet to protect my head from falling rocks, dropped bits of gear, impacts and banging my head against overhangs (which is a habit of mine). If a helmet is to protect my head properly, then it has to fit properly. Unfortunately, my big head means that the selection of helmets that will fit me is small.
At a little over 62cm in circumference, my head is too big for Black Diamond’s popular Half Dome helmet as this has a maximum size of 61.5cm. All helmets by Wild Country have a maximum size of 61cm. Petzl’s Meteor III+ helmet and Elios helmet both have a maximum size of 61cm. This is also the maximum size of Mammut’s Skywalker 2 helmet.
A quick internet search shows that I’m not the only climber whose head is bigger than 61cm in circumference and so I have written the following helmet guide for those with generous heads.
How to Choose a Helmet
The British Mountaineering Council (BMC) has published an excellent guide to helmets and it’s well worth a read if you want to understand what types of helmet are suited to different activities and how to care for your helmet. To help the rest of this review make sense, I have summarised below some key points from the BMC.
As the BMC guide says, the “best helmet is a good fit, is comfortable, and is affordable.” You need to try helmets on to see if they fit; don’t buy if they move around or are uncomfortable. If you plan to use your helmet outside the summer months, then make sure it’s big enough to allow you to wear a hat or a hood underneath it.
A helmet must also be suitable for your needs and the activities that you will be wearing it for. There are three types of helmet and the different characteristics of these three can go a long way to determining if they are what you need.
- A hard, tough plastic shell with a flexible, internal cradle of fabric webbing.
- Advantages: good at withstanding top impacts (e.g. falling rocks) and durable.
- Disadvantages: offer little protection for impacts around the rim and tend to weigh more.
- Best for mountaineering and longer routes.
- Usually an expanded polystreme (EPS) with a thin polycarbonate shell.
- Advantages: offers greater protection for impacts around the rim and is low weight.
- Disadvantages: not particularly durable.
- Best for shorter routes and outcrop and sport climbing.
- Basically a halfway house between hardshell and foam helmets, they have a rigid plastic shell with a foam inner.
- Advantages: all-round performance that draws on the advantages of hardshell and foam helmets.
- Disadvantages: only really protects around the rim if foam is present.
- Best for all-round climbing and mountaineering.
Petzl Ecrin Roc reviewed
The Ecrin Roc is a bit like the shark or the crocodile. It’s a design that just works and so hasn’t needed any real change for a long, long time.
It’s a hardshell helmet that uses two wheels in the rim to adjust the headbank and the nape strap. These make it easy to adjust and, with a maximum size of 63cm, it fits a bigger head. With only the headband and a cross of webbing touching your head, as well as plenty of vents, it’s also comfortable to wear.
With its durability, unfortunately also comes bulk and weight. The Ecrin Roc weighs 445g and even generously designed helmet-compatible hoods will only just fit over it.
Unfortunately, it has been reported that Petzl has discontinued production of the popular and well-liked Ecrin Roc from February 2012. There are still likely to be some in the shops for a while yet, but when they are gone there will be one fewer option for big-headed climbers.
Grivel Salamander XL reviewed
The standard size Grival Salamander is a popular helmet. The Salamander XL is really just a bigger version of it that Grivel markets as meant for those who need to wear a lot of hats (because they are going somewhere very cold) or have big heads. As its maximum size is 66cm, it’s almost over catering for this market.
The Salamander XL is a hybrid helmet with an outer shell of ABS and an inner layer of shock absorbing polystyrene foam. Most of this foam protects the top of the head and there is a thinner band of foam around the rim. Although the Salamander XL is quite high at the front, it comes notably further down the sides and back of the head than the Ecrin Roc and so provides more coverage overall.
This is not an easy helmet to adjust. The wheel at the back of the helmet that tightens the rear of the headband is fine, but the locking clasps on the chinstrap take a fair bit of playing around with to lock to the right fit. If you don’t need to adjust the chinstrap often, this is alright.
It’s a comfortable helmet and weighs just 320g.
Unfortunately, not many places sell the Salamander XL. If you are going to buy one online, take care that you don’t accidentally get sold the standard Salamander.
There are a few other helmets that look like they might work on a bigger head, but which I’ve never worn climbing.
The Edelrid Shield II is a foam helmet that comes in a large size that will fit a head up to 62cm and weighs a light 274g. I’ve tried one on in a shop and it just fitted, although it did sit quite high on my head and so it is unlikely to work for some people. The Shield II is very comfortable and looks nicely thought-out. Unfortunately, my fiancée thought that it’s high and narrow profile and white colour made me look like a Roswell style alien. She fell about laughing as soon as I tried it on.
The Black Diamond Tracer is a foam helmet that fits a head up to 63cm and weighs a very light 245g. Black Diamond has also just introduced the Vector helmet, which has a large size that fits heads up to 63cm and is an incredibly light 240g. It made of EPS foam with a polycarbonate shell.
If any big-headed climbers have tried these other helmets out, then I would be interested to hear their thoughts on them.
UPDATE: climbers don’t just need helmets, they often need hats too. This is why I’ve written a review of woolly hats for big heads.
UPDATE: I’ve written an updated version of this post that reviews the Vector and a variety of other helmets that weren’t on the market when I wrote this original review.