Most of you including me have bike helmets, and when I started climbing I was wondering if I can wear my Bike Helmet for Climbing? I figured any helmet was better than no helmet at all. Later an experienced rock climber told me that bike and climbing helmets are actually very different and if you interchange them you give up some protection. Makes sense kind of right? But what if you have no climbing helmets? Can you still wear a bike helmet – it’s climbing helmets vs bike helmet, we’re going to do a little comparison.
The short answer: No, you should not use a bike helmet for climbing, as you will give up some protection. But if you have nothing else, a bike helmet is better than nothing. There are some differences between climbing and bike helmets, read on for the details.
Bicycle helmets have a softer shell, where the climbing helmets usually have a very hard shell. Bicycle helmets are also better protected against impacts from the sides, and they usually have ventilation holes. In this post I’m going to answer these questions:
  1. How are safety standards for climbing and cycling helmets compared to each other? Are they comparable?
  2. Is there a tradeoff in protection when you wear a bike helmet for climbing?
  3. Are there situations where a bike helmet can even provide better protection than a climbing helmet?

Bike Helmets are one-time-use. They are designed for a single ground impact, and they are designed to absorb energy from the impact by crumpling and deformation. This design is needed due to the high amount of energy involved in bike crashes. As a consequence bike helmets are probably the helmets that offer the most protection, aside from actual motorcycle helmets. But after the first crash, they are basically useless.

That’s why a bike helmet will not work perfectly for climbing: Imagine an ascent and you take a fall, bang your head against the wall and the bike helmet is broken and deformed. From now on it will lack protection, but your ascent is not done yet, and even if you descent, there might still be more rocks, etc. falling on your head. At this point, a bike helmet will not give you good protection anymore.

Bike Helmets vs Climbing Helmets – Different Standards of Safety for Different Activities

The different scenarios of protection needed are also visible in the standards used to measure the helmets. The standards are very different in which these helmets are tested and rated. Climbing helmets use the EN 12492:2000 standard, where multiple impacts on a helmet are tested. Small weights 5kg are dropped at different angles on the top of the helmet from a falling height of 2 meters. Another 5 kg striker object with flat shape is then hit on the front, side, and rear, and they do penetration tests. In all these tests there is a maximum of 10 kN of force transferred to the helmet, so climbing helmets are not designed to absorb a large impact.

If you fall with a bike, there are typically larger forces involved (think of more than 10 kN), and the amount of force which is actually transferred to the head must be smaller, which is done by using a crumpling design with physical deformation. Let’s have a more detailed look at the standards involved and how they compare.

There are four main standards: Two for biking, one American which is the CPSC standard, and the EN 1078 from Europe, and two for climbing. For climbing, there is the European standard EN 12492, and the UIAA 106 which is international.

Bike Helmets – CPSC and EN 1078

CPSC in Detail

The American standard CPSC, CPSC stands for Consumer Product Safety Commission, tests bike helmets with a 5 kg headform that is dropped from 2 meters onto a flat-shaped anvil. There is another test on a hemispheric anvil and an anvil, that is shaped like a curbstone from 1.2 meters. These tests are all performed on helmets that have been sitting around in ambient temperate, freezing temperatures and hot temperatures. They are also performed when the helmet was underwater for 4 hours. All in all the helmets have to pass 5 impacts: 2 from the flat anvil and the hemispheric and one from the curbstone.

EN 1078 in Detail

The EN standard, EN means European, has impacts tested from only 1.5 meters, one from a flat anvil, one from a curbstone, and the helmets are also conditioned with UV light, temperature, and aging. This test is thus a little less strict than the American standard.

Climbing helmets – EN 12492 and UIAA 106

For climbing helmets, there are two main safety standards: The EN 12492:2000 and the UIAA 106. By the way, all these standards are not really testing a helmets ability to reduce traumatic brain injury. They only test for protection against direct physical impact. But traumatic brain injury due to acceleration forces is a huge problem in bike accidents, and there are helmet systems to protect against these injuries (called MIPS). This article here goes a bit more in detail about these injuries..

EN 12492 in Detail

For this standard, thez place the helmet on a form shaped like a head and hit with a striking mass of 5 kg. There are 3 different impacts tested, side, front and back, with an angle of 60 degrees. After this test, another strike mass drops onto the helmet which sits on the headform from 2 meters, this mass is hemispherically shaped. Then there is a further test where a flat striker hits the helmet from 50cm on the front, back and sides. In contrast to bike helmets, climbing helmets test for penetration too, with a canonical strike mass of 3 kg that drops from 1 meter. And there is a retention system test. In order to pass the tests, no impact is allowed to transmit a force of greater than 10 kN to the headform.

UIAA 106 in Detail

For the UIAA 106 safety standards, all the tests are identical, but the transmitted forces are lower: Only 8 kN of force is allowed to be transferred. Remember, the lower the transferred force to the head, the less injured you are in reality. Low forces mean no damage to your head!

Short Comparison of the Two Standards

When we compare the different standards, we can see that cycling and bike helmets have higher acceleration forces and thus forces of impact. This might not be apparent, as the safety standard tests for bike helmets call for only fixed mass and distances, while the climbing helmet tests are also talking about transmitted force. But we can calculate the forces of the test for the bike helmets: Assuming a 5kg headform that experiences 250g’s in a  bike helmet test, the F=ma equation yields: 5.0 kg x 250 g x 9.8 m/s-2/g =~ 12 kN.

And what is also visible is that the American standards are a little stricter than the European standards. Why this is, I don’t know. I suspect that there is a reason behind it, but I don’t know. If you want to be extra safe, go with the American standards.

References to read further

Some readworthy references:


Hope you liked this post if you want to know more about other mountaineering stuff have a look at my article about how to start mountaineering, how to find a good climbing mentor, and why you should always wear a helmet climbing.